Houston Astros

The Houston Astros are one of those teams that you always think should have won more World Series titles than it did. Or more Pennants, at the very least. They’ve won two Pennants and one World Series title, both during the Millennium. But it’s pretty hard to argue that that haven’t had their chances in the past. Chances are something they’ve had plenty of. So are excellent players – Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Nolan Ryan are among their name players, but they’ve gotten a good chunk of mileage out of a considerable group of others as well.

The Astros haven’t done all that bad for a team which didn’t even let itself get called by its current name until three years after their creation. Yeah – when the Astros were founded, they were created as the Houston Colt .45s. This wasn’t even a move casualty. Anyway, while the Astros were brought into existence in 1962, there had been efforts to bring baseball to Houston for some time. One group tried to buy the St. Louis Cardinals and move them in 1952, but if you know anything about baseball and/or the city of St. Louis, you can imagine the attempt to do that going over about as well as a lead redbird. After that, a bunch of other people in Houston became parts of the massive Continental League bluff. But the thing about the Continental League bluff was that it worked, and it got New York City that NL team it wanted after the Giants and Dodgers took off to California. Today, that’s seen as a huge achievement on the part of the team that was put there, the New York Mets. But people forget that it also helped Houston win its team as well. The Astros were created at the same time. They threw a fan contest for a name and decided to name themselves after “the gun that won the west,” the Colt .45.

The AL had expanded earlier, and one of the AL’s expansion teams had managed to make a surprise run. The NL owners decided they couldn’t fathom such a disaster, so they had their teams reshuffle their rosters for the Expansion Draft, so teams had a chance to send all their good players into the minors and promote the scrubs. That being the case, no one was expecting the .45s to be any good, and they weren’t. They were bad enough that one of their pitchers, Richard Farrell, lost 20 games despite an ERA of 3.02. On the bright side, though, they managed to finish in eighth place. There were ten teams in the NL at the time, but even making room for their expansionist peers in New York City – the Mets could barely be called a team at all; they lost an incredible 120 games, still the modern record – there was at least one senior team worse than the .45s.

The following season saw the promise of a ton of young talent: Jimmy Wynn, Rusty Staub, and Joe Morgan all showed up for the first time. That ended up doing the Astors a whole fat load of good, because they finished in a lower position than they did the year before. They were in ninth! Still better than the Mets, but what in the damned world wasn’t? Pitcher Jim Umbricht died of cancer just days before Opening Day in 1964. He was 33, and he was also the only pitcher on the team to have a winning record by that point. Fans and other players loved him, and so the team retired his number a year later. It was also in December of 1964 that the team announced that it was changing its moniker to the Astros. It was just in time to move into their new stadium, which was called the Astrodome. And the Astrodome became the home of another new first – Astroturf, which was created because real grass wasn’t going to grow in the Astrodome.

As for the performance of the team itself, well, it fell into that little corner of sports hell where they looked good on paper and could start strong only to fall into their accustomed ninth-place spot when everything was settled. They continued to come up with talent: Doug Rader, Don Wilson, and Eddie Mathews all joined for the ride. There were highlights to spare as well, like a six-hour pitching duel in 1968 between Wilson and Tom Seaver of the Mets. In 1969, just when fans were starting to get familiar with some of the team faces, the Astros damn near blew up their roster. Bob Aspromonte was sent to the Braves, Staub was off to the expansion Montreal Expos, and one player the Astros were supposed to get from Montreal didn’t bother to show up in Houston, preferring instead to take a job – get this – manufacturing pens. The new influx of players included guys like Johnny Edwards, Denis Menke, and Denny Lemaster. But the Astros also still had Don Wilson, who kept right on pitching brilliantly. On May 1 of 1969, Wilson threw a no-hitter, and after the usual miserable April, the ‘Stros finally woke up. Six days later, the team tied a major league record when it turned seven double plays in a single game. By the end of May, the Astros had won 10 games in a row, and through the rest of the year, they held their own. They even managed to dominate their season series against the Mets, who eventually went on to win the World Series. At season’s end, the Astros went 81-81 – their first season of non-losing baseball.

