Behind Enemy Lines: Weekend Series in Houston

Game 1. Would somebody please hit a ball to right field?

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Houston (if one really can be fortunate to travel to Houston) to watch the Rays take on the mighty Astros in the "Battle of the Juice Boxes."  While the Rays have moved on from H-Town and returned home and now prepare to face the St. Louis Cardinals after dropping two of three to the Reds, my mind is still caught in the muggy smog of downtown Houston and Minute Maid Park.

Like last year's "Behind Enemy Lines" in Arlington, I'll be focusing more on fan experience than game recaps since you've already gotten your fill from Steve Slowinski, Erik Hahmann, and MrNeg

Game 1:  Friday, June 24th 7:05 PM.  James Shields vs. Wandy Rodriguez

Seats: Sec 152 row 1 (Right Field Wall  ^^see picture^^)

Overall thought for the game:  "Damn you, James Shields!"

So where do we begin?  A few days before the game the Rays decided to pull a fast one on me and juggle the rotation so that James Shields pitched Friday and Wade Davis pitched Saturday.  I was going to all the games anyway, but I was especially disappointed by this as my seats on Friday were on the right field wall and I was sitting behind the dugout on Saturday.  With "Complete Game James" on the bump, I wanted to be as close as possible.  In real life, the decision to shuffle the rotation was a good one, but, in my sick, sad, little world, Merlot Joe should have just stopped his tinkering with his spreadsheet and let the players play.

But, I can't really blame Shields too much.  He's a bona fide American gigolo: you tell him to take the mound and he's gonna do it.  What I can blame Shields for was throwing a three-hit complete game gem where no ball came within 100 feet of the right field wall.  Seriously, the nerve of that guy.  From my distance I couldn't observe the mathematical precision in which Shields attacked the Astros hitters.  I couldn't try and see how he moved from fast to change or how he worked the curve in earlier and earlier in the count as the game wore on.  Hanselman's article on Shields had gotten me so turned on, but all I could do was watch and pray for a swing and miss so I could verify a strikeout because no one in that stadium made a sound.  It is literally a library in there.  Though I will say that the few fans that remained when Chris Johnson broke up the shutout with a straight-up murderball to the hill in center made a surprising amount of noise.  I know it wasn't a home run, and I want to keep this PG, but I feel I have a legal obligation to say that ball was an absolute piss-missile.  

Pictures, and Games 2 and 3 after the jump...

Evan Longoria and BJ Upton were no help in my right field plight either as they crushed homers to LEFT field, not right.  All I was asking for was a little oppo-love off a hard-throwing lefty.  My girlfriend, Jess, suggested we move seats since the Astros fans started filing out around the 6th inning, but I stood (sat) my ground like Col. Nathan Jessup.  "you want me on that wall.  You need me on that wall."  Then I gave her a Code Red... a Mountain Dew Code Red, to be exact. (zing!)

One thing I noticed about Houston: I have never seen such an absence of MLB apparel at a baseball game before.  I've been to many different parks and have never seen such a lack of home team hats, shirts, and jerseys.  The only people repping team gear were Rays fans, as most Astros fans were just rocking jeans and a polo shirt--not even a hat.  I'm exaggerating a bit, here, but not much.  I asked a friend who's a lifelong Houstonite Houstonian and Astros fan if I was crazy and he said that's just the way it is there.  I didn't want to believe him, but he showed up to the game on Saturday sans 'Stros gear.  Am I wrong?  Am I just not paying attention everywhere else?Img_0141_medium

Speaking of repping your team, I was coincidentally sitting next to three other Rays fans on the wall.  Left to right: David, Shawn, and Megan (I know, I know:  NO REAL NAMES!).  Once we got to chatting I discovered they were in from Austin to watch the Rays kick some tail.  They all claimed to be frequenters of this very site, and while I got their real names, I refrained from asking their handles because if Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible taught me one thing, it's that with the magic of movies, Ving Rhames can be a computer hacker with Vienna sausages for fingers.  And if it taught me two things, it's that when real names and alias's get put together, bad things happen.  Fun fact: one of these fellas was my former roommate's freshman year roommate in college.  Small world, huh?

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Game 2: Saturday, June 25th 6:05PM.  Wade Davis vs. Bud Norris

Seats: Sec 112 Row 5 (Behind Rays dugout)

Overall thought for the game:  "We're not so different, you and I... but I have a ball."

So after a good night's sleep we arrived at the ballpark with plenty of time to spare.  Tickets today were amazing.  Hands-on-dugout close, right in line with third base.  Helluva Christmas gift from Jess' mom via her CPA friend (Thanks Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice!).

If the "Battle of the Juice Boxes" were just of the stadiums themselves, then Minute Maid Park would win, hands down.  Yes, it has an amusement park feel with its amusingly short Crawford Boxes in left (315 down the line) and its pole-on-a-hill in center with a 436 foot fence, but, hey, the seats are cheap enough and you really can't put a value on having real sunlight shining down on the field through downtown Houston's skyline while you're kept in that nice, cool 72 degrees that you're so fond of.  I'm not going to hate on Tropicana Field, here, I've enjoyed every second I've spent there, but if I'm going to make any concession to Houston, it's that their stadium ain't half bad.

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Ben Zobrist looks to God for the answers, or maybe he was just looking at the catwalks.

