Take Me Out to the Ballgame — My Love Affair with Baseball and the Houston Astros

Holy Cow!!!! I can’t believe they actually did it! They pulled it off! After 55 years of futility, on a beautiful, balmy evening in Los Angeles, California, the Houston Astros won the World Series. I’d have to say the stars and the planets were perfectly aligned, because at that moment, everything seemed right with the universe. The last few years I was wondering if I would ever see this in my lifetime. But I never gave up hope. And now, here we are, and I’m gonna tell you something: it feels incredible.

This whole deal started for me way back in the mid-‘50s when I was 5 or 6 years old. My grandparents on my dad’s side, Granny and PawPaw Blaker, had one of the first television sets in Almeda, the little town south of Houston where we grew up. Everyone in our family and my dad’s brother Jack’s family, who lived next door, would all go to Granny and PawPaw’s to watch TV. PawPaw was full-blooded Bohemian, Bohemia being an area in the western part of what was then known as Czechoslovakia. PawPaw loved to watch the Yankees on TV mainly because of their shortstop at the time, Tony Kubek. PawPaw told us that Tony was also Czech and that he was our third cousin on his mother’s side. I thought, Wow, that’s pretty cool having a cousin on the Yankees team, so I would always go to PawPaw’s to watch the games with him whenever the Yankees were playing. I can still remember the pungent smell of the Garrett snuff he liked to dip as he watched the game while spitting in his spittoon. Tony Kubek became my first hero in baseball and I still loved him as a broadcaster on NBC’s Game of the Week when his playing days were over.

The transistor radio was developed and came out on the market in 1954. It was a small battery-powered radio and I got one for Christmas in 1956. At the time, Houston only had a minor league baseball team called the Buffs. But I found out what station they broadcasted the games on and I was excited to listen to them on my little radio under the covers at night after we’d all gone to bed. Also in this era, baseball trading cards were the rage as companies such as Topps and Fleer sold cards in packages with bubblegum. My cousins Bubba Blaker and Butch Cloyd and I would walk along Highway 288 in Almeda picking up discarded soda bottles so we could sell them to buy baseball cards. Anything that had to do with baseball … we were on it. We couldn’t wait for school to be out for the summer so we could mow the field beside our house and start playing the game itself.

Clay in his Gulls uniform

Clay in his Gulls uniform

In ’58, I would be old enough to try out for the Fondren PeeWee League and I was beside myself waiting for summer. My mother, Rose, who had been a softball player in high school, started working with me every day after school, throwing me grounders, playing catch, and pitching to me while I batted. My dad, Mack, who at that time had a car-repair business, the Almeda Garage, had to put in long hours every day at the shop. So that left it up to my mom to bring my baseball skills up to snuff. No problem for her. She had played catcher in high school and had a good arm. Pretty tough as well. She got her nose broken in a game by a girl who slung the bat after getting a hit, but mom finished the game in spite of blood running down her face and all over her jersey.

I went to the tryouts when summer started and got picked by a team called the Gulls, as in seagulls. At the time, I thought that was a pretty lame name for a baseball team and was proven right at our first game when all the older kids sitting in the stands started calling us the Gurls. They were merciless to us that season and the next one as well. I was extremely glad to be moving up to the majors and a new team the following year. My older cousins Butch and Bubba had both played for the Phillies so I don’t know if they’d put in a good word for me but at the tryouts that year the manager for the Phillies picked me for the team. I was stoked. For two years I pitched and played shortstop, and then I was out of that age group.

The next group up was Pony League and the closest league to where we lived was the Windsor Pony League, the field being in Windsor Village. I got picked to be on the Tigers. In this league, no one was a little kid anymore. Everyone could hit and throw the ball hard by this time so it was definitely a step up. I remember one night game I was batting against Nick Ortiz, who was one of the top pitchers in the league. He drilled me right in the center of my left thigh. It dropped me like a sack of potatoes. I had a huge charley horse and could barely walk so I had to come out of the game. I guess I wasn’t as tough as my mom.

