Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Baseball Valentine


            With spring training about to get underway, there is a lot of buzz around the Houston Astros and whether they’ll repeat as World Series champions. As a long-suffering Houston sports fan, I’m looking forward to the upcoming Astros’ season. Normally I don’t pay attention to baseball until summer when TV is mostly reruns. This season I’ll be paying closer attention to the Astros and baseball in general.
            When fall arrived in Houston last year, the city was still in recovery from August’s devastating floods in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Up and down the coast from Port Aransas to Port Arthur, people were still displaced from their homes. Baseball was the farthest thing from everyone’s minds. The Astros had mounted an incredible comeback after so many seasons in the basement. Even before spring training started, there was talk that this would be their year. That 2017 would be the year the Houston finally won a World Series.
            Three years before, Sports Illustrated made a bold prediction in their June 30, 2014 edition that the Astros would win it all in 2017. The edition even featured centerfielder George Springer in a rainbow Astros uniform on the cover. At the time, a Houston title was a pipe dream. As a beleaguered Houston sports fan of many years, the prospect seemed absurd. I remembered Houston’s last appearance in the 2005 World Series when the Astros were the National League champions. That year it was the White Sox in a sweep.
Before that, I remembered the chase for the 1986 pennant when the Astros lost in six to the New York Mets. My fondest memory of that era was when my mom brought me home a ticket stub autographed by Mike Scott. I remember one year I even got to go to an Astros/Padres game at the Astrodome with my cousins. If memory serves me correctly, they lost. Houston made it to the NLCS once before in 1980 but fell to the Phillies in five games.
Major League baseball in Houston was relatively new. Since 1888, the city had been home to the minor league Buffaloes, a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. In its last two years, the club served as a Triple-A affiliate for the Chicago Cubs. Ironically, the two would later be the Astros’ division rivals in the American League Central.  Attempts to bring Major League Baseball fell short when the Houston Sports Association tried and failed to start the Continental League to compete with National and American Leagues.
The Houston Sports Association was a team spearheaded by local business leaders George Kirksey, Craig Cullinan, and R.E. “Bob” Smith. They recruited county Judge Roy Hoffeinz to help with the effort. In 1960, after the Continental League folded, and the Buffs owner refused to sell the team to the HSA, hopes of Major League Baseball looked bleak.
Then, in October of that year, the National League granted Houston an expansion franchise. The Colt 45s and the New York Mets would start play in the 1962 season. Just a year before, the American League granted an expansion franchise to the Anaheim Angels and the Washington Senators. The only thing that stood in the Houston Sports Association’s way was the Buffs territorial rights. This time the HSA was successful, and the Buffs were now the farm team for the Colt 45s.
The Buffaloes played their last minor league season in Houston before shipping out to Oklahoma City where they became the 89ers and later the Dodgers. On opening day in 1962, the Houston Colt 45s made their debut at Colt Stadium. When the team moved into the Harris County Domed Stadium for the 1965 season, they were renamed the Houston Astros and the stadium was dubbed the Astrodome. The team played there until 1999 and started the 2000 season in Enron Field at Union Station.
In all that time, Houston had only attained success in their own division. Most of the time if the Astros made it into the playoffs, they usually never got beyond the wild card or divisional series. The years between those runs for the pennant were lackluster at best. I was ever hopeful that I would some day see the Astros finally win the pennant. Most years I found myself cheering for whoever the under dog was in the World Series.
The city of Houston was still riding high on the fact they had just hosted Super Bowl 51 in January. This time the city was better prepared and better organized than when they hosted the event in 2004. The last time Houston had seen a championship was the Comets dynastic championship run between 1997 and 2000 as the reigning WNBA champs. Before that, the Rockets won back to back championships in 1994 and 1995 but fell short for a third title in 1996.
The only baseball championship Houston had seen was the Rice Owls College World Series win in 2003. With the subsequent retirement of first baseman Jeff Bagwell in 2005, and Second baseman Craig Biggio in 2007, the Astros’ outlook was dim. It reminded me of the rebuilding years after the ’86 pennant run. Nolan Ryan and Jose Cruz were traded away in ’88. Mike Scott retired in ‘91 and Jim Deshaies departed the team the following year. Same thing happened after the 2005 pennant run, and in both cases, the teams were never the same.
Fast forward to the 2011 season when Jeff Luhnow was brought on board as general manager. The game had changed a lot since the 2005 World Series debacle. Scouting was no longer about how well the player played, or how his stats looked on paper. In 2003 Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The book proposed a more analytical approach to evaluating a player. This method proved successful for the Oakland A’s, who made it into the playoffs two years in a row in the early 2000s.
Luhnow employed these methods at the Cardinals’ front office and was brought on board by new owner Jim Crane. The following years were not the best seasons for the Astros, but the tides soon turned. Ben Reiter, who authored the article Astro-Matic: Houston’s Grand Experiment in 2014, claimed that if the farm team continued to produce quality players, the Astros would be on track to win a World Series by 2017.
