It may have been a short trip, but what a memorable time my wife Kay and I had during our 56-hour getaway this week.
We did what she loves more than just about anything – spend time at the beach – and something else that will always rank as one of my life’s thrills: Meet my favorite player in the Houston Astros’ 60-year history (they entered the National League as the Colt .45s in 1962). Topping off the trip, we stopped in The Woodlands area to visit my big brother Isaac at the H-E-B store he’s managed since its opening in 2015. (He’ll hit 30 years with the company next year.)
We’ve never been much of a traveling family, and Kay and I have rarely had chances to escape without our two kids, soon to be 21 and 18. After all the Christmas gifts had been opened, Kay threw out an idea as an extra present that she said we could act on or not.
Knowing my obsessive fandom when it comes to the Astros and how longtime outfielder Terry Puhl ranks atop a long list for me, she suggested we take a trip this spring to Victoria, a five-hour drive from our home in SW Arlington to the SE Texas coast. Terry’s in his 15th season as baseball coach at the University of Houston-Victoria, and Kay thought I’d enjoy going to a game to watch the Jaguars, who compete at the NAIA level.
I didn’t exactly jump on the idea, but it didn’t take long to realize how cool that would be – especially if there might be a hope that we could meet TP. That hadn’t been part of her plan, but once I was in (a matter of minutes), I told Kay about my own idea: To email Coach Puhl, tell him about our plans to attend a game, and fill him in on my lifelong devotion to the Astros and where he ranks (for me) on the team’s all-time roster.
My connection to Terry dates back almost 45 years to July 12, 1977. I had turned 16 less than five months earlier and was weeks from starting my senior year at Conroe High. Can’t recall if I knew much about TP or his promising rise through the Astros’ minor-league system after being signed in 1973 as a 17-year-old star out of the small farming community of Melville, Saskatchewan. Growing up, he played baseball, basketball, volleyball and football – quarterback, no less.
During that summer night’s game at the Astrodome, which marked TP’s first in the Astros’ dugout after his call-up from Triple-A Charleston, I was sitting in the left-field seats with my dad Clark and brother Isaac. I remember being aware of his promotion, but thanks to the tickets I’d earned through the Astros’ straight-As promotion, it was happenstance that we were in attendance for the opener of a three-game series against the Dodgers. They came in with a 56-30 record that led the National League West by 8.5 games over the Reds; the Astros were languishing at 39-48 in fourth place, 17.5 games out.
Terry, who grew up as one of Canada’s top young pitchers but became an outfielder when he signed – despite never having played the OF – didn’t start that night. In the top of the eighth inning, manager Bill Virdon inserted him in left field in place of the struggling Jim Fuller, who was hitting .161. I remember the three of us, like many of the other 17,800-plus fans that night, cheering TP when he ran out to his position below us.
We had no idea Terrance Stephen Puhl, the grandson of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, would become an Astros mainstay and fan favorite for the next 14 seasons.
Having been there for his first major-league appearance, I made it a point to follow Terry from that day on. Not only did the lefty-hitting, righty-throwing kid become one of the Astros’ most dependable, unflappable hitters and a nearly flawless outfielder – he also fit perfectly into the good-guy mold the Astros have been known for, certainly since I became a fan as a youngster in the late 1960s.
The morning after I emailed Terry about our plans to attend UHV’s doubleheader Sunday against LSU-Shreveport, I awoke to a response sent about 2 a.m. Knowing what a gracious person he is, I had no doubt he’d get back to me, but not after a night game on a long road trip to Hobbs, N.M., where his Jaguars were playing University of the Southwest in a three-game series. Not surprisingly, Coach P said he’d be happy to meet us either between games or after he talked to his team after the second game.
To say I was thrilled wouldn’t even be close. I knew he probably couldn’t visit for long, but the fact that he took time for us shows the caliber of his character. So I sent him a reply of thanks, and Kay and I firmed up our plans to attend the game, stay the night in Victoria, then drive two hours northeast to spend a day/night at Surfside Beach – our family’s go-to beach spot since we discovered a great hotel practically hugging the shoreline a few years ago.