Towards the end of each season, the managers of all the teams start looking at the players who are doing well so they can make their picks for the All-Stars team when the season is over. Then the regional playoffs would start and it was single-elimination all the way to the state finals. Everyone wants to make All-Stars so you can keep playing but they only took the two or three best players from each team. About this time, we started hearing rumors of this lanky kid from Alvin who could already throw an 80-mph fastball. They also said he was wild a lot of times so although very few could hit his fast ball, because of his wildness most hitters were afraid to stand in the batter’s box. Needless to say, he was almost unhittable and got a lot of strikeouts. Found out later, his name was Nolan Ryan.

I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t make the All-Stars because the town of Alvin was nearby and it would probably be one of the first teams we played. After being plugged by Nick Ortiz, I wasn’t too keen on stepping into the box with this Ryan kid pitching. (I found out later that I wouldn’t have had to play against him after all. He was three years older and on to the next level.) It was a moot point anyway. By the end of the season I’d thrown my arm out. Too many curve balls at too young of an age. I think they call it tennis elbow nowadays. Also, by this time I had started surfing and that was it for my ever playing team sports again.

I still followed baseball religiously though … a huge fan then and still one to this day.

While I was still in Little League, a major event happened that would change the face of the city of Houston forever. It was announced that a major league team would begin playing in 1962 in the National League. They were to be called the Colt 45s and a stadium was quickly built southwest of downtown in a soggy, mosquito-infested cow pasture. The opening-day game of the first season was April 10, 1962 with a three-game homestand against the Chicago Cubs. One of my best friends while growing up in Almeda was Willie Keyworth, whose family owned a dairy farm way out at the end of Fellows Road. Willie’s dad, Billy, who was good friends with my dad from grade school on, took Willie and me to that first game. Walking into that stadium to me felt like walking through the gates of heaven. I was in awe. And yeah, it was Houston in April so it was already hot and muggy but since it was a day game, at least there weren’t any mosquitos. But nobody cared anyway. It was a glorious day. The crowd was electrified and the atmosphere super-charged. And the team didn’t let us down. Roman Mejias smacked two homeruns and the Colts beat the Cubs 11 – 2. In fact, the Colts ended up sweeping those first three games with the Cubs and people were already talking about pennants and the World Series. Little did we know how long we’d wait for that World Series title.

As the season progressed, I decided my favorite player on the team was third baseman Bob Aspromonte. A good friend of my dad’s, Jack Hunsicker, heard I liked Aspromonte and told us that he knew him and could get tickets from him to go to a game. So he did, and it was a day game so my dad didn’t go because he had to work. (Also, my dad was more into football and not so much of a baseball fan.) At the game, our seats were right on the field by third base. During warm-ups, Jack hollered at Bob and he came right over to the rail. He introduced me to Bob and we shook hands and I was so starstruck I became totally mute. Jack, after a few seconds when I didn’t say anything, nudged me and said, “Bob got us the tickets, Clay.” I came out of my stupor and said, “Thank you, Mr. Aspromonte.” He replied, “Hang on, I have something for you.” He went into the dugout and came back with a photo of himself that he autographed for me. Then he said, “Y’all enjoy the game,” and went back to warming up. The game was against the Mets and the Colts won 3 – 2.

About a month or so later, my dad came home from work and asked, “Hey Slick, you want to go see the Colts game tonight? Sandy Koufax is pitching.” I was surprised, because as I mentioned before, my dad wasn’t much into baseball, but I quickly said, “Yes!” It ended up being a great game, especially getting to watch Koufax painting a masterpiece from the mound. In the 6th inning, with the Dodgers leading 2 – 1, Koufax was taken out due to a muscle strain. The Colts scored two runs off the relief pitcher to take a 3 – 2 lead. The Dodgers hit a solo homerun in the 8th to tie it 3 – 3. And that’s where it stayed until the 13th inning. In the top of the 13th, the Dodger’s Maury Wills, who was one of the best base stealers of all time, walked, stole second, stole third, and came home on a sacrifice fly. When the side was out, the Colts came to the plate, couldn’t score. Game over, Dodgers winning 4 – 3. What a heartbreak. Plus, we didn’t get home until around 1:00 in the morning and my mother was still up, worried sick, and wondering where we were. That ended up being the last pro baseball game my dad ever attended. But not me. I loved every minute of it and went to many, many more Colt and Astro games over the years.

