WWE's Royal Rumble arrives this Sunday at Minute Maid Park. Photo by Paul Muth
I'm not a big sign guy.
You know sign guys. The people who write puns on posters. The ones who carry the letter "D" in one had and a cutout of a literal fence in the other. The "Houston, YOU have a problem" sign guys.
I tried it once when I was 14, was punched in the face, and sort of lost my appetite after that.
Let me explain.
It was April 1, 2001. Wrestlemania 17. I won't ask my parents how much it cost them, but my aunt and uncle scored floor seats to the greatest spectacle in sports entertainment in no better confines than the Astrodome herself and I got to tag along.
It was a hell of a show. Some say it was one of the best Wrestlemanias ever. The card was stacked, including a Triple-H match against the hometown hero The Undertaker that set the stage for the main event.
At precisely two hours and forty-eight minutes into the event, Undertaker sent Triple-H flying over the barricade and "INTO THE STANDS!"
"Holy crap," 14-year-old Paul thought. "They're headed right down my aisle."
Now I'm not sure how it works these days, but back then it was totally customary to bail on your seat and follow the fight as they weaved up and down the aisles. I wasn't about to miss the chance so I grabbed my poorly scribbled wrestling poster, glanced back and my Aunt for the OK, then darted after the action.
The fight snaked its way up to some scaffolding with a camera perched atop. There, the fight would stall as they battled their way to the top. Oblivious to anything but the action in front of me, I threw my sign up as high as I could, probably screamed at the top of my lungs, and my voice probably cracked in the process. I was 14.
Suddenly someone pushed me in the back of my shoulder. I turned around and there was an old lady, maybe five feet tall, standing on her chair. She had the quintessential cowgirl big hair and enough costume jewelry on to short-circuit a metal detector.
"GET THE @#$% OUT THE WAY, BOY," she commanded in the most east Texas accent you've ever heard in your life. I ignored her and turned back around.
Then she pushed me again.
I turned around again and before I had any clue what was happening, this knockoff mini Dolly Parton had already connected a stiff left hook to my temple. She then grabbed my sign and ripped it in half. Stunned, I retreated to my seat while tending to a now bleeding eyebrow thanks to what I assume was a Wal-Mart engagement ring.
Haven't really been a big sign guy since.
But this weekend the WWE takes over Minute Maid Park for their annual Pay-Per-View event known as the Royal Rumble. It will be the first time since that fateful night in the Astrodome 19 years ago that I've returned to a high profile wrestling event.
Now am I looking forward to this weekend as an opportunity to retake the dignity that was ripped away so long ago? Probably not. I'll most likely just drink a bunch of beer and yell at wrestlers with my friends. But I'm not ruling anything out.
Now instead of a power rankings this week, I figured that in the spirit of the Royal Rumble we could rehash some of the best sports fights Houston's served up:
#5 Charles Barkley throws man through window
Now I know this one didn't happen on a court, but the story is just too good. In a classic case of "play stupid games, win stupid prizes," a 5'2" Floridian by the name of Jorge Lugo decided to harrass the 6'6" then-power forward for the Houston Rockets at an Orlando bar . Barkley ignored and avoided the issue until a Lugo-thrown glass intended for Barkley missed and struck a nearby woman. Bad move. When judge presiding over the ensuing case asked Barkley if he had any regrets, The Round Mound of Rebound replied "Yeah, I regret we weren't on a higher floor."
#4 Chris Paul serves a two-piece to Rajon Rondo
This one is actually fairly recent and adds to what I discovered was a hefty list of Rockets throw downs. After breaking up a stare down between Lakers forward Brandon Ingram and James Harden, Paul and Rondo began a heated chest-to-chest exchange. From all replay indications it appeared as if Rondo then spit on Paul, which triggered a disrespectful finger push to Rondo's face, which then descended into a good old fashioned knuckle sandwich exchange. Paul was suspended for two games.
#3 Derrick Lewis verifies amateur of amateur status
Some dude actually had the nerve to walk in to UFC Heavyweight fighter and Houston native Derrick Lewis' gym and pick a fight. The amateur claimed that he would knock Lewis out because he was an MMA fighter, and not a real boxer. "The Black Beast" was more than happy to oblige, and swiftly teleported the no name into the shadow realm.
