On Saturday night, July 10, 2004, I made my triumphant return to Houston. You probably remember my previous visit, when I spent 10 straight days here and shattered the record for "Most time anyone ever spent in Houston without actually living there."
And yes, there was some bitterness at the time. Any city that can be described as "gigantic," "sprawling," "confusing" and "blustery" has absolutely no business hosting an event like the Super Bowl. Houston wasn't even remotely prepared for its turn in the spotlight. Some hastily-opened hotels and bars still reeked of paint. Cars careened off the new Light Rail as if it were Billy Joel's Mercedes. The traffic made the L.A. gridlock seem free-flowing by comparison. You couldn't get a cab to save your life. The weather was more unpredictable than Johnny Rodz. And since I couldn't get over these things, I spent much of my time pumping out Super Bowl blogs at an alarming rate, complaining about the city every step of the way.
Then my beloved Patriots held off the Panthers to win their second title.
What did this change about Houston? Everything. I feel a goofy sense of attachment to the city now, just like any of the crappy apartments I had back in college. We won the Super Bowl here! Good times! I guess I'll always feel that way coming back here. It's like returning to any rundown casino in Vegas where you once enjoyed good luck.
Besides, All-Star Week is harmless. It's a lark. You could have it anywhere. People cruise into town, check out the ballpark du jour, attend a few parties, squeeze in the requisite networking and that's that. It's a pressure-free visit, no different than the NBA All-Star Game, the Electronics Expo, the AVN Awards or anything else. In other words, it's perfect for Houston. And they were ready this time around. Even if returning here for any post-Super Bowl event feels like dropping two levels in "Madden."
For the locals, it's been a bittersweet week, because the underachieving Astros have left everyone here in a collective funk. Jimy Williams emerged as the symbol of everyone's frustration, mainly because his hatchet job this season surpasses anything that ever happened in Boston. (Read my 2001 column about Jimy for details on his managerial style.) In fact, things have deteriorated so quickly since the big Beltran trade that conquering hero Roger Clemens is (supposedly) pushing to be dealt to a contender ... which doesn't make sense because he's never been the kind of guy to stab an entire city in the back.
(Wait for it ... )
(Wait for it ... )
Everyone expected a trip to the World Series this fall. Not anymore. With T-Mac and Yao joining forces, with the Texans gaining buzz as a 2004 sleeper, the locals have already pushed this Astros season in front of the Light Rail. Just a strange atmosphere for an All-Star Weekend. As if Houston wasn't already strange enough.
On Sunday afternoon, I infiltrated the Celebrity Softball Game at Minute Maid Park. Nobody enjoys these events more than me. It's not possible. Seeing legends like Goose Gossage, Fernando Valenzuela and Dave Winfield share a field with Nick Lachey, Miss USA and the guy who won "The Apprentice" ... I mean, what's better than that? For instance, here's what the first five spots in the lineup card looked like for the American League's team:
1. F. Lynn, L-CF
2. S. Finnessy, RF
3. W. Clark, 1B
4. C. Fielder, DH
5. M. Modine, 3B
To recap ...
That's my childhood hero Freddie Lynn leading off. Thanks to a judge's ruling after I followed him around like a puppy during the 2003 All-Star festivities, I wasn't allowed to come within 100 feet of him this summer. Whatever. It was great to see him, regardless. He was followed by Shandi Finnessy in the 2-hole, the current reigning Miss USA, a statuesque blonde with thin lips and a big smile. More on her in a second. Will Clark was batting third -- 25 pounds heavier, balding, still dipping tobacco, the quintessential former baseball player who seems grumpy about being a former baseball player. The great Cecil Fielder was hitting cleanup, back down to his playing weight of 380 pounds. And, of course, the immortal Matthew Modine was in the 5-hole.
But seriously ... how can you NOT love the Celebrity Softball Game?