In 1965, the Astrodome, called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” opened and the Colt 45s had a new home. Due to copyright/patent infringement flak from the Colt Firearms Company and Colt 45 Malt Liquor, the team got a new name as well. Because of the heavy presence of NASA in the Houston area and the name of the new stadium, the team settled on the name Astros. I’ve always liked the name, with its connotation of rocketships and the space age. There have been a lot of years however when the team did not live up to the image of its name. There were times when the team stunk up the season so badly they should have been named the Covered Wagons. Instead of spaceships, think of circling the wagons. Regardless, if you’re a real true fan, you stick with your team through thick and thin, good or bad, loving them always and savoring all the great moments: walk-off homeruns, a leaping catch up over the wall that thwarts a homerun, or someone pitching a no-hitter.

Mention of a no-hitter always makes me think one thing. Nolan Ryan. I’ve followed Ryan’s whole career because first of all, he’s a Texan; secondly, I’ve known of him since I was 12 or 13 years old; and third, he was just so damn good. When he finally came home to the Astros after spending several years with the Angels and Mets, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Allene and I went to a lot of games at the ‘Dome when we had time off from the music business. After the team acquired Ryan, we made it a point to see as many games as we could that he pitched. We’d usually try to go in a group, as it was more fun. Some of the folks who went with us were Hal and Sharon Anderson, Greg and Donna Anderson, Glenn and Melinda Hammond, Donnis and Pam Hammond, Ansgar and Gaby Reuter, Hermann Lammers-Meyer and his Emsland Hillbillies band members, when they came to Texas from Germany most summers, Lisa Morales (from the famous music duo Sisters Morales), … and Tommy Foote.

Tommy was the drummer with the Ace in the Hole band when we first met them in 1976. He was from Houston, like me, and when I found out he was a big Astros fan, we hit it off immediately. Ace in the Hole had a pretty good vocalist at the time, who broke out with a single on MCA Records in 1981. He consequently went on to be one of the biggest stars in the history of country music. Yep … King George Strait. A few years after making it big, George needed someone to be his tour manager and handle everything that happens while on the road. Thinking Tommy was the right man for the job, George promoted Tommy from drummer to official tour manager and that’s what Tommy still does to this day. Thank God, because Tommy’s job would come into play for him and me one memorable night years later at Arlington Stadium. More on that shortly. Meanwhile, back to the ‘Dome.

As elated as I was when Nolan Ryan came to the Astros, I was equally devastated when the team decided not to renew his contract in 1988 and the Texas Rangers snatched him up. That was a move that I think the Astros will always regret. In a perfect world, Nolan Ryan should have finished his career with the Houston Astros. Nolan went on to have some good seasons with the Rangers, adding to his strikeout total, his games won, and even threw his 6th and 7th no-hitters with them. He was still throwing pitches clocked in the upper 90s, with an occasional one that went over 100 mph until the day he retired. In his later years, he also developed a wicked change-up slider that was damn near unhittable. But the real coup for the Rangers was Ryan’s public relations value. As the saying goes, he “put fannies in the seats.” Not only was he setting records that will probably never be broken because of pitch counts and the new relief-pitching system, he was such a gentleman and so well-liked that people would fill the stadium for a chance to see him pitch.

Allene, Tommy and I continued to attend an Astros game every now and then. As I stated before, you always stick with your team, but without Ryan, somehow it just wasn’t the same. Around this time, George Strait began doing a concert once a year in Arlington Stadium after a Rangers game. In his job as tour manager, Tommy got to know a lot of the personnel in the Rangers organization from coordinating all the details with them for the concerts. Tommy knew a lot of these people on a first-name basis, including the clubhouse manager and many of the players. So anytime he wanted to attend a game, he could call someone in the front office and get tickets.

