A regular trip to Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi, Texas resulted in a life-changing night for longtime Houston Astros fan Stephen Peterson. Strolling through the left-center field kid zone with his two daughters, Chelsea and Candice, and pregnant wife, Natalie, Peterson stretched his connection with his hometown team to his growing family.
A native of Orange Grove, a town roughly 36 miles northwest of Whataburger Field, Peterson grew up on Hooks baseball. Since 2005, he’s been to countless games, owning season tickets from 2006 until 2016.
“I would go to games nonstop,” Peterson said. “I’m a diehard Astros fan, dude, like my whole life, like diehard. I have a ball that’s signed — from my first game — by Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Bill Spiers.”
But what made Aug. 18, 2021, different wasn’t just the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit uniforms or the Peterson family sitting away from its regular seats behind the first base dugout; it was a gesture from outfielder Alex McKenna.
After warming up before the top of the seventh inning with Matthew Barefoot, McKenna turned to the berm in right field. A pair of screaming children, who were just 5 and 6 years old at the time, called his name. The center fielder signaled to Peterson to catch the ball for them. Reeling in the 90-foot lob from McKenna, Peterson was hit with a realization.
The Peterson family was expecting in November. With three months to decide on a name, Stephen knew exactly what to name the next addition to his family.
“The wife wanted to name our daughter, Brooklyn, and I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want that name,'” Peterson said. “And (McKenna) threw the ball, and I was like, ‘Thanks McKenna.’ I was like, ‘McKenna?’ I’m like, hey, ‘what about McKenna Brooke?’ She’s like, ‘Oh my God, I love it.'”
Natalie struggled during her pregnancy with McKenna though. She suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a rare disease that causes extreme nausea. After being in the hospital for seven straight weeks, Natalie made it out to the game with Stephen and their two daughters in August 2021.
But McKenna’s birth was also a blessing to Natalie. After a miscarriage the year prior on her birthday, Natalie battled health complications to have McKenna. She even walked around that 2021 Hooks game with an IV that ran from a fanny pack into her arm.
McKenna Peterson will turn 19 months old on April 18. But her first year and a half hasn’t been smooth sailing. McKenna has a rare duplication disorder that has delayed her development from walking to speaking. She also has bicuspid aortic valve disease which affects her heart.
“She’s a happy little baby,” Peterson said. “None of that stuff is deterring her. She’s just doing therapy, and like I said, we’ll learn more as she gets older… With how big her head is and how much blood flow that is, that she’s going to have some sort of learning disability… I found out on May 2, I have Asperger’s. So we’re thinking that she’s going to be autistic just because I’m now learning that I have Autism.”
While her parents and her sisters live in San Antonio, McKenna currently stays with Stephen’s mother, Sherry, in Corpus Christi, as she receives therapy at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Visiting almost every weekend, the Peterson family is planning to continue their yearly tradition and take McKenna to her first-ever Hooks game Friday.
Forever connected to the Hooks, Peterson continues to follow Alex McKenna’s career in Corpus Christi. He drew the attention of McKenna this past spring, replying to a tweet from the Astros with a short story on why he named his daughter McKenna.
“It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever heard playing baseball,” Alex McKenna said. “Obviously, you never expect just from throwing a ball to a fan that it’s gonna mean that much to him. And I mean, obviously it’s really humbling to hear that, so that’s awesome.”
Ever since that August game in 2021, the Petersons considered themselves lifelong fans of Alex McKenna. Chelsea and Candice yell his name at every game for acknowledgment from the center fielder. And even though McKenna didn’t know the Petersons until Wednesday, he made the family’s day every game.
“We took the name because it sounded good,” Peterson said. “But once I saw my daughter’s face kind of light up from getting a ball, it was like honestly we were all fans of Alex.”
Alex McKenna is back in Corpus Christi to start the 2023 season. Opening Day is scheduled for Thursday at Whataburger Field against the Arkansas Travelers.
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