Waking up on the morning of Sunday, October 3, I just know it: This will be either one of the greatest sports days in Houston history or another addition to the heaping inventory of frustrations. Either way, drinks are going to be required. As the first pitch is thrown, I find myself at the B.U.S. -- that barnlike party shed across from the ballpark -- with a few hundred other people who couldn't find their way into Minute Maid. And we're all pouring back the cold ones to calm the nerves.
And, boy, are there ever nerves. Many at the B.U.S. are rattled by the news that the Rocket was grounded by a stomach virus.
"Here we go again," says Thomas, a young man drinking a Bud Light and sporting a Clemens jersey. As he talks about the Astros' chances against Colorado, I think I might need to offer him a Kleenex.
"It's just a bad sign Clemens not being able to go. Isn't that just how it is? The most important game of the year, and our ace ate some bad chicken or whatever the hell."
"Well, if we do somehow tie rather than clinch today, he'll be available for the one-game playoff, right?" I offer, in order to keep the tears out of his beer. It doesn't quite work.
"Yeah, a one-game playoff in San Francisco. They'll find some way to fuck it up."
Someone needs a book on the power of positive thinking. But to a degree, he's right. This is Houston, after all. Even despite Clutch City mania ten years ago, we've come to expect our teams to lose the big ones.
Just as Thomas starts spewing more venom, Brandon Backe silences him momentarily by hitting a blooper into shallow center, scoring two.
"How about that, Thomas? The young man has helped himself out."
"Talk to me when it's over."
I won't -- I'm closing out my tab and heading to another spot. I learn that the domestic brews I've been sucking are $4.25 apiece. The B.U.S. is across the street from the ballpark, but apparently they think they're inside it.
While I'm signing off on these Prohibition-era prices, the now-swelling crowd at the B.U.S. lets out a deafening scream. I look up at one of the big screens. The good guys are now on top 5-0. I can't find Thomas, but it's time to catch the next thing smoking out of the B.U.S. station.
Next stop is Tilman Fertitta's fancy baseball-themed hotel, Inn at the Ballpark. The place is nice, but baseball fans aren't here in any real numbers. Perhaps they think they'd feel uncomfortable being served by a man in a tuxedo shirt, vest and bow-tie while wearing jerseys, shorts and flip-flops. I decide to take in an inning before heading out -- mostly to see if the beer here is cheaper than at the B.U.S. It is. Domestic suds run you 50 cents less at this swank outpost than at the converted garage.
I get off my feet and in my car for a crosstown trek over to Time Out Ale House and Sports Bar, a hole-in-the-wall on Shepherd near Washington. I stroll in, order a lager because I'm an asshole, and notice an air hockey table. As I search for Time Out's greatest faux-Gretzky, I notice something else: They have only one TV at this "sports bar." And it's tuned to Q!V!C!
"Are you guys not watching the game?" I ask, dumbstruck.
"We don't have cable, dear," the barmaid says. "But we're getting updates. They're winning 5-2."
Five to two? Thhhhhhhooooooommmmmmmmmaaaassssssssss, you jerk!
I finish up and speed on to Griff's. Unlike Time Out and Inn at the Ballpark, it's packed -- and loud. Quite unlike our friend, the doubting Thomas, all of them feel confident in our boy's ability to get it done.
Maybe all this chest-puffing is due to the make-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar. What a concept. You pay for a tall glass of vodka on ice, and then head to the bar filled with mixers, hot sauces and seasonings and fix it to your liking.
"If you're going to make one yourself, it'd be a good idea to use this Big Daddy's Ass Burner sauce," says a young lady named Becky, who just might be the nicest person on earth.
Her friend, Rob Cherry, suggests that I let Becky make my drink. "She makes them best. You won't be disappointed."
I don't want to impose, but Becky insists. She loves making them -- and Big Daddy just happens to be her husband, Trevi. Ass Burner is his own hot sauce made with homegrown peppers. They'll even ladle it over the wings at Griff's if you ask for it.
"I might have to try that."
"Oh, sweetie," says Becky. "They've run out. This place is a lot more crowded today than we expected."
Moments later, I'm drinking Becky's liquid salad -- which is as good as advertised. I even get to say hello to the Pepper King himself.
Colorado has just scored another run. I'm starting to see another Oilers/Bills-type collapse. I'm glad an enabler like Thomas isn't around. Everyone at Griff's is still upbeat and still believes -- after all, Brad Lidge is pitching. He's a rock, another Billy Wagner. This thing is as good as over, they all seem to think. He strikes out the last batter in the eighth.
It's inning nine. Brad Lidge strikes out all three batters he faces. The place erupts. Becky is pouring more Bloody Marys. Count me in!
After 30 minutes or so, Griff's gets even more crowded and festive. Groups of fans are trickling in from both the Texans (back-to-back victories for the first time ever!) and Astros games. Every ten minutes or so, a gang of fans, decked in team regalia, streams into the front door and starts hollering. This sets off a chain reaction of jubilant hoots and hollers from the patrons who are already four "Becky specials" in. It feels like a revival meeting.
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I decide to make one last pit stop: Ruthie's on Richmond. I've heard this place is co-owned by the guy who dresses up as Clutch the Bear at Rockets games. Going to a bar co-owned by a bear named Clutch seems like a good idea about now, considering the performances of Backe and Lidge -- all the Astros since August, actually.
I order a drink and ask an old-timer named Gerald what he thinks of the home team's chances against the dreaded Braves.
"It's a different group of guys this year," this dive bar oracle intones. "They're better than ever. I think Clemens's warrior spirit has infected the entire team. I'm not worried about anything."
I'll drink to that. And even if it turns out to be same ol', same ol' and, like Thomas expects, they do "fuck it up somehow" and get swept by the Braves, it won't be so bad. No one can ever take this day away from Houston and its fans.