Late in the season of the year Nolan Ryan said would be his last, Tommy called me up and said, “Hey, Clay, Nolan Ryan is pitching tonight. You want to go to the game? This might be the last time we get to see him pitch.” I answered with no hesitation, “Hell yes! Let’s do it!” He said, “Okay, meet me at my house in one hour.” It took me twenty minutes to get from our house in New Braunfels to Tommy’s place in San Marcos, where we got in Tommy’s car, hit the IH-35 onramp heading north to Ft. Worth. We made it to the stadium, went to the will-call window and picked up our tickets, walked in and found our seats. They were good seats, right down on the field between home plate and first base … a bird’s eye view to see Ryan. The players were warming up as it was still early. A vendor came by and we both got a hot dog and right about then, the announcer came on the P.A. system and said that Nolan Ryan had been scratched from the line-up due to a muscle strain he got in the warm-ups. We both looked at each other and at the same time screamed, “NO WAY!” Boy, were we bummed out. When the next vendor came by I bought the biggest beer he had to drown my sorrow. Well, we were there, so we decided to just enjoy it. The Rangers did end up winning the game and all’s well that ends well, so Tommy said, “Hey Slick, you wanna go down to the clubhouse? Maybe we can talk to some of the players …” I said, “Sure, let’s go.” We made our way down below the stadium and the security guard at the clubhouse door recognized Tommy right off and said, “Howdy, Mr. Foote. Good to see you again, y’all go right on in.” Upon entering, it was like old home week. Everyone was glad to see Tommy and after handshakes, back slaps and introductions of me all around, someone stuck a couple of beers in our hands. Ryan wasn’t there with all the guys so I was thinking since he didn’t pitch, maybe he already went home. But lo and behold, a few minutes later, some guy walked out of the showers buck naked, drying himself off with a big fluffy white towel and all at once I realized it was Nolan Ryan. At the same time he glanced at us and seeing Tommy, wrapped the towel around his waist and walked over. He gave Tommy a hug and said, “Great to see you, manI I didn’t know you were here tonight.” Tommy said, “This is my friend Clay Blaker.” And Ryan said, “Clay Blaker! I’ve got one of your cassettes and we play your music all the time in the clubhouse. My favorite is ‘Green Snakes on the Ceiling.’ It’s really good to meet you.” I was flabbergasted but managed to say, “Nice to meet you too and thanks for the kind words.” We visited a while longer until Tommy finally said, “Slick we got a long drive, we’d better hit the road.” On the drive back to San Marcos, we were both on Cloud 9, and I couldn’t thank Tommy enough for giving me the opportunity to meet my all-time favorite player in baseball. And we did get a good laugh when I reminded him that no one would ever believe me in a million years that on the night I got to meet my hero Nolan Ryan, at my first glimpse of him he was stark naked. Man, what a night!

After Ryan retired as a player he continued to stay involved with baseball in various capacities. All the while, Allene and I and Tommy Foote continued to support the Astros. In late ’96, I got a call from Tommy, telling me that Ryan’s business manager had called him saying they wanted to book our band for Ryan’s 50th birthday party. The deal went down and on January 31, 1997, Tracy Byrd, Neil McCoy and I, with our bands, played a private party at Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest dancehall.

Nolan and his wife Ruth (by the way, on June 25th of this year, 2017, they celebrated their 50th anniversary) were on the dancefloor most of the night, along with everybody else. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

After the show, Ryan gave Neil, Tracy and me Rangers jerseys with our last names on the back and also photos and baseball cards that he had autographed. Once again, I can’t thank Tommy Foote enough for being instrumental in having us be a part of that incredible night.

Around this time, Nolan Ryan and his son Reid bought a minor league team in Mississippi and brought it to Round Rock, outside of Austin. The team was called the Round Rock Express. This team played in the AAA Pacific Coast League and was affiliated with the Astros. They would have live concerts at the park after games a couple of times a month to go along with the theme of Austin’s being the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Our band got booked for one and upon arrival at the stadium, Reid came out in a golf cart to meet our bus and led us to the loading ramp at the back of the stadium. When we stepped off the bus, Reid introduced himself, and said that his dad couldn’t be there that day but said to tell us hello. There were a couple of stage hands to help us get the gear up the ramp and to help us set up. On the first load-up when we came out into the view of the field, I was immediately impressed. “Wow!” I thought. “What a beautiful stadium!” They had built a good-sized pavilion just outside the left field foul line, which took up the space where the seats ended and went to where it was even with the outfield wall. The stage faced towards home plate. In front of the stage was a dance floor area and behind that were tables and chairs and a bar and grill area in the back. Super nice! Reid was a gracious host, telling us to order anything we wanted to eat and drink after soundcheck, then to enjoy the game and kick off the music immediately afterwards, encouraging everyone to stay. That’s exactly what we did and at the end of the event we all agreed it had been a fabulous experience and that the Round Rock Express was a first-class operation.

