An unexpected connection, and the captivating story of a piano maestro

“Number 23?”

“That’s me,” I said to the smiling, older, short-of-stature lady as I stood up from a chair in the waiting area of the radiology department at Medical City Arlington.

We chatted while I walked with her through the doors, down the hall and toward a room where I took another seat and she asked me questions about the procedure I was there for. I’d be swallowing a capsule full of radioactive iodine targeting my thyroid, which has spent several years being hyperactively uncooperative.

But before that, this same lady who’d soon plop the pill into my hand and bring me ice water to drink it down would delight me with the most amazing memories of her adoptive father, a classically trained pianist who was born into a Jewish family in Germany, raised in Austria and came to the United States in the early 1940s.

It was a recent Thursday, and I was about to receive a treatment that would necessitate my spending the following three days locked in our bedroom — so I wouldn’t expose anyone else to the radiation supposedly oozing from my pores. The security measures were unusual, and a bit unnerving.

Some of the most gratifying moments in our lives come when we meet strangers and connect, hear their stories and are touched by them. The last thing I expected when I arrived at the hospital that day was that I’d meet someone like Maria Hilliard, supervisor of nuclear medicine at MCA.

Maria Hilliard (third from left), with some of her colleagues at Medical City Arlington. (Photo from Maria Hilliard)

After we sat down and she contacted the oncologist to let him know I’d arrived, we began visiting and found out we shared a bond as fellow adoptees. As Maria told me about how she’d been adopted in the Chicago area after she was born in 1951 and the remarkable story of her adoptive parents began to unfold, I quickly became engrossed.

My love of classical music and the fascinating history of Maria’s father, Stefan Bardas, drew me in. And, not only was her father a pianist — her mother, Luisa, who was born in Riva, Italy, was as well.

Maria told me that her father, born in 1914, was teaching piano at Northwestern University when she was adopted. He took a job in 1954 as a professor of music at North Texas State College in Denton, where he remained on faculty until 1980.

Stefan Bardas taught piano at several colleges and universities, including Northwestern, Carroll College and Wesleyan University.

But as Maria and I waited for the doctor, she told me one of the most shocking chapters of her father’s life. If not for an incredible twist of fate, he might never have made it to the United States — or survived to be her father.

When he was about 19 (she believes he was in Germany), Stefan was in a train station and dropped his identification papers. A Nazi soldier picked them up, found and detained him, noting that he was a pianist. Stefan was given a choice: He could either perform for Hitler and earn his freedom, or he could be hauled away to a concentration camp. Maria said it was a painful decision for her father, but he grudgingly chose to perform for the Führer.

Stefan survived the Holocaust by attending school in Rome at the Conservatory of Saint Cecilia, earning his bachelor’s degree in music. There, he met Luisa, and they married after immigrating to the U.S. Maria said they both performed, and years later, gave private lessons to young children.

After arriving in New York, Stefan played popular music in piano bars and taught young students. He served as a piano teacher at Carroll College and Wesleyan University before joining the Northwestern faculty.

From 1954 to 1980, Stefan Bardas was a professor of music and artist in residence at the former North Texas State College in Denton, where he gave numerous solo recitals. (UNT Libraries Special Collections)

Another extraordinary memory Maria shared: When she was a young girl in the 1950s in Denton, the famed pianist Van Cliburn was her baby-sitter. She said he always read her stories about trains and let her jump on the bed before her parents came home. This must have been not long before, at age 23, Cliburn became a global sensation by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

I asked Maria if her father performed with orchestras; she said he did some, but most of his performances were solo. Stefan was known worldwide for his mastery of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and for a fingering technique he developed for pianists with small hands. After retiring from North Texas, he continued to teach piano part time at El Paso Community College, and was an adjunct faculty member at New Mexico State University.

Stefan Bardas was known worldwide for his mastery of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
He’s shown during a Denton performance in 1968. (UNT Libraries Special Collections)

I also asked Maria at the hospital if her parents’ piano gifts had rubbed off on her, and she smiled and said they hadn’t. She played the flute growing up in Denton, where she graduated from Denton High in 1970.

“My parents gave me a wonderful, loving musical life,” she messaged me later. “I look back and think of it as almost magical. I only appreciate and love classical music today because of both of them.”

Maria has invited me to get together at a Starbucks sometime and talk more about her parents, and I’m sure I’ll take her up on the offer. Hopefully she’ll share a recording or two of her father’s music with me, because I’m eager to listen to his virtuosity.

