Texas was the most recent stop on a 12-year road trip (with 29 out of 30 MLB cities down, I can finally see the finish line and it’s in Minnesota). Before things got real hot down there, I met two friends at DFW on a Friday afternoon in mid-May. We caught a Rangers game (with Yu Darvish on the hill) Friday night in Arlington, got our fill of beer, BBQ and good music on Saturday in Austin, then took in an Astros game on Sunday afternoon before flying back to the Northeast, where not everyone has a smoker in their backyard.
My favorite part of the ballpark experience is the atmosphere. A good part of that involves the sounds of the game; not necessarily the at-bat music and certainly not the song that gets played for the “Wally Wave.” It’s the ambient noise. There’s always a hum at a packed yard, particularly for a night game, with a buzzing crowd and the light towers sucking up the city’s electrical supply. At a smaller venue, like Veteran’s Field in Chatham in early June, you can hear the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, the bellow of the umpire, the kid next to you snapping his gum, the squeals of a nearby puppy when he sees a canine friend.
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Houston’s Minute Maid Park, with the Astros fully committed to an ambitious rebuilding project (no lie; the pro shop featured a t-shirt that read “PROCESS” in orange capital letters across the front) is currently more similar to a Cape League atmosphere than a packed Fenway Park. It’s a beautiful, modern stadium (capacity north of 42,000), but even on a gorgeous Sunday, was less than half-full for Astros-White Sox. Then, I heard a voice like no other, rolling like thunder across the empty seats and into my ear drums:
“Now batting, number 30, Alejandro De Azaaaaa…”
And that was the first time I heard the voice of Astros PA announcer Bob Ford.
Every ballpark has a public address announcer: the faceless lord of the stadium speakers, guide to who’s batting and who’s coming in from the bullpen, dispenser of helpful reminders to watch out for foul balls. Perhaps the most well-known member of the fraternity was Bob Sheppard, who presided over Yankee Stadium for 56 years before hanging it up at age 96 in 2007. The Red Sox employed Sherm Feller for 26, from the Impossible Dream season of 1967 through 1993.
Feller was succeeded by Leslie Sterling at Fenway for two years, then Ed Brickley, who did the ’99 All-Star Game and was notable for cringe-inducing attempts to roll the R’s in “Garciaparra” with his nasal intonation. Then, the Red Sox got Carl Beane. Clearly a disciple of Sheppard and Feller, Beane’s dulcet tones floated through the Fenway air for ten seasons before his untimely passing in the spring of 2012.
The San Francisco Giants employed the first female announcer, Sherry Davis, who won the job in an open audition. If I recall correctly, Davis was the subject of a Bob & Tom skit with Dan St. Paul which compared the experience at Candlestick Park to getting the telephone operator. “The shortstop…Royce Clayton…HAS BEEN CHANGED.” Renel Brooks-Moon replaced Davis and remains the only female in the PA game at the Major League level.
But Bob Ford, man, what a voice. Despite our group’s collective hangover, Ford made it feel like Minute Maid Park for Astros-White Sox (heck, a rematch of the ’05 World Series!) was a special place to be. I lapped at a Blue Bell ice cream cone (perhaps the best I’ve ever had), clapped along with “Deep In The Heart of Texas” during the seventh inning stretch, and listened to Ford’s bass rattle around the stadium walls.
While Houston awaits the return of the buzzing crowd, Bob Ford IS the atmosphere.