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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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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