At the time, it didn’t seem possible to me that Houston could really win the pennant. The idea that measuring a player’s success by looking beyond their physical prowess and statistics blew my mind. After a string of bad seasons, I still had my doubts. Then, I kept up with the Astros as much as I could over the 2017 season. I’d seen this before as a Houston fan. Season starts out great, then they run out of gas. In July, ahead of the All-Star Game, Houston reached 60 wins, a rare milestone only achieved by five other teams in more than thirty years. Then there was the post All-Star slump, but my doubt slowly faded.
Houston’s prospects to win it all started to look good. Then disaster struck in August when Harvey inundated much of Houston and the surrounding area with as much as five feet of water in some places. In the spirit of giving, Astros players pitched in and helped the relief effort. With Houston still under water, the team played their first post-hurricane series versus the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Stadium in St. Petersburg many miles from home.
Astros president Reid Ryan approached the Rangers about switching places with the Rangers for their two series. Houston would go to Arlington for the August series, and the Rangers would come to Minute Maid in September. The Rangers’ front office wanted both series played in Arlington. The backlash on social media was almost instantaneous and the Rangers lost face. With Houston still in recovery mode, the Astros’ next series would be against the Mets. The games were tentatively set to be played in Florida, but mayor Sylvester Turner insisted the team return home and help Houston begin rebuilding.
The Astros’ prospects for the post-season looked questionable toward the end of August. Then, everything came together. Justin Verlander was traded from Detroit and Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers came off the disabled list. In September, Houston won the American League West division title. As the month rolled on toward October, the Astros reached another milestone whe
n they became the third team in the league to reach a hundred wins. This was the first time since 1998 that the Astros had a season of over a hundred wins.
With the start of the playoffs, Houston looked to be in the driver’s seat. First up with be the AL East division winners Boston Red Sox. I had a feeling this would be a tough matchup, but the Astros came out swinging in game one. Game two put Houston in the win column again and it appeared the Red Sox would be swept. The series moved back to Boston where the Red Sox handily won game three. I was disappointed, but game three was even tighter and the Astros won the next game to move on to the American League Championship Series.
While Cleveland and New York duked it out, I asked around at work at who they liked out of the two. We talked about who would be the easier opponent in the ALCS. The consensus was that Cleveland was the easier team to beat. The Indians proved that to be true when they lost the series to the Yankees in five games. I knew that New York would be a lot harder to beat than Boston. This was the team who’d won many titles in the past, and they would not go down without a fight. At that point, I thought the Astros’ hopes were lost, but deep down I had a feeling they could pull this off.
Ever since the first home game after Harvey, the Astros sported Houston Strong patches on their uniforms. Now was their chance to prove that to the world. If we could overcome Hurricane Harvey, then the New York Yankees would be nothing. The Astros won the first two games of the series at home. I hoped this would be a sign of things to come, but I was doubtful when the Yankees won the next three in New York. When the series returned to Houston, the Yankees appeared to be headed to another World Series with only two games left.
Then Verlander and Morton shut down New York in the last two games of the series and Houston won the American League title. I was stunned because I never expected them to beat the mighty Yankees. Now Houston faced the other hundred-win team in the league – the Los Angeles Dodgers. This would be a match for the ages.
The Dodgers had not reached the World Series since 1988 when they faced the Athletics who were led by rookies Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.  This was Houston’s second appearance in the World Series and their first as an American League team. The last time Houston and Los Angeles faced off in the postseason was in 1981, when the Dodgers won the Fall Classic. There was a lot at stake here besides bragging rights and the title. The Astros had given Houston something to be hopeful for after losing so much.
I was beside myself when Houston made it to the World Series. As the series heated up and Houston went back and forth between winning and losing, I started to ask myself if they could do it. Again, I turned to the people at work and even they had their doubts. The Astros turned the corner in game five of the World Series. The ensuing five-hour slug fest was a see-saw game that the Astros 13-12 in extra innings. The series returned to Los Angeles where the Astros won the last two games and clinched the World Series title.
I admit I was emotional when I came home from work that night and found out they’d won. After many years of watching the Astros go home empty handed at the end of the season, they finally won. There wasn’t any rioting in the streets, but plenty of people leaving Minute Maid Park were jubilant that the Astros had finally won. The absurd prospect of that June 2014 Sports Illustrated article didn’t seem so far-fetched now. Probably my favorite moment was the victory parade and how it felt like the entire city came out to congratulate the Astros.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Houston Midtown Sears Closes

