After The Love Is Gone

I used to love baseball.

No, not “like,” really, really love it.

As a kid I was a star pitcher and first baseman for a Little League team called the Padres. My brother played in the older division for the Pirates. We used to play countless games of catch in the backyard, at the park, you name it. If we went on a family trip, our gloves went with us.

My mom's side of the family loved the sport, too. There were eight siblings, and my grandfather used to coach many of them. All of us – my aunts and uncles had more than 40 children – would gather every Sunday at my grandparents home in Houston and we would often make our way to the park around the corner for softball.

Everyone played. The adults, the kids, and, if a stranger came by, they could hop in the game.

The hometown team was the Houston Astros. They had a kiddie program called the "Astros Buddies." We got a hat, t-shirt, and a package of tickets to home games.

Me, my brother and sister loved going to the Houston Astrodome to watch the home team (later, one of my aunt's married a ball player who got traded to the Astros; he eventually played for the Yankees and Texas Rangers).

I can still feel the nice breeze of the fan in the living room as we watched Astros games on TV. I had hurt my left shoulder playing football in the front yard and stopped playing for years, but I still adored the game.

Baseball books? I devoured them, even memorizing statistics of players that later won me a radio contest.

I played two years of baseball in high school. It really wasn't about the love of the game, but a quest to get a letterman's jacket. Me and a group of friends were sitting in the cafeteria and one of our buddies had a crimson and gold Jack Yates jacket from the swim team. I didn't even know we had a swim team!

So we tried to figure out which sport we could play to get a jacket. Football and basketball wasn't my thing (I was at Yates for the magnet school of communications). But when back on the diamond I remembered why I loved the game. My shoulder burned with pain – that childhood injury is still with me today – but I persevered, playing a year of JV and my senior year on the varsity.

But the true love affair had diminished. And by the time I went off to college in 1987, it was gone.

I've tried to remember why my passion for the game dissipated, and the only thing I could think of was reading a Sports Illustrated magazine piece that dealt with problems in baseball. I recall a Don Mattingly quote where he said all he wanted to do was come to the park, play and go home.

Forget the autographs. Forget the playing to the fans. It was all about him.

And with that – poof! – baseball lost me.

You might say that's ridiculous for one comment to do it. But reading that really cemented in my mind that the sport a kid loved was ruined by a player not recognizing the value of the team's fans.

So baseball became less important in my life. I began to watch fewer and fewer games. It then reached the point where I could barely watch an inning. Postseason? Sure. I would watch a few playoff and World Series games. But not much else.

Even when my hometown Astros finally made it to the World Series in 2005, I was happy for them and the city, but that's it. I was living in Chicago at the time and talked trash on my radio show as I rooted against the White Sox, but that was it. I made no attempt to go to any games; barely remember watching the games on TV. When the Houston Rockets won back-to-back titles, I followed every bouncing ball. The same for the Houston Oilers, and now the Houston Texans.

When I would talk to my brother and the conversation turned to the Astros, I would tune him out.

My baseball jones was dead. Seemingly gone forever.

This has had nothing to do with the team, but the sport. I love my hometown and cheer for all of our teams, but it reached the point where baseball was boring to me. Too slow, too methodical, not enough action.

I am now an avid golfer and would watch four rounds of golf non-stop before even considering a baseball game!

So three years ago I tried to rekindle my love affair with baseball. After owning no Houston Astros gear, I bought a jersey. I lived in Chicago for six years and never went to Wrigley Field, and decided to go when the Astros were in town.

The crowd was hyped, lots of energy, but by the fifth inning I wanted to leave. The stadium music was the same as when I was a kid and it no longer excited me. I didn't go to another game for another two years.

So last year, when the Astros came to town to play the Washington Nationals, my wife and I went to two games. I enjoyed the night out with her, but nothing close to the fervor I have for attending a Rockets or Texans game.

In the past year I've met the new majority owner of the Houston Astros, Jim Crane; played golf with a minority owner, Shawn Taylor; and ramped up my Astros gear.

The team hasn't been good for the last two years, but I'm recommitting myself. Maybe it's because they have brought back the old colors from my childhood. Why else would I wear a bright orange jersey?!

Baseball could do a better job to energize the game by stealing some of the marketing pizzazz of the NBA and the NFL. Save for a handful of players, most baseball guys are not known figures across the county. You don't see lots of national commercials led by baseball players.

The previous labor disputes haven't helped. That only solidified anti-baseball feelings of many of us.

But my last point for baseball owners is to ensure the connection between the fans and the players. Don't just retreat to the clubhouse. Make sure fans can touch them, feel them, relate to them.

Now that the baseball season has begun, I'm going to do my best in 2013 and not just rock my Houston Astros gear but recommit myself to the game. So just like a love of your life from years ago, I'll slowly get to know baseball, see how we've both changed, and if the love rekindles, we'll see if we can live happily ever after.

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