Opening Day is a day all baseball fans look forward to with great anticipation each and every year. It’s the mark of a thawing winter; proof that another carefree summer is right around the corner. Opening Day brings hope for supporters of every team — even those who have watched their hometown heroes plummet to the bottom of the league and become the butt of jokes around the game. The Houston Astros Opening Day of the 2014 season was especially exciting for me, however, because I was privileged to take part in the festivities as a member of the Associated Press.
Two weeks ago, when I was covering Aggie women’s basketball in the first round of the NCAA Division I Tournament for Texas A&M’s student newspaper The Battalion – where I am the Associate Sports Editor — I was asked asked by Kristie Rieken if I would ever be interested in helping her cover Astros games. After attempting to wipe a ridiculous smile off my face, I answered with a resounding yes.
Kristie then said — if I wasn’t too busy with my 15 hours of Junior-level (albeit Education major) class-load — she could use some help getting quotes at Opening Day. Obviously, I didn’t care if I had five finals that day, I was going to Minute Maid Park.
The clubhouses opened at 2:30 p.m., almost four hours before the 6:10 p.m. scheduled start. A mix-up with my credentials (apparently the Astros weren’t as prepared to give out one-day media credentials to 21-year old nobodies as a I was to receive one) slowed me down, but I got to the field as soon as I could.
I walked in circles underneath the stadium for a good ten minutes before a sweet Astros greeter took pity on me about the fourth time I went past her. She pointed me to the direction of the field and all of a sudden, I was standing behind home plate.
I don’t know what I was expecting — maybe a red carpet or a chorus of angels — but no one turned their heads as I walked out there. The only sounds were some light chatter and the ever-familiar crack of a bat hitting a ball.
I had never seen the Astros take batting practice before, as the home team usually hits upwards of three hours before game time and my family doesn’t exactly pride itself on showing up to events on time, much less early. That in itself was a special treat. I got to see Dexter Fowler, Chris Carter, Matt Dominguez and others hit bombs into the Crawford Boxes, but my favorite player to watch was Jose Altuve.
I wasn’t the only person taking in the 5′ 5″ second baseman’s swings. Craig Biggio, who was on hand to catch Nolan Ryan‘s ceremonial first pitch, was standing behind the batting cage watching Altuve knock balls into the outfield gaps.
Standing this close to Biggio was already enough to make my short list of favorite sports moments ever, but what happened next blew every other moment out of the water.
I was standing off to the side, still trying to soak in the fact I was on the same field many of my favorite players of all time had walked on. Not to mention that the guy I watched play and idolized for 16 years (I was born in 1992, four years after Biggio’s playing career had begun) was standing mere feet from me.
Biggio was standing in the same place he had been earlier — right behind the batting cage — chatting with bench coach Dave Trembley. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the unmistakable head of MLB.com’s Alyson Footer approach Biggio with her recorder out. I sheepishly tagged along, not knowing if that was against some unwritten rule of sports writing to follow, but Alyson was very kind and told me I was more than welcome to join her.
So, all of a sudden, I am standing face-to-face with Craig Biggio.
As a “media member” I’m really not supposed to be biased, but come on, I’m about to talk to one of my heroes. I introduce myself and shake his hand and he asks if we’ve met before. I guess he thought I was the real Jeff Bagwell, but I’m actually Jeff BLOGwell, Craig.
I told him no, I don’t think we’d met, and he just nodded and smiled. And that was all I could muster as far as speaking goes. Part of that was that I was still in shock from talking to him, but most of it was the due to the fact that Alyson is such a great interviewer. I loved just standing there and listening.
My “interview” ended (you can hear it for yourself here) and I walked back to the Astros dugout, still trying to wipe a giant smile off my face.
From that point on, I tried my best to gather useful quotes for Kristie. Jeff Luhnow started talking to one person and was soon surrounded by a gaggle of reporters hoping to get a soundbite or two. Not wanting to be outdone, I worked my arm around Brian McTaggart to get my recorder in front of Luhnow’s mouth — essentially hugging Tags for the duration of the interview.
I also talked to Mike Elias, Astros Director of Amateur Scouting. For a high-ranking member of a MLB front office, Mike was extremely friendly. Houston Chronicle beat writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz, Mike and I talked for 15 minutes or so about anything and everything.
Around that time, the Astros started to leave the field and a different shade of navy blue took over the field. The Yankees — armed with 10 times the reporters and 100 times the photographers — jogged out of the visiting clubhouse. A shadowy figure was illuminated by the flashes of thousands (or 20, I wasn’t paying attention) cameras as Derek Jeter emerged from beneath Minute Maid Park.
