Popslan Marketing Group is Michael Baxter

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I Liked That

He walked into the McDonalds at lunchtime. Standing around five-foot-ten, the young man was an impressive figure in his dark slacks and tie, starched white shirt and polished black boots.
On his hip was a holster where a semi-automatic handgun was cradled, and on his head sat a white western-style hat. It was the kind that the good guys always wear.
In the small town of Giddings, Texas people come and go, and everyone seems to know one-another. The modern-style McDonalds was filling with fresh-faced high school students ordering Big Mac meals and 12-pack McNuggets before heading back for afternoon classes. The scene was chaotic on both sides of the counter as a mix of top 40 tunes played from the ceiling speakers. Orders were taken and then filled by the small staff with military precision.

 As the man in the white hat made his way to the counter, students stepped aside and nodded while continuing their conversations about what teens tend to talk about. Then after placing his order he turned and walked in my direction to wait for his call.

 I noticed that the expression on his face had not changed since stepping into the madness of Mickey D's at high noon. It was a pleasant look. Not quite a smile, but pleasant, as if he were above the frey and shielded from the craziness.

 A group of three young girls stood next to me jabbering about some guy, and some girl, and some issue . . . but, they paused when the man passed close by and tipped his hat saying, "ladies". They froze mid-sentence to acknowledge his act of Texas courtesy, then giggled as girls that age tend to do. I heard one quietly whisper, "wow!".

 Weaving his way through the crowd he stepped past me. As he passed I looked down at the round silver badge pinned to his shirt. Within the circle was a star, and engraved around the star were the words, "Department of Public Safety - Texas Ranger". He wasn't a Walker Texas Ranger, he was a real Texas Ranger; quiet, business-like and polite to the ladies. He was minding his own business, but with a "don't mess with Texas or me" attitude. I liked that.

Pitcher Perfect

It's been close to 50-years since my last visit to a Minor League baseball game. It was the Atlanta Crackers back in the 1950s.

I remember going with my dad to the old Ponce de Leon Ball Park on Memorial Drive across from Sears to watch what would one day be known as one of the best ever in the Minors.

Since that time I've stayed a fan of the game giving my heart to only three teams: the Pittsburgh Pirates because I played for the Pirates in Little League; the Braves because I was a fan of Hank Aaron and Milo Hamilton; and the Houston Astros because now I'm old enough to respect the talent and character of men such as Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman.

Recently, my wife and I took in a game at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Texas, home of the Astro's Triple-A farm team, the Round Rock Express. Talents such as Houston pitcher Roy Oswalt, and outfielders Hunter Pence and Luke Scott have passed through that franchise on their way to the "bigs" in Houston.

The ball park was first class, a far cry from what I remember the Ponce de Leon park looking like near the end of its run. Turf to rival any major league field was surrounded by several thousand seats of green. Foul ball dinged brushed aluminum panels lined the walls of the upper deck, and there was seating for hundreds on the grassy outfield berms and in the glass-fronted box seats for fans with connections.

We paid a mind boggling $12.00 a ticket for two great seats behind the dugouts along the first base line. It was a perfect night for baseball in central Texas, and as the sun set one could feel the excitement; the excitement of small town baseball being played by young guys hoping to make their dreams come true.

Former Astros Jason Lane, Umberto Quintero and Matt Albers were in the line-up joined by a dugout full of fresh faces awaiting their chance to someday take the field at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Sitting among hundreds of retirees, school kids, families and longhorns from the University of Texas, we had expected to have fun, but never to have become a part of Minor League baseball history.

The game was close as the Nashville Sound's pitcher Manny Parra pitched his game. Strike outs, ground outs, fly outs continued to mount, inning after inning until the last history-making pitch.

The local newspaper reported it like this: "ROUND ROCK - He's been good all season, but on Monday Manny Parra was perfect. The 24-year-old from Sacramento retired all 27 batters he faced in Nashville's 3-0 victory over Round Rock, completing the eighth perfect game in Pacific Coast League history in just his second Triple-A start."

