ARLINGTON, Texas – The worst day of Aubrey Huff’s(notes) life came at age 6 when his father was shot and killed as an innocent bystander in somebody else’s domestic dispute. So by comparison, sitting at home eight years later watching Nolan Ryan pitch a no-hitter for the Texas Rangers with unused tickets to the game sitting next to the couch just stung a little.
Huff’s mother, Fonda, was given the tickets at the Winn-Dixie supermarket where she worked. When her son’s own baseball practice went late, she realized they couldn’t make the 90-minute drive from tiny Mineral Wells to Arlington in time for the game. They watched on TV instead and Huff cried in the ninth inning as Ryan blew away the Toronto Blue Jays for his seventh and last no-hitter.
[Photos: Aubrey Huff’s game day
Fast forward 19 years. Huff made it to Rangers Ballpark in plenty of time and brought untold numbers of Rangers fans to tears by blasting a two-run home run that helped the San Francisco Giants win Game 4 of the World Series 4-0 Sunday night. Sitting in the front row was none other than Nolan Ryan, now the Rangers president.
“Nolan was always my idol,” Huff said. “I wanted to be a pitcher because of him, but it turns out I didn't throw very hard."
Giants rookie Madison Bumgarner(notes) isn’t exactly Nolan Ryan either, but he delivered a performance as unforgettable as any no-hitter, pitching eight scoreless innings to put the Giants on the cusp of their first Series championship in their 53-year history in San Francisco. They last won a title in 1954, the year Willie Mays made his legendary over-the-head catch against the Cleveland Indians.
"He stole the show," Huff said of Bumgarner. "He's fearless."
One night after pulling back into the Series with a Game 3 victory, the Rangers were strangely punchless against the 21-year-old Bumgarner and closer Brian Wilson(notes), managing only three hits. It was a game in which one big swing made the difference, and it came from Huff, who grew up a huge Rangers fan, listening to games on the radio while his mom worked the seafood and meat counter at the Winn-Dixie.
"As soon as I hit it, I knew I had it," Huff said. "To come back home and do something like this was certainly a thrill."
A few years after Aubrey Huff II was killed in December 1983 while trying to wrest a handgun from an enraged Abilene man intent on shooting an apartment manager, Fonda used her credit card for a pitching machine and materials to build a batting cage behind the family’s trailer. The cage helped Aubrey cope with the emptiness of a fatherless upbringing, filling the hours with hundreds of swings. Along the way, he became a pretty good hitter.
“That was my whole goal in life,” Fonda told the Baltimore Sun in 2007. “They were not going to do without just because their dad was killed.”
Said Aubrey: "I told my mom one day that I wanted to be a pro baseball player. I was 8 or 9 years old. She bought me a batting cage on a whim, did it to keep me out of trouble as much as anything. But I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her making that decision."
The Huffs moved to Fort Worth when Aubrey was 16, and he played baseball and basketball at Brewer High School. A year later, the Rangers took residence in their new ballpark, the one Huff silenced with one swing Sunday night.
“I probably went to 100 games at the old Rangers stadium and here,” he said. “I was at the final game at the old park, when they moved home plate over to the new one. I watched that whole ceremony.”
Huff wasn’t drafted out of high school and attended a junior college on the Texas Panhandle for a year. He gained 25 pounds, developed power and was recruited by high-powered University of Miami. But he was so homesick that after a week he had Fonda travel to Florida to take him home. She made the trip but wouldn’t let him leave. Eventually Huff made friends – among them current Giants teammate Pat Burrell(notes) – and set school batting records.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted him and for the last 11 years he carved out a solid if unspectacular career playing with mostly losing teams. A free agent after the 2009 season, he was contemplating retirement in January because nobody offered him a job. Finally the Giants – in desperate need of power – signed him for one year and $3 million.
[Audience participation: Giants fans sing along to Journey anthem]
"It didn't sound too appealing hitting in that yard," he said, referring to the large outfield dimensions at AT&T Park. "But I had to jump on it."
Huff responded with a tremendous season, batting .290 with 26 homers, 86 RBIs and an .891 OPS. A left-handed hitter, he has held down the No. 3 spot in the batting order against right-handed pitchers. And against the Rangers’ Tommy Hunter(notes), he drove the first pitch, an 86 mph cutter, over the right-field fence with Andres Torres(notes) on base. The home run gave the Giants a 2-0 lead, which they extended with single runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
In the stands cheering for Aubrey was Fonda, who long ago moved on from the Winn-Dixie. She earned her teaching credential and master’s degree, and after a long teaching career in Texas and Florida now mentors math teachers.
And thanks in large part to her son, anybody can do the math now: The San Francisco Giants need one victory over the next three games to win their first World Series championship.
- Nolan Ryan