ALL ABOARD!

Here’s how one of Minute Maid's iconic figures has adapted to MLB's most challenging season

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

Even Bobby Vasquez was surprised to learn that he is considered "essential personnel" of the Houston Astros organization and his attendance will be required at all Minute Maid Park home games this strange, coronavirus-afflicted baseball season. After all, Vasquez isn't a player, coach, media, or member of the Astros medical or front office staff.

Vasquez drives the train perched high atop the left field wall at the ballpark. Dressed in his finest Casey Jones overalls and orange Astros T-shirt, Vasquez celebrates every Astros home run and great defensive play with waves and dances, whoops and hollers, and bells and whistles as his train chugs along a 190-foot track at a speedy 2.5 mph.

SportsMap's Will Doctor recently had a chance to catch up with train engineer, "Bobby Dynamite."

"I had no idea that they would call me back to be part of the 2020 season," Vasquez said. "I heard that only essential people would be allowed in the stadium for games and I didn't think that I was essential."

Vasquez said he had a personal struggle whether to accept the invitation. His mother is deemed high risk for COVID-19 and is staying at Vasquez's house for her safety. "If anything happens that jeopardizes her, then some tough decisions will have to be made. I haven't missed a game since 2003," Vasquez said.

In his "real life", Vasquez is the editor in chief of IFMA's Facility Management Journal (FMJ) which covers the facility management industry.

Vasquez became the train engineer in 2001, a year after the Astros ballpark opened as Enron Field. He was an intern in the team's promotion department when the original train operator left the job. Vasquez said he was in the "right place at the right time." Vasquez missed one game in 2002 for his grandmother's funeral, and 12 games after being injured in a car crash in 2003. That was the last time the Astros played a home game without "Bobby Dynamite" cheering on fans.

Now in his 20th season as the Astros train engineer, Vasquez said this season's games aren't much different from normal - after the umpire yells "Play Ball!" However, getting to his office (the train) involves more security checks and safety measures than previous seasons.

"When I get to the ballpark, which is earlier than before, I go through the onsite safety screening. Once all of that is taken care of, I can start my day, which consists of a meeting and sitting around waiting for the game to start," Vasquez said. Once he climbs aboard the train, a security guard locks the door behind him. Vasquez has no access to concession stands or restrooms. To answer your question, yes, he has a "relief bottle," but he's used it only five times in two decades.

Vasquez cherishes how the sound of his train has become a Minute Maid Park tradition.

"Honestly, it's just the amazing experience of being up there. There are some games and plays that stick out, like all the playoff walk-offs and other historic moments. But really, I've come to appreciate getting to see all those moments from a vantage point that no one else does. It's neat watching the replays and seeing the guys celebrate, the fans going nuts, and in the background you can hear the train. In its own small way the train and I become part of history," Vasquez said.

Vasquez says driving the train is his dream job.

"Like any kid in the '80s in Houston, I had a shrine to Nolan Ryan in my room. Why? Because that was what you did," Vasquez said. "Obviously the greatest moment was 2017 when we won the World Series. The whole season was crazy. A lot was expected from our team, so the pressure was always on. It felt like anything less than a World Series title would fall short of our goal. Throw in the emotions of the flood that year, and the uncertainty that followed, and it was a roller coaster."

Major League baseball is undecided whether fans will be allowed into stadiums later this season. Vasquez said the sight of empty stands while the sounds of a full stadium blare from loudspeakers is "surreal."

"This season is beyond strange. So much of the excitement of baseball is created by fans. Of course, I am personally excited for a big base hit or a good play. That still gets me pumped up and you can see how excited the players are. But I miss sharing those moments with 40,000 fans in the ballpark. I can't wait for the day when fans can safely return to the ballpark," Vasquez said.

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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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