This is a love story and a hate story. It is about the love of baseball, the love of two teams and the love of two 5¼-ounce jewels. And none of that love would exist if the two people who shared it didn't hate each other a little.
When Ellie Hernandez met Mike Dawid, she told him he was perfect – except for how he adored the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike worshipped her, too, even if she was naïve enough to root for the Houston Astros. No, this wasn't an Ohio State guy coupling with a Michigan girl. Not every sports rivalry can subsist on bloodthirstiness. A shared division provided ample animus.
At their wedding reception, with "Celebration" blasting and 220 people awaiting their entry, he stepped through the doors with a Cardinals jersey over his tux and she draped an Astros jersey on top of her dress. When the Cardinals made the World Series last season, Ellie came home the next day wearing a hat of their opponent, the Texas Rangers.
"I am the best wife supporting my husband and his team," she said.
"When you sleep with the enemy, those kinds of things happen," he said.
Because she's scheduled to work at her family's restaurant on her third wedding anniversary tomorrow, Ellie poked around for replacement ideas in the days leading up to it. And there it was: Cardinals at Astros, last Thursday, the perfect opportunity to remind themselves how much they love each other by nurturing that little sliver of hate for a few hours.
Two seats, $37 apiece, in Section 100, part of the Crawford Boxes bleachers down the left-field line. In their years living in Houston, never had they sat there together. He would wear his Cardinals T-shirt. She would wear her Astros T-shirt. They would flay one another. And who knows? Maybe they'd see a home run or two.
They thought nothing of the ball waiting in Ellie's seat. Not that it was some sort of an omen or harbinger. It was just a batting-practice ball, one of a hundred, and it had wedged itself in the crook of the fold-down chair, a nice little anniversary gift before the first pitch.
Perhaps Jose Altuve hit it, she proffered. The mystery made it special. It might have been the 5-foot-5 dynamo. Or even, heaven forbid, a Cardinal. Part of baseball's charm is in such unexpected pleasures. Catching a foul ball feels special. Finding a ball that a hitter mustered over the fence – a feat of strength, hand-eye coordination and precision, even at batting-practice speeds – means finding something done well.
That would've satiated them fine. The ball and a night with Mike made the tickets plenty worth it. Except that in the first inning, Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie popped a Lance Lynn pitch to left field. It scaled the 19-foot wall. A guy sitting in the front row with a glove whiffed, and the ball bounced up the stairs, a row behind Ellie. She jumped out of her seat, beat two men to it, picked it up and high-fived Mike.
She compared the balls. The BP version was scuffed up. The game version bore a gold logo celebrating the Astros' 50th anniversary. A little boy, maybe 4 or 5, approached Ellie to examine her prize.
"He wanted to see the ball," she said. "He didn't want it. But I figured I'd just give it to him. I don't have kids myself."
It marked the high point of the Astros' night. Not Ellie's. She and Mike stuck around until the ninth, when the Cardinals led 12-2 and October hero David Freese stepped in. Two innings earlier he had hit a grand slam. This swing produced something even more majestic, a deep shot heading to the exact same place as Lowrie's ball. The crowd had thinned, and Mike scurried toward the stairway, bent over, grabbed his trophy and thrust it into the air, like he'd discovered Captain Kidd's buried treasure.
"Oh my God!" Ellie yelled. "You got a David Freese ball!"
"Yep," Mike said. "Does this remind you of the World Series?"
Every baseball has a story, and the two that ended up in the married couple's hands when they were celebrating their anniversary can't be told without one another. Snagging a home run ball is a dream plenty never achieve. A husband and wife each got one the same night. Think about how amazing that is. Maybe it happened somewhere before. Maybe not. This game has lived for a century and a half now, and it took unparalleled synchronicity to place those balls in the Dawids' hands.
Ellie's came in the first inning, when Houston traffic surely could have ensnared them before first pitch. And Mike's arrived in the ninth, by which time a barren Minute Maid Park had mostly cleared out because of the double-digit deficit and few would fault anyone for leaving to beat traffic.
Lynn, the pitcher who allowed the homer to Lowrie, had yielded one in his previous 45 1/3 innings. And of his 12 home runs this year, it was Lowrie's only off a curveball. Lowrie has hit 17 career homers from the left side. This was his first to leave to the opposite field.
Freese had homered 25 times in his career. This was the first time he hit two in one game. And for him to get the perfect swing, it took Brian Bogusevic, a outfielder converted from pitcher because he was so dreadful, bailing out the Astros' bullpen by throwing a pitch for the first time since July 4, 2008. It was a meatball, and the Dawids' confluence of fortune was complete.
"At least I've still got mine," Mike said. "Sitting right here at the house. Looking right at it."
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In the background, Ellie muttered something about keeping her BP ball, a worthwhile, if not quite as memorable, souvenir from an indelible anniversary. Mike is 31, Ellie 30, and hopefully they'll have plenty more. In the past, they had gone out to dinner, hit a concert – typical fare.
"This," she said, "is going to be tough to beat."
Because last Thursday was baseball at its best. Unpredictable, interactive, fun, wild, immersive – a breathing dichotomy: two people who were supposed to hate each other couldn't help but love everything about that perfect night.
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