Today Marked the end of an era for retail in Houston. Sears, the last department store in the central part of the city closed its doors. Opened in 1939, the Art Moderne building tat 4201 Main Street at Wheeler Avenue replaced the original 1929 store at 2321 Allen Parkway at Montrose Boulevard. Sears, Roebuck, and Company moved to the Main Street location in the wake of the catastrophic 1935 flooding that left much of the Central Business District under water. The Allen Parkway site housed the Baylor College of Medicine in the 1940s and later became Robinson Public Warehouse, a storage facility before finally being demolished by the Aga Khan Foundation in 2006.
In the 1960s, the Sears building was covered in tin siding and its display windows were bricked over to give the building a more contemporary look. When I came to Houston to study at the University of St. Thomas in 1999, Midtown - the area of Houston where Sears is located - was in flux. Parts of looked like a demilitarized zone where where shuttered businesses stood awaiting their fate. Sears sat at the end of Main Street that led into the Museum District. It was surrounded by stores and restaurants that had last seen its heyday in the boom years of the 1980s. Other parts were absorbed by Vietnamese immigrants who arrived here in the late 70s and early 80s and carved out an area known as Little Saigon. In some pockets, LGBT-friendly clubs like the Venture-N and the Brazos River Bottom made their home.
In the 2000s, Prince's Drive-In, United Jewelers, and Popeye's were razed to make way for the light rail stop Wheeler Station. The jewelry store, movie theater, and McDonald's across the street were later demolished to make way for future development. Midtown started to see a renaissance of sorts, but Sears still remained in the same spot. At one point its existence was threatened by the proposed light rail University Line that would run from the University of Houston to the Hillcroft Transit Center. Ironically, Sears became a victim of its own success.
In the 1980s Sears ruled the malls and Kmart ruled the suburbs. Then, in 2002, Kmart filed for bankruptcy as it ran up against competition from Walmart and Target, who had adapted to changing consumer habits. Sears, Roebuck, and Company could not have prepared itself enough for the coming onslaught of online retailing. In 2005, the two merged and became Sears Holdings Inc.  Consumers could now find  Sears products in Kmart stores and vice versa. As the buzz around the merger subsided, the figures made it clear that the the newly formed company still continued to struggle
Then, in 2017, Sears Holdings announced that it would close both Kmart and Sears stores. Many cried retail apocalypse as the announcement came in the wake of other retail bankruptcies. Many of the locations were stores that had already been identified as under-performing. Houston was spared in the first round of closings, but a new list emerged in May 2017 that included Westwood Mall location, much of which already had shuttered in the late 90s, and its Baybrook Mall location, a flourishing suburban mall in Webster, Tex. Sears' Midtown location had been spared . Then in October last year, the company announced another round of closings.that included West Oaks Mall, a struggling center on the far western edge of Houston and its Midtown location.
In the current renaissance of Midtown, much of the development has shifted from the eastern side to the western side as the eastern edge of Montrrose fills up with trendy restaurants and shops. Sears and its surrounding three acres sit in the middle now, poised to became a touchstone for future development. That particular part of Midtown bridges the confluence of Third Ward, the Museum District, and The Montrose. Nearby developers have erected mid-rise apartments and mixed-use sites that incorporate urban living and shopping on the same property. Most notably is a Whole Foods that will stand on Elgin Street between Smith and Bagby..
For the Sears property, its days as a department store have ended, but the possibilities for its future use are endless. My hope is that the site can be preserved and brought back ti its former glory maybe for mixed retail. Unfortunately today's efforts to capture Sears' last day in business failed when I was asked by Metro Houston Police to delete my photos. I was told that I had to go through public relations if I wanted to get pictures of the store. Being an amateur blogger and photographer, I complied, but I was able to salvage a couple of shots, and I've included them. One is a painting of Sam Houston that hung in the stairwell. It commemorates Texas' Centennial in 1936. The other is a shot from across Eagle Street of the building as it looked today. Yet again, another piece of Houston's history becomes a memory, something to tell future generations about. 