In 1971, the Astros made one of baseball’s biggest trades with the Cincinnati Reds. Houston decided they would be better with Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart. All those players cost them was the services of Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and a prospect named Ed Armbrister. The entire trade was seen as an incredible one-sided stead for Cincy back then, and when that group of players shored up a bunch of problems the Reds were having and became key players for the mighty Big Red Machine, it looked more so in hindsight. No one could figure out why Houston gave up that much for that little. While Houston posted their first-ever winning record in strike-shortened 1972 at 84-69, Cincy won the Pennant that year. In the meantime, Houston spent the next couple of years finishing at a happy medium around .500.

Don Wilson was found dead in his car in January 1975 of carbon monoxide asphyxiation. His number was retired early in the season. The year was also the debut of the uniforms that would come to define the team indelibly as the HOUSTON ASTROS: A rainbow getup with various shades of red, orange, and yellow over a dark blue star. Fashion critics pan them at the time, and fashion critics continue to pan them now. And I’d like to take time to remind everyone right now that I’ve commented on how useless fashion critics and the fashion media in general are in my other blog, The Windy Nickel, many time. What counted for the Astros is that their fans loved them. They were so distinct that the Astros became a single-uniform team: The rainbow was what the team wore both at home and on the road. For the on-field product, the ‘Stros recruited Jose Cruz and Joe Niekro. Certainly, the Houston Astros finally looked like a team ready to forge ahead and create an identity for themselves! Surely, they would carve out their place in baseball history! Surely, they would… Go 64-97?! Yeah, that’s what they did, despite the high expectations. That was the worst record the Astros had posted at that point, and it stayed that way until 2011.

The Astros improved over the next two seasons, posting records of 80-82 and 81-81 respectively. It wasn’t until 1979, though, that an ownership change made plugging up a lot of the team’s holes possible. That year, Craig Reynolds was acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. Alan Ashby was taken in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. Pitcher Ken Forsch threw a no-hitter in the second game of the season, and Houston started playing great baseball all around. Cruz and Enos Cabell both stole 30 bases. Niekro won 21 games and posted an ERA of 3.00, and pitcher JR Richard supported those with 18 wins of his own. Closer Joe Sambito emerged with 22 saves. The Astros fought the Reds neck and neck for the entire season, but the Reds took a game and a half lead – which they kept when the two teams split a series against each other. That game and a half lead is how the year ended between Houston and Cincy. Even though the Reds won the division, the ‘Stros made themselves seen and heard as they posted an 89-73 record. It was their best record ever at the time, and the season changed the team’s fortunes for good.

For 1980, Joe Morgan returned, and by now he had two MVP Awards and two World Series rings under his belt. Houston also signed Texas native Nolan Ryan. In 1980, Houston came prepared with a dominant pitching staff: Between Ryan, Niekro, and Richard, facing Forsch – who had win numbers in double digits the previous couple of years – was almost a relief. Richard even received the honor of starting the All-Star Game – he was 10-4 with a 1.89 ERA at the time. Unfortunately, his arm had also been wearing out, and three days after the All-Star Game, he was told by a medical examiner to rest his arm. On July 30, he collapsed during a workout and wound up never playing again. The tragic irony of it is that the Astros got to be REALLY good that year. They went 93-70 and played in the NLCS, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. 1981 was a weird year because the players’ strike split it up into two halves. The Reds won more games than any of the other teams in the NL during that season, but they missed the playoffs because they didn’t win either half. The Astros finished 61-49 which, if MLB was doing it like any other season, would have placed them in third, behind Cincinnati and Los Angeles. But Houston got to the layoffs again as the winners of the second half and even managed to win their first two playoff games against the Dodgers. Then the Dodgers came and swept the next three in order to make it to the NLCS and, eventually, win the World Series.

