Five baseball caps lined the top of the well-worn couch with the floral cloth.
Don Marley reached for the navy one, faded in all the right places – like on the brim, bleached by the relentless Houston sun.
His wife Helen watched him closely from her recliner.
“He’s got much more,” she said. “I told him one day, I said, ‘Don, put them away.’”
Then she lowered her voice just slightly to mimic her husband of more than seven decades: “’Well, they’re handy when I’m ready,’ he told me.”
You know, for going to the store or whatever.
It depends on the day as to what cap Don is wearing, but one thing doesn’t change about the hats: There’s always a variation of a star for the logo.
Don and Helen Marley are two of the longest Astros season ticket holders. It’s a love affair that dates back to section 110 at the Astrodome back in 1974--or was it ‘73? They’ve been fans for so long, it’s hard to recall.
They can’t remember the date of their first Astros game, either, or which anniversary they’ve celebrated there. There have been several at the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park.
The Marleys talk of the Ryans (Nolan, Reid and Ruth), Stan Musial, Tal Smith and the 41st President of the United States as old friends.
Don even threw out the first pitch to his favorite player, Craig Biggio, on April 24, 1990. He threw it like a ballplayer, though. His beautiful form captured in time forever in a photograph. He did play semi-pro ball for three and a half year. Second base. El Dorado, Kansas.
That’s where he met his beautiful bride.
They went to high school together, but they weren’t high school sweethearts. Don served on a Navy aircraft carrier out in the Pacific during World War II for three and a half years. The ship was hit by a bomb and they had to bring it back to the states in February 1946, while Helen worked as a secretary for the city manager.
A couple of months later, Don came in to pay his water bill.
“One thing led to the next,” Helen said.
They had their first date in July. They married in September.
Do they remember what their first date was?
“A quickie,” Don said with a smirk.
“No, we didn’t have a baby for two more years,” Helen said. “We went to see the ‘King and I.’ Long ago.”
So long ago that they’ve had three daughters and 13 grandkids and great grandkids, combined, since then.
“We pretty much grew up on baseball,” Brona Hamlin, the Marley’s oldest daughter said.
Don taught Brona and her sisters Suzanne and Lisa, about the game and how to keep a scorecard.
“They just had to go,” Helen said. “We didn’t have babysitters. We just took them where we went.”
The Astros schedule took precedence over the days their daughters said I do.
That included spring training.
By day, Don was a hard worker for a pipeline company. He’s retired three times, the last for good. His house doesn’t exactly scream, “Ultimate Astros fan lives here!” The cozy brick ranch home has a homey smell and is warmed by years of memories.
He’s a simple man with simple answers. He likes baseball because, well, “I played it” and he always understood what was going on.
His fandom can’t be measured by the amount of swag he’s crammed into a room or by the latest jersey.
He’s not just a fan of Biggio because he’s a Hall of Famer, but because he watched him long before he was one.
He’s not your typical baseball fan because he knows all the stats or can recall how many innings that playoff game really went. You know the one. 2005. Braves vs. Astros. NLDS. Nearly six hours.
He thinks it went 18 innings. (He’s right.)
He’s in a class of his own because he’s been a fan longer than you or me. By decades, likely.
That doesn’t make him any less of a recliner manager though.
“We watch the games here at the house,” Helen said. “He does a lot of managing."
When he does go to the game, there’s only one thing he wears anymore. The jersey with his name on the back and No. 90 -- the Astros awarded it to him on his 90th birthday.
On the day of the Super Bowl, he sat with his daughters as he celebrated his 93rd.
"God, I can’t imagine them not being in his life,” Hamlin said of the Astros. “He’s so obsessed. And they’ve been good to him. I think that’s one of the things that’s kept him going.”
Kept him going from the Dome to Minute Maid, from Tal Smith to Tal’s Hill to a new center field -- from Cruz and Caminiti to Bagwell and Biggio and now Keuchel and Correa.
He’s from a time when tickets were a dollar and beers were free. That’s why his favorite night is dollar dog night.
And you can bet, on Monday during Opening Day when the Astros take the field for their 43rd season of fandom, Don and Helen Marley will still be deeply in love with each other and their ballteam. And Don will be wearing a well-worn hat and a jersey with his name on the back.
Because, you know, it was handy.
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