In messages we’ve exchanged, Maria has told me that after her father passed away in 2008, his family spread his ashes in the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park because they reminded him of the Alps in Austria and Italy. She said her brother’s ashes are also there, and hers will be someday. Her mother is buried in her Italian home of Riva.

Stefan and Luisa Bardas in Estes Park, Colorado, where the Bardas family spent their summers. Their daughter Maria says it reminded them of their beloved Alps. (Photo from Maria Hilliard)

As I Googled Stefan, gazing at numerous photos and reading through the many references, I found his obituary. The opening words are a fitting tribute to a piano maestro held in high esteem by his countless students and the pantheon of classical music:

“Stefan Bardas passed away quietly, like the codetta of a Beethoven Sonata, with a perfect cadence in the appropriate key, confirming the tonality of his life and his death, on April 29, 2008, after a long and inspiring 93-year life dedicated to teaching the piano.”

Thank you for walking me through some of your family’s unique history, Maria. I feel privileged to have learned about your parents and, especially, your father’s vast influence on young piano students and classical music.

20 years later, Aggies remain one in grief over Bonfire tragedy

In a few short hours, at 2:42 Monday morning as most of us are sleeping, there’ll be a remembrance ceremony on the campus of my beloved alma mater, Texas A&M University​. Hundreds will be there to honor, shed tears over and remember the 12 Aggies who died at that moment 20 years ago when a 90-year tradition, Bonfire, tumbled down in an unthinkable tragedy no Aggie can or will ever forget.

Twenty-seven more Aggies were injured when Bonfire collapsed that Thursday in the dark of night, and those survivors and the dozens of others working at the stack site near the front of campus are united in a bond that can ne’er be broken. Then again, there’s a tie that connects all of us Aggies always, as our school song, “The Spirit of Aggieland,” so clearly expresses:

“But there’s a spirit can ne’er be told,
It’s the Spirit of Aggieland.
We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we,
True to each other as Aggies can be …”

On Oct. 30, 1999, Kay and I had attended our first A&M football game as a couple (we’d been married five years), with our friends Bobby Nagel​ and his wife Annette​. It was rainy and miserable, but the Aggies sloshed their way to an ugly 21-3 win. How could we know that, less than three weeks later, a tragedy would douse 12 bright lights, cast a pall on a hallowed Aggie tradition, and transform the campus into the most solemn state in its history?

On Oct. 26, 2019, Kay and I were back in Aggieland together for the first time since that day 20 years ago, taking in another football game, another A&M victory. This time, as we made the long walk from Kyle Field to where we’d parked off campus, we walked near the Aggie Bonfire Memorial, which I had never had the chance to see. It was built five years after the collapse, on the very spot, with stirring portals celebrating the lives, spirit and Aggie pride of each one. We visited all 12 Aggies, reading their words and those of their loved ones. I marveled at their dedication to school, family and God.

****

Eight days after the Bonfire collapse, what’s usually the biggest, most meaningful game of the year (for Aggies, at least) was scheduled at Kyle Field. There’d been talk of canceling the 106th rivalry showdown between the Aggies and the No. 7-ranked University of Texas. UT coach Mack Brown said if A&M wanted to call it off, as the campus and Aggies around the world mourned, he’d be fine with that.

But Coach R.C. Slocum and his players knew this was something that, for every Aggie, for those who’d lost their lives building the symbol of Texas A&M’s ever-burning desire to defeat the Longhorns, they had to go through with. There was no way they could *not* play this game.

Heavily-favored UT brought not only a lofty ranking, but a 9-2 record and a five-game winning streak into Kyle Field. The Aggies, at 7-3, were 24th and had lost big to both Oklahoma and Nebraska. But they carried boundless emotional momentum, and that counted for more than predictions, more than rankings, more than records. After A&M scored early, the ‘Horns surged to a 16-6 halftime lead.

But in the second half, the Aggies’ vaunted Wrecking Crew defense took charge, holding the ‘Horns scoreless while Randy McCown and the A&M offense scored two touchdowns. An Aggie fumble recovery after a sack of quarterback Major Applewhite as UT was driving for a potential winning TD sealed the poignant 20-16 upset in front of 86,000-plus at the “old,” pre-100,000-plus-capacity stadium.

My friend, fellow Aggie and former Dallas Morning News colleague Rob Clark​ has written an incredible oral history of the ’99 game for The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Rob interviewed numerous key figures involved not only in the game but in the aftermath of the Bonfire collapse. If you’re an Aggie, this is a must read.

https://www.theeagle.com/news/local/an-oral-history-of-the-bonfire-game-between-texas-and/article_bdc3931e-ffe6-11e9-8d34-3fab884086f8.html

Despite all the Ags were playing for, no one really expected them to win. But 20 years later, with the bitter rivals not having met on the football field since 2011 — and no sign they will anytime soon — the game still holds significance for Aggies because of what happened eight days earlier.

