HOUSTON -- When you walk into the second floor suite occupied by the businesses of Nguyen Le, everything seems normal. There are nice receptionists, a comfortable waiting area with magazines and country station playing Tim McGraw. Then, after he walks you down the hall toward his office, you realize that Nguyen is not within a Houston commute of normal. He is, in fact, a complete, unhinged lunatic Astros lover, who has taken his obsession past any sense of moderation. In a city full of fans, some long suffering and some bandwagon, he might just be the biggest one of all.
On Saturday afternoon, he sat in his desk chair and watched a replay of Friday night's game. "This is my happy place," he said. "I already told my baseball buddies: I don't know what to do next week. Spring training won't start 'til February."
This season, he has been to nearly 100 games, including every playoff game, home and away. He named his first son Ryan, after Nolan. He tried to name his second son Nolan but his wife stepped in -- a rational oasis in the desert of madness -- so they compromised and went with Cooper. As in Cooperstown.
His office is a shrine. It's the work of a maniac, truly.
He pointed at a base, still dusted with red infield dirt.
"This came out of Fenway," he says.
He went to Boston and saw the Astros clinch, the game ending with Yuli Gurriel getting the final out at first base. So he bought first base. The actual one. He also bought the Red Sox lineup card, signed by John Farrell. Nguyen laughed and pointed at the stacks of baseballs, each in a clear plastic cube, which cover part of his desk and multiple shelves on the bookcases in the hall. "I collect a game-used ball from every home win," he says. "For the last two seasons."
Most games, he arrives early with his glove for batting practice.
He has at least a dozen balls loose on his desk, and a big display glass box on the floor completely filled with them, like gumballs, each one caught at a game. They're catalogued by an elaborate system. He picks up one of the balls and explains the shorthand written between the laces: (section) 114, (row) 4, (seat) 24, OTF (on the fly), Sept. 21.
"This was Correa."
"This was Derek Fisher."
"Anthony Rendon, Aug. 23, section 22."
He collects jerseys. A lot of them. Out in the hall, there's a department store style rack of them. By his desk, he has a half-dozen broken bats. On Saturday, he was wearing an Astros hat, an Astros jersey and an Astros jacket. When the team put up safety nets in front of his season tickets on the third base side, he made it nine games before moving down the foul line so he could get back his unfiltered connection with the game, the idea that nothing separated him from the players. He likes that most of all, along with about a thousand other little details of baseball -- enough that in his office on Saturday, I started poking around. I wanted him to explain why he has this childlike love of something, even while raising a family and running his successful real estate and insurance business.
"I don't know, man," he said. "I've never been psychoanalyzed."
He left Vietnam as an 8-year-old on a boat, without his parents. It was 1978. His father was serving a political prison term, and so when his mother found out some family members were going to escape, she sent Nguyen with them. He arrived in Houston on June 13, 1979.
Not long after, he made his first friend, a boy named Blair. Blair introduced him to a new sport called baseball, and together they took a 2x2 and shaved the edges and used masking tape to create a handle and then spent all of their free time hitting tennis balls.
That's when the obsession began.
In October 1982, his mother and father finally found their way to Houston, along with his three siblings. A year later, on Dec.19, 1983, his father was murdered. "When he died, he left her four kids and an Oldsmobile. A four-door Cutlass Supreme. She didn't know how to drive."
Growing up, he was determined he'd build a new life, and even at a young age, acutely aware that he'd have to do it on his own. "It shaped me," he says. "We all face challenges, but I remember telling myself, 'I didn't hop on a boat to come here and fail.' "
His office is in the Little Saigon area of Houston, on Bellaire Boulevard, a block or so away from the sprawling Hong Kong market. Around him are bakeries and coffee shops, serving Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. He shares a floor with the Saigon Network, a local television channel. He grew up in this neighborhood, and now there are billboards with his picture on them, advertising his real estate business. These days, he lives with his family in the suburbs, and he moves back and forth between his old world and his new one. That gives him a lot of joy, to be part of both communities, to feel comfortable in the aisles of Hong Kong Market and in the concourses of Minute Maid Park.
On Saturday, he walked me out of his office toward the elevator, passing the game room he created, with a pool table and a full-sized Ms. Pac-Man machine. He loves nearly everything that feels like it's from his youth. His first record was Billy Joel's "Glass Houses." Recently, he bought a new copy, just to have, to replace the original one he lost. He still has his Def Leppard vinyl records, and his first concert was Van Halen's 1984 tour at the Summit. It's pretty easy to see: A boy whose childhood ended when he got on a boat now spends a lot of the money he made to buy that childhood back, souvenir by souvenir, a little piece retrieved with every Astros jersey and batting practice ball and full size arcade game. Tonight, for Game 4, he's where you'll always find him when the team is in town, sitting down the foul line, away from those nets. Section 110, Row 3, Seat 16. He's close enough to catch a ball or commune with the game, and, every now and then, maybe reclaim a few of the things he put down when he left Vietnam.