Culture / Sporting Life

Mauricio Dubon Reminds Everyone Of Just Who the Astros Are — Baseball’s Most Joyful Player Is Impossible Not to Appreciate and He May Have the Champs Back on Track

When a Helmet Spike Is Much More Than Just a Helmet Spike

BY // 09.21.23

Mauricio Dubon holds his batting helmet high above his head for an extra beat, before spiking it with the force and exclamation of one of those old Tiger Woods fist pumps. This isn’t just a walkoff win celebration. It’s an exorcism. A banishment of the funk and stress that started to threaten the Houston Astros’ annual October fun.

So yeah, this spike carries more hidden meanings than a message in a bottle.

“A lot, a lot,” Dubon tells PaperCity when I ask him what went into that spike. “Just emotion. Just you know, winning. It was my first (walkoff) ever. And honestly, how we started the year. And the middle of the year. People getting hurt. People going out. We’ve got everybody back (now).

“And I think late in September, it’s just emotion flying out.”

Sometimes a win is more than just a win. This 2-1 comeback, bottom of the ninth win over the American League pace setting Baltimore Orioles, who are definitely starting to believe in their own World Series visions, certainly qualifies. It takes a clubhouse of clutch performances for the Astros to get it. From all-important third starter Cristian Javier’s wicked 11 strikeout stuff to Jeremy Peña‘s game-tying RBI double to the wall in the eighth inning to wonder rookie Yainer Diaz’s own double to lead off the bottom of the ninth to set up Dubon. And there are a bunch of smaller, more hidden, gut checks too. Like October tough closer Ryan Pressly shaking off a blown save against these Orioles just two days earlier to post a scoreless top of the ninth.

But in the end, maybe it’s fitting it comes down to Dubon. The skinny guy who is still usually the slightest man on almost every field he steps on, the everyman utility man who carried such extra weight for Houston’s modern dynasty this season. Especially when Jose Altuve, the all-time greatest Astro, missed a huge chunk of the season.

Dubon didn’t just fill for Altuve at second base. He brought his own giant heart to the equation. His more well known and established teammates (these Astros still have plenty of stars) all saw that. And many of them fell in love with Mauricio Dubon the way that Altuve literally loves Justin Verlander.

“I mean, on the field he’s just a great player,” Pressly says. “Off the field too, he’s just an A plus human being. So you know, I’m happy for him. To get that walkoff is. . . He’s a great dude to have on this team. And we really appreciate him for sure.”

That comes through in the celebration. Alex Bregman leaps way higher than he does in any H-E-B cookout commercial, keeps tapping Dubon on the head in glee. Jose Abreu, the newly minted 10 year MLB veteran and former MVP, hustles over to dump a plastic water bottle over Dubon’s head. Peña playfully lifts up his teammate’s white Astros jersey. Diaz jumps right on the skinny guy’s back, seeking a lift from the fill-in who isn’t afraid to carry anything.

Astros Mauricio Dubon drives in the game winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning to beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 at Minute Maid Park
Mauricio Dubon holds his batting helmet up high for a moment after the walkoff. Then delivers a spike for the ages. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This the type of Minute Maid party these proud Astros have been dying to have, celebrating the type of walkoff win that defined so many of the Astros’ dominant home seasons during this golden age of Houston baseball. Dusty Baker’s team came into this Orioles game with only five wins when trailing in the seventh inning or later this entire season though.

For much of this weird, and sometimes seemingly lacking, World Series champions followup season, the Astros’ magic seems to be missing. You half expect to see one of those flashing highway signs asking for help in securing its return. Mojo Alert. Missing our usual championship mettle. If see, call the Astros offices.

But then against those dominant Orioles, Dubon flares a single into right field, sending Diaz scampering home from third. . . and The Juice Box is roaring again.

“I can only imagine the way he’s feeling,” Diaz says when I ask about Dubon’s walkoff. “Obviously a couple of months ago, I had that experience against Texas. And obviously it felt great. I was like telling him, ‘What it is like to feel that? What do you feel like right now?’ Must be great.”

Diaz grins and chuckles, seemingly try to tap into Dubon’s walkoff by osmosis. Heck, even Homer Jones, the speedy New York Giants receiver credited with starting football’s tradition of spiked ball celebrations back in the 1960s, would have appreciated Dubon’s helmet slam.

