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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The Astros are a force at home. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

PROBABLE STARTERS

Fri, Sept. 18 - ARI: Zac Gallen (1-2, 3.15) vs. HOU: Zack Greinke (3-2, 3.77)

Sat, Sept. 19 - ARI: Luke Weaver (1-7, 6.70) vs. HOU: Cristian Javier (4-2, 3.22)

Sun, Sept. 20 - ARI: Madison Bumgarner (0-4, 8.53) vs. HOU: Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.70)

STORYLINES

Staying Hot at Home? The Astros are now 18-7 at home in 2020 after taking two of three from the Texas Rangers. Conversely, the Diamondbacks are 8-19 on the road. It's a perfect blend for the Astros to continue their winning ways at home and position themselves in a more ideal spot for the playoffs.

Staff Settling in: Greinke and Urquidy taking the bump in a three game series brings a sense of normalcy to the Astros rotation. The days of Brandon Bielak and Luis Garcia getting starts are in the past. McCullers looked fantastic in his outing against the Rangers, and Justin Verlander is close to returning. That is a staff capable of winning a World Series.

Sinking Ship: The Astros win over the Rangers Thursday night kept the Mariners three games back of the Astros with just 10 games left to play. The Astros also own the tiebreaker over Seattle, meaning Seattle really needs to make up four games to jump the Astros for a playoff spot. Of course, the Astros' series in Seattle starting Monday will play a big role in that.

PREDICTION

The Diamondbacks are reeling, and the Astros are a force at home. Zac Gallen presents some problems for a slumping offense, but the Astros break out against Weaver and Bumgarner to take two of three.

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