As Derek Hamilton and the rest of Rice Owls trudge off the field, their comeback hopes gobbled up in a crisply turned double play, my 5-year-old turns to me with a pressing question. He isn't worried about how Hamilton is taking it or the fact that the favored Houston-area college baseball power now stands one loss from NCAA Tournament elimination.
No, he has hill concerns.
"Is the big hill closed for the year now?" he asks.
It turns out my entourage (two preschoolers, with the 5-year-old as the spokesman) has a lot in common with the rest of the crowd at Reckling Park. On this Saturday night, most of the folks in Reckling want to see Rice win (with the exception of the Baylor contingent). But they really want to see the fun of a Reckling season continue for more than just one more day.
There are few things in Houston that bring such unbridled, unburdened joy as a baseball game at Reckling Park. For my crew, it's the hill behind the outfield fence — and more specifically, rolling down it, a minimum of 10 to 20 times per game. No matter where our seats are at first pitch, we'll be on the outfield hill by the seventh-inning stretch.
For others, it's going to the game with the same buddy you always go to the game with or standing down the third base line and watching from behind the waist-high chain-link fence without anyone bugging you to move. That's one of the great things about Reckling, the overzealous ushers of Major League Baseball definitely don't live here.
Instead, an almost small-town feel — smack dab in the middle of a giant city, with the medical buildings towering in the background — does. But, maybe, for only one more day this year.
Rice must win two elimination games on Sunday — against Cal at 2 p.m. and against the Baylor Bears team they lost to 3-2 Saturday night at 6 p.m. — to extend its season, Reckling's season, one more day. Then, IF that happens, the Owls would still need to beat the Bears again Monday night to keep their season alive and bring more baseball (a Super Regional) to Reckling next weekend.
That's what happens when you fall into the losers bracket in an NCAA Tournament Regional. It's three straight wins or go home. Or in this case, stay home without any games to play. Third baseman Anthony Rendon could very well see his college career end before he becomes one of the top three picks in the MLB Draft on Monday night.
On the other hand, Baylor — which is now 2-0 against Rice and 4-1 overall playing in the city of Houston this season — only needs to win one more game to advance. The Owls are facing an uphill climb to keep that hill open.
It'd be crazy to think that the Owls would be aware of what another weekend of Reckling would mean to their fans. After all, most pro athletes — usually a little older and definitely more traveled than college baseball players — are barely self aware let alone at all fan aware (see Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant dropping $55,000 on a dinner in the middle of a recession). Yet, with Rice coach Wayne Graham you never know.
The 75-year-old Graham does things a little differently. After all, he told his team about a letter from a Rice fan who wrote that he was going to stop watching the Owls because they'd stopped playing a brand of baseball he could respect after the national power struggled to a 10-9 start this season.
It's hardly impossible to imagine Graham mentioning the fans to his team and what a run would mean to them. And not just the one guy calling out, "Come on! Don't make me start watching the Astros!"
The second largest crowd to ever see a Regional at Rice (nearly 5,000) shows Saturday night. The reserved seats sell out long before the game. The walk from the usual free parking is a little longer than usual. And if you're a part of it, you cannot help but be struck by how much of the scene isn't completely dependent on the game.
I notice several families that never seem to leave the covered picnic area near the left field corner, the one where you really cannot see anything of the field except the scoreboard. They might not have watched a single pitch. No matter. Their kids had fun playing in the dirt and the hamburgers tasted fine.
This sense of wonder can even extend to a seasoned sportswriter. I go to a lot of games, but they're almost all for work, almost all covered in a press box. I have little interest in trekking out to a game I'm not going to write about. My kids have no interest in the hulking atmosphere of Minute Maid Park. But Reckling's different. For all of us. My entourage will volunteer to go there. That's where they hear about their baseball-playing friends going.
Out on the outfield hill, the Owl Mascot is sitting in the grass, gesturing with a half dozen kids. "The Owl is the best babysitter!" one parent coos.
"Do you guys ever actually watch the game?" Baylor fan Marianne House asks, looking around. "... I love it! I can't believe I've never made it to a game here before."
And there you have, pretty much the universal reaction of a Reckling Park first timer. There are only so many of these nights though. Baylor's Josh Turley — a sophomore left hander from Texarkana — puts another weekend of them in serious jeopardy with an eyebrow-raising, 135-pitch complete game. (One hundred and thirty five pitches — is Baylor coach Steve Smith really Dusty Baker in disguise?)
Rendon goes 2-for-4 and drives in a run, but last year's National Player of the Year is still stuck on six home runs, still arguably one good shoulder away from being able to carry the Owls. So when Hamilton grounds into that double play to end it, my entourage has a last Saturday night request.
"Can we roll more?"
So we stay and they roll down the outfield hill as the lights on the big Methodist Hospital building beyond the wall continue to change colors and the Reckling grounds crew sprays the infield. You don't have to be old to understand that even at Reckling, you only get so many perfect nights.
Sure, Rice has won its way out of a Regional losers bracket before. Sure, it can be done. But, as any preschooler can tell you, it's all uphill from here.