And because those students (and one former student) died upholding just one of the countless traditions that lay the foundation for what Texas A&M is.

****

“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it, and from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

That’s what we say about Texas A&M and being Aggies. The traditions. The camaraderie. The military Corps of Cadets that is “the backbone” of the university. The unbreakable spirit. The dedication to all things relating to Texas A&M. The bond all Aggies feel with one another.

When I became a student at Texas A&M 40 years ago this fall, transferring in from North Harris County Junior College in Houston, I knew little about any of this. Knowing my mother wouldn’t allow me to move away to college straight out of Conroe High because I’d just turned 17 three months before graduating in 1978, I hadn’t gone the application route most kids did.

Strangely enough, though, when I first thought about a possible college, the University of Texas came to mind first — because I’d heard about the great band at UT. Having played the clarinet since seventh grade, I wanted to be in band in college, so I wrote to the UT band director expressing my interest. I got a nice letter back and thought, “OK, this is cool, I think that’s where I want to go.” I even thought about majoring in music — even though Mom wanted me to be a doctor. Yeah, right, that’s not gonna happen.

But somewhere along the way, I decided basing my college choice on wanting to be in band wasn’t the way to go. I’d always liked A&M, too, and at some point during that juco year, I made the switch: I’m gonna be an Aggie. Against Mom’s hopes, I also went with my writing passion and declared journalism as my major.

Of course, to be in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, you have to be in the Corps of Cadets. Since I had no military leanings in my head or heart, I gave up the college band dream.

http://www.thebatt.com/traditions/bonfire/hallowed-ground/article_d04ee8a2-06ae-11ea-9fb9-f74893b69aee.html

As a transfer, I missed out on one important route to soaking up TAMU traditions: Fish Camp, where incoming freshmen go to learn Aggie yells (think “cheers”), the words to the “Aggie War Hymn” (think fight song), what a Yell Leader is (think cheerleader), what Midnight Yell Practice is (think pep rally), what the Fish Pond is, what Muster is, what Silver Taps is, what you and your date are supposed to do when the Aggies score, why you can’t walk on the grass around the Memorial Student Center. And so very, very much more.

Yes, all schools have traditions. Glorious, revered ones that have been around for generations, some well over a hundred years. Non-Aggies will say we’re being pretentious and are full of ourselves, but there just isn’t another school out there that compares to Texas A&M, its unique traditions, and their significance, importance and unifying strength.

Luckily I lived in a campus dorm all four years (“Moore Hall Truckers, Bad Mother …” Well, that was the start of our yell, anyway). Dorm life gave me the chance to learn and experience Aggie traditions in a way that living off-campus never would have.

But honestly, I’d have to say that I still probably learned only *some* of what most Aggies know when it comes to traditions and A&M history. There were plenty of activities I either just skipped or missed out on because I was too busy working at the school newspaper, The Battalion. I attended Silver Taps, a solemn tradition held after a student’s passing, only once.

And from 1981 to ’83, when I was a sports writer at The Batt, I didn’t get to pull (visibly) for the Aggies, do any of the yells, sway with other Ags during the War Hymn or sing the school song — that kind of behavior’s sort of frowned on in the press box at football games and on press row at basketball games.

I’ll catch much grief from fellow Aggies for this, but I’ve never attended Muster, held every April 21 all over the world. It’s the most solemn and most visible A&M tradition, in which we hold ceremonies to honor fallen Aggies, including a “Roll Call for the Absent” in which, as each name is called, a family member or friend answers “here” to show that the Aggie is present in spirit.

Next year, I plan to start making Muster an April 21 routine.

****

Which brings me back around to Bonfire (I’m sure you were wondering). In the weeks leading up to the lighting of Bonfire before the Aggie-Longhorn game, large groups of students would gather for “cut” or “stack” duties. That included dorms, and if I happened to be in my room when a group was heading out, I always passed on helping with Bonfire. I guess that made me a bad Ag. They’d always come around banging on the door about 1 a.m. In fact, I only remember working on Bonfire once — and I can’t even remember what I did. 

As far as attending Bonfire, I’m pretty sure I only went a couple of years. For one thing, the game was often on Thanksgiving, so the night before, I was back home with my family in Conroe.

So although I feel like I missed out on some traditions during my years at TAMU (like not spending nearly enough time at the Dixie Chicken!), I’ll always cherish the experiences I did have and take immense pride in being an Aggie.

