Astros fan skipped chemo to attend opening day, hoping this is finally the year

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Eugenia Rios woke up Monday and gently slipped into a bright orange shirt. Then she sat back down, fatigued.

She’s been coming to Astros games with her older sister since the early 1970s. She’d ridden high with the team when it made its lone World Series appearance a decade ago and stuck with it through a lot of losing years. Rios, 68, has been to every opening day since 1998.

She worries this one could be her last.  


“I wasn’t going to let a little brain cancer keep me from my Astros,” Rios said, a couple hours before Monday’s first pitch, lifting her cap to show the scar from her surgery. “This is the best team we’ve had in years.”

Opening day in America. A day cherished by baseball lovers everywhere. No team has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Everyone has hope.

That’s especially true in Houston, where sports talk radio hosts are predicting this might finally be the year.

Rios, who skipped her latest round of chemo on Friday to ensure she would be well enough to attend the game, smiled as the grounds crew began to clear the batting cage and other equipment from the field.

“Here we go,” she said, patting the leg of her older sister, Ardie Rocha. “I’m ready for that first pitch.”

It was Rocha, 74, who first fell in love with baseball. She used to listen to games on the radio with her daddy, back before the team moved into the Astrodome. The sisters started coming to games together in 1972 and never stopped.

Eugenia Rios, 68, has been to every Astros Opening Day since 1998. She's battling brain cancer, but hopes this is the year. Photo: Mike Hixenbaugh

Photo: Mike Hixenbaugh

Eugenia Rios, 68, has been to every Astros Opening Day since 1998. She’s battling brain cancer, but hopes this is the year.

“We live for this,” Rocha said, and then more quietly, motioning to her sister in her wheelchair: “She lives for this.”

They’ve shed a lot of tears along the way. The extra innings loss to the Mets in the 1986 National League Championship Series. The four-game World Series sweep in 2005.

Then there was 2014. The team was already having a miserable year by June. That’s when Rios got dizzy and fell. As the ambulance passed Minute Maid Park that night, Rios shouted to the driver: “Forget the hospital, drop me off here!”

She hadn’t realized how sick she was. The next day, a surgeon at Memorial Hermann Hospital removed three tumors from her brain, but he couldn’t get it all. Doctors told her she’d live three months, maybe six at most.

“We showed them,” Rios said, now nearly three years later. She jokes that she’s not going anywhere until she sees the Astros win it all.

Last year was a struggle, for both Rios and her team. The Astros faltered after coming into the year with big expectations; Rios was so sick from chemotherapy, she missed more games than she attended.

Jose Altuve, the team’s star second baseman, noticed she wasn’t around asking for autographs before games, so he wrote a letter saying he hoped she felt better soon.

“That really picked me up,” Rios said.

On the field, dozens of fans unfurled a giant American flag. Rios locked her wheelchair in place and strained to pull herself up for the national anthem.

Her hands were bruised from chemo, but she still clapped a few minutes later as the Astros took the field.

“I really feel like this is our year,” she said, shouting to be heard over the crowd as Dallas Keuchel took the mound against the Seattle Mariners.

His first pitch was in the dirt. A few later, the batter hit a single up the middle.

“That’s OK,” Rios said, clapping.

The game was only just beginning, and she planned to see it through to the end.

___

Mike Hixenbaugh writes about health care and medicine for the Chronicle. If you see him at the ballpark this year, he’ll probably be wearing a Cleveland Indians shirt. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Send him tips at mike.hixenbaugh@chron.com.


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