07/09/2004 12:36 PM ET
FanFest gets Express kickoff
Ryan opens 14th annual FanFest in Houston
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
|The All-Star FanFest is being held at the George R. Brown Convention Center. (Ben Platt/MLB.com)
HOUSTON -- Festivities for the 75th Major League Baseball All-Star Game are officially under way. A marching band and local legend Nolan Ryan helped get the party started Texas-style with Friday morning's opening ceremonies for the John Hancock All-Star FanFest at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Ryan and Astros ace Roger Clemens -- Houston-area residents who rank Nos. 1 and 2 respectively on the all-time strikeout list with a combined 9,926 whiffs and counting -- are the official spokespersons for the 14th annual FanFest, which is expected to draw 100,000 or more fans through its maze of exhibits and always-popular family attractions.
"It's a pleasure to co-host this with Roger," Ryan said during the morning ceremony. "It was exciting for me to come back to Houston and be associated with the Astros. FanFest is a special opportunity to give baseball to fans who might not have a ticket to the actual All-Star Game. Y'all enjoy the FanFest."
Clemens, a favorite to be named the starting pitcher for the National League in Tuesday's All-Star Game, will appear at the FanFest Saturday before his scheduled final start of the first half. In the meantime, fans began lining up for many attractions such as a Video Batting Cage where they can slug away at actual baseballs pitched by life-sized images of Major League pitchers such as the Rocket himself.
During the ceremony, giant replicas of Clemens' No. 22 Astros jersey and one of Ryan's classic rainbow-style Astros jerseys were raised to the rafters over "The Diamond" -- a carpeted and scaled-down version of an actual field -- in keeping with FanFest tradition.
Ryan was one of several dignitaries and executives who participated in the opening ceremony to kick off a four-day event that is billed as "Baseball Heaven On Earth." Other speakers included: Houston mayor Bill White; Astros owner Drayton McLane; Tim Brosan, executive vice president of business for Major League Baseball; and Carol Fulp, vice president of community relations for John Hancock Financial Services.
"We know how to have a good time in this city," White said. "I've been a little league and pony league Dad myself, my father was a coach, and we looked up at people who tried to excel in sports -- using the virtues of a player like Nolan Ryan. Even if he hadn't set all those records, he was someone you looked up to just in the way he went to work every day and conscientiously went about his job being the best he could be."
Then White told his fellow Houstonians to "put on a smile and show everyone why we're the greatest city in the greatest state in the greatest country in the history of the world!"
McLane, whose club will be host to the All-Star Game Tuesday at nearby Minute Maid Park, said, "People around the world will see what Houston is all about. ... This is where more than 100,000 people can come and experience baseball at its best."
The FanFest was first conducted during the 1991 All-Star Game week in Toronto, and it has become a way of giving something back to the community that throws the event. It is not only a great way to enjoy a complete baseball experience to those who will be traveling to Houston for this game, but also to those who might not be lucky enough to have one of the 40,000-plus tickets for the Midsummer Classic.
The event grows larger every year, with numerous daily events and attractions that include free autograph sessions with MLB legends, a traveling Hall of Fame exhibit, numerous interactive areas like the popular Steal Home Challenge, memorabilia galore and more.
"Every community kind of gets behind this, but the cohesiveness of this, from the mayor to the youth groups to civic organizations to the Astros club and in this instance two Hall of Famers (including Clemens as a future member) -- it really is over the top so far," Brosnan said. "They have a beautiful park here, and then there's the small matter of the Home Run Derby and this year's All-Star Game.
"We're going to see all of the living members of the 500 Home Run Club here, and all four active ones in the Home Run Derby. It's already the most competitive lineup of All-Stars on Tuesday that you can probably remember. It's kind of like a baseball fan's dream come true. A city only gets this once in a lifetime."
The speakers at the opening ceremony were surrounded by a ring of "baserunners" from the Houston City Youth group. One of the children, B.J. Johnson, threw out a ceremonial first pitch to Ryan, who followed the ceremony by conducting a question-and-answer session with a gathering of fans who had begun pouring into the convention center.
Other events that were scheduled for the first day of FanFest included: a Pepsi Pitch, Hit & Run Clinic with Hall of Famer Rod Carew and former Astros great Jimmy Wynn; a NASA Q&A session and skills clinic with astronauts; a Century 21 Major League Baseball Mascot Home Run Derby featuring eight MLB mascots matched with eight children from a Houston area Boys and Girls Club; and signing sessions with such local legends as Gaylord Perry, J.R. Richard, Mike Scott and Cesar Cedeno.
"It is literally the baseball capital of the world," Fulp said. "Not everyone has the opportunity to go to the All-Star Game, but everyone can experience this. You can truly experience the excitement of Major League Baseball and its All-Star week with FanFest."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.