Leave it to Mauricio Dubon to bring the magic back. Leave it to the guy who’s done everything the Astros have needed him to do all season long. No job too big, no job too small.

“Just emotion. Just you know, winning. It was my first (walkoff) ever. And honestly, how we started the year. And the middle of the year. People getting hurt. People going out. We’ve got everybody back (now). And I think late in September, it’s just emotion flying out.” — Mauricio Dubon on his walkoff

Mauricio Dubon and The Long Journey

Dubon left his family in Honduras at age 15 to move in with a California family he barely knew to chase his crazy baseball dream. It wasn’t easy to move 2,600 miles across an ocean on his own as a teen. The US family that took him turned out to be great, but he still missed everything he knew, everyone he loved.

That’s not easy. Neither is sticking in Major League Baseball when you’re pegged as a probable journeyman, a utility man option. The now 29-year-old Dubon’s done both. This guy’s already conquered mountains. You really think the Orioles are going to scare him? Some birds?

In a way, that’s what this win is about. Yes, it keeps the Astros in first place in the American League West, a half game up on both the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, heading into the final regular season home games of the year this weekend. Yes, it assures that Dusty Baker’s proud champs are in control of their own destiny with nine regular season games left overall.

But more than that, it reminds these upstart Orioles, who are packed with more young talent than an old Brat Pack movie, and the rest of baseball just who these Astros are.

Still one of the toughest outs in sports’ history when everything is really on the line. Still the ones who embrace the pressure. Still the group — or connected to the groups and the remaining Core Four (Altuve, Bregman, Verlander and the injured Lance McCullers Jr.) — that have made six straight American League Championship Series since 2017.

Still one of the more together teams in recent professional sports’ memory.

“We lost the series,” Diaz says in Spanish of the Orioles two wins in this three-game set, with his words relayed by Astros translator Jenloy Herrera. “But this is a team that wasn’t going to give up. Obviously trying to win the game. This is not a team that just goes out there and rolls over.

“We understand how important these games are. These wins are.”

“I mean, on the field he’s just a great player. Off the field too, he’s just an A plus human being.” — Astros closer Ryan Pressly on Mauricio Dubon

This may be the win that’s looked on as the telling point if these Astros go on to make more noise in October.

Leave it to Mauricio Dubon to bring the magic back. Leave it to the guy who’s done everything the Astros have needed him to do all season long. No job too big, no job too small.

“It’s nice to see the guys happy and party,” Baker, the 74-year-old baseball lifer who’s seen it all in this game and still has thousands of people who want to help him manage. “Because it’s been a morgue in there the last couple of games.

“Boy, that was a huge game.”

And a huge moment. The kind of Minute Maid Magic moment that the Astros’ endlessly loyal fans — sometime this weekend against Kansas City, the three millionth fan of this 81-game home season will pass through a Minute Maid gate — have seemingly been endlessly waiting to see again.

Astros Mauricio Dubon drives in the game winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning to beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 at Minute Maid Park
Alex Bregman shows his hops for that Mauricio Dubon bottom of the ninth walkoff win. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Delivered by Dubon Orioles manager Brandon Hyde seemingly is the latest guy who doesn’t take Dubon seriously enough. With first base open, Hyde could have called for the an intentional walk of Dubon. That would have put the Astros’ chances on the bat of rookie Grae Kessinger, who only has eight hits in 39 at-bats, the last man on Dusty Baker’s bench.

Instead Dubon, a .282 with 125 hits and more than a few major moments this season, gets his chance. And wins the game on the first pitch he sees in the bottom of the ninth.

“Bring it in,” Dubon says when asked about his approach with the potential winning run on third base. “Bring it no matter what.”

Dubon’s big brown eyes always seem to be full of wonder. This man who brings his joy everywhere he goes. The Astros are damn lucky to have that — and him.

Really if you can’t appreciate Mauricio Dubon, you probably don’t really love baseball. He’s built quite a life for himself in the game, with a loving wife in Nancy Herrera Dubon and two pug dogs (and perhaps counting). Dubon knows he’s living the dream. On one afternoon at Minute Maid, he may just get the Astros back on track to reach their own ever lofty ones too.

“It’s pretty special,” Dubon says. “All year it’s been like that. Guys pulling for each other. Rooting for the next guy. I think that’s been pretty special.”

These Astros are still a special team. Dubon reminds them of that in the best way possible. With a little bit of magic.

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