Coach's Corner

Attending an Astros game with the wife, in the sterility of the new Minute Maid Park, is an iffy proposition. But with the help of a friendly scalper and a lot of Shiner Bock, it's not half bad.

We're supposed to meet a guy named "Chris" under a "blue canopy" in an "empty lot" across from the ballpark once known as Enron Field, but now known as the ridiculous-sounding Minute Maid Park. We "can't miss him," the concierge says.

Chris is a "ticket broker." I fully expect Chris to look like, and indeed be, Chris, the slimy mobster on The Sopranos. Chris will be nice as long as I don't piss him off. I'm concerned about the pre-arranged price of the tickets, $70 per ducat. What will I say when Chris notifies me about the change in price as he nudges the bulge on his waist?

If you're following these first two paragraphs at all, you shouldn't be wondering about Chris, but why in the name of God I am paying $70 for a ticket to an Astros game? This question will be dealt with shortly, and it has a nice, neat symmetry to it. We leave the hotel at 6:15pm. The game begins at 7:05pm. Plenty of time to find Chris. It's interesting how directions -- so clear when dispensed -- can become so quickly and hopelessly muddled once you walk out the door.

For starters, the seemingly unambiguous designation of the "empty lot, just across the street" becomes quite opaque when confronted with the physical reality of a ballpark: a concrete circle, a mile in circumference, surrounded by parking lots. Which corner? North, south, east, or west? Small details, but details crucial to our mission's success. Then there's the matter of the "blue canopy." In retrospect, this clear designation gave me confidence we'd find Chris easily. How many blue canopies can there be in the parking lots around Minute Maid Park? Many, it turns out. The concierge failed to mention that every parking lot surrounding the ballpark has a blue canopy where parking guys hide to escape the withering Houston sun.

So Kelly and I trudge up to many blue canopies on our long and extremely hot journey around the vast landmass of Minute Maid Park. We ask many attendants if they are or know a guy named Chris. Some offer to sell us "great" tickets. Alas, no one was, nor did any one know, Chris.

It's not easy getting Kelly to Houston. She is, let's say, set in her ways. She sees most things in life with a sparkling clarity: They're either good or they're bad. Shadings of gray are not part of her nature. At times I envy this because very little is clear to me. Anyway, something "bad" occurred in Houston once to Kelly, and she's never returned because Houston's "a bad place, where bad things happen."

I chat up the new park, Seattle's hitting machine, Ichiro Suzuki, and the beer, but she doesn't like baseball or beer. I have to do better. I find a package at the Four Seasons that includes nightly apple pie. This is good. I grudgingly agree to spend Saturday at a museum instead of AstroWorld. I feel like a baseball owner being hammered by Don Fehr. Her final demand, the most ridiculous, is that we fly to Houston. She knows this will kill the deal. Ha! I show her.

I appeal to Kelly's compulsive nature when I introduce her to scorekeeping. Her insistence that every detail in life be just so is ideally suited to this task. She's the perfect scorekeeper, now so deeply immersed in the minutia of moving the runners around the little paper square that she barely notes the solitary loud lady, a Seattle fan, out of 30,000 fans, screeching directly in my ear. "Thata' boy, Danny!" or Mike or whoever. She shrieks like a sick hyena after each pop-up caught or strike called. By the third inning (and first monster-sized beer), I'm into Kelly's migraine medicine.

Nor does she notice my disappointment in the park itself. It smells and looks more like a mall than a baseball park. And with the constant drone of rock music, scoreboard games, and peppy public address announcements about "Yerrrrrrrrr Houston Aaaastros," it feels too much like a Spurs game from our so-so seats deep down the right-field line. The experience was second-rate.

Which brings us back to Chris. Chris is going to "exchange" our tickets the next day for "Club Level" seats, a special out-of-towner deal of only $40 more per ticket. I want to see if it's possible to enjoy a game here. I'd invested a lot in this trip. I was going to find Chris. And at the very last second (as we trudge to the gate and our bad seats) I spot a blue canopy a block away in an empty parking lot. It's Chris. Once Chris' associates determine that the sweaty and exhausted tourists are not Houston police officers, Chris reveals himself to be a pleasant, affable guy with official business cards. He's sorry for our troubles but, hey, "It's all good."

So we're behind home plate. We hear the pop of the ball in the catcher's mitt. We can see where the balls are hit. The horrible woman is hundreds of yards away. It feels like a baseball game. Kelly quickly becomes engrossed in her scorekeeping, though she completely disagrees with the concept of the fielder's choice or that a walk doesn't count as an at bat, and, by the eighth inning (and the third 99-oz. Shiner Bock), she really doesn't care anymore.

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