Went to an Astros games with my talent agent Bernie Shelley last week. We were sitting high up in the rafters and I hit Bernie with a trivia question that almost always stumps fans.
“You see that train that sits atop the Crawford Boxes in left field? Is the train bigger, smaller, or about the same size of a real locomotive?”
Bernie, like most everybody, said “smaller.” Unless you’re sitting in the Crawford Boxes and looking up, or you’re in the upper deck down the left field line, the train and does appear rather small, like an amusement park ride.
I took out my phone and texted Bobby Dynamite, the Astros train engineer, who promptly fired back, “It’s bigger, by 25 percent.”
I met Bobby Vasquez several years ago at a WWE wrestling show in Houston. He’s a big Roman Reigns fan, which I’ve never understood. It’s almost ended our friendship several times.
Vasquez took the name Bobby Dynamite for his train character after seeing the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Vasquez says he’s got some “sweet dance moves, too.” I’ve never understood that, either. But debates like that make baseball the great game it is.
I’ve been in the Minute Maid Park train three times. The first was during the 2004 playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals. I was assigned to write a column every game that series. The train column was a cool experience. My favorite, though, was interviewing the person whose job it is to turn off the lights at the ballpark after the game, after all the concession grills are scrubbed cleaned, every piece of litter is collected.
A couple of years later, Bobby let me bring a few players from my Little League team on the tracks for a pre-game visit. Sure, it was a desperate attempt to get the kids to like me — in between my appearances in front of league officials asking, “You did what during a game last week?”
Two years ago, I brought a Houston Chronicle photographer on the train for a provocative Bobby Dynamite photo shoot. The train is high in the sky, about 90 feet on top of the stadium. You get a really nice panorama of downtown Houston. It’s a little scary, too, when fans are rocking the stadium cheering for the Astros.
Vasquez was not running the train when the stadium opened in 2000 — that was Michael Kenny, who formerly portrayed Astros military mascot General Admission (very punny) in the Astrodome. Vasquez, then an intern in the team’s promotions department, took over the job in 2001. He’s been a fixture and fan favorite ever since.
How about another Astros trivia question, while we’re waiting for the relief pitcher to warm up?
The downtown ballpark opened on March 30, 2000 as Enron Field. In February 2002, the team took down the name Enron Field after the infamous Enron scandal. In June 2002, the ballpark was rebranded as Minute Maid Park.
Question: What was the ballpark called between February-June 2002?
Answer: Astros Field.
Bonus question — for a year’s supply of Lee Press-on Nails and Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat: Because the stadium is Minute Maid Park, naturally the train’s cargo car is filled with big bright oranges. What was in the cargo car during its days as Enron Field? (And no, it wasn’t packed with funny money or indictments. You’re better than that.)
Answer: plain wooden sticks that looked like french fries. Yeah, boring, considering Enron’s imaginative schemes to rob investors and employees’ retirement savings and ruin their lives.
While I have Vasquez online, how about a few more questions while the relief pitcher warms up?
Ken Hoffman: What do you do with the home run balls that land on the tracks?
Vasquez: I try to give the batting practice homers to kids at the ballpark. That’s always fun because there are a ton of kids who never get a chance to catch one during a game. Actual game home run balls go to our authentication department. They get the ball to its final destination, which could be the player who hit it. In my years, we’ve been lucky to get a few milestone baseballs, including Ron Gant’s 300th career homer, George Springer’s Game 5 World Series home run, and Adam Jones’ 250th career home run as an Oriole.
KH: Are you surprised that your career as a pretend train engineer has lasted this long?
BV: This is my 18th season on the train. It still feels like yesterday that I started. I had no idea that this would turn into something that I’ve done almost half my life. If I would have known that this would blow up into something where I would have local, national and international exposure, I would have made sure I was born better looking.
KH: How many games have you missed?
BV: Since 2001, only 13 games. One in 2002 when my grandmother passed away and 12 in 2003 when I was in a bad car accident.
KH: And now the one everybody wonders about? Do you have access to a bathroom during games?
BV: No. None. Nada.
It's true. A security guard opens the door to let Vasquez on the tracks, locks the door behind him, and doesn’t open it again until the last out is recorded. Sometimes, it’s a matter of mind over bladder, like the 18-inning game that took five hours and 50 minutes to play in 2005. And you think fans have a hard time with long games?