But back to Terry’s career. After signing with the Astros, deciding to give pro ball a shot for two years “to see what I could do” – as he was quoted saying in 1978, his first full season in the majors – he left for spring training in 1974, halfway through his high school senior year. After playing for a Rookie League team in Covington, Va., he went home to finish high school.
During his fourth year in the minors, Terry joined the big-league club four days after turning 21. He didn’t get to the plate in that first game, a miserable 8-0 Astros loss on a four-hitter by Doug Rau, a Texan who played at Texas A&M and was a first-round draft pick of the Dodgers in 1970.
The next night, as I listened to the game on the radio at home, TP started in left field and hit leadoff. He went hitless in his first five at-bats, and the game went to extra innings tied at 2. In the 13th inning, Terry led off with a single to left off Dodgers reliever Elias Sosa and was sacrificed into scoring position, setting him up to be a hero in his first MLB start.
After an out by Cesar Cedeno, Bob Watson drilled a double to right, driving in his new teammate with the winning run for a 3-2 victory.
Although Terry started out with the Astros in left field, he’s best remembered for his glove work in right. He played mostly center in 1978 – his lone All-Star season – and ’79. Remarkably, TP committed only 18 errors in his 15-year career, never making more than three in a season. In 1979, he made no miscues while playing all three outfield slots through 152 games.
How many Gold Gloves did the player with the best fielding percentage by an outfielder in Astros history (.9932 in 10,671 innings) earn in his career? Zero – and that’s a travesty. Terry’s efficiency ranks No. 18 among all outfielders in the MLB record books, sandwiched between two current players – Angels superstar Mike Trout (.9933) and Astros left fielder Michael Brantley (.9931).
One of TP’s career highlights came when he saved Nolan Ryan’s fifth no-hitter in September 1981 against the Dodgers, sprinting into right-center to make a backhanded snag of catcher Mike Scioscia’s drive in the seventh inning. My good friend and former Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram colleague Laura Riddle attended that historic NBC Saturday Game of the Week at the Astrodome when she was 11 years old. And guess what – Terry’s her favorite Astro of all time too!
At the plate, TP was just as solid. He hit over .300 three times and over .285 four other seasons. The career .280 hitter still ranks in the Top 10 in Astros history in hits (1,357), doubles (226), triples (56), runs scored (676) and stolen bases (217).
Terry raked in the 1980 NLCS against the Phillies – the Astros’ first playoff berth after their first NL West title – with 10 hits in 19 at-bats for a .526 average that stood for years as the best in a playoff series. Terry was a career .545 hitter in league championship series, ranking third all-time behind Lloyd McClendon and Eddie Rosario (who went nuts last year in the Braves’ World Series run). TP finished his career 16 for 43 in the postseason (.372).
You can’t get much more consistent than this: Terry hit .280 in both first-half games (819) and second-half games (712), and had 113 doubles in each half as well. He was no power hitter, compiling only 62 career homers. But he had some memorable blasts with his smooth left-handed stroke, including one on the third pitch of the 1978 season against Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who was in his first full season with the Reds.
The list of Canadian players who’ve played in MLB has grown over the past several decades, and TP’s numbers put him among the elite.
— His 217 career stolen bases rank second behind Hall of Famer Larry Walker’s 230 among Canadians.
— His 1,531 games played rank sixth. When Terry retired in June 1991, he was first.
— His 1,361 hits are ninth on a list led by Walker and Reds star Joey Votto, who’s still active.
Sadly, injuries began taking a major toll on Terry’s career after the 1984 season, the last in which he mustered over 500 at-bats. He landed on the disabled list four times in 1985, including hamstring and elbow issues, and played in only 57 games but still managed a .284 average. In 1986, when the Astros lost to the Mets in the NLCS, Terry sprained his ankle in spring training and started the season on the DL. He wound up platooning with Kevin Bass in right and pinch-hitting, playing in only 81 regular-season games and hitting .244.
