Flanked by cardboard cutouts of Astros great Craig Biggio and mascot Orbit, Victor Lombrana creates a memory with sons Leonardo, left, and Nicholas.
Flanked by cardboard cutouts of Astros great Craig Biggio and…
Victor Lombrana grasped the elbow of his wife, Ali, as they waded through the crowd at Minute Maid Park before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series last week.
Ali guided her husband through the left-field entrance, up a ramp, down the stairs of Section 330 and to their right-field seats in Row 1.
They missed batting practice because of a complication with the baby-sitter of their infant sons. This upset Victor, a diehard wearing an Astros hat and matching navy polo who likes to catch as much of the action as possible.
He became a fan after meeting Jeff Bagwell as a boy. He then gravitated toward playing second base and later tried to make the University of Houston team as a walk-on. Once done competing, he coached his younger brother and Little League teams.
The Lombranas started attending games together after they met at UH in 2006. Although broke after college, they spent weekends reveling with Los Caballitos, a standing-room only section of the ballpark for fans of former hefty slugger Carlos Lee.
Victor rooted for the promising teams in the late 1990s that fell short and the rebuilding losers in the 2010s that stockpiled future talent.
The heartbreak has not deterred his love, but his experience at Minute Maid Park has changed significantly over the years.
To read this article in one of Houston’s most-spoken languages, click on the button below.
“I used to be out there all the time, but since my vision got worse, I’m more strategic about how I go about my day,” he said.
Condition with no cure
Victor has Type 2 Usher Syndrome, an incurable disease that rendered him deaf from birth and degenerated his peripheral vision. Although not completely blind at 32, he sees the world as if he were staring through a pinhole.
“Think of any place where I would be by myself,” Lombrana said, “it’s a hassle.”
Lombrana does not look impaired by the disease. His hearing aids are obscured behind his ears. He usually keeps a cane collapsed in his palm. He does not wear sunglasses or use a guide dog, as stereotypical of the blind.
“Sometimes, I wish I wore a T-shirt that said: ‘I’m blind and deaf,’ ” he said. “That’s been the biggest issue. I don’t look it.”
He studies maps of public venues to plan walking routes without Ali’s assistance. The mezzanine requires he take 33 steps up the stairs, 27 to the concessions and another 40 to 49 – depending on the foot traffic – to reach the restroom.
His hearing aids cannot decipher jumbled crowd noise or the overlap of music and public address announcer Rob Ford.
He cannot see the baseball well anymore.
“I can hear the pop, but I can never track the ball,” he said. “George Springer or Carlos Correa usually hit a ball to dead center. You hear everyone cheer up, and I assume it’s a home run. I don’t realize until 10 or 15 seconds after that it was an out.”
When it comes to foul balls, he tells his wife: “You’re on your own.”
Lombrana had hesitated to attend sporting events because he felt embarrassed to be seen holding on to his wife with one hand and a walking stick with the other.
“I’m learning to fully transition into identifying publicly with what I have,” he said.
Lombrana went through most of his life not feeling held back by his disease. He resisted wearing his hearing aids consistently until late in high school. Even by then, he tucked the hearing aids into his pocket before entering the bathroom because of a boyhood trauma: in second grade, kids used to yank them off his ears and run off while he used the restroom.
It took until he was a junior in college to learn he had Usher Syndrome. He thought he needed glasses to see the white board better. A specialist informed him he would be blind by age 30. His mother collapsed to the floor in tears upon hearing the news.
Adjusting on the fly
He had played sports and drove for 21 years without knowing his seeing ability, like tunnel vision, was different from that of his peers. He did not accept the truth. He kept driving his new Toyota Tacoma until he totaled it on his fifth car accident.
In the next decade, Lombrana narrowly avoided flunking out of college because of depression, secured a job as a financial analyst for MD Anderson in the same building where Ali works and started a family.
He has taken his sons, Leonardo, 3, and Nicholas, 1, to a few Astros games, too.
“It’s actually the perfect environment for someone like me,” Lombrana said. “I don’t have to conform to a being a certain way because of my vision and hearing loss.”
Lombrana noticed the awkward stares and hesitant high-fives of those seated near him during Game 1, but everyone settled in and acted like fans.
Unlike his former seats in the 100-level, his spot in the highest deck offers an expansive view and a spot closer to the video screens above the outfield. He sacrifices trying to see the players so that he can follow the game by scoreboard information – like who is batting, the pitch count and hit total – and caption board.
Real-time stenography by Susan Henley, a freelance court reporter at Astros’ and Rockets’ home games, is essential to cue fans like Lombrana into the ballpark entertainment. Henley said Minute Maid Park park became the first baseball venue to offer captioning.
She transcribes everything from Ford’s rousing lineup introductions to the seventh inning sing-a-long “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to a player’s signature video animations that precedes his at-bats.
For former outfielder Luke Scott, Henley typed: “Disembodied voice: Luke, I am your father.”
“Sometimes I’ll write the ‘Woo!’ they yell for Josh Reddick,” Henley said.
During Game 1, Lombrana stared down at his phone until a salsa song played. He perked up and looked at his wife.
“Oh, it’s Correa!” he said.
Game 7? He’ll be there
After watching Dallas Keuchel suppress the Yankees for an opening victory, Lombrana continued to follow the Astros online, which is easier for him than viewing them on television.
“Because it’s the playoffs now, the stadium noise overtakes the announcers,” he said. “I can’t stand Joe Buck anyway.”
But Lombrana has felt devastated by the three consecutive losses that let the Yankees take a 3-2 series lead.
“I can’t believe what’s happening,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re aware of the Houston dark cloud. The choking. We lose notoriously. Not only do we lose, we lose it in the worst way possible.”
After overcoming trauma, depression and a doctor’s misdiagnosis that he would not be able to see by 30, Lombrana cannot bear to watch another Houston sports collapse.
He said he will not engage with Game 6 on Friday out of superstition. It does not matter to him that Friday also is his 32nd birthday. He is too nervous to celebrate anything.
The throes of the series have effected Lombrana like any other Astros fan.
“I’ll watch Game 7,” he said. “If there is a Game 7.