I’ll take a ballpark any day … especially when the Astros are playing

A few days late, but Game No. 1 of the 2019 MLB season for me to attend is in the books. And even though my beloved Astros are off to an unexpected 2-5 start, they managed to snag one Monday night. Our group included eight guys and one lady, and four of us (including the lady) were rooting for the Astros. As it should be.

It was a chilly April 1 night (and for some reason I kept my jacket crumpled up in my lap until we were leaving), but the Astros’ 2-1 triumph over the host Rangers was enough to keep me from getting too cold. After the Rangers, dang it, took the next two games, that leaves them with only 75 left to play in their beautiful outdoor stadium before moving across the street to a $1.1 billion retractable-roofer next season. Yippee.

I grew up with the Astrodome and loved it — still do, and don’t care much for Minute Maid Park — because it was the first of its kind and magnificent in every way (OK, so I’m a little biased). It held me in awe each time I stepped inside as a kid, most often with Dad, who took me to every game I earned straight-A tickets for at Conroe High School. But I also fell in love with Globe Life Park — born as The Ballpark in Arlington — when it opened a mere 25 years ago. The place has so much character and class, such an old-time aura, and I’m gonna miss that when the new digs open next year. Hopefully Globe Life FIELD will replicate some of that nostalgia.

Moments after the Astros knocked off the Rangers 2-1 Monday night.

By the way, in the photo with me are some of the group that came out Monday: From left, Jeff Cavallin, me, Jeff Rubinett and Milt Collins (who got us a great deal on upper-deck seats for 15 bucks a pop, smack behind home plate). We were also joined by the greatness of Ted Ingram, Frank Smith, his son Kyle Ryan Smith, Marc Johnson and his Astros fan wife, Lisa.

Go ‘Stros!!

It’s been a long time, Wes

It’s always a thrill seeing someone you haven’t seen since you were teenagers. You get a chance to reminisce about the fun times you shared (if your memories allow), catch up on all the years (in this case, four decades), and see how much you’ve both changed while silently picturing what you looked like as kids.

That’s what I got the cherished chance to do last Sunday when I had lunch with Wesley Volberding and his wife, Donna. They live in Tyler in East Texas, where Wes has had a law firm for over 20 years. They set out at 4 that morning so they could run in a marathon (Wes) and half-marathon (Donna) in Arlington, where we live. Wes and I reconnected by email a couple of years ago and have been trying to figure out how to overcome our busy schedules to get together ever since. He texted me recently that they’d be in town for the race and felt sure they could clean up afterward and get together for lunch with Kay and me (sadly, Kay’s now been sick for going on 3 weeks and couldn’t join us).

Needless to say, by the time we’d visited for two and a half hours after their marathon morning, Wes said tiredly, “I’m fading fast.” I could see the aches in their steps as we got up from the table, but they were happy to pose for this photo before we left. What’s amazing — and crazy — is that Wes, who’s been a serious runner for about 20ish years, has run in over 60 marathons, including NYC, Boston, Chicago. All the biggies.

A flashback: Forty-seven years ago, I was a shy, nerdy goofball, new to public school at Washington Junior High in Conroe. We’d moved from Houston, where Isaac and I had attended a Lutheran school, to Oak Ridge North in southern Montgomery County in December 1971, halfway through my sixth-grade year when I was just 10 and younger than most of my classmates. Across the street from us on Kane Lane lived a kid much like me named Wes, a few months younger and a year behind me in school. He was one of the first couple of friends I made in the neighborhood, along with Jeff Holliman and the late Bill Andrews. Wes and I would hang out at his house, sometimes playing in a fort he’d built in his back yard, riding our bikes or watching Star Trek reruns. We also rode the school bus together, catching it at the corner where our house stood.

When I was in 10th grade at Conroe High in 1975-76, Wes was a CHS freshman, but the following year when a high school opened in The Woodlands, Wes and most of the freshmen who lived in our area transferred to McCullough High. (I’m guessing some folks will remember him from school … Cathy RohdeDouglas PitchfordTresa Kneisel HightowerTammy CraigWes Zwerneman?) As we got busy with school activities — me in band at CHS and Y league basketball, Wes in track at McC — we didn’t spend as much time together. Then in 1977, I learned his family would be moving to Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston before his junior year and my senior year began. So we lost touch (if only we’d had email or smartphones!), but we did end up at Texas A&M the same year (’79) and lived in dorms right next to each other. We were trying to remember at lunch if we ran into each other much at A&M, and we’re pretty sure we did but not often.