The next few years saw a rebuilding. Over the time, they picked up a new pitcher, Mike Scott, who supplanted their slowly-departing group of pitchers. They also picked up a new GM in Dick Wagner and a new manager in Hal Lanier. Lanier was a student of the great Whitey Herzog, who developed a style based on speed, defense, and pitching. It was a style that came out of the development of Astroturf, which of course suited the Astros well. To begin 1986, Lanier went with a three-man pitching rotation between Ryan, Scott, and Bob Knepper. The Astros got the privilege of hosting the All-Star Game that year, and they had four players – Mike Scott, Kevin Bass, Glenn Davis, and Dave Smith – represent them. Keeping up a furious pace after the break, the ‘Stros posted five straight comeback wins, and eventually swept the San Francisco Giants in the series that clinched their division. Scott threw a no-hitter in the clinching game, finishing the year with an 18-10 record and a shiny new Cy Young Award. In the NLCS, they went up against their expansionist peers once more. While the Mets, with a 108-win record that paced baseball, were considered the Team of Destiny, the Astros fought them with everything they had. By all accounts, the Astros COULD have won the Pennant. By a great many accounts, they SHOULD have won the Pennant. In one of the greatest LCS series ever, the Astros gave up a 5-4 lead in the ninth inning of game three. When game six rolled around, New York had a 3-2 series lead. They had also had trouble hitting Mike Scott all season. And Houston was resting Scott for the sixth game to use him as their guy in a potential seventh game. Basically, if the Mets lost game six, they were probably going to lose the series. In the first inning, the Astros jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and that was it for runs until the ninth inning. In the ninth, Knepper gave up two runs, and Dave Smith was quickly trotted out to close. But Smith ended up walking Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry before giving up a sacrifice fly to Ray Knight which threw the game into extra innings. There was no more scoring until the 14th inning, when Wally Backman of the Mets hit a single and outfielder Billy Hatcher made an error. Houston got that run back, though, after Hatcher hit a homer at the bottom of the 14th. In the 16th inning, Strawberry hit a double which was driven home by Knight. The Mets ended up scoring three runs to take a 7-4 lead, but the Astros still rallied for two more runs before Jesse Orosco finally ended the game by striking out Kevin Bass. The 16-inning marathon was the longest game in postseason history, and the Mets won the series 4-2.

The NLCS loss quickly deflated the Astros, and they started having trouble again. While Craig Biggio came along in 1988, Jose Cruz and Nolan Ryan left. Biggio started to mature in the 90’s, and it helped that he was joined by Jeff Bagwell. A trade with the Baltimore Orioles brought along Curt Schilling, Pete Harnisch, and Steve Finley, and the team started to show consistent success. In the late 90’s, they won their division three years straight, and they set their franchise win mark at 102 in 1998. During this time, Biggio, Bagwell, Sean Berry, and Derek Bell became known as The Killer B’s, and the team kept that title even as the players rotated. But this only resulted in First-Round Playoff Hell. It was the Braves in 1997 and 1999 because of course it was the damned Braves, with a break for the San Diego Padres of all teams in 1998.

In the early Millennium, the Astros had a strong team. Biggio and Bagwell anchored them while players like Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent added firepower. But what Houston wanted was pitching, and in 2004 they went all out to get it. Andy Pettitte, a Yankees lefty who played as a member of New York’s vaunted Core Four during the 90’s dynasty, signed as a free agent. He was able to talk his good friend Roger Clemens out of retirement to join him. They made the Astros a huge Pennant favorite. Although Houston stood at 44-44 at the break, they went 46-26 in the second half of the season to win the Wild Card spot. (The mid-season addition of Carlos Beltran helped.) After beating the Braves in the playoffs, the Astros then went to the LCS again, this time to face the Cardinals. The Astros gave the Cardinals everything they had, and the series went to seven games, but they came up short again. Still, Houston had nothing to be ashamed of – the NLCS that year is widely considered the better of the LCS series, even though it got overshadowed by the Boston Red Sox and their heroics, defeating the Yankees after falling into a 3-0 series hole.