I feel naked when I’m not wearing my Aggie Ring in public and was disconsolate when it was lost for a couple of years — I left it in a press box while covering a high school football game in San Angelo while I was a sports writer at The Odessa American. Luckily, someone found it and turned it in to the Aggie Ring locator service at A&M (who knew they had such a thing?), so I didn’t have to buy a new one.

Now that I’ve reminisced a bit about my Texas A&M days so long ago … remembering and honoring those 12 Aggie angels whose “whoops” no doubt can be heard all over heaven.

Astros didn’t win it all, but that doesn’t make season a total loss

I’ve had a few days to “get over” (not really) the disappointment of the Astros’ gutting loss to the Nationals in the World Series. That was a kick to the um, yeah, for this lifelong fan and so many others like me. Not to say winning the championship was a given, but when you get there, and you’ve taken a 3-2 series lead with three wins on the road, and you’re going home — where you went 60-21 in the regular season — and you need to win one out of two, you almost expect it to happen.

In Game 7, the Astros took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning that, on most nights, might seem uncomfortable. But it felt safe, despite Houston’s numerous wasted scoring chances, because the Astros were riding a masterful pitching performance by Zack Greinke. He’d kept the Nats off-balance from the start and looked capable of getting at least through the eighth.

But after a home run and a walk, manager A.J. Hinch decided to turn to ever-reliable reliever Will Harris, who hadn’t given up a run all postseason until Anthony Rendon took him deep in Game 6. Two pitches after Greinke’s exit, Howie Kendrick reached for a pitch he shouldn’t have been able to do much with and drilled it off the right-field foul pole for a 3-2 lead, the Nats’ first of the game.

Although the Astros’ bats had nine outs left, Washington’s second homer-fired comeback in two nights had sapped the energy — and a good chunk of the hope, it felt like — from Minute Maid Park. Both nights, when those two fateful innings transpired, I was driving from work in downtown Dallas toward home in southwest Arlington, expletives flying inside my car after balls flew out of the ballpark.

As the Nats tacked on three more runs in the eighth and ninth in Game 7, the Astros were unable to string together any hint of a rally, and their season crashed to an end that seemed both unfair and unfitting. But the Nationals, who were clearly the better team in this series, deserve all the plaudits they’re getting for knocking off one of baseball’s top teams, if not its best.

Many will say the Astros’ season was a failure because they didn’t win a second championship in three years. That it’s inexcusable for a team to go home without the Commissioner’s Trophy when it won more than any other, won 100-plus games for a third year in a row, had the top pitching combo in baseball in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, led the majors in several offensive categories and will go down as one of the most prolific in history.

They’ll say the whole season is a loss, and that the Astros choked.

But those folks just don’t get it. They don’t get how tough it is to win a championship in any sport, especially in baseball, where the grind of nine months including spring training, 162 games and a full month of the playoffs — if a team’s lucky enough to survive all the way to the World Series — is more grueling than any other.

What’s more, they don’t understand how, in baseball — and especially in the baseball playoffs — every decision, every made play and misplay, every umpire’s ball-and-strike call is magnified tenfold. How winning and losing can be measured by a ball being hit like a laser directly into a fielder’s glove, caught in a highlight-reel play rather than finding a gap and going to the wall, or falling just outside the foul line.

The Astros felt the sting of that “game of inches” reality time after time against the Nationals. If the Astros had won, the Nats could’ve said the same.

It would’ve hurt to see the Astros not make the playoffs at all, which they’ve done many, many more times than not in my 50-plus years of dedication to the team. Getting knocked out in the first round or in the ALCS would’ve been tough, too.

But as all baseball fans know, losing in the seventh game of the World Series is by far the most painful way to go, because you came that close. That DAMN close.

I’ll admit I get frustrated when the Astros don’t play up to the high standards they’ve set by performing at elite levels in recent years. Not even the best — the Ruths, the Gehrigs, the Aarons, the Trouts, the Ripkens — can do that game in, game out for 162 plus the playoffs.

The champion Nationals showed their class by taking out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle to congratulate the Astros on their outstanding season.

I’ll also ’fess up that I’m one of those wishing Greinke had been given the chance to finish the seventh inning, and that the Astros had been able to come through with more clutch hits against the Nationals, something they struggled to do throughout the playoffs after a season of timely hitting.

But they advanced farther than 28 other teams and gave their city and fans something to cheer about for the better part of 2019, and that’s incredibly special. What’s more, with the exception of Cole, their core will remain mostly intact for 2020 and their farm system is pretty well-stocked. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to keep contending for the foreseeable future.