Those who remember Wes might be interested to know a bit about what he’s been up to the past few decades. What I learned through e-chatting and today is that when Wes hasn’t been working on law cases or running marathons, he and his wife have been raising 5 kids (now ages 16 to 29), all mostly home-schooled. The oldest three attended college outside the U.S. and are scattered around the world, while the second-oldest is at Texas Tech. Wes actually majored in accounting/finance at A&M, but a few years into his CPA career and after he and Donna married in 1987, they decided to move from New Jersey to Waco (with their first child, a girl) so Wes could attend law school at Baylor.

Something else pretty cool: Wes wasn’t in the Corps of Cadets at TAMU, but he says he always regretted not serving his country in the military. So he joined the Army Reserve and is a lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, a duty for which he usually travels a couple of times a month. When he first told me about that in an email a while back, I was really impressed. He says his JAG role will end right around when he turns 60 in 2021.

I figure that’s probably more than you wanted to know about James Wesley Volberding, but it was so great seeing him again after so long that I thought I’d share. I hope some of you who knew Wes will enjoy hearing about him and maybe even drop him a note at his website (volberdinglawfirm.com). I’m hoping that next time we get together, it’ll be out in Tyler this summer. I hear they’ve got really great roses out there — if any are still in bloom.

Pulling out the Astros jersey and an awesome bat for Opening Day

When I asked Kay to take a photo of me with my freebie Alex Bregman jersey and Nolan Ryan autographed bat before heading for work on Opening Day, I figured she’d laugh. But even though she’s been allergy-sick for almost 2 weeks, she cheerfully indulged me. 🙂

Opening Day brought out the crazy in me, I guess. (Doesn’t it do that to all baseball nuts?) Decided at the last minute I’d wear my team colors to work today – although I did leave the Astros ballcap at home after the still-ill but beautiful Kay shot this photo in our Arlington backyard this morning. I texted it to Crys and Terry, my birth sibs in Colorado, and Crys responded: “You look like a real baseball player.” My reply: “A real OLD baseball player!!” His comeback: “If you’re old, I’m prehistoric.” At 75, Crys may be 17 years  older than his long-lost little brother, but he’s definitely not prehistoric!

The many of you who, like me, are Astros fanatics have probably seen their slogan for this season: Take It Back. They won it all in ’17, then lost to the champion Red Sox in the ALCS last year, so it’s definitely time to Take. It. Back. I’m eager to see how the year plays out, considering the makeover of the 3-4-5 spots in the Astros’ rotation and some of the other off-season changes to the roster. I feel confident about the ’Stros winning the AL West, but I think it’ll be competitive with the A’s and Angels (sorry, Rangers fans). As for the playoffs, I know it’ll be a dogfight with the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians and probably even the Rays – who just happen to be the Astros’ season-opening road foe in a 4-game series that started with a 5-1 win by the Great Guys today in Tampa.

BTW, the bat I’m holding has a story: It’s a Nolan Ryan-autographed keepsake with the details of his seventh no-hitter, which he twirled almost 28 years ago on May 1, 1991, against the Blue Jays at the old Arlington Stadium – striking out 16 at age 44! (No, I wasn’t there, but dear friend and former TAMU roomie Gerald Gummelt and I had centerfield seats for Nolan’s 5,000th strikeout in August ’89.) Some of you may remember my longtime girlfriend Carolyn (who’s been Dr. Scott for many years now). We actually broke up a month after that no-hitter, but she was sweet and bought the bat for me on the Home Shopping Network anyway. (Thank you, Carolyn!)

We really do need to find a spot to display this treasure. Since we took it down from a wall in our son’s room a few years ago, it’s been sitting on a dusty shelf in our closet.

More bat-story: When we were readying the baby nursery before Will was born in 2001, we decided on a baseball theme. This bat, which came with a plastic case, was displayed for years above the windows in his room, along with the baseball-themed ceiling fan I installed, baseball drawer handles on his dresser, and a baseball quilt that the amazing Susan Corbett made for him. Alas, Will has never liked baseball – or any sports. But it was nice to have a baseball room in the house for a while.