Again a Pennant favorite in 2005, the Astros started 15-30. They were so bad at that point that the Houston Chronicle wrote out a tombstone that said “RIP 2005 ASTROS.” But like the year before, the ‘Stros caught fire, going an incredible 42-17 until the end of July. Going into the Wild Card spot again, the Astros faced the Braves and eliminated them in four games. Then they faced the Cardinals in the NLCS again, this time winning in six games to bring the World Series to Texas for the first time ever. In the World Series, the Astros faced off against the Chicago White Sox, an outfit making its first World Series appearance since 1959 – three years before the creation of the Astros – and hunting for its first title in 88 years. The Series ended with Chicago sweeping Houston, but it wasn’t the inglorious spirit-crusher we think of when we think of a World Series sweep. The Astros fought valiantly in all four games, and they had serious chances to win them all. It was one of those series where the most necessary breaks just happened to go in Chicago’s direction.

You know what that means: Decline time! Yeah, Jeff Bagwell was moved during the offseason to make room for Berkman’s position change and the recent signing of Preston Wilson. A year later, they declined his contract option, ending his career. 2007 had a couple of highlights – the debut of Hunter Pence and Biggio’s 3000th hit – but the regression was there. It became apparent as the years went along; the Astros went 86-75 in 2008 and 74-88 in 2009. But the nadir finally set in for 2010. Berkman was traded that year, and Pence was out a year later. In 2011, the Astros fell to losing over 100 games for the first time in team history. They lost 106 games, and for the next few years, that figure got to be pretty familiar. The 100-loss number managed to climb up to 111 by 2013 before the Astros finally broke the habit with a 92-loss year in 2014. At least it was something. The Astros could build on it, but everyone would have to trust the process…

Which suddenly came together in 2015. While they didn’t win the division, they held onto first at two separate points of the season for extended lengths. They went 86-76 and got into the playoffs via the Wild Card Game, defeating the Yankees 3-0 before losing to the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. The next year brought a slight regression to 84 games, and the team missed the playoffs. Then came 2017 and paydirt. As early as 2014, Sports Illustrated was calling the 2017 World Series for Houston. SI is responsible for a lot of shoddy journalism (they recently wrote a feature about Tom Brady’s fitness guru, lavishing wild praise on him when anyone with rudimentary fitness education knows he’s a fucking quack), but they deadeye on this one. The ‘Stros jumped out to the head of their division, and by June they were an incredible 41-16. They were 60-29 by the break, 16 games in the lead of their division, which they ended up winning for the first time since 2001. (By the way, that made them the first team to win three different divisions.) In the playoffs, they beat the Red Sox in four games. Following that up, they ran out to a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS, but let the Yankees come back to force a seventh game – which is usually the kind of game the Yankees specialize in winning. Not this time, though. Houston clinched its second Pennant, and entered into a great World Series which truly matched the two best teams in baseball against each other: The 101-61 Houston Astros against the 104-58 Los Angeles Dodgers. And in a wild, exciting seven-game classic, the Astros clinched their first title ever, reducing the number of remaining baseball teams without a World Series title to seven.

Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, Jim Umbricht, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Don Wilson, Larry Dierker, and Jackie Robinson have all had their numbers retired in Houston. Bagwell and Biggio are the big two there. They’re indelibly identified as Astros, the ‘Stros being the only team either of them ever played for, and both played key roles on the 2005 Pennant winner. (That World Series, by the way, happened to be Bagwell’s final set of games in baseball.) Wilson died of asphyxiation prematurely, so his number retirement was probably done partly out of sentimentality, but he did put up an impressive resume: In eight years in baseball, he won 104 games and posted an ERA of 3.15. He went to one All-Star Game and pitched two no-hitters. Umbricht is the one there strictly for sentimentality. He was strictly a relief pitcher. He did have talent: His career ERA was 3.06. Being a reliever, though, his accomplishments tend to be lost among various starters and closers. The number of Lance Berkman hasn’t been issued since he was traded to the Yankees in 2010. Berkman’s number should probably be the next one retired by the Astros; his career ran from 1999 to 2013, and his years in Houston went from 1999 to 2010. He played in six All-Star Games, five of which were in Houston. (The sixth was in St. Louis in 2011, a year in which he won Comeback Player of the Year for a Cards team that won the World Series.) Daryl Kyle’s number hasn’t been reissued since his tragic death in 2013 of a heart attack. He was 33 and had 90 percent blockage in two coronary arteries.