I spent the entire afternoon tagging along behind the scenes like Bob Woodward, roping people into dumb conversations, soaking in the weirdness, jotting down everything I overheard. Modine was the No. 1 target. The guy played Louden Swain, for God's sake. He seemed like a nice enough guy, so my buddy Sal and I ended up making small-talk with him, eventually leading to Sal (a former high-school wrestler) getting him into an arm bar as I snapped digital pictures. I wish I was making this up. We also broke the news to Modine that "Vision Quest" didn't crack ESPN25's "Top 25 Sports Movies of the Last 25 Years" list. He was genuinely perplexed, especially after we told him that "Finding Forrester" and "Cobb" made the cut.
"That's unbelievable," Modine finally said, shaking his head.
Talk about a lunatic fringe. Poor Modine was rattled for the rest of the day, self-destructing in the game with a "Jose Offerman in the late-'80s"-caliber performance at shortstop -- 0-for-2, four errors and the runaway winner of the Coolio Memorial MDP Award ("Most Disappointing Player").
Other than Nick Lachey, the Apprentice Guy and Detroit basher Jimmy Kimmel, Modine was probably the most recognizable celeb in the game (and he's knee-deep into the "Starring in TNT movies" phase of his career). I'm not sure why the turnout isn't better. Even though Monday night's Celeb Game/HR Derby combo routinely grabs some of ESPN's biggest ratings of the year (always in the 2.5/2.6 range), we were stuck with people like Tony Todd (of "Little Big League," which came out when I was in college) and Charlie Maher (best known for being REJECTED in the first "Bachelorette"). You're telling me Jesse Palmer was busy? That Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green had other plans? That the Hilton Sisters couldn't have hopped in a private jet, brought along a carton of Marlboro Lights and stumbled through an inning or two? Please.
Maybe nothing compared to the "West Wing" guys frantically throwing grounders to one another in Milwaukee in 2002, but there were still some highlights this time around. I enjoyed Miss USA more than anyone else. She was trailed by her publicists all afternoon, exuding one of those "What would give me a better chance of landing in US Weekly, making out with Charlie, or making out with the Apprentice Guy?" vibes. Now here's someone who was exploring the full potential of the afternoon. Unfortunately, she had no idea how to swing a baseball bat, mentioning to her publicist in the batting cage, "I really want to get to a base, but I can't until I have contact." The last time those words were said, Cesar Crespo was involved.
I also enjoyed Nick Lachey, who's enjoying his final few months of freedom before he strangles his wife and gets the death penalty from Governor Schwarzenegger. I liked seeing former Astro Cesar Cedeno, who seemed confused when I told him how much I enjoyed his work in "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training." I loved hearing Leeann Tweeden get barraged with "Hey, Lisa! Lisa Guerrero!" shouts when she stepped onto the field. I even enjoyed the Apprentice Guy, who had a "Jeez, I STILL can't believe I'm famous and my name is on a Celebrity All-Star Game jersey" glow about him. He was almost as happy to be there as Tony Todd, who had to be dragged out of the locker room two hours after the game.
(My least favorite celeb? Probably Charlie. Have the boundaries of the word "celebrity" ever been stretched quite like this? Even in his intro for the game, the PA Announcer said, "He was a finalist for Trista's heart on the 'Bachelorette,' now he's a correspondent for 'Extra,' please welcome, Charlie Maher!" Really? That's a celebrity? Of course, when I told the Sports Gal that Charlie was in the game, she screamed, "He's hot!" That forced me to make up a story on the spot -- how Jimmy saw him coming out of the shower and claimed Charlie was hung like an acorn. I think she bought it. Hopefully she doesn't read this.)
One other highlight: When Sarah Silverman was asked the old, "All right, if you could make out with anyone playing in the game, who would it be?" question, she glanced around and saw Modine, Charlie, Lachey and the Apprentice Guy, finally answering, "I guess Ernie Banks." These are the moments that should make the actual telecast.
As for the game, Sal and I picked sides and made our annual $50 wager. I took the AL for sentimental reasons, since they had Jimmy, Freddie Lynn, Miss USA and Modine. Sal eagerly backed the superior NL squad, managed by Kenny Mayne, the Earl Weaver of Celebrity games. Mayne's team ended up cruising to a 15-8 blowout victory, paced by MVP Tony Todd, who went 3-for-3 and made a number of spectacular plays in the field. Have you ever seen one of those shortened Special Olympics games at halftime of an NBA contest, where there's always one guy who's just a little TOO good to be in the game? That's Tony Todd. He should be banned for life, or at least suspended indefinitely until he beefs up his IMDB.com page.