In the bottom of the ninth Parra clearly had the Round Rock fans in his corner. With each pitch they cheered, with each out the anticipation grew . . . imagine, a perfect game. One out . . . it couldn't have been scripted any better. Two outs . . . everyone was on their feet shouting encouragement to an opposing pitcher. Then came the pitch to clinch the game. A pop-up to second base and it was done.

Parra leaped from the mound into a bear hug from his catcher as the rest of the Nashville Sound piled-on, bouncing in unison like some giant uniformed ball of caps and cleats. The cheers and applause of the appreciative Texans continued to grow as the celebration on the field went on.

At some point Parra realized that the fans of the Round Rock Express were not leaving, but were in fact giving him the sort of thunderous ovation normally reserved for a hometown hero. It was then that the true quality of a professional shown through. Manny Parra stepped out from among his teammates and raised his cap to the crowd in sincere appreciation.

There was jubilation between the bases and in the stands as the young pitcher shared his accomplishment with everyone at Dell Diamond that night, as as we walked to the car the last image that I saw on the giant screen in center field was Parra signing autographs for young wannabes with big league dreams of their own.

Congraulations Manny Parra. Never lose your enthusiasm for the game and appreciation of those who wish you well.

Good Eats Along The Gulf

Sampling the food at mom and pop eateries while on the road can be an adventure. Will it be bland and tasteless, or too spicy to stomach? Will it be under cooked or blackened to a charcoal consistency? But based on the advice of the locals, maybe . . . just maybe you'll find a spot or two where the meal will be served up as a unexpected treat worthy of a blog. Welcome to my vacation at Dauphin Island, Alabama.

 Wrapped in a nautical theme of wall mounted trophy fish, nets and a large jewel tank aquarium, the Island's Barnacle Bill's offered a good assortment of tasty seafood and po-boys, but it was the jalapeno hushpuppies that rated them a spot in this posting. Golfball-sized and golden brown from the fryer, the hushpuppies were soft and moist on the inside and loaded with an onion-peppery punch.

 It took two visits to Bayley's Restaurant in Theodore, Alabama to feed our fix for seafood at this coastal landmark. Just a short drive north of the Island on the Dauphin Island Parkway, Bayley's mid-week specials beckoned and we answered the call. Thursday night was their famous "All You Care To Eat" fried mullet and cheese grits night. They had me at the mention of cheese grits. The mullet was crispy and surprisingly light for a fried dish, and the cheese grits were the best that I can remember . . . sorry Waffle House. The encore presentation on Friday night was Bayley's famous "All You Care To Eat" fried shrimp night. Again the meal was very good, the wait staff was friendly and phrases like, "more sweet tea hon?" and "where y'all from?" could be heard throughout the dining room.

 Saturday night was a belly buster as we dined at the Pelican Reef, not too far from Bayley's. It was a nice setting along the river, pleasure craft and commercial fishing boats came and went at the adjacent marina, and again, the seafood was excellent. We finished off a full pound of sweet crab claws to start; 62 golden pinchers. But what came next took dinner to another level; Wild Alabama Shrimp that had been netted earlier in the day. These mega jumbo shrimp were lightly battered and fried to create the perfect Gulf Coast delicacy. Combined with the twice baked potato filled with onions, garlic, cheese, bacon and other goodies, we went home totally satisfied convinced that no better edible treat would be had on this trip . . . we were so wrong!

On the trek home to Houston the next day we opted to stop for lunch at the famous Crawfish Town, USA in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. After the entre' of Catfish Melee', a breaded then pan fried fillet topped with seafood etouffee, came the sweetest surprise of the entire trip; a bread pudding like no other. The thick and hearty square was covered in a hot buttery sauce and sprinkles of powdered sugar. Having spent more than a year in Savannah, Georgia, I've had good bread pudding, but nothing to compare to this Cajun creation. When pressed for the secret to this bayou delight, the waitress said only, "We use a lot of bread."

 If food makes the vacation, this trip was the best ever . . . it was a getaway of good eats along the Gulf.

Michael Baxter is a Houston-based writer, photographer and marketing consultant.
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