All I can say is … PLAY BALL! And, of course, GO ASTROS!

Not the newsroom I remember, but the same dedicated Aggie journalists

Felt like 1979 to 1983 again during my weekend trek to Texas A&M, where I joined fellow alumni and current staff members of The Battalion newspaper to celebrate its 125 years as a font of bond- and experience-building for Aggie student journalists. (see what I did there? lol) I don’t get to hear howdys and whoops in the newsroom at The Dallas Morning News, where the Aggie count currently stands at 3 (Loyd BrumfieldJohn Lose and me … 4 if you count Kevin Lueb, who attended TAMU for like 6 years but graduated from Sam Houston). So being in the midst of over 300 grads and students at Saturday night’s gala, and seeing so many Ags while walking/driving through campus, was like being with family all over again.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent time in The Batt newsroom Sunday afternoon before leaving College Station. I had no idea it would be so enriching and touching for me. The newsroom’s now in the basement of the Memorial Student Center in a pretty cramped space, compared to where we produced the Batt in the old Reed McDonald Building all those years ago. I walked in, not expecting much of anyone to be around. I’d really just hoped to get a few copies of the 125th-anniversary special edition (like a doofus, I left the 4 copies I’d picked up at the gala sitting on a table at the MSC hotel bar when we left at 2 that morning).

Seven student staffers were engaged in a planning meeting and I felt awful for interrupting. But Editor-in-Chief Megan Rodriguez ’19, Managing Editor Luke Henkhaus ’20 and Photo Chief Cassie Stricker ’19 were kind enough to walk over and chat with me for a few minutes. In the photo below, that’s dark-haired Megan facing the camera, with Luke next to her and Cassie in green across from Luke. They’d heard enough at the gala from speakers exhorting them to follow their dreams and not give up on a struggling newspaper industry, but I tried to offer a few words of support, too. Megan has a post-graduation summer reporting internship lined up at her hometown San Antonio Express-News, and I could hear the excitement in her voice (she said she’d applied for internships at The DMN, but …). I gave them my name and email, and encouraged them to contact me anytime.

After they returned to their meeting, I spent a while walking around the newsroom, taking a few pics and checking out displays of past issues, including those from George H.W. Bush’s passing and his funeral, which Batt staffers covered as well and as thoroughly as any newspaper you’ll find. As I was leaving, I picked up a few editions — including those GHWB papers — among stacks that lay on a table by the door for the taking.

I won’t say being in the present-day Batt newsroom gave me chills. But it definitely built in me a sense of pride in the young women and men still coming through the TAMU journalism program and getting so much invaluable experience. And, as you can see in the photo with the #SaveStudentNewsrooms banner, they’ve also learned to fight for survival — just as many of them will start doing when they walk through the doors of their first newspaper gigs as A&M graduates.

May you all live long and prosper, Aggie journalists.

125 years of Aggie journalism excellence at The Battalion

Had a memorable night howdying, whooping and reminiscing with these great friends and over 300 other Aggies on Saturday night as we celebrated 125 years of The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper. We shared wonderful memories of our time together gaining experience that helped us become real journalists. The folks in the group photo were all from my era, graduating between 1983 and ’85.

The other two photos feature a wonderful man to whom countless Aggie journalists owe an incredible debt of gratitude: Bob “Rog” Rogers, who was a professor and adviser to The Batt for many years. Rog, now 91, deserves so much more than the standing ovations he received last night as speaker after speaker paid tribute. When he arrived for the gala, I whipped out my phone and grabbed 2 shots — of Angelique Copeland Gammon ’82 (former Batt editor) hugging Rog, and of my great friend and Batt sports colleague John Wagner ’84 greeting him. It was clear, even to the “kids” in the audience, that Rog is as beloved as any faculty member who’s ever come through the TAMU journalism department.

Angelique Copeland Gammon ’82, former Battalion editor, hugs Bob “Rog” Rogers, the longtime professor and Batt adviser, before the gala at the Memorial Student Center. Kim Tyson Cook ’79 picked up Rog so he could join us.