For years, the Astros were identified by the Astrodome, a stadium that provided Major League Baseball with a large number of firsts: The Astrodome was the first indoor stadium in baseball. It was the world’s first multi-purpose indoor stadium, giving a home to not just the Astros, but later the NFL’s Oilers, occasionally the NBA’s Rockets, and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Being indoors, though, the Astrodome was faced with a problem baseball venues had never faced before: Grass sort of, you know, didn’t grow indoors. So now the Astros had to come up with a way to install grass in an environment that it wouldn’t be able to thrive in. So they came up with Astroturf, which was installed and which players quickly learned to hate. Astroturf didn’t have the softening blow of good old natural grass because it was basically a rug of cut paper over an inch of styrofoam. It did get into widespread usage, though, but after realizing how bad it was, teams eventually started moving back to grass. The Astroturf that’s still around has been improved a lot by evolving technology to better simulate the impact of natural grass, so Astroturf will probably always have a place in sports. But the original Astroturf also had a different impact on the way the ball moved, and that created a livelier style of baseball for a short time.

The Astrodome was replaced by Minute Maid Park in the Millennium. Minute Maid Park solved several of the problems the Astrodome presented – it has a retractable roof and natural grass. It also works the aesthetic of Houston’s old Union Station into its entrance, and to go with the train theme, a train comes out every time the Astros hit a home run. The reason I have to mention this, though, is because the Astros were now identified by another silly stadium feature: There was a hill with a flagpole right on the field. The hill was called Tal’s Hill, after Astros president Tal Smith. Smith proposed it as a way of making the field distinct and special. He pulled the idea from Crosley Field in Cincinnati, which also had a hill in center field. In his proposal, though, he overlooked the fact that Crosley Field closed in 1970 and was demolished two years later. Crosley had been built in 1912, during a time where fields had no real choice but to work the surrounding environments into their aesthetics rather than the other way around. Any ballplayers born the year Crosley closed would be entering their primes when Minute Maid opened, and they didn’t exactly warm to Tal’s Hill. Catches on Tal’s Hill were some of the league’s toughest. At 90 feet wide with a 30-degree incline, it was common for players to trip on it. Lance Berkman griped that if a ball rolled onto it, it wasn’t steep enough to roll back, so it had to be chased, at which point there was a risk of crashing into the flagpole. (The flagpole, in case you’re wondering, was in play.) Tal’s Hill was finally removed during the 2016-2017 offseason and replaced with additional seats.

The Astros have a couple of odd distinctions: One is that they switched from the NL to the AL. Now, they weren’t the first team to ever do that; the Milwaukee Brewers beat them when they switched from the AL to the NL. But the Astros were the team that switched leagues and managed to not only play in the LCS in both leagues, but play in the World Series in both leagues. In the process, they’ve been the division champion in three different divisions: The NL West, the NL Central, and the AL West. Only the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL have a similar accomplishment: They played in both the AFC and NFC Championships, and their accomplishment is somewhat marred by the fact that they only won the Conference Championship while playing in the NFC. All three Super Bowls they played in were for the NFC. More to the point, the Seahawks didn’t do it under two differing sets of rules; the Astros had to do it utilizing both the designated hitter and the pinch hitter. There might be (in fact, there probably are) teams in the NHL and NBA which have done the same thing, but that accomplishment is meaningless in both leagues because both of them are based on geographic location. And the NHL is in the habit of realigning its entire divisional and conference arrangements every few years.

We may keep forgetting the Houston Astros are there. But that’s okay because the Astros are in the habit of rousing us from our non-Astro slumber and keeping our attention to reminds us that they’re around every so often.

Pros

Put on some of baseball’s most dramatic and exciting shows when they’re good; only team to win the Pennant in both leagues; classic uniforms invoke a cool rainbow scheme

Cons

Notable trouble actually closing in LCS series; marquee players are few and far between; responsible for some of the worst stadium trends that ever existed

Should you be a fan?

Sure. And don’t let current bandwagon stigma bug you; it will go away in two years once people forget about the Astros again. It will still be gone once the team is good again, and fans will forget it ever existed at all.

 

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