Eagle Street view of Sears
The Sam Houston painting in the stairwell

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Headbanger Chronicles

/back in the fall of 2010 I took it upon myself to publish The Headbanger Chronicles as an e-book on Amazon Kindle, and later Barnes and Noble Nook. U haven't done much with it in the way of promoting it or talking very much about it. Current advances in technology and the advent of better social media platform ms has led me to re-think how I should promote this e-book. A couple of months ago I turned on my webcam and got to work on a short promotional video.First of all, the book is available on Amazon.com on Barnes and Noble Nook  The video includes a reading from The Headbanger Chronicles and an explanation of the e-book's general plot. For those that want to join the discussion online, there is also a Facebook page for fans and readers..

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Memories of 9/11

A lot of people never forget where they were at a moment in history. Some of those moments for me included the death of Princess Diana, the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Of those moments in history, one that sticks with me are those events of September 11, 2001. The year had been rough so far.
Tropical Storm Allison struck in June, and the lingering effects caused damage campus wide at The University of St. Thomas. Guinan Hall, our dormitory, was shuttered due to structural damage. We were relocated to a neaeby hotel and shuttled back and forth by bus.
On the morning of Sept. 11, I woke up to my clock radio. Instead of music, the station switched over to the national news. Word came across the wire that a plane had struck a building in New York City.
I thought nothing of it at first, so I turned on the TV. As a reporter covered the first crash, a second plane blew up behind him. I had a class at 9:35 that I needed to get ready for.
My room mate was awake by then and was glued to the TV. As I was about to dash out the door, I watched in horrof as one of the towers collapsed.
On the shuttle to campus, we were all quiet. Some of us shared our shock at what we'd witnessed. I made it to class and our professor dismissed us so that we could go pray or be with our families. Eventually all classes were canceled.
I went to Crooker, the student center, and watched the events unfold on the television in the coffee shop upstairs.
I sat there in awe as I watched footage of the second tower collapsimg. Then there were the subsequent plane crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. I spent the day shell shocked by the events I witnessed.
The events of that day still stick with me. Any time I see the footage, I can't help but shed a tear. When I read about alll the innocent lives lost, it upsets me.
Our University of St. Thomas community was affected by the events of 9/11. We were later informed that a fellow alumni Barbara Olsen was among those lost in the tragedy. She was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

What's New

So many changes in my life recently. Not only have I moved into a new place, but I have a new store to work in. Both decisions were difficult ones, but I felt it was time to move ahead.
I have often railed both for and against urban renewal and gentrification. My apartment complex is a good example of urban renewal.
For many years the name Skylane Apartments was synonymous with crime. In recent months, three have been purchased and are now in the process of being renovated.
I'll admit I had my reservations about moving into a former Skylane. The owner reassured me most of the bad element was gone. After my experience at my last complex, I wondered what awaited me inside.
The apartment was airy and clean, no carpet in sight. Unfortunately the last tenants got color happy. When I moved in though, the apartment was bright and new again. Even then I still had my reservations.
I had to figure out a new route to work. Before I was a short 10-minute walk from my job. Now I was a bus ride and a walk up Montrose. I would also be further from the night life.
The latter was less of a drawback. I hadn't gone out much since the search for a new place began. To be honest I am growing tired of the scene, but I like to see my friends occasionally.

The other big change was in my job. For the last six years I've worked at the same grocery store. The buzz surrounding the new store had grown steadily as grand opening approached. I didn't give it a second thought until my department manger contacted me about possibly going to the new location. At first I thought it would be a temporary assignment and then I would go back to my regular post. However, there was some kind of miscommunication between my store manager and my department manager. What I understood would be temporary would actually be permanent. The store was across town in the burgeoning Memorial Heights area. Getting there would be a slight challenge, but my boss was willing to work with the bus schedule. Grand opening weekend at the new store arrived and I had my apprehensions. New store, new managers, new co-workers, and of course a different clientele. I put my fears aside and went into it like I would any other assignment. The first night was not so bad and I realized that the routine would be about the same as at my old store. After a busy opening weekend, I had finally adjusted. As much as I would miss my regular customers, business is business. My reasons for leaving my old post were many, but what it boiled down to was a new opportunity. The new store would be on the front lines of the battle for grocery customers. We were sandwiched between a Target which was already well established, and a new Walmart, the first ever inside the Loop. While many in the area were opposed to the new Walmart, it was built anyway. I went to both my store and the new Walmart for their opening and my store was better received. The opening of two new retailers in the area was a testament to the renewal that had occurred in the last decade. The Washington Avenue Corridor was in 2003 a place no one wanted to be after dark. Today the street is lined with bars, clubs, and restaurants. Swaths of rent houses were cleared to make way for apartment buildings, town houses, and strip malls. As Houston grows, the city will continue to change rapidly. Along Richmond Avenue, where I moved to, excavators scrape the land with extreme prejudice to make way for new developments. Where apartment complexes sprawled across entire city blocks will soon be replaced with mid-rise buildings. I'm a bit nervous because of how quickly they've moved, but I know for now my complex is safe. All I can do is roll with the changes both in my job and in my personal life.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Freedom for Vietnam protest August 26th, 2012