Jeter, who is on his “Farewell Tour” after announcing he is retiring at the end of the 2014 season, had every move he made captured numerous times by every single photographer in attendance.
For some reason, I wasn’t held captive by The Captain, so I left the field to get a brand new Nolan Ryan Burger that the Astros are serving up this year.
Around 5:30 p.m. the sold out crowd of 42,117 started to fill up the seats of Minute Maid. Knowing there were going to be some awesome pre-game events, I took the quickest route I knew to get back down — a staircase on the other side of the stadium that leads to an elevator that leads to another elevator that leads to (seriously) another elevator that leads to a hallway that leads to the field.
The Astros did not hold back on Opening Day. I stood on the field as Orbit came by on a huge truck, waving vigorously to fans young and old. Country music star Clay Walker was on hand to sing the national anthem and he was just walking around talking to anyone around him.
One of my favorite parts of the day was seeing Milo Hamilton give his speech to kick-off yet another season. Milo said this was his 65th Opening Day to partake in, starting in 1950. I, like many of you, listened to Milo shout “Holy Toledo” and dole out blue stars to Astros nightly for years and years.
Then came the Clydesdales.
After the fifty or so media members begrudgingly left the field due to safety concerns, eight of the largest horses I have ever seen trotted two fans out to deliver the “official” game ball to Luhnow.
Personally, my favorite part of this grand entrance was the two lucky guys with a wheelbarrow who were tasked with the job of cleaning up a present one of the horses left right in front of the Astros dugout.
The Clydesdales high-stepped around the warning track back through the right field fence and Walker sang the national anthem while season ticket holders tried their best to reign in an enormous American flag that was trying its hardest to fly away.
A video of Nolan Ryan highlights played on “El Grande” as the Hall of Famer strutted to the mound.
Biggio, who in his 1988 rookie season caught Ryan’s 100th career win with Houston, was on hand to receive the first pitch from the 67-year old Astros executive advisor.
Ryan wound up the right-arm that struck out 5,714 batters in his career — but released a pitch that was more indicative of his major league record 2,795 career walks.
That’s my video of Ryan throwing the first pitch of the Astros 2014 season about six feet outside and to the backstop. Hopefully that’s not some sort of an omen.
Biggio and Ryan exited the field, as did the media, and I was left trying to figure out how to get back up to the press box three levels above where I stood. I picked out a familiar-looking back of a head and followed. At a fork in the hallway, the head I was following split off from the huddled mass of fellow lost reporters, turning left. I chased — mainly out of obligation — and wound up in the press conference room where Ryan and Biggio were still laughing about the first pitch.
Biggio jokingly accepted all the blame, citing his non-athletic clothing as the main culprit of his inability to snag the wild pitch.
“I take full responsibility. A good catcher will always take the heat for the pitcher, so I take full responsibility for having the wrong outfit on. I would have had better range if I hadn’t had the jacket on.”
Ryan talked about how much it meant to be back with his hometown team and how appreciate he was of the Astros fan base.
“I’ve always been an Astro fan, ever since they came here when I used to go to the Houston Buff games. I remember for the first time looking at a bulletin board out there and seeing that Major League Baseball was going to be in Houston the following year and they were going to be the Colt .45s. As a kid, just trying to grasp that and then to watch it all develop and built into the Astrodome and getting the opportunity to play nine years, so yeah – this is really is home for me.”
You can listen to that full interview here.
Once the game started I didn’t have much to do. Because of the massive media presence there for Opening Day (more realistically, Derek Jeter and the Yankees), I did not have a seat in the press box. Luckily my dad was at the game with some friends, so I went and found a seat with them for a few innings.
As the game neared the end, I got a text from Kristie saying I needed to go the Yankees locker room after the game to get some quotes. Deal. I watched Matt Albers record the final out of the Astros 6-2 victory and headed down to the clubhouse.
Normally, the visiter’s clubhouse has a few traveling beat writers and maybe a camera or two, but it was an absolute circus with the Yankees in town. Easily 50 people waited outside the closed green doors.
Another guy from the AP told me he was going to get quotes from Jeter, so I needed to go to the press conference room to talk to different players. No problem. I had been there before, so it only took me 15 minutes of panicked searching to find the room.
I transcribed the quotes for Kristie and was told I could leave. I didn’t want to. I had just spent eight hours in Minute Maid Park, but the lights were off and it was time to drive an hour and a half back to College Station.
I hope this wasn’t the last time I step on the field as a member of the media. When I graduate next May I plan on pursuing a career in journalism, but if for whatever reason my first time was also my last, I made sure to make it an experience I will never forget.