I wanted to share this post by Julia Morales, the Astros’ sideline reporter for AT&T SportsNet. She noted all the negativity on her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram from those who seem to know more about how to manage a team than A.J. Hinch and would rather spend time rattling off all the reasons the Astros didn’t win rather than reveling in a great season. I thought her post was cool and right on.

Also, noting that Julia’s interviewing Jose Altuve in her photo, today’s a great day for me because of something that arrived via FedEx: After the Astros knocked off the Yankees to win the ALCS, thanks to Jose’s walkoff homer — and after much haranguing by my wife, Kay — I finally decided to order my first *authentic* Astros jersey in almost 30 years. I got on mlbshop.com and ordered an Altuve WS jersey, and she ordered a (much cheaper) Astros shirt, too. I’ve gotta let out an Aggie whoop for that!!

My Jose Altuve jersey arrived today!!!

Thanks for the awesome season, Astros! Let’s win it all in 2020! 

In a classic World Series, it should always come down to this

I created this collage last year for a Twitter contest where AT&T SportsNet was looking for the ultimate Astros fan in North Texas. I put out several tweets boasting of my lifelong fandom, with supporting evidence, but never heard a word. Obviously there are other North Texans who were either much more creative than me (easily done) or have a stronger emotional bond to the Astros (impossible). 

So, I’m dragging it off my hard drive today for good luck as the Astros, who couldn’t seal the deal in a drama-filled Game 6 last night, now face the game all ballplayers dream of: Game 7 of the World Series. You’d think they wouldn’t want the intense pressure that comes with knowing every at-bat, every pitch, every fielding decision and play they make could mean the difference between winning and losing their team a title.

Take Justin Verlander, the Astros’ starting pitcher last night and future Hall of Famer. He suffered the loss and, if his team falls short tonight, he’ll spend the offseason blaming himself for failing to win a WS game — something he still has yet to do in his illustrious career. But JV gave up only three runs in Game 6 and isn’t the reason the Astros lost.

They lost because, after crashing through for two first-inning runs off the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, they couldn’t solve him again all night — save for when they wasted a second-and-third, one-out scoring shot that could’ve put them back ahead in the fifth after the Nats shocked the home crowd with solo blasts by Adam Eaton and Juan Soto off Verlander for their first lead.

Game 6 had drama galore — the post-home run bat-carrying-to-first-base antics of Alex Bregman and Soto, the crazy baseline interference call at first in the seventh, the resulting ejection of understandably infuriated Nats manager Dave Martinez. It’s not the first time in the series he’s been irate with the umpiring crew, and he’s had legitimate beefs.

So here we are, baseball fans. After 162 regular-season games and a month of playoff ball, we’ve arrived at this:

⚾ NL wild-card winner, the team with baseball’s best record since late May, vs. the team with the best overall record and winner of 100-plus games three straight years.

⚾ 35-year-old, three-time Cy Young winner and seven-time All-Star Max Scherzer, nursing a sore neck, vs. 36-year-old, one-time Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star Zack Greinke, nursing a tendency to get himself into — and often out of — postseason trouble.

⚾ Two teams that haven’t figured out how to win at home in this series, a trend that’s already made history across all major sports. If that carries tonight, the District of Columbia will have an MLB champ for the first time since the Senators won it all in 1924. But this Astros team won 60 games at Minute Maid Park in the regular season — more than anyone else in the majors. Not one of those 60 wins matters if they can’t win this one.

For the Astros to win tonight, they’ll have to get to Scherzer early. They’ll have to hope his neck issues cause him to make a few mistakes and they’ll have to be ready and capitalize. They can’t waste scoring opportunities. And Greinke will have to pitch the game of his life. Remember late in the season when he took a no-hitter into the ninth? Maybe not on that level, but he’s got to be really, really solid.

They can do this. I always talk about the Astros in “we” terms. So, we can do this. This team is too good, too proud, too focused on the #TakeItBack mantra it’s carried all season to let it get away now.

I understand the Nationals are a great team with winning chemistry, and they’ve been on an incredible roll for months. Their postseason run has been one of the greatest ever.

But this is the Astros’ championship to take. At home, in front of their fans, for the first time in the franchise’s 58 years. And I believe they’ll do this.

One day, three glorious victories for the Aggies, Frogs and Astros

When Kay and I left Arlington at 7 Saturday morning for an 11 a.m. kickoff at Kyle Field, we were excited about getting to spend the day together at a Texas A&M football game — something we’d done only twice in the past 20 years (1999, 2017). Even though she’s a Horned Frog and we’d had TCU season tickets in 2015 and ’16, I’m always saying we should just pick a TCU game (cheaper) instead of going to an Aggie game (way more expensive). That’s why we rarely go to A&M games.

