I just won the World Series!

Springer trophy crowdHundreds of thousands of people turned out for a parade in downtown Houston today in honor of the Houston Astros, the big-league baseball team that accomplished something this year that it had never done in its first 55 years of existence: it won the World Series and the championship of Major League Baseball.  I do have one nit to pick with my fellow Houstonians on this score, though: not to say that the players weren’t a very important part of the calculus here, but “it takes a village” and I think they’re overlooking a critical component of the reason for the big win.  I think the Astros went all the way this year because I all but stopped going to their games.

CHRONColtStadium5The franchise was created as the Colt 45s in the National League in 1962, and played the first three years in Colt Stadium (which aspired to “ramshackle”), assembled on one edge of a construction site on the south side of town out beyond the Medical Center, while the Harris County Domed Stadium rose in the empty lot beyond.  When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it became home to the re-christened Astros.

We moved to Houston in the summer of 1966 and I saw my first Astros game within weeks of our arrival.  I’d been to lots of Minnesota Twins games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, and watched the Game of the Week on NBC every week (yes, kids, for most of America there was one game a week on TV) so I felt myself pretty worldly on the topic of major league ballparks and the novelty of an indoor baseball field wasn’t lost on this nine year old.  I’d started playing in organized leagues a few years before that and really loved the game; although the Astros in that era didn’t win a lot, the combination of the whiz-bang stadium and the chance to go to the game with my dad and to eat hot dogs and peanuts and stay up late was irresistible.

I left Houston to go to college in a town that didn’t have a major league team, and when I came back to visit there were plenty of other entertainment options I found more attractive than watching a bad baseball team, so my connection to my team weakened in those years.  I watched the 1980 League Championship Series against the Phillies on TV (my dad and youngest brother were in the stands) and I felt the pain of that close loss.  After college I came back to Houston for work and I started to go to games again, usually on my own at the last minute after work, and it was fun.

allstargame1986houstonastros85225The All Star Game in 1986 was scheduled for the Astrodome and my friends and I wanted to go.  Someone had a bright idea for how we could get tickets: rather than stand in line, we could buy a mini-season ticket package to the Astros 1986 season.  By shelling out for 16 or 20 games in the cheap seats in advance, we would be able to get All Star Game tickets (at face value) through the mail—and we’d get to go to 16 or 20 games in the same seats throughout the year.  There were five of us in that first group.

(At that time I was working at the local radio station that carried Astros games, and at the last minute there were tickets available to employees; I was able to get seats for my new wife and my parents, together in another location, while I sat with my group.)

The Astros were good that year: that was the year Mike Scott threw a no-hitter against the Giants to clinch the National League West and the team went to the championship series against the New York Mets.  As (mini-) season ticket holders, we had the option to buy playoff tickets, too, and ended up in the mezzanine in left field just inside the foul pole.  The teams split the first two games in Houston and the Mets tookHarcher homer two of the next three (Scott was the winning pitcher in both Houston wins), so Game 6 in the Dome was an elimination game (with Scott ready to pitch Game 7).  It was the most gut-wrenching game I ever watched: when Billy Hatcher hit that home run off the foul pole in the 14th inning, it was coming right to me!…and when Kevin Bass struck out with the winning run on base to end the game, it took me five minutes to sit down and another half hour to start shuffling to the exit.

But we were hooked—we were in for mini-season tickets year after year.  The group roster changed a few times—my dad joined the group and even took the job of dealing with the ticket office after he retired, and after he died one of my brothers picked up his seat; at one point the group expanded to twelve seats spread out over three rows; today the group includes the grown son of one of the original members—and as we got older and could afford it we got better and better seats, moving from the nosebleeds behind home plate down to the mezzanine about 20 rows behind the third base dugout, and finally up a level to the loge seats inside of first base.  When the team got good again, in the mid- and late-1990s, we were there for the playoffs every year—I had World Series tickets in my hands every year, tickets I could never use.

We were there in 1997 for what turned out to be the only home game of the first round of the playoffs, when the Braves swept the Astros behind Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.  (How did that team ever lose a series?)  We were there in 1998, when after watching Randy Johnson roll over the league after the trade we were gobsmacked to see the Padres’ Kevin Brown (Kevin freaking Brown?) strike out 16 Astros in eight innings.  And we were there in 1999, the last year in the Astrodome, to see the team lose the series by dropping two games to the Braves.

In 2000 the Astros movedEnron Field to a new ballpark in downtown Houston, built on the site of the abandoned rail yard