One other heartwarming subplot: Last year Jimmy muffed a pop-up in front of home plate -- rolling around awkwardly like a marlin -- and got nailed by Bo Jackson with the old Hidden Ball Trick. He came to Houston looking for redemption, even hissing on the bus, "I specifically told them that I did NOT want to play catcher this year." Of course, MLB stuck him at catcher again. They even made him wear a Tigers hat. Inspired by the dual slight, Jimmy came up in the second and promply drilled one over the left-center wall. Sal and I were in shock -- it was like watching Rod Barajas poke one into the black bleachers at Yankee Stadium. Later that night, Jimmy confessed that it was one of the top 10 moments of his life.
I think I actually believe him.
On Monday afternoon, I walked down to the All-Star Fan Fest, probably a mistake since it was 145 degrees outside. Once you get there, it's worth it. I could have spent 15 hours there. I'm not kidding. The memorabilia section alone could chew up an entire day. For anyone over 30 years old, you could think up every possible dream purchase -- whether it's a framed photo of the "Miracle on Ice" game signed by everyone on the USA team, the famous picture of Ali standing over Liston, autographed with one of Ali's gloves underneath it, a signed Ted Williams jersey from the 1940 season, even Jack Sikma's permed wig from the 1981-82 Sonics season, even Terry Duerod (not a Duerod jersey, but Duerod himself) -- and stumble across the actual item at one of these shows. This is a whole other column.
I wandered around the various booths, perusing glass cases filled with trading cards (one highlight: the "Rocky 2" set!), checking out the framed photos and jerseys, thumbing through some baseball books. (I came THIS CLOSE to buying Darryl Strawberry's autobiography, just for comedy's sake.) Sure, I don't need anything. All my cards are gathering dust in a storage facility. Most of my classic sports photos -- including the shocking black-and-white of Doctor J choking the Basketball Jesus -- have been relegated to the downstairs bathroom by my unfeeling wife. When you're 14, nobody tells you that these things will happen. It's very depressing. Although I also think you pass a point in life where it makes sense to spend $1,200 on an All-Star jersey with the signed names of every living 300-game winner.
In many ways, memorabilia shows are like strip joints. There's usually a cover charge. Instead of bouncers, there are security guards. You can look around all day without buying anything. If you're in the mood to buy something, it's probably happening whether you run across something worthwhile or not. The music is always terrible. There are always creepy guys by themselves, guys who seem just a little TOO excited to be there. They usually have hot dogs somewhere nearby. It's always uncomfortable when someone asks if you need any help. Both places are infinitely more fun when you're drunk, and there's always a chance you'll wake up the next morning, look into an empty wallet and mutter to yourself, "My God, what just happened?"
(Note: My favorite section was the Roger Clemens Foundation, which hawked caps, T-shirts, photos and jerseys signed by the Rocket himself, with all proceeds going to charity. Of course, that didn't stop me from making my way up to the counter and asking the lady, "Do you have any signed Red Sox jerseys with the word 'TRAITOR' on the back?" She nearly had an aneurysm. All right, I made that up.)
There were no real surprises at the FanFest: All the old standbys were there, including video batting cages; screaming kids; Hall of Fame exhibits; kids running into complete strangers at full-speed; a PlayStation 2 section; parents whacking their kids; those fake pitching mounds where you can throw out your arm trying to break 75 on a radar gun; kids whacking their parents; a special "History of the Astros" section; and parents and kids whacking each other like Frazier and Ali. We covered this stuff in my last column about FanFest. Spend enough time at one of these things and you'll end up either getting a vascectomy or having your tubes tied.
Three interesting wrinkles to baseball's version:
1. There was a special store just for minor league hats, every cap you could possibly imagine. They had the Batavia Bulldogs, the Portland Beavers, the Lowell Spinners, even the Salem-Kaizer Muckdogs. How many times in your life do you get the chance to buy a hat with a beaver on it? One? Maybe two?
