In For The Long Haul

Grandma will make it to her top-level seat in the same four hours it takes the team to play a game

Enron Field has brought downtown baseball to Houston; it has brought natural grass and sun back to the sport; it has brought sellout crowds to April games.

It has also brought VeryŠLongŠGames. Games that are longer than Kevin Costner movies (it's a fact; Costner movies just seem longer). Games where you could read a Russian novel between the seventh-inning stretch and the last out. Games where you start pleading for anyone to make an out, just so you can see the light at the end of the Enron Field tunnel.

At the Dome, where home runs didn't occur with the frequency of dot-com commercials, you could pretty well plan on a three-hour game, tops. At Enron Field -- where the intimidated pitchers take forever to throw the damn ball, where the five-minute ritual of bringing in a reliever happens six or seven times a night, where hardly an inning goes by without a run or two -- well, at Enron Field, you better be patient.

Scores like 13-8 or 11-7 have produced nine-inning games that have lasted three hours, 48 minutes. That kind of game is familiar in the American League, where the designated hitter produces a numbing routine of slugfests, but it's all new to Houston.

"It's a reckless assumption that fans are automatically satisfied with four-hour games and 14-12 contests that too often resemble home-run derbies more than National League games," says Scott Calbert, one of the masterminds behind Astrosconnection.com, the liveliest and best fan Web page about the 'Stros. "I think it's only a matter of time before baseball begins to lose its casual fans, when they decide that a slugfest may be just as boring as a pitchers' duel and stop buying tickets."

One theory that has become popular about Enron Field's run-happy results is that the park's effect is more mental than physical; Astro pitchers are so freaked by the close fences down the line and in the power alleys that they're beaten before they throw their first pitch. Home-run production is up all over major-league baseball (usually blamed on juiced balls, depleted pitching quality or tiny strike zones), but the change of scenery has Astro hurlers afraid of their own park.

Whatever the reason, games at Enron so far have consisted largely of drawn-out wars of pitching-staff attrition. If you miss a homer or two while in line for a hot dog, you'll be sure to see a few more before the evening's done.

How to while away the time spent watching Larry Dierker walk to the mound? Take notes on what's going on. Based on several trips to Enron Field, you could end up with a permanent keepsake documenting your wonderful new experience:

6:30 p.m.: Arrival. This being April and not August, congratulate yourself on how the walk from the parking lot really wasn't that bad. You have two weeks left to do this. After that, the crushing summer heat and humidity will convince you that the walk is really that bad.

6:45: First major decision -- buy hot dogs and beer for yourself and your companion, or pay this month's electric bill? Only you can answer that, of course. But you may regret your decision by the end of the month.

6:50: Because It's There. You have seats in the upper deck; you have had your first look at the sharply angled steps you'll be climbing to get to them. You're in row 15. Vultures seem to be circling over what looks suspiciously like a carcass in the vicinity of row 10.

6:58: I Have Been to the Mountaintop! You reach your seats. Maybe that was a carcass, maybe it wasn't. It's none of your business. You're sure the authorities will get around to taking care of it.

6:59: Ominous dread envelops you. As you catch your breath, you look down to see a 68-year-old grandmother at the bottom of the stairs, her grandson eagerly pointing to their seats in row 16.

7:05: First pitch.

7:07: First opposition home run. Don't blame Enron; that ball would have gone out of any park, including Yellowstone.

7:09: The other team's cleanup hitter comes to bat.

7:16: After fouling off eight pitches into the so-close-there's-no-foul-territory seats, the count remains at 3-2.

7:17: Ball four.

7:19: The Astros get the third out. The top of the first is history. Grandma has reached row 6, but she's fading.

7:23: The Astros go down 1-2-3. Conventional wisdom in row 15 has Grandma reaching row 9, tops. You, though, see something in her eyes -- call it gumption, call it that never-say-die attitude that was born in the Depression and taught a thing or two to a certain Mr. Hitler -- and you say she'll make it all the way.

8:03: It's 40 minutes later. The Astros hit their first home run. You get the chance to see the much ballyhooed train barrel down the tracks in celebration.

8:05: You sit slack-jawed, utterly in awe at the tremendous display of Astros Power that was symbolized by the train taking two minutes to move ten feet, then quitting.

8:06: Maybe Grandma won't make it. She's at row 11 and stopping for breath. Perhaps it's a good thing they took care of Hitler when they were younger.

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