The following year, injuries limited Terry to 90 games in which he hit .230 but was effective in pinch-hitting duty. In 1988, he hit a career-best .303 while appearing in 113 games, and in 1989, he hit .271 in 121 games.
During the final seven seasons of his career, TP averaged only 162 at-bats. After seeing action in just 37 games in 1990, he had surgery on his ailing throwing arm. When the team he’d played his entire career for released him that November, Terry signed with the Mets, but they released him before Opening Day. The Royals signed him, but after just 21 plate appearances, he was released again in early June.
That marked the end of TP’s playing career, a month before his 35th birthday. His last major-league game was May 29, 1991.
Terry’s homeland and adopted home recognized his achievements in the coming years, as he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He has a street named for him in his hometown of Melville. Terry also coached the Canadian baseball team to a sixth-place finish in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In late January, the Astros announced they’re honoring TP by putting him in the team’s Hall of Fame, unveiled in 2019. His induction and that of longtime team executive Tal Smith at a game in August – which Kay and I hope to attend – will give the HOF 24 honorees, with still-going-strong second baseman Jose Altuve and others destined to join.
As a player whose 14 years in Houston rank third behind Cooperstown inductees Craig Biggio (20) and Jeff Bagwell (15) – and as a member of the Astros’ first three playoff teams in 1980, ’81 and ’86 – TP is highly deserving of this honor. I’m ecstatic for him, and judging from his reaction after the announcement, this is something he’s really wanted.
After his playing days, Terry moved into a successful career as an investment advisor. He and wife Jackie, who’ve been married since just after the season ended in October ’79, raised a daughter and two sons, one of whom spent time in the minor leagues, where the Mets converted him from catcher to pitcher.
When UH-Victoria (which opened in 1973, the year TP signed his pro contract) decided to take its first steps into intercollegiate sports in 2006, school officials came to him, and he grabbed the opportunity. He’s credited not only with starting the baseball program but helping lay the foundation for the entire athletic program, which includes golf, soccer and softball. He commutes an hour and 20 minutes to UHV from his home in Sugar Land.
In 2008, the baseball team’s inaugural season, the Jaguars finished 29-5. UHV, which has competed in the Red River Athletic Conference in recent years, finished with winning records in six of its first eight seasons but hasn’t done so since 2015. Coach Puhl has a 318-339 record in his 15 seasons, including two conference titles and three NAIA national tournament berths.
This season’s Jags have lost six straight and are 8-12 after last weekend’s three-game sweep by LSU-Shreveport, which has a 23-2 record and ranks fourth in the nation in NAIA. It was a rough series for the home team, which lost the opener 19-3 before dropping both games of Sunday’s doubleheader, 13-0 and 14-6.
After we drove into town early Sunday afternoon, Kay and I decided to grab lunch, then head to Riverside Stadium – which turned out to be right down the road from where we ate. When we arrived, the players were getting ready for Game 2 of the doubleheader, so we bought our $5 tickets, picked up a roster sheet and plopped into second-row seats behind the right-handed batter’s box.
The ballpark, built as Rosebud Stadium for $25,000 in 1947 for the Victoria Rosebuds minor-league team, oozes with charm and personality and is a perfect venue to watch a baseball game. The stadium’s sign out front even features a rose in homage to its origins. There was great music – mostly country – between innings and even walk-up music for the home team’s hitters.
Under partly cloudy afternoon skies and a temperature of 65 degrees, all the seats were in the shade, and many of the few dozen fans sported blankets. It was clear most of them knew all the UHV players and were regulars. The artificial-turf field is also home to the Victoria Generals of the Texas Collegiate League and Victoria East and West high schools.
When I first saw Terry in the dugout, I had to look at him repeatedly to make sure it was really him. I wasn’t even sure at first, mostly because I still picture him during his playing days, making me wonder if the 65-year-old version with much less hair was someone else. Once I got a better look and saw familiar mannerisms, I knew it was TP.
