Hours before the Houston Astros jogged onto the field at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night, hordes of fans had already packed several rows deep along the left-field railing. Giant foam cowboy hats and Astros astronaut helmets are common attire here, in the stadium’s prime standing-room-only section.
I’m looking for Valentin Jalomo, the legendary fan with a huge curled mustache and giant straw hat who often pops up on the jumbotron and the team’s television broadcasts. He started standing in left field during every Astros home game when he fell into being a member of the Caballitos (little horses), a fan club for Carlos Lee, who played with the Astros from 2007 to 2012. What began as a few guys jokingly bringing broomstick horses and straw hats to cheer on Lee, nicknamed El Caballo (the Horse), swelled to a group of almost fifty. Today, Jalomo and his sidekick Tony Solis are the last men standing.
Strangely, he’s nowhere near his usual perch. I’d arrived at the ballpark at 3:30 p.m., a half-hour before the gates opened, intent on replicating the enthralling experience I enjoyed in 2017, when I reveled in the unmatched fervor of the standing-room section at an American League Championship Series game. But by the time I made it inside on Tuesday night, the best standing-room areas were already crowded. I tried to edge into the last remaining sliver of gray railing, but the crowd seemed less hospitable than the one I’d cheered alongside two years ago. Perhaps it was because this was the World Series, when the stakes (and prices) are higher. My standing-room ticket, bought directly from the Astros, cost me $250.
That expenditure is worth it, because there’s nothing quite like standing with tens of thousands of people as passionate as you are about a team. After missing my chance to see a World Series game in 2017, I was determined to see at least one this year. Of the Astros’ 162 games this season, I watched probably 150 from start to finish, including almost a dozen in person. I flew to Florida for a spring training game in March. I paid for a virtual private network to access my streaming TV accounts and watch games while on vacation in Spain.
Yet my excitement for this game has been dampened. I’ve been wrestling with my own internal conflict regarding the Astros’ missteps in the situation with Sports Illustrated journalist Stephanie Apstein’s story about an assistant general manager taunting female reporters during the post-ALCS celebration because of their stances on domestic violence. The team initially released a statement claiming Apstein had fabricated the story, a bold claim about a respected journalist. After other reporters corroborated the story, the team backtracked and apologized, but only about the initial offensive remarks, and not about their own attack on Apstein. The entire episode is a slight to women, to abuse survivors, and to journalists. It was inexcusable.
If we are going to love the Astros because of the humility of José Altuve when he credits a teammate’s walk rather than his own home run, or Alex Bregman learning Spanish to better communicate with his fellow infielders—in short, if we’re going to love them for the people they are and not only as professionals—then we must also hold them accountable when they err, especially this egregiously. It’s not enough to say that we must separate personal lives from the game for managers or players. If we don’t hold misogyny accountable at the highest levels, we will never purge it from the everyday interactions of our society and culture. The Astros still need to act on this situation.
For now, I try to turn back to my mission. Unable to find Jalamo, I move on, in search of a space from which I might actually see the game. I wander down to the famed Home Run Pump in center field. There I meet Ron Duck—”like quack, quack,” he tells me. Sporting an airbrushed astronaut helmet with “Take it Back” printed across the visor and a large blue chain with an Astros logo, Ron says there’s usually an etiquette to standing-room, but that tonight seems different. He’s irked he couldn’t claim his usual spot on the rail because some of the standing room was given to additional crew for the TV broadcast. Still, he’s smiling widely, calling standing-room the best place to be because it’s “a bunch of crazy fans” who “get along really well, cheer on the Astros, and haze the center fielders.”
The main concourse is already packed shoulder-to-shoulder with fans. From near the home run pump, I take a winding staircase to the upper level, stopping to chat with a few fans hanging out on the stairs. Matthew Rodriguez tells me that “Die-hard fans don’t mind standing.” He and his mother, Cynthia, arrived at 3:15 p.m. to secure their spots.
Next to them are Summer Hendrix and Destiny Mathews, who bought their standing-room tickets on the resale market. Hendrix says her husband bought them, and she “didn’t want to know the price.” Mathews admits hers cost $450, almost double the face value, but says it was worth it. (The cheapest ticket to a potential game seven costs $600 on StubHub right now.) “It’s a good view,” she says, peering out over the expansive green turf below. “But you have to guard your spot.” The pair has developed a tag-team system for preserving one another’s spaces during bathroom breaks or beer runs. “You have to get wide,” Hendrix explains.
I meander back downstairs to just behind the Crawford boxes, where a guy in a multi-colored Astros business suit catches my eye. Morgan Barsi says he wears the outfit to every game, and that his key to ensuring an Astros victory is drinking two Zimas at home before he comes to the park.
At this point, I start feeling hopeless about finding a decent vantage point, and I still haven’t spotted Jalomo. A bad omen. Fortunately, my friend who’d come to the game with me lucks into finding an awesome spot. It’s at the top of a section behind the accessible seating and in front of a concession stand near the left field foul pole. She leads me to a narrow strip of concrete where just a few people are gathered behind some large beer coolers with a perfect view of the field. As we join them, the fans already there nod at us, as if to say, “So, you found the secret place?”
Not long after, Astros starter Gerrit Cole fires the first pitch into the glove of catcher Martín Maldonado. The crowd roars after Cole gets out of the first inning unscathed, then again when George Springer works a leadoff walk to start the Astros’ first at-bat. Next up, José Altuve receives a standing ovation for his first plate appearance since he crushed a two-run homer to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, and sent Houston to the World Series. When Yuli Gurriel later smashes a ball off the left field wall to drive in Springer and Altuve, scoring two runs for the Astros, Minute Maid Park erupts into a blur of orange towels.
But by the fifth inning, the Nationals take a 5-2 lead. The energy of the crowd flags noticeably.
I decide it’s time to leave my secret spot and head back to center field to rejoin some of the Minute Maid faithful and draw from their wells of enthusiasm. As I walk up to his usual section, I spot Valentin Jalomo’s unmistakable mustache curl. I sidle up near him and wait for the break between innings to introduce myself.
Turns out, I couldn’t find him before the game because he was down on the field as part of the flag unfurling ceremony during the National Anthem. A congenial, soft-spoken guy, people constantly queue up to take pictures with him. “I started in the dome in 1965,” he tells me. “I have season tickets, but my seats are way up there,” he says, gesturing to the outfield upper deck. “I’ve never been up there.” We both laugh.
Jalomo’s friend Tony Solis weighs in. “These are the true fans,” he says of the standing-room crowd. “You meet people over the years and become a little family.” One of those people, Dominic Ortiz, hears this and turns from the rail to say, “Win or lose, this is the place to be. It’s all about the atmosphere and the people you meet.” Before I leave, I tell Valentin that I think I needed to find him to get the Astros’ luck going tonight. Shortly after, Springer belts a homer right at the Home Run Pump.
Back in my secret spot, the Astros rally, plating a run in the eighth on a monster double by Springer that falls just short of leaving the yard. The bottom of the ninth comes and goes. Three up, three down. The Astros have lost game one. I found Jalomo’s luck a little too late.
Yet, somehow, I realize I wasn’t worried nearly as much as I usually am about winning or losing. Maybe it was just the overwhelming excitement of attending my first World Series game, but I think it’s more than that. When you’re collectively sharing the anxiety of a tense game, or the disappointment of a loss—as the family that is the standing-room fans does—it’s easier to take. We’re all together in this. We aren’t strangers. We’re Astros fans.