'Los Caballitos' riding high in Houston

Lee fans riding high in Houston

HOUSTON -- Before most home games, Carlos Lee runs to his spot in left field, looks up toward the standing-room-only section above left-center, gazes at the cluster of No. 45 jersey-clad fans, and offers a modest wave.

The subdued shout-out is for "Los Caballitos" (Spanish for "The Little Horses"), the latest fan craze at Minute Maid Park.

Clearly, it didn't take Lee, a newcomer to Houston, long to win over the Astros' fanbase. The name Los Caballitos is a spinoff of Lee's nickname, "El Caballo" -- "The Horse." Los Caballitos began as a 10-person cheering section but is growing in size and popularity, which is understandable, considering they're enthusiastic, boistrous and -- with their stick ponies, straw hats and Carlos Lee No. 45 jerseys -- hard to ignore.

That's particularly true when Lee hits a home run. As soon as the burly left fielder begins to round the bases, Los Caballitos go to work, riding their stick ponies up and down the concourse area that runs along the outfield.

"They're cool guys," Lee said. "They proved they're loyal fans. They've been there through the good and bad. They've been there pretty much every day. Every time I look up there, that group is just growing and growing."

Lee once even joined in on the fun. The relationship began early in the season, prior to a mid-April game with the Marlins. A couple of members of the Los Caballitos gang, carrying their stick ponies, made their way down to the area near the Astros' dugout to try to obtain Lee's autograph on a ball he threw to one of them in a prior game.

They handed Lee a stick pony and offered specific instructions.

"We told him when he hits a home run, he has to ride the horse around the bases," said Los Caballitos leader Ernie Quijada. "But he was like, 'I can't do that.'"

But Lee did the next best thing. He rode the horse as requested -- in the dugout.

"They told me if I hit a homer I would have to ride it," Lee said. "I promised them I would. I did."

That night, Lee hit a two-run blast against the Marlins, contributing to a 6-1 win. As soon as Lee returned from his run around the bases, he grabbed the stick pony and, true to word, he giddy-upped in the dugout, much to the delight of his teammates, not to mention Los Caballitos.

The founding fathers of Los Caballitos started as a small group, led by Ernie and Danny Quijada, Joaquin Guerrero, Coco Drogaris, Emmanuel Lopez and Pedro Hinjosa. The interest is growing, however, and the club is open to accepting new members, as long as they bring a stick horse and a straw cowboy hat and wear a Lee jersey. It also helps if you're willing to ride the horse on the concourse after Lee goes deep.

Originally, Los Caballitos planned to go to a handful of games. But as their popularity grew, so did the pressure for perfect attendance. They're at every game, paying for tickets out of their own pockets. They are not season ticket holders, but they buy the $7 bleacher tickets and also take advantage of promotions, like the recent 10-games-for-$20 and a two-for-one deal.

Lee can't count on hitting a home run every night, but he has grown accustomed to looking up toward the balcony standing-room-only section that overlooks left-center. And, like clockwork, he gives them his usual wave.

"Always," Lee said. "Every game when I go out there to get ready for the game, it's the first thing I do."

Lee keeps his stick horse in his locker and doesn't bring it on the road with him -- "It's a home horse," he explained -- but he's toying with the idea of bringing it to the dugout for a game in the near future.

"I'll have to bring him out one of these days," Lee said. "I see those horses everywhere in the ballpark. I see them in left field, behind the dugout ... I'm like, are they selling these?"

Indeed, they are. Stick ponies are available for $30 in The Shed, the Astros' team shop located in Union Station. Currently, they're completely sold out -- a good indication that Los Caballitos have arrived as the newest cult favorite among Astros fans.

The charter members are taking the attention in stride.

"The first day we walked in and everyone said, 'What are ya'll doing?'" Ernie Quijada said. "Now everyone says, 'We see you on TV all the time.' It's been a lot of fun."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.