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Backe 'living a dream' with Astros10/09/2004 5:57 PM ET
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- There were 43,547 fans squeezed into sold-out Minute Maid Park on Saturday, but the Backe-backers stood out.
For one, they were all wearing red T-shirts with "BACKE" written across the back, above a big white No. 41.
And they were going absolutely nuts. The gang traveled from nearby Galveston, Texas, and spent more time on their feet during Game 3 of the National League Division Series than in their seats.
"I get just as goosed as he does," said Harold Backe, whose son, 26-year-old right-hander Brandon, was Houston's starting pitcher. "Someone made the comment that they think his excitement is inherited because they see some guy running up and down the aisle. I was high-fiving everyone."
Harold was there with Backe's stepmother, Nina, her parents and a slew of other red-shirted relatives. Brandon's mother, Gale, was in the house and so was his girlfriend, Dana.
Harold & Co. stood out, sitting there in the 22nd row of section 129, down the first-base line. But as the Astros got closer and closer to their 8-5 win over the Braves, the Backe clan was consumed by the rest of the crowd.
"This team, the Astros, has been my No. 1 team ever since I was a younger kid," Brandon Backe said. "Just to have the fans realize I'm from this area, living a dream, supporting me 100 percent, it's an awesome feeling. I can't ask for more. I'm living a dream, honestly."
By the time the Astros wrapped up their Game 3 win, and a 2-1 series lead, Brandon's day was done.
He pitched six innings, allowing two Braves runs on five hits. He walked two, one of them intentionally, and notched five strikeouts before leaving the game with Houston ahead, 4-2.
Backe's last pitch registered 94 mph, good for a whiff of Andruw Jones to cap a 1-2-3 inning.
"I was focused today, I really was," Backe said. "I didn't let anything bother me. I didn't want anything bad to happen today. I wanted to do something good today. I didn't want to miss that moment, you know?"
Mission accomplished, again. Just how many big games does this kid have in him?
"I thought he had our hitters off balance, like a veteran would do out there," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He pitched, for me, just like a veteran."
That's amazing, and not just because Backe is a 26-year-old making his 10th big league start. Exactly four years ago he was participating in the Instructional Leagues as a Tampa Bay farmhand, converting from an outfielder to a pitcher.
His breakthrough came late this season with the pitching-strapped Astros. Backe made nine regular-season starts, including the Astros' finale, when he beat the Rockies to help Houston clinch a playoff berth.
"I've known him for 10 years and it's been a great experience," Nina said. "We've just tried to help him through it. We never pushed him. He's done whatever he's wanted."
For his whole life, Brandon wanted to be an Astro.
"I play softball a lot, and he was born on my softball night," Harold said. "One week later, I had him at the ball field. He was raised by the softball team. By the time he was 6 years old he was out there shagging flies just like a grown man would."
Backe grew up idolizing Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. He was a multi-sport athlete at Galveston Ball High School and, as a senior in 1995-96, was scouted more as a star quarterback than as a baseball player.
But he showed plenty of promise on the diamond. In his last high school game, played against Spring High School at the University of Houston Cougars Stadium, Backe went the distance and then some.
"It went extra innings, 11, 12, 13 innings," Harold remembered. "Brandon was the pitcher and he threw 213 pitches; went the whole thing. Brandon wouldn't come out of a 2-2 ballgame until that 213th pitch, when a guy knocked it over the fence. We cried a little bit over that one."
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?
"Exactly," Harold said. "I know it did."
That's how the Backe clan looked at the decision he faced in the fall of 2000. Tampa Bay officials wanted Brandon to attend the Instructional Leagues and convert to pitching full time. With three pro seasons already invested, everyone was skeptical at first. Brandon admits he was "devastated."
"When that time came where he had to decide if he wanted to pitch or stay in the field, we would just sit in the Jacuzzi and talk about it," Nina said. "Eventually he said, 'I'll give it a try.'"
The Devil Rays fined Backe $5 every time he was caught with a bat. He shelled out $25 before finally focusing his efforts entirely on pitching.
Good thing. He made a brief appearance with the Devil Rays in 2002 and pitched in 28 games in 2003. Tampa Bay traded him to Houston on Dec. 14, 2003.
"It was amazing," Nina said. "I was cooking dinner with my daughter and people started calling. Finally, a news man called and I said, 'I'll talk to you, but only if you tell me it's true.'"
It was true. The Astros shipped Backe to his hometown Astros for third baseman Geoff Blum.
"I couldn't find [Harold] or Brandon or anybody to tell me for sure," Nina said. "I was so excited."
Does Brandon's 2004 success surprise dad? Not really.
"I would watch him in Little League and I can remember one particular game in the playoffs. He played shortstop and he played it like a pro," Harold said. "He had good, soft hands. He was just hands above everybody else on that field.
"At that point in time, I really think, reflecting back, it really solidified my belief that if God was willing, this kid was gonna make it."
But so soon?
"No," Harold and Nina chimed in unison.
"We really thought that this year was going to be a good learning year for him," Harold said. "But he probably needed another year or two before he would be recognized for real value."
Instead, Backe has emerged as the Astros' No. 3 starter behind a future Hall of Famer, Roger Clemens, and a 20-game winner, Roy Oswalt. Clemens will try to pitch the Astros to their first postseason series win in franchise history on Sunday at Minute Maid Park.
On Saturday, Backe was on the field with his idols. Biggio singled in the third inning before Carlos Beltran hit a two-run home run for a 2-0 Astros lead. Bagwell drove in one run and scored another.
The win left the Astros one win from the NL Championship Series. With Clemens slated to go on three days' rest in Game 4 and Oswalt ready to do the same, if needed for Game 5, Backe said he would do whatever it takes, too.
"I want to come back tomorrow if I can!" he joked. "It probably isn't going to happen."
If the Astros move on, Backe's day will come again.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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