Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Look at Astros Mascots

MASCOTS

 

You’ll see them running along the field before the game. One might find them dancing on top of a dugout in between innings and tossing t-shirts into the crowd. They’ll also be found along the concourse posing with kids and adults alike.  You also might find one performing a prank on the visiting team.  I’m talking about baseball mascots.  From Cincinnati’s “running man” to New York’s “Mr. Met” to Philadelphia’s “Phanatic”, baseball has seen its share of fluffy, fun characters parading throughout ballparks across the country.

The first Astros mascot actually wasn’t a cartoon or “thing”. He didn’t wear a fluffy costume with a jelly-belly but his background was built in space…sort of.  In January, 1965 Astros president Roy Hofheinz introduced comedian Bill Dana as the new team mascot.  Dana had been known on television with various appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and would appear as the “honorary eighth astronaut, Jose Jimenez”.  He appeared at the Astrodome performing comedic skits before games and dressed in a full Astros uniform.  Dana rubbed elbows with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Alan Shepard on Opening Day, 1965 when twenty-two U.S. astronauts tossed the ceremonial first pitch at the Astrodome. 

Upon seeing the Dome for the first time, Dana quipped, “If they would build a cemetery behind home plate, you’d never have to leave this place.  You really need a new word to describe it, and I guess the best word would be ‘astro-nomical’.  This is the ninth wonder of the world- one for each inning.  I can just hear the vendors in the stands now- ‘get your peanuts, popcorn, and caviar.’ With all these windows, they ought to put up a sign saying, ‘No Ball Playing Allowed.’  I guess they will have to revise ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ to ‘Take Me Into The Ball Game’. 

Bill Dana’s stint in Houston was short-lived, but secondary mascots emerged with Astrodome “Earthmen” who dressed in orange flight suits and space helmets serving on the grounds crew and vacuuming the Astroturf field before every Astros game.  There were many times that the crowd cheered on their Earthmen in action.  During games, “Chester Charge” appeared on the large Astrodome scoreboard leading the charge with a bugle for Astros fans.  The brainchild of Astrodome cartoonist Ed Henderson, Chester Charge appeared as a mascot in costume on the field during the 1970’s. 

The 1980’s saw the emergence of two Astros mascots.  Astrojack (a rabbit) and Astrodillo (an armadillo) appeared before and during Astros games dressed in the rainbow splash of orange, red and yellow team colors.  They would race around the field on three-wheelers and perform skits with the Dome’s Dixieland band, The Astronuts.  They were the first Houston mascots to circle around the seating levels of the Astrodome and interact directly with fans.

The Astros were without a mascot for a few years until January, 1990.  A new, jovial space alien simply name “Orbit” was introduced at Heflin Elementary School in Houston.  It was said Orbit was born on the “Sixth Moon on Fifth Planet in the 19th Galaxy in the solar system.”  Orbit clearly had baseball experience having played “third nebulux in the fourth dimension for the Orion Craters”, who won the Solar Series after he led the team with 2,040,850 space runs.  Orbit claimed pitchers with 23 arms tended to throw a nasty curveball.  Pop-ups from Orbit’s former world were said to have “taken up to four days to re-enter the atmosphere.” 

Orbit became an instant hit with Astros fans, blasting around the Astrodome in his shoulder-rainbow jersey and later switching to the midnight blue and gold of the late nineties. Orbit enjoyed a ten season run at the Astrodome, with his time in Houston ending after the 1999 season when the Astros were set to move into a new, modern, retractable-roofed ballpark in the heart of downtown Houston.  Orbit spent a year at with the Rookie League Martinsville Astros during the 2000 season before seemingly returning to his former home in deep space.     

“General Admission” debuted in the outfield pavilion seats in the midst of Orbit’s first tenure in Houston.  The General, in a blue and gold uniform, stood at his watch during every Astros at-bat and would fire his home run cannon from center field with the crack of each Astros homer.  This character, too, was gone after the final season played in the Astrodome.  Local actor Michael Kenny, who played General Admission, reappeared as the engineer of the Enron Field train along the outfield tracks in 2000.  Kenny passed along train duties to Enron Field tour guide and local writer, Bobby Vasquez, who has remained atop the tracks since 2001.  Michael Kenny moved on to become the Enron Field Tour Manager and today oversees the Astros Guest Services Department.

With the move to Enron Field in 2000 the Astros introduced Junction Jack, a rabbit dressed in a train conductor’s outfit.  The design captured the historical quality of the original ballpark site as a train station.  Junction Jack was created by local Houston artist, Logan Goodson, who also created the Astrodillo and Astrojack mascots. The idea of using a rabbit stemmed from then-Astros president Bob McLaren, whose young daughter loved bunnies.  Junction Jack eventually shed his conductor uniform for a full pinstripe Astros uniform of the 2000s and saw the great playoff runs of the 2004 and 2005 seasons. 

In 2012, the Astros began the process of rebranding the team with new colors and uniforms that coincided with Jim Crane’s new ownership group.  The Astros embraced their origins and history with the team emerging in navy and orange, the original team colors used from 1962-1993, on November 2nd.  With a modernized nod to the past, the Astros called upon an old friend and Orbit made his comeback to Houston with a motorcade straight from NASA.  His return has brought back memories from his days at the Astrodome and is certainly set to create more as he dons the new navy, orange, red and yellow Astros jersey of today. 

