Yesterday when I was young
“That’s one of the great gifts of this, the greatest of all games, baseball: it allows you, still, to lose yourself in a dream, to feel and remember a season of life when summer never seemed to die and the assault of cynicism hadn’t begun to better optimism.” — Mike Barnacle
Immediately after we all witnessed but the latest David and Goliath tale, right after little Jose Altuve turned around a 90-plus mile-an-hour slider from big, bad Aroldis Chapman and deposited it over the left field wall to propel the Houston Astros into the World Series Saturday night, it was hard for me to tell if the feeling that almost tactilely washed over me was made up mostly of nostalgia or irony.
After all, I was 11 years old when the ragamuffin team that will now play on Major League Baseball’s biggest stage was born in 1962 and saddled with one of the worst names in all of sports — the Houston Colt .45s.
And oh, Lord, they were bad. One of two National League expansion teams that year along with the New York Mets, the team’s roster was made up of castaway veterans long past their primes and kids who were never destined to have one. It would be more than a decade, not until 1972, before the franchise, which had undergone a great many changes by then, would experience its first winning season.
There were seasons in which no player hit double figures in home runs; there were seasons in which no pitcher won 10 games. The team once acquired a player who retired, rather than play for it. An Astro pitcher once threw a no-hitter — and lost.
They had bad managers. They had bad general managers. They had indifferent ownership. They drafted poorly and made terrible trades, literally the textbook strategy for going from bad to worse in baseball.
After the dreadful 1964 season ended, the team changed its name to the Astros, in preparation for, a year later, its escape from the heat and mosquitoes of its original Colt Stadium (an only slightly modified minor league park) and move into the then revolutionary air-conditioned Astrodome, dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world,” which was, in reality, an impressive facility, but a God-awful place to play baseball.
But, I am nothing if not loyal, and throughout childhood and adolescence, past middle into now advancing age, the Colt .45s-turned-Astros were my team. Everybody else with walking around sense rooted for the Cardinals or the Braves or the Yankees or the Red Sox, but ole Ray never stopped pulling for his team and gaining experience in dealing with annual disappointment. If you had asked me to explain why, I couldn’t have, but it was simply a part of me. From that first long ago time I listened to my first game on a pink Philco radio tuned to “clear channel WWL-AM in New Orleans” at my great-grandparents’ Tutwiler home, I was hooked.
(And by the way, for those of you too young to remember, “clear channel AM radio” is one of the world’s great unrecognized oxymorons.)
However, if you were growing up in the north Coahoma County farming hamlet of Coahoma (population 300 or so if you counted cats and dogs and weren’t too particular about the town limits) in the 1960s, you had better be able to come up with some way to entertain yourself, and at least in the summers for me, it was all things Astros.
They weren’t good enough to be on TV much in the days before sports of all stripes became ubiquitous on all devices, so I was left with radio broadcasts and “The Sporting News” to chronicle my team’s many failures, and most significantly, my imagination, in which it was wildly more successful.
When I threw tennis balls off the butane tank and “fielded” their rebounds, it was Astro infielders enabling Astro pitchers to throw shutouts. When I launched rocks with a plastic bat that rattled off the tin tiers of my father’s tractor shed (regularly incurring paternal wrath), it was Astro batters slugging doubles and homers.
First the Colts, then the Astros have started over more times than the Ole Miss football program since Johnny Vaught retired. (I said I was loyal to my sports teams, not notably good at selecting them.) And yes, after taking 43 years to appear in their first World Series (losing in four games to a mediocre White Sox team), the Astros are now in the big show for the second time in the last three years, and yes, I hope they win it, again.
Truth is, we have grown old together, the Astros and I, and each of us are a little more productive at what we do now than when we were in our respective youths, yet there is a certain innocence in youth and from defeat there flows humility and there is a lot to be learned from and admired about both.
And man, I miss those static-filled summer nights and the sounds those rocks made hitting the tractor shed roof. Cause, see, if you hit one of those flat ones just right…
“Yesterday, when I was young, the taste of life was sweet, like rain upon my tongue…” — Roy Clark
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork
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