But she’s always saying no, we should go to a TAMU game, bless her heart. And when we have gone, she’s swayed right along with me and the rest of Kyle Field to the Aggie War Hymn. Bless her heart again. And she’s kissed me every time the Aggies have scored a touchdown, just like Ags do. Really bless her heart for that.

We snapped this selfie just as the Aggies’ victory ended. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

Early in the season, we picked out Saturday’s matchup with Mississippi State — the same opponent we saw the Aggies lose to two years ago, 35-14 — and I asked for the day off at the newspaper. As game day got closer and I hadn’t bought tickets yet, we got lucky and scored the unused upper-deck north end zone season tickets of dear friend and former DMN colleague Frank Smith, Class of ’87, who was going to be out of town and wouldn’t be using his. (Thank you, Frank!)

A&M’s had no luck against the Bulldogs in recent years, losing three in a row. Plus, the Ags — with the toughest schedule in the land — came in already having lost three games, to two No. 1-ranked teams, Clemson and Alabama, and the team ranked No. 8 at the time, Auburn.

So it had to come as a surprise to most of the 102,000-plus in attendance when the Aggies built leads of 28-7, 42-17 and 49-24 on their way to a no-sweat 49-30 win, one of their most impressive over an SEC opponent in recent years.

The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band never loses a halftime, but there was no halftime competition on this day. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

But for Kay and me, the Ags’ game was only one of three that mattered big-time to us Saturday. Her Horned Frogs also hosted No. 15 Texas that afternoon, and my Astros (actually, they became “our Astros” early in our 25-year marriage) played the Nationals in Game 4 of the World Series that night.

We talked before Saturday and on the way to College Station about how awful it would be if our teams went 0-for-3. I thought the Aggies had a good chance of winning, but neither of us were confident about TCU, which had shown flashes of both greatness and not-so-greatness so far. And I just wasn’t sure about the Astros, who had taken Game 3 the previous night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

To be blunt, and not to sound like we don’t have faith in our teams (we’re pessimists by nature), we didn’t expect to go to bed Saturday night reveling in three wins by the only three teams we really care about.

Aggies 49, Bulldogs 30
Horned Frogs 37, Longhorns 27
Astros 8, Nationals 1

Can you say win-win-win?

Luckily, Kay and I were able to listen to the second half of the TCU-Texas game on the drive home. Kay dozed off after the Frogs took a 10-point lead on a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Somewhere between Hillsboro and Fort Worth, she opened her eyes enough for me to tell her the ’Horns had just scored to cut the lead to three with just under seven minutes left, and at that point, rather than Fear the Frog, I feared her Frogs were going to choke away the game.

Thanks in large part to three turnovers, the Aggies had little trouble beating Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field, ending a three-year losing streak against the Bulldogs. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

But as we drove into south Fort Worth, just miles south of where the action was taking place at Amon Carter Stadium, Kay and I celebrated when freshman quarterback Max Duggan calmly led TCU on a 75-yard drive and took it in himself from 11 yards out to bump the Frogs’ lead back to 10 with 1:59 to play. We celebrated victory when a fourth interception of the ’Horns’ Sam Ehlinger wrapped up TCU’s fifth victory in the past six years over UT, and sixth out of eight under coach Gary Patterson.

More Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band greatness. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

After picking up dinner for the kids, we got home after the Astros had already taken a 2-0 lead over the Nats in the first inning, an early sign of great things to come. On the strength of rookie Jose Urquidy’s masterful five shutout innings, Robinson Chirinos’ two-run blast and Alex Bregman’s grand slam, the Astros pulled away to pull even in a series that had looked, after two games, like a potential Washington sweep.

Can you Aggies yell WHOOP? Can you Horned Frogs yell Riff, Ram, Bah, Zoo, Give ’em Hell, TCU? Can you Astros fans say Attaway, Astros?

For the Christlieb family, at least, it was a great Sports Saturday (that doesn’t include the kids, who don’t care a whit about sports).

And lest you think I’ve forgotten, we did score another win Saturday: The thrill and honor that come with getting to see the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. There’s no finer group of marching musicians in the land, and their performances fill me with pride and awe. And there’s no better place to sit than in the north end zone, where the band sets up for halftime and comes off after forming its legendary Block T.

The Aggie Band forms its famous Block T, marching back toward the north end zone before running off the field.

Backs against the wall, which Astros will we see for Game 3 of the World Series?

No one — definitely not this baseball know-better (notice I did not say know-it-all) — said the following: “Start planning that Astros championship parade!”