In the next few years, big changes happened in Houston. The Oilers NFL team moved to Tennessee and became the Titans. The Astros moved into a brand new stadium downtown called Enron Field, now called Minute Maid Park. In order to get another NFL team, the league required the city of Houston to build a new football stadium with more seating capacity than the Astrodome. Sadly, the Eighth Wonder of the World, closed its doors. And the new NFL franchise the Houston Texans, moved into their new facility which is now called NRG Stadium. Big changes happened as well for Allene and me. In 2003 we sold everything we owned and moved to a small island in a small archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of the Republic of Panama.

Then, would you believe, in 2005, the Astros were in the World Series for the first time, against the Chicago White Sox. Allene and I were beside ourselves and watched every game at the Big Bamboo, a restaurant and sports bar run by our friends Steve and Vickie Hubbard. On the night of Game 4, Bocas was in the midst of a torrential tropical downpour, which mirrored our demeanor, as the White Sox completed a sweep of all four games. Once again we said, “Well … maybe next year!”

But that didn’t happen. Year after year, it didn’t happen.

And then, in 2013, the Astros announced they would be moving to the American League. Good God Almighty. I was horrified. I’m a purist and I detest the designated hitter role. To me, it ain’t baseball if everyone doesn’t have to bat. Well, it is what it is. I had to get used to it.

Anyway, who cares now? It’s all water under the bridge. (No pun intended, Houston.) The Astros are the new World Champions. After they defeated the Yankees in the ALCS, somehow I knew in my heart that this year they would win it all. Week before last, I told my buddy Kurt Fargo as we were going to grab some lunch, that the Series would go seven games, because the teams were so evenly matched, but the Astros would prevail. I mean, it just had to be. Think about it: Both the Cubs and the Red Sox had gotten the monkeys off their backs, but that little monkey in Houston over the course of 55 years had grown into a 600-pound gorilla and he was ready to jump off. Plus, the Dodgers have won the Series several times. When you add all that to what Texas and Houston went through from Hurricane Harvey—and are still going through—there’s no way the Astros could have been denied.

I know how disappointed the Dodgers fans must be. But if they would just get hold of a dictionary and look up the word disappointed, in the parentheses they would see “Astros fans.” Just kidding, but it could be. The Dodgers have a great team and they fought hard until the end. They will be back.

While Allene and I were watching game seven, at one point, around the 6th inning, she turned to me and said, “Are you nervous?” I told her, “No I’m really not. They’ve got this.” She said, “Don’t say that, you’re gonna jinx ‘em.” I replied, “No it won’t. Really, they’ve got this.”

Thankfully, we were watching the game alone in our jungle home, which has no close neighbors, when Charlie Morton got the final batter to ground out in the bottom of the 9th.
We jumped up, embraced, twirling around, and screaming at the top of our lungs “WE WON, WE WON! THEY DID IT!!! The Astros are the World Series champions!” We looked into each other’s eyes, held on tightly and broke into tears. It’s hard to put into words the emotions we were feeling in our hearts and minds at that moment, so I won’t even try. If you have always been an Astros fan … you know.

So, call it destiny, fate, karma, divine intervention, or whatever you want. The Houston Astros are the 2017 World Series Champions. In the aftermath of everything we’ve all been through as Astros fans for the last 55 years, including the recent devastating floods, I’m reminded of an old famous poem that took place in a town called Mudville. Except this time, there is much joy in Mudville because the Mighty Casey finally came up to the plate again and this time he didn’t strike out. He knocked it out of the park.

A Grand Slam!