HARRIS COUNTY - HSA INSIDER

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: 6-year-old mutton buster steals the show at rodeo

Patti Smith (left) and the Houston Rodeo crowd got a treat when Marlie McDonald won the mutton busting. abc13.com

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Let me preface this by saying you can’t really prepare for interviewing five- and six-year-olds. Especially at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The cowboys and cowgirls are easy. You have day sheets and background notes. You know the world champions, the contenders and the up-and-comers. You have a feel for the sport, the events and you know that, no matter what happens, you’re as ready as you can be for the night to unfold. Actually, you’re ready 20 nights in a row.

But mutton bustin’? That’s a whole different story.

We have a list of those tiny riders, their ages, what they want to be when they grow up and their favorite rodeo food. Honestly, most of my interviews are grins, shrugs, a few no ma-ams or yes sirs and an occasional hands-up, raise-the-roof celebrations for the big screens.

Most say very little or nothing. It’s like pulling teeth. And, if they do talk, you hear “Oh, I practice on my dad” or “I practice on my dog.” You think it’s the funniest thing ever when they do say it.

But then you get someone like Marlie McDonald.

The six-year-old with tangles of red curls and a personality as big as NRG Stadium brought down the house on opening night of the 2018 rodeo.

She held on for dear life and fought to win the first mutton bustin’ event of this year’s Rodeo Houston. Then, in the blink of an eye, she out-headlined headliner Garth Brooks.

The next day, she went viral.

I saw her with her red hair and thought she was the cutest little thing. And that’s the comment I made to start the interview – “Oh, look at you and your red hair.’’

I felt a bond because we both have red hair. Marlie wanted none of it.

She had her answer prepared. She went on about her dad and how she did what her parents told her –“I just hold on really tight."

She just took the interview from there. She was so caught up in the moment, so excited. Usually when the kids look up at the big screen and see themselves talking and they get distracted so I try to keep them from looking up.

You could tell Marlie saw herself and got a kick out of it. It fired her up and she kept going and going. I knew she wanted to be a spy so when I asked her what she wanted to be. The crowd loved it when she blurted out – a spy.

Then I asked her what part of being a spy was so interesting and her answer was a homerun with the crowd.

"Like, where you get to fight for the world,’’ she said. “And the bad guys...where you get to fight them."

There were 70,000-plus in there for Garth and the whole place went nuts. She stole the show. Garth was supposed to be the big entertainment, but I think Marlie was the hit of the night.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this spunky little girl had always been a fighter. Her mother Natalie was 34 weeks pregnant when Marlie was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Four days after she was born, doctors operated and removed the tumor and Marlie underwent two years of chemotherapy.

She’s now considered a long-term survivor and goes once a year for checkups.

The full story – not just the mutton busting champion and budding spy with curls -- went viral. My mother was in Florida and she saw it on the local news.

What’s really kind of cool is you see these kids and it makes you realize everyone has a story, I saw her and I thought here is this adorable little red-headed kid with these curls everywhere. She’s very precocious and has this big, giant personality.

Then you hear the rest of the story.

Her parents said they never knew if there would be a day when she could do something like she did Tuesday. That makes Marlie’s story all the more special.

And to hear her dad talking about what a blessing she is to the family and the big plans God has for her . . . It just really puts things into perspective.

You get caught up in the daily grind of the rodeo – it’s like Groundhog Day 20 days over and over and over again – and then you get stopped dead in your tracks.

There are some cool stories every rodeo, but I don’t think anyone has ever struck a chord the way Marlie has. She took – not only Houston – but the whole country by storm. She just won everyone’s hearts.

The other cool thing? She’ll be back for the final night of the rodeo where you’ve got the best of the best for the kids’ mutton busting. And the headliner that night? She’ll be the lead-in to Garth Brooks once again.

And honestly, I’m really hoping that Marlie wins the championship so I get to interview her again.



 

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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