As you know, these are extremely trying times for journalists, because of shrinking ad revenue, unrelenting rounds of layoffs, a reticence among most to pay for local news in digital form, and uncalled-for criticism coming from every direction. All of that extends to student journalists as well, and as we learned last night, the young journalists who are reporting, writing, editing, designing and shooting photos for The Battalion are feeling the crunch in a major way. The Batt’s print edition has gone from publishing 5 days a week to 3, and the students — who, like we did all those years ago, spend unbelievably long hours in the newsroom — are no longer getting paid for their work. This isn’t a class, and it’s not for credit hours. It’s for the love of journalism and what it stands for. At the moment, it’s untold hours of volunteer dedication to a pillar of our democracy, and to the cause of keeping the public informed and public officials accountable.

In her keynote address, Debby Krenek ’78, a legend of Aggie journalism, told all of us — the veteran journalists, the former journalists and the journalists-in-training — that what we do is too important to give up on because of the pressures on journalism in general and newspapers in particular. Debbie was a trailblazer as one of the first 2 female students to be editor of The Batt back in the day. She’s currently publisher of New York Newsday, and also was editor of Newsday and the NY Daily News. She’s seen it all, and if she’s standing with a mike in her hand telling all of us to keep pushing forward and not give up on our profession, that *really* means something.

So the call went out to help support The Battalion and Aggie student journalism, and Debby helped set the tone for a critical fundraising effort by committing to a stunning donation of $10,000. Even if you’re not a journalist, if you’re an Aggie, you read The Batt during your TAMU days and must realize what a vital training ground the newsroom is. If you believe in Aggies, journalism and want to see it survive at TAMU, please take time to make a donation to The Battalion Excellence Fund at TX.ag/BattFund. I know it sounds cliche, but every bit really does help. Thank you.

A sizable contingent of Aggies who worked at The Battalion as students in the early to mid-1980s attended the gala, and here are a few of them: Front, Rebeca Zimmerman Friedman and Stephanie Ross Avioli. Back, Frank Christlieb, Donn Friedman, John Wagner, Katherine Wiesepape Pownell and Tracy Taylor Woodard.

Before driving back to Arlington today, I visited the Batt newsroom and talked with the editor-in-chief, Megan Rodriguez ’19, who’ll be graduating in a couple of months, and two of her colleagues. It was a Sunday afternoon, when most students were probably outside enjoying the weather, or God forbid, even studying. Yet seven Aggie journalists were in the newsroom, having a budget meeting to discuss coverage plans for the week. Their enthusiasm about journalism and their commitment to helping ensure its survival and relevance deserve our support.

Gig ’em, Aggie journalists!!

A trip back to Aggieland, and in time

When I wrote the column you see below about the Houston Rockets – one of “my teams,” at least back then – for The Battalion at Texas A&M 38 years ago, I was a sophomore with delusions of becoming a big-time sports writer. That spring semester in 1981, I started writing for our daily student newspaper, watching seniors like Richard C. Oliver and Jon Heidtke show the rest of us how it’s really done.

I saw some of my early attempts turn a dark shade of blue marker from being shredded in the next day’s Batt by professor C.J. “Skip” Leabo, who wasted no time telling me that every cliché I had used was a pitiful waste of good newsprint. I still remember, like it was this morning, when I wrote a story he finally liked, about an Aggie baseball series that spring against the Arkansas Razorbacks. “Now this is sports writing,” he wrote, sending me figuratively sprinting around the bases like I’d just hit a home run to win Game 7 of the World Series. After reading through this Rockets column today for the first time since, I’d have to say it’s a bit better than I remember writing at that nascent stage – although corny and amateurish. (Example: “Kareem and his cocky cronies” and “Moses and his mischievous misfits.”)

I recall struggling to come up with a standing name for my recurring columns and decided on “Off the Wall” for its double meaning – for a baseball lover like me, a reference to a ringing extra-base hit that slams off the outfield wall. And, in hopes that my columns would be offbeat, different – not that, as a green Aggie sports writer, I had a clue what that amounted to.

In April 1981, I wrote this column about the Houston Rockets for The Battalion at Texas A&M.

My dreams of becoming a sports writer everyone wanted to read never took shape, mostly because I left my first post-college job – four years at The Odessa American – burned out on sports writing after covering the likes of Permian High football, junior-college basketball and track, and minor-league baseball. I also realized that, as passionate as I was – as you’ve noticed, still am – about writing, I was too meticulous, too much of a perfectionist, too eager not to write standard wire-service game stories to make a career of it. It’s why covering Friday night football games was such a scramble for me to beat the deadline clock that always had me checking-checking-checking my watch as I wrote. (I missed my share of deadlines, the late Chris Magee, OA sports editor, would tell you if he were here – right, Randall Lightfoot?)

Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t decided to shift into editing mode when I left Odessa for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1987. I ponder whether I would’ve picked up writing speed with time, becoming one of those writers for whom the thoughts, words and creative turns of phrase spill out effortlessly – from the mind to the fingers to the keyboard to the screen to the newspaper that gets thrown in your yard (well, used to, anyway).

No, I’m pretty sure not. “That’s the way baseball go,” Ron Washington, the former Texas Rangers manager, used to say (and, I’m sure, still does). For me, that’s the way writing go. I. Labor. Over. Every. Word.

I’m pretty certain the piece you see here, written during the playoffs in April 1981 a few weeks after I turned 20, was my first sports column. Or maybe it was one I wrote about the Astros. Either way, I’m sure it took a couple of hours – heck, probably four – for me to write. Then again, I wasn’t facing a drop-dead deadline, since the paper didn’t hit campus racks until noon the next day.

When I covered Aggie football games between fall of ’81 and when I graduated in ’83, there was no big rush to get my stories written because the next paper didn’t come out till Monday. When I covered weekday basketball games, I could linger in the newsroom writing all night if I wanted to – I hope I never did – as long as the stories were ready by the time one of my colleagues or I staggered in around 5 in the morning to “lay out” (design), edit and write headlines for the sports pages in that day’s paper. Thankfully, even though the Batt newsroom had several IBM Selectric typewriters (remember those?), and even though we were *just* a student paper, it was cool to be part of the dawn of newspapers using computers to write and edit stories. The bulky, boxy VDTs we used – video display terminals, for you younger folks – were ECRM models (no idea what that stood for). Thank God we didn’t have to bang out all our stories on manual typewriters like in the old days. (Now, our Battalion days ARE the old days.)

I started writing this to tell you all where I’ll be Saturday, and somehow I got sidetracked by memories (hmm, is that a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to writing?). Memories of The Batt, the invaluable experience gained, the friendships made and the journalism foundation it gave us all, just do that. I’ll be driving 3 hours from Arlington back to Aggieland in College Station – and if Kay, who’s been sick all week, is feeling up to it, she’ll join me. We’ll get together with over 300 Aggie grads and current students to celebrate 125 years (!!) of The Battalion – still going strong in this ever-evolving digital world. It’ll be a chance to see (very) old friends, reminisce about memorable moments at The Batt, and hopefully even see and pay tribute to people like Bob Rogers, now 91 and the adviser who gave us countless nuggets of knowledge that helped us all become real journalists.

Oh, BTW: The Rockets, who made the playoffs as a sub-.500 team that spring of ’81, providing inspiration for that column, didn’t end up winning the NBA title. But they did get to the finals, where they pushed Larry Bird and the Celtics to six games. I can remember whooping for them as much as anyone in Moore Hall, my dorm on the north side of campus.

Guess I’d better stop now. The Batt gala, and a throng of Aggie journalists – from the Class of ’56 to the Class of 2019 and beyond – await.

Greetings, Tree of Nightmares

Straight outta one of your favorite horror movies.

For several months on my way to the South Cooper Y after driving my daughter Lindsay to school in Fort Worth, I’ve driven past this dead shell of a tree. It stands, beautifully spookily, in a large empty lot next to a shopping center across from Red Kane Park near the Arlington-Mansfield line. I’ve never seen a tree so sublimely haunting, branching out with its terror-inducing tendrils toward unsuspecting motorists. I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who’s driven by and stared, marveling at its sinister perfection.

I’ve been thinking I should stop, park, get a closer look and take some photos. So this morning after leaving the Y, I parked in the lot near the tree and walked about 75 yards to where it looms, even larger than it appears from the road. As I walked, I startled when a shape on the ground caught my eye – a dead and bloodied possum. When I looked up, I saw a turkey vulture just ahead, loitering on the ground (I probably interrupted his possum feast). Within moments, he flew up into the tree, joining a vulture buddy who was already there. All too perfect. I snapped a few shots, then noticed through my phone screen that a white sun had started peeking through the overcast sky. Even more perfect.

Glad I stopped by. See you next time, Tree of Nightmares.