From Bill Dana, Chester Charge, Astrodillo, Junction Jack and Orbit, all of these characters have added entertainment during Astros games over five decades of major league baseball in Houston.  They create entertainment and humor in addition to providing a lighter side of sports.  The Colt .45s never had a mascot roaming the stands at Colt Stadium.  Perhaps the 90-degree heat summer heat of Houston would’ve proven an early demise of a gun-slinging character of the Old West.  It seems Roy Hofheinz had the right mind to wait until they moved into the 72-degree domed stadium.  Sounds like a wise choice to me.

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Rained-In at the Dome

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Fans of the movie Bull Durham will usually remember a great quote that said, “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.”

When the Astrodome opened in 1965 rain-outs became a thing of the past for Houston baseball. As a result, the rain check basically became obsolete. Houston had just completed a $31 million domed sports palace under the direction of Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz. Standing much like a flying saucer that had landed in the middle of southwest Houston; the Astrodome featured an 18-story roof and 6,600 tons of air-conditioning keeping this new environment a perfect 72 degrees in any season. “I knew with our heat, humidity and rain that the best chance for success was in the direction of a weather-proof, all-purpose stadium,” stated Hofheinz. Baseball games would be expected to always start on time. Despite man’s best efforts Mother Nature eventually found a way to make her stance, although it took eleven years after Houston’s “Eighth Wonder of the World” opened.

A rare summer cool front passed through Houston on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 15, 1976. Mixed with the warm air off the Gulf of Mexico just 50 miles to the south, a series of torrential downpours broke from the skies across the city. People began to encounter rising water on roads and highways as rush hour approached. Over seven inches of rain fell within a six hour period with no apparent end in sight.

The Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates were set to play the second contest of a three game series that night at the Astrodome. Houston lost the series opener 2-1 the night before when former Astro Jerry Reuss won over Astros fire-baller J.R. Richard. The Astros started June on a hot streak, winning eight of the first ten games in June but were now on a four-game losing skid with a 29-33 record. Both teams already arrived to the Astrodome in the early afternoon before the weather got worse. The pregame rituals of baseball players were well underway in the dry and well-protected catacombs of the Dome clubhouses.

News of city-wide flooding spread to the Astros front office as conditions began to worsen outside the Astrodome. It was reported that streets in the nearby Texas Medical Center were flooding. The outlying areas around the Astrodome also had high water along nearby access roads. Many Houstonians across the city were caught in sudden flash flooding and were forced to leave their vehicles. As time approached for Astrodome gates to open, there was already a clear sign of trouble. A number of Astros game-day employees couldn’t get to work because of the storm and there was a clear absence of fans arriving for the game. Word soon arrived that the umpiring crew got caught in flooded streets and it appeared they would not make it to the stadium at any time soon. At the very least, this game appeared to heading for a delay in start time.

Astros General Manager, Tal Smith, quickly assessed the situation and made the decision to postpone the game. The safety of fans and employees became the main concern. “We could’ve played the game. But if we announced that it was on, we would have been inviting misfortune. Many would have tried to make it and would have become stranded. We just felt it best to postpone it,” stated Smith.

Less than twenty fans did manage to make it to the Astrodome and found themselves stranded with no game to watch. They were treated to dinner in one of the stadium cafeterias by the Astros. The players decided to set up dinner tables on the field behind second base once the game was cancelled. Many of the Astros and Pirates were already dressed for the game. The few game-day employees who were able to make it to the Dome joined dinner on the field.

History once again had been made at the Houston Astrodome. A game had been cancelled on account of rain. “It wasn’t exactly a rain-out…it was a rain-in. We were bone dry inside,” said an Astrodome spokesman. The Astrodome actually had a history of small leaks during heavy rain, but a new roof had been installed during the 1974-75 offseason. This date actually wasn’t the first time Mother Nature intervened at the Dome. Rain previously caused a 54-minute delay to the start of an Astros game in 1975 when a five-inch downpour caused players and fans to arrive late. The “rain-in” game of 1976 was the first time an Astrodome game had been called due to rain, but it was not the first postponement. An exhibition game between the Astros and Minnesota Twins was cancelled on April 7, 1968 to mourn the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated three days prior. Before the days of the Astrodome, there had been just three actual rainouts at old Colt Stadium (all in 1962), where the Astros were previously named the Colt .45s.

The Astros extended their losing streak to six games following the rain-in but finally snapped it in Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium on June 20th. The June 15th game was rescheduled as part of a double header on August 15th in which the Astros were swept. In a season where the Astros were being operated by creditors following the bankruptcy of Roy Hofheinz, 1976 saw plenty of ups and downs. In the midst of it all were rumors on the sale of the Astros. On the field, J.R. Richard became Houston’s second 20-game winner, Cesar Cedeno won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove and Larry Dierker hurled the fifth no-hitter in franchise history. But no one that year will forget the day a game was called at the Astrodome on account of rain.