While Minuite Maid Park may be superior to Tropicana Field in many ways, they are also very similar.  Take the catwalks for example.  They can both interfere with balls in play, but Houston's never get the pub that the Trop's do.  In game two, Hunter Pence hit a Major League pop up to third that got caught in the catwalks.  I always knew they were there, but never really considered them, you know?  The ball was ruled dead and play resumed with Pence getting a hit, I believe, and I doubt anyone at ESPN gave it a second thought.  I can't say that with certainty, since I didn't catch any recaps of the game, but the only way I can imagine the anchors on Sportcenter talking about Minuite Maid Park's catwalks would be as a segue to talking trash about Tropicana Field and how bad Rays attendance is.

In the actual game, Wade Davis put together a pretty nice game, going seven innings on just 88 pitches.  I know I was all pissy about the pitching rotation in game one, but that was yesterday (or five minutes ago in writing time).  It was great seeing the Rays bats get to Bud Norris and I loved seeing BJ go yard for the second game in a row, but the real highlight was that yours truly got a ball.Img_0057_medium

After hoping and praying for a foul ball during the game; after trying to act cool as I motioned for Ben Zobrist to toss me an inning-ender; I finally got my ball from the most unlikely of places: Bobby Ramos.  After the game, Sugar Bear was walking back to the dugout past Todd Kalas who was doing his post-game spiel.  A few weeks ago in Seattle, the camera found Adam Russell giving Sugar Bear a rubdown, and all I had to do was offer Sugar Bear the same thing.  For the trouble of my awkward offer, I received a concerned look from Ramos, and a guffaw from Kalas.  I guess Ramos decided to toss me a bullpen ball instead of the massage because he figured once I touched him with my magic fingers, I'd have to touch all the crazy Houston fans, too.  Such a considerate fellow.  Offer's still on the table, big guy.

There was a great moment between innings when David Price and Justin Ruggiano got put up on the "Kiss Cam."  Ruggiano looked utterly confused, but after the initial realization and the chuckles of the crowd, David Price, with perfect comedic timing, turned to Ruggiano and gave him a head tilt and a "Hey, why not?" look.  I wish I would have taken a photo, but I was too busy laughing. 

Lastly, I wanted to commend the H-Town faithful who came out to support their last place ball club.  Take the couple who sat by me and my friends during the game.  Please.  They arrived at the end of the second inning, which is not too surprising given the traffic in the Houston area.  They seemed to be enjoying the game and their awesome seats, so I was surprised when, during the seventh inning stretch, they packed up to leave.  I asked if they were coming back and they said, no, they had to leave to watch the US soccer game.  I realize soccer is really popular and all, but I can't imagine giving up prime seats in a close ballgame to go watch soccer on TV.

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Game 3: Sunday, June 26th 1:10 PM.  Jeff Niemann vs. J.A. Happ

Seats: Sec 116 Row 7 (Rays On Deck Circle)

Overall thought for the game: "More hits than Ike Tina Turner"

As fast as the first game was, that's how slow the third was.  Some lackluster pitching from both teams really put the focus on the hitters.  And what else would you expect out of a 14-10 game?  The smartest thing I did all day was bench Niemann on my fantasy roster.  With all the offensive fireworks, our seats for Game 3 could not have been better.  We had a perfect view down the right field line so we could see Matt Joyce's pinch hit double land just fair.  Jess enjoyed the seats because of the "Longoria Show."  I'm not referring to the glove-less slugger's two home runs, but rather his on-deck stretching routine where he'd squat and bend over directly inline with our seats.  I think Jess' cat call got his attention (above).

If you thought I was excited about sitting next to Rays fans in the first game, then you have no idea how jazzed I was to be seated not ten feet from this guy in the third:

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Yes, kids, that's Deuce Bigelow's own Rob Schneider.  He was seated across that high railing in the Diamond Club as he prepared to throw out the first pitch.  Apparently he was performing at the Improv that evening (tickets are still available).  You know you got a classy ball club when The Animal starts off your Sunday.  Actually, The Hot Chick threw out the third "first pitch" after the Astros' Armed Services Veteran of the month and Robert Horry.  If you ever have the chance to see Rob Schneider "stand" next to Robert Horry, I suggest you do.  It's really quite breathtaking. 

Later in the game, between innings, there was one of those trivia contests for some lucky fan.  The fan had to guess the answer to some silly movie question to win his prize, but alas, he got it wrong.  What was his consolation prize, you ask?  Why it was none other than a Rob Schneider autographed baseball.  What a special day for that lucky fan!

I felt bad for Johnny Damon in game three.  He never seemed to be able to take any swings on deck once Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac were hitting in front of him.  Reid and Elliot fouled off what seemed like dozens of pitches and Damon's on deck role became that of a ball boy.

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I suppose the best thing about a 14-10 slugfest in an NL ballpark is getting to see things you never would see at home.  Wade Davis pinch hitting is one of those things.  Not to be outdone by starter Jeff Niemann's first hit for a Rays pitcher, Davis smacked a single to  lead off the top of the ninth.  He didn't score as he was thrown out at the plate, but in doing so, allowed Evan Longoria to blast a three-run bomb to put the game away.  I suppose I understand what Matt Downs was thinking, but, in retrospect, it seemed he had a bit of a touch of his surname on that play. 

All in all, the trip was a rousing success (and congrats to you, dear reader, if you made it this far).  I got to see some baseball and the Rays pulled out a sweep.  Yeah, the Astros are the worst team in baseball, but a win is a win is a win as they say, and good, bad or in between, a sweep is always entertaining to see in person.  This series brings the Rays record in road games I've attended to 7-1, the one loss being a 2009 game in Yankee Stadium when I had the Swine Flu.  So, if anyone wants to donate me some tickets for a road trip, I'm more than happy to volunteer my services as a good luck charm.

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