#2 Vernon Maxwell fights Portland man
Sometimes people forget that sporting events are intended to be family friendly. Some also forget that players are people with actual feelings. Maxwell claims that aside from general harassment, a Portland fan decided to bring Maxwell's wife's recent miscarriage to light as well. Maxwell stood up from the bench, calmly walked up the stairs, and knocked the crap out of the dude. Maxwell was suspended 10 games.
#1 Andre Johnson baptizes Courtland Finnegan
It had been seasons in the making. Finnegan had built a reputation out of adding cheap shots here and there, ripping helmets off at the end of plays, and various other dirty tactics. In late November of 2010 Johnson had reached the end of his rope. Schadenfreude was the flavor of the day for all Texans fans as Johnson manhandled Finnegan, reigning down fists of righteous justice.
On Thursday Dusty Baker made official what had been speculated for weeks – he will not be returning as Astros manager in 2024.
This was not a retirement announcement. Technically his contract with the Astros had expired. Thank you for a job well done. Good luck with your future endeavors. Don’t be a stranger. You’ll always be a part of the Astros family.
He wasn’t fired for the same reason. You can’t fire someone who is no longer an employee of the organization.
He’s just not returning. Let’s leave it at that.
Basically Baker was just getting in front of the situation. He’s smart. He wanted to control, at least appear to control his destiny. By announcing that he won’t be back as Astros manager, he saved owner Jim Crane and general manager Dana Brown a possible backlash of dumping a 74-year-old future Hall of Famer.
This way, there is no bad guy. Baker is leaving and it’s his choice. He goes out with dignity intact. Now he can return home to Northern California and spend his days hunting and fishing and, as Marvin Zindler used to say, whatever makes you happy.
Baker used the old “you can’t fire me, I quit” tactic. At least he didn’t tell the Astros to “take this job and shove it.”
The first recorded ploy of “you can’t fire me, I quit” was in 1964 in, oddly enough, the Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer animated TV special. Rudolph performs the song, “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” The lyrics go “Why am I such a misfit, I am not a nitwit, they can’t fire me, I quit!”
In 2023 Dusty Baker was a misfit in the Astros organization.
Reports had circulated for several weeks that Baker would not be invited back for 2024. The decision was inevitable and probably best for both Baker and the team. The Astros were flailing in second place, more threatened by the Mariners creeping up the standings than the Astros overtaking the Rangers for first place in the American League West. Plus there were disagreements between Baker and management over how to award playing time to roster players. Baker clearly had grown tired of being told how to run his business.
There’s a saying that a new broom sweeps clean. Earlier this year, Crane hired Brown as the Astros new general manager. One of the key decisions, perhaps the biggest, that a general manager makes is who manages the team. Dana Brown didn’t hire Dusty Baker.
Dusty Baker wasn’t a Dana Brown guy. While the Astros made it to Game 7 of the ALCS, it was a troublesome regular season. The Astros finished with 90 wins, 16 fewer than their World Series title year in 2022. There are cracks in the team’s foundation that must be addressed from a new perspective. This is Dana Brown’s team moving forward.
Listen to Baker’s carefully chosen words – and what he didn’t say - when he broke the news to USA Today that he would not be managing the Astros in 2024.
“What I really appreciate is that Jim (Crane) has been totally honest and transparent with me on all things,” Baker said.
That could either mean that Baker read the writing on the wall or was told that a decision had been reached to move in new a direction after the 2023 season.
“I have a lifetime of knowledge, much more than those who have never played the game.”
He might be talking about fans and the media, who have been on Baker’s back this season for his perplexing lineup choices and other strategy moves. Baker can read the newspapers and he has a radio in his car. He likely recognized that he had lost much of the public’s support.
But listen to his closing words.
“I still have a lot to offer, baseball has been my life. I’m gone, but I will be back.”
Baker is 74. If the phone were to ring tomorrow and it’s a team looking for a veteran manager with playoff experience … "when do I start?"
Remember Daryl Morey’s reason for leaving as Rockets general manager on Oct. 15, 2020 after 13 years in Houston. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Seventeen days later he signed to become president of basketball operations with the Philadelphia 76ers.