When I bought a bottle of water midgame to take some Advil for my daily headache, I saw that popcorn was only $1. So Kay and I went together to buy a bag, which had enough salt to fill a shaker – but we ate over half the bag anyway.
I’ve never attended a ballgame with such constant chatter from first pitch to last. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had such an up-close view. Especially from the LSUS dugout, the air was filled with loud, creative chatter and chants.
As for the action, it was exciting and competitive for the first few innings until LSUS broke out the lumber – I mean the aluminum – as it had in the series’ first two games. Once UHV began struggling on the mound and in the field, the game fell apart – despite catcher Clayton Wenske’s three-run homer down the line in left in the fifth, good for a 6-5 lead and a fired-up dugout. With the Jaguars committing six errors in the game and unable to silence the Pilots’ bats, LSUS scored nine runs over the final four innings to seal its 11th conference win against one loss.
We’d been visiting off and on with an elderly couple just behind and to the left of us. When Wenske, a hometown product, hit his go-ahead homer, it became obvious they were his grandparents. They celebrated quietly and accepted congratulations from other fans who stopped by. Granddad told us it was the first UHV home run for Wenske, who’s listed as a pitcher but – again, Granddad says – prefers to catch.
Wenske was involved in another key play in the top of the seventh, when an LSU baserunner barreled into him, shoulder-first, scoring without any hint of thinking about sliding. After TP went out for a chat with the home-plate umpire and a confab among the crew, the safe call was upheld, making the score 9-6 and leaving the home crowd disgusted.
That was the first of several trips to the plate I was impressed to see one of my Astros heroes make. In the early innings after one of more than a handful of questionable ball-strike calls that went against his starter, Coach P barked at the blue. In the fourth after calls continued going against Jaguars starter Brayton Cardwell, TP strode back to the plate to speak his piece. As he headed back to the third-base dugout, he said emphatically, “I can hit it when you throw it right over the plate!” In other words, because the ump wasn’t giving his pitcher any calls, the freshman ended up having to groove pitches instead of working the corners.
After the game, TP met with his players in left field, and Kay and I hovered in the stands above the nearby gate, open to the field. I didn’t know if it would be allowed for us to walk out there, but when the meeting broke up, I told Kay – who was ready to videotape with my cellphone – “Let’s go down there.” As I walked through the gate, Coach saw me, realized I must be the guy who’d emailed him and made his way toward me. I figure he’d seen me in the stands during the game, since we were sitting feet from the UHV dugout – and clearly weren’t among the regulars.
We talked less than five minutes – I mentioned his MLB debut game I’d attended, his no-hitter-saving catch and about how he fit in so well with the franchise’s positive image. He talked about being part of a team that won playing “small ball” – stealing bases, getting timely hits, and pitching and fielding well.
“It was a really good group, a bunch of good guys,” he said.
Terry mentioned that he still has contact with Astros teammates including shortstop Craig Reynolds, Nolan Ryan and third baseman Phil Garner – who went on to manage the Astros from 2004 to 2007 and led the team to its first World Series.
I would’ve loved to visit more, but I didn’t want to inconvenience TP – plus, a sports writer from the Victoria Advocate was waiting for an interview.
Earlier, as the game progressed, I had commented to Kay that I wouldn’t be surprised if Terry retired after the season. So I wasn’t surprised when, after we arrived home late Tuesday afternoon from Surfside Beach, I had a text from an Astros buddy and former Texas A&M roommate. It was a screen shot of a tweet with the news that Coach Puhl had told his players at practice that day that he’s decided to hang ’em up.
I’m pretty sure Terry won’t coach anymore, allowing him to spend more time with his wife, grown kids and grandchildren. Whatever he decides, he’s given baseball almost five memorable decades as a player and coach. He’ll always be a beloved member of the Astros – and now that he’s going into the team’s Hall of Fame, his mark of greatness will remain on the franchise.
Thanks for giving us all so much to cheer about, TP – and for making a forever fan’s year.