No one said the Houston Astros would take out their lumber and bash the Washington Nationals into submission, winning the World Series without a stiff challenge. No one said the Nats would walk up to the plate against Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, shivering in their cleats, and walk back to the dugout, shaking their heads after so many strike threes.

Yes, most “experts” predicted the Astros would prevail over the Nationals, in either five, six or seven games. A few even picked Washington to pull off what many said could never happen.

News flash No. 1: The Houston Astros are human. News flash No. 2: The Washington Nationals are human, too. But they’re playing baseball on some other level, from some other time, some other place. A place where no one cares what you did in the regular season, how many games you’ve won, how much star power you’ve got on your roster or whether you’re the hands-down favorite to win it all.

The Nationals have now won eight straight playoff games. Going back to the end of the regular season, they’ve won 18 of their past 20. Not to get all Halloween, but that’s a run of monstrous proportions. And at this time of year, getting hot, coming together as a team and getting all the breaks means winning championships.

So far, that’s what we’re seeing from the Nationals. So far.

That doesn’t mean the Astros’ season is shot. They’re not out of this. If they don’t win tonight’s Game 3, the odds, and history, pretty much say there’s no coming back.

And if that happens, they’ll have an offseason to wonder if their inability to win the World Series was due to their own failures — an almost total lack of clutch hitting, baserunning blunders, untimely fielding mistakes — or whether they met their doom in a team that, since May, has matched the Astros win for win for win.

If you believe in this sort of thing, and as overused a cliche as it is, the Nationals are looking every bit the part of a team of destiny.

They won in the wild-card round when a ball scooted past the Brewers’ right fielder to score the go-ahead run. They vanquished the Dodgers in the NLDS with late tying homers from young stars Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon off Hall of Famer-in-waiting Clayton Kershaw before capping off the shocker with journeyman Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in extras. They swept past the Cardinals like they were a bunch of minor-leaguers in the NLCS, earning the right to rest and wait as the Astros and Yankees slugged it out for six games.

Clearly, the Astros have the better collection of players and talent. No one would argue that. But games aren’t played on rosters or in scorebooks. They’re played between the lines, and through two games, the Nationals are playing better as a team and are the better team.

There’s no sense rattling off all the numbers as evidence of the Astros’ offensive futility this postseason. They’ve survived and advanced this far because of pitching and the long ball, not because of the offensive consistency that’s been their trademark all year. But if they do fail to come back and make this a series, at least getting it back to Houston, it’ll be their bats’ collapse that will, and should, take the biggest blame.

The team held a players-only meeting after Game 2 careened from a 2-2 pitchers’ duel into a 12-3 debacle of a defeat Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park. There’s no doubt in my mind that among the topics was getting back to playing Houston Astros baseball.

If they can do that starting tonight in Game 3, there’s no reason they can’t turn this series around. If not, their season will definitely be over.

And if that happens, I’ll tip my cap to the better team that won this World Series. It’ll be cool to have a WS champion in our nation’s capital for the first time since 1924, and DC’s first pro baseball champ since the dominant Homestead Grays won the Negro National League title in 1948.

This series has been needlessly overshadowed by the stupidity of one member of Houston’s front office. Assistant GM Brandon Taubman inexplicably decided the postgame celebration of Saturday’s ALCS clincher would be a great time to launch into an inexcusable taunting of female reporters in support of the team’s closer, Roberto Osuna, for whom the Astros — again, inexplicably — traded last year despite his having been suspended 75 games for domestic abuse.

The Astros poured kerosene on that blaze by defending Taubman, then had to issue a public apology and finally did the right thing by firing the guy Thursday, about four days too late. The whole situation, profoundly sad from the hideous crime Osuna committed that started it, could’ve been avoided if the Astros had just shopped elsewhere for a closer. With a team trying to win a title, it — and the well-deserved heat the franchise is finally taking — have been an unfortunate distraction.

As for what’s happening on the field: For now, I’m keeping the faith. GO ASTROS!!

So the Astros are in the World Series. Sometimes, you just care so much about a team.

I can’t remember when I didn’t have a deeply emotional connection to the Houston Astros, who started out as the Colt .45s in the spring of 1962, when I was barely a year old. At that point, we’d been living in Houston only a year after having moved from Huntington, West Virginia, where my brother and I had been adopted.

In tribute to the space program, the franchise became the Astros in 1965 when the team moved into its amazing new indoor stadium, the Astrodome, dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Luckily, until moving to Conroe in 1971, we lived about 5 miles from the Dome off South Main Street, and we started going to a handful of games each year.