2. Speaking of purchases, MLB made the same mistakes as the NFL with their merchandise: T-shirts covered in too many words; baseball caps that Eastern European tourists wouldn't wear; T-shirts for females that could only be worn by full-fledged bimbos; and so on. I've ranted about this insanity before ... I'm just tired at this point. I was able to find one wearable T-shirt -- a nifty black T-shirt designed to look like the All-Star Game uniforms, with "American" and a star on the front, and the player's name and number on the back. I settled on Manny Ramirez's No. 24 for an alarming $27 bucks. By the way, I graduated college 12 years ago.
3. So my friend Jon and I are wolfing down nasty chopped BBQ beef sandwiches, getting some food into our systems before we blew out our elbows on one of those fake pitching mounds. Suddenly, I heard someone trip, followed by the back of my chair getting bumped, followed by a little kid saying the words, "Oops, sorry!" I didn't think anything of it.
And then the back of my shirt started to feel warm. And wet.
I turned around to find a scared 8-year-old kid making the Derek Lowe Face at me. That's when I noticed the chili-cheese dog resting on my back.
As I leaned forward, the entire dog rolled down my back, spreading cheese and chili all over my prized old-school "Golden State Warriors" shirt. I would have started swearing, but the kid was positively catatonic -- although it was hard to tell whether he was more upset about ruining my shirt or losing his hot dog. His father immediately scrambled over with a handful of napkins, eagerly wiping the cheese, chili and mustard into the back of my shirt so it will never come out. On the bright side, he never offered to buy me a new shirt. And then they scampered off. I should have just been wearing a Tom Gamboa jersey.
That led to this exchange:
JON (examining the back of my shirt): "It looks like he puked on you."
ME: "Honestly, I wish he had."
(That's right, it's the 2004 All-Star FanFest! Come one, come all!)
The Home Run Derby made up for everything. Thanks to an all-access field pass from the good people at MLB, I stood behind the batting cage and watched every relevant All-Star take batting practice. There's no way to capture something like this in print; I won't even try. At one point, Bonds, Berkman, Piazza and Sosa were taking turns in the cage, trying to one-up each other as the crowd roared. Seeing someone like Bonds and his gigantic head that close -- literally, maybe eight feet away -- as he effortlessly belted pitches into the right-field stands ... that's just something you don't forget.
(Random note: At one point, a giant batboy wearing a Marlins jersey stood next to us watching Bonds roping line drives. He looked like one of those mutant 15-year-olds who is bigger than everyone else, like my buddy Bish back in the ninth grade. I kept looking at him. And I kept looking at him. And ... wait a second ... it was Miguel Cabrera! This kid's in the All-Star Game????? He couldn't even get hired at a car wash. Unbelievable. I'm buying 20 of his rookie cards tomorrow. He can't be older than 15. I'm telling you, he's lying.)
After BP, we walked around so I could form a definitive opinion on Minute Maid Park. You know what you're getting from these 21st-century ballparks at this point -- perfect sightlines, concourses filled with food items, clean bathrooms, comfortable seats, stacked sections so nobody is too far away from home plate ... honestly, this isn't rocket science. If I could change anything about Enron, er, Minute Maid, it would be the goofy setup in left field -- one section of bleachers, flanked by a ridiculous cement wall with a train and train tracks on top of it. It looks like something Method Man and Redman created with a set of Legos after polishing off a bong the size of Yao Ming.
Why not add more seats? Why the train? What's up with the hill in center? Why do the seats in right field face third base? It's like the place was built by some stoned architect who never actually watched a game before, but his kids were telling him, "Daddy, you should put a train in left field, and Daddy make a hill in the outfield!" I understand how every ballpark needs to be different, but this seems too contrived -- vaguely reminscent of the first time Jonathan Lipnicki appeared in public wearing a throwback jersey and gold chains.