These are photos I captured with my phone this afternoon of Freedom for Vietnam protesters outside the Chinese Consulate Sunday afternoon. Vietnam has been under fire recently for human rights issues. In May a blogger was sentenced to five years in prison for ant-government posts on his web site. Makes me glad I live here in the United States.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Life in a big city

I joke that the reason I keep up with real estate news in Houston is because I want to know when the bulldozers come my way. Today I noticed that may very well be a reality soon.
I came home from the gym and found a Post-It note frrom my landlord stuck to my door. On it was his phone number and a note asking me to call him. I hated these little note from him.
Monday before last he came around with memos informing us fire insurance inspections would be Wednesday. I scrambled to tidy up, but I was too busy working to do anything major.
The inspection went ok I guess. Then last Monday I was informed that my apartment
failed its inspection. This time I had more free time to clean the place up.
The inspectors returned Friday armed with a camera and a clipboard. Rumors swirled that my landlord planned to sell the place. I figured as much, but I wanted confirmation before I jumped to conclusions.
I called my landlord this afternoon to see what he wanted. Normally I would have waited, but I needed to talk to him. My window unit has leaked all over and it no longer cools the apartment.
I'll admit I'm not the best at keeping house, but I try my damndest to keep this place tidy. My landlord and I have been at odds over the cleanliness of the apartment. That was, at least to him, part of the reason the inspection failed.
My landlord informed me that he planned to sell the building. According to him the new owner had some concerns about the unit. Mainly the mildew and mold in my bathroom. As much as tried to keep my calm, but I lost it.
I explained that I couldn't afford to rent a Rug Doctor or that I couldn't afford a can of Killz to paint over the mold. In so many words I told him that I have done my part by keeping the place neat and clean. I told him it was his turn to do his part.
We also discussed how long I had before I had to get out. My landlord said that I should stay put because it would be a while before he closed the deal on the property. He also openly admitted in a round about way he was taking advantage of my paying weekly.
Since I started getting paid weekly, I made an arrangement to send a rent check weekly. In hindsight I realize what a bad idea this was. My landlord thinks this will look good to the new owner so that I can go on staying here. After seven years, I think maybe it's time to go.
I moved in here in July of 2005 after looking at some less desirable locations. My job at the time afforded me the luxury of an efficiency apartment. Commuting from my parents' house was no longer feasible and the location was ideal. I  could walk to the light rail platform and several bus stops were in close proximity.
Having shops, clubs, and restaurants in walking distance was an added bonus. I love my apartment don't get me wrong, but living inside The Loop has its drawbacks. There are dozens of apartments like mine and they all have their problems. Some nowhere near as bad as mine.
My air conditioner has leaked every summer. The first I knew of it was when my downstairs neighbor complained to the landlord. Each time the weather gets really cold, my closets sweat. The bathroom and living areas do too, but not as bad as the closets. Damp Rid has helped alleviate this problem somewhat.
My landlord asked me to clean the bathroom ceiling, but it hasn't worked in the past. Bleach can only do so much. Getting a new floor sounds like something that may not happen for a while or not at all. My problem now is where do I go?
Rent inside The Loop has crept up considerably since I've moved here. My job is currently walking distance from home, but I know if I want to change careers I'll need transportation.
It's so frustrating not knowing what's going to happen next. Honestly I don't want to stick around to find out. Ideally I'd like to get out of here, but I don't know that I can afford a new place.
My goal was to get a vehicle, change careers, and find another place. That may have to change though if I want to move out. I hate change, but if it's for my personal well being, I have to start soon. Follow up: I came home from work Thursday afternoon to find a note taped to my door that I had 30 days to vacate my apartment.