From a 1971 Astros program I dug up at home, Doug Rader and Jimmy Wynn in the good ol’ days.

By the time I was 7 in 1968, in third grade after having been bumped into first at age 5 at St. Matthew Lutheran School on the outskirts of downtown, my Astros fandom was in full swing. I became fast friends with Paul Sweitzer and John Reed, and we’d compare notes at school most mornings about the previous night’s game — often losses — that we’d listened to on the radio, feeling like we were sitting right there in the stands, thanks to the stellar play-by-play and color of Gene Elston and Loel Passe. My brother Isaac and I spent years often keeping our own box scores while listening at home, using cardboard from the boxes of Dad’s “samples” from his work as a longtime lingerie salesman for Hollywood Vassarette.

It wasn’t just Isaac and I who dearly loved the Astros and still do, exchanging texts as they make their way through the playoffs and into the World Series for a second time in three years. Our parents, Clark and Olga, did too. At times, all four of us would go to games. Sometimes, it was just us guys.

During my years at Conroe High from 1974 to ’78, when I was able to score two tickets to three games a year for making straight A’s, Dad and I would go together and have a blast. I’ll always remember being with him at a game against the Dodgers in July 1977 when outfielder Terry Puhl was called up from the minors and made his debut. The Canadian would become my favorite all-time Astro.

My mouth is wide open in astonishment at these concessions prices from 1971. But I guess back then, they probably seemed expensive … right?

And then there was Mom. She made no secret of her crush on Larry Dierker, the longtime Astros hurler who became the franchise’s first 20-game winner in 1969. Many know that things were very difficult for our family because of Mom’s drinking and other problems. But she loved the game of baseball, and she loved the Astros. She had a thing for Dierk — and, later, when the team acquired Nolan Ryan, she had the hots for him, too.

All these years later, I’ve got to smile about it, because there weren’t a lot of happy times for us. But remembering how this native of Panama who married a U.S. Navy man came to the United States and grew to love our national pastime, even developing a crush on a couple of players on her/my favorite team, is a special memory for me.

As the Astros get ready to open the World Series tonight against the Nationals, I’m pumped, nervous, unsure what’s going to happen. I’m expecting another ultra-competitive series, just like the Astros have gotten from the Rays and Yankees. And from an opponent that few expected to get here, that rallied late to win the NL wild-card game against the Brewers, that knocked out the favored Dodgers, that swept the Cardinals, who could possibly think the Astros will have it easy? Pitching, as they say, is the great equalizer, and both of these teams bring it.

General admission for a buck-fifty and box seats for $4? Oh, for a time machine to take me back to the Dome 48 years ago!

Not to bash my team, but the Astros have spent these playoffs wasting baserunners and scoring opportunities. They can’t continue doing that and expect pitching and home runs to keep extending their season. Because this is it — there’s no more season to extend. The team whose offense comes through in the most key situations — that’s who’ll win this. Here’s hoping those guys are named Alvarez, Bregman, Springer, Gurriel, Altuve, Correa, Brantley and Reddick.

In closing, let me share what the photos are: Last night, after watching a Captain America movie with our 18-year-old Will, I was showing him some comic books from my childhood that were stashed in a box. Mixed in was a 1971 Astros game program, missing its cover. What a fun journey back to the Astrodome and all the great times my family shared there, and how cool looking at the photos of the guys on that team: Manager Harry “The Hat” Walker. Menke, Morgan, Wynn, Rader, Dierker, Cedeno, Watson, Edwards, Wilson, Billingham, Metzger, Gladding, LeMaster, Alou, Blasingame, Forsch.

If the Astros’ players were my childhood idols and heroes, these guys were, too. I listened to their voices every night on the radio, whether on my parents’ stereo console in the den or on a transistor shoved against my ear in bed. I tried never to miss a game if I could help it.

And look at those ticket and concessions prices! Box seats $4, general admission $1.50! Beer 55 cents and hot dogs 35 cents. Hamburgers 65 cents! Anyone remember the “Popcorn megaphones”? And love the Astroworld ad — did it really only cost $3.95 for children and $4.95 for adults to get in?

OK, time for a World Series. As always, no predictions here. I do believe in baseball gods, I do believe in baseball gods, I do believe in baseball gods, I do believe in baseball gods. And I sure don’t want to do or say anything to get on their bad side.

GO ASTROS!!! #TakeItBack

What a cool place Astroworld was! And to see all these years later that it cost only $3.95 for kids and $4.95 for adults makes my head spin — kinda like the “Barrel of Fun,” the centrifugal force ride where you stuck to the sides while the floor dropped down. Everyone remember that one?