On the bright side, the retractable roof makes up for everything. Even when it gets dark in Houston during the summer, the temperature vacillates between 120 and 130 degrees, with 156-percent humidity. The roof saved everyone from a miserable night. Maybe it looks better with the roof opened; but even with the roof closed, it looks OK. Certainly better than the giant space vulva in Milwaukee.
Eventually, I settled in the center-field bleachers for ESPN's annual "Bleacher Bash," where they throw a collective bone to corporate sponsors, hand out free baseball gloves, feed them hot dogs, get them drunk, and then have everyone stand around as major leaguers belt line drives into the party. This is why ESPN is ominpotent. They think of everything. As an added bonus, the "Baseball Tonight" set was right in front of the Bash, overlooking the center field grass like a Malibu Beach house. And as an added bonus to the added bonus, my buddy Gus just happened to be producing the show.
I guess what I'm trying to tell you is this ...
I ended up watching the entire Home Run Derby from a balcony in dead-center field, sitting next to Peter Gammons the whole time. We may or may not have discussed the Red Sox for two straight hours. I can neither confirm nor deny. Honestly, I feel guilty. This was one of those experiences they should be giving away on those ESPN contests, the ones where you get to go whitewater rafting in Maine with Brian Kenny for a week. I already lead a charmed enough life, and I already feel guilty enough about everything. This was almost too much. All this balcony was missing was a hot tub and Jessica Alba mixing margaritas behind one of those fake Hawaiian bars.
Here's something else you need to know about me: I love the Home Run Derby. I can't explain it. It's forced, it's ridiculous and it represents just about everything I can't stand about sports ... but it sucks me in every time. There isn't a better possible distraction when you're throwing down beers and making small talk -- you don't have to keep score, you don't need anything other than a rudimentary understanding of what's happening, and every pitch brings the possibility of a 550-foot home run. Really, what's better than that?
(I mean, other than a Celebrity Softball Game?)
The first round was marred by Sosa's unexpected demise. Watching poor Sammy struggle to get into a groove, the crowd kept downshifting gears -- first, we were snapping pictures and cheering, then we were restless, then we were pleading, and somewhere around the eighth out, you could feel the panic in the air. Then he was gone. As Gus observed, it was like watching MJ getting bounced out of a Slam Dunk Contest in his prime.
(One highlight in Round 1: My realization that they need to dump the little kids in the outfield and replace them with terrified models and actresses. Imagine Gisele Bundschen screaming in horror as a David Ortiz moonshot comes dropping down on her like a grenade? Tell me this wouldn't make for riveting TV. And yes, I know we're at the 3,500-word mark. I'm wrapping it up. Trust me.)
Houston's very own Lance Berkman made up for everything in Round 2, belting one home run after another to left field, some of them screaming out of the entire stadium at alarming speeds. And this is when the Derby takes on a life of its own. There comes a point where the crowd becomes involved, but then the People's Choice du jour belts another homer, and then another, and then ANOTHER, and the reactions keep getting better and better.
And that's what it's all about, isn't it? Berkman took everyone for a ride, which was why we came in the first place. When Miguel Tejada ended up breaking the single-round record a few minutes later, we were too drained to care anymore. Nothing could top Berkman's barrage on the Lego Wall.
Following the contest, Gus and I scampered over to the MLB All-Star Gala party at the Aquarium, which was an absolute extravaganza: Open bars galore, three floors of food, athletes and celebrities everywhere, and best of all, tanks and tanks of crazy-looking fish. If it wasn't for the Stuff Magazine party on Sunday night -- which featured an awe-inspiring collection of harlots and groupies, many of whom were rumored to be, um, compensated for their appearances at the party -- this would have been the event of the week.
Actually, screw it -- it WAS the event of the week, the perfect party in the perfect place, with enough cabs and shuttles available to get everyone in and out. This was a home run in every sense of the word. As we were leaving in the wee hours, we spotted Curt Schilling surrounded by about 15 fans, roaming around with a delighted smile on his face, posing for pictures, truly a man of the people. You couldn't blame him for enjoying himself. Everyone felt that way. What a fun place to have an All-Star Game.
And yes, I'm talking about Houston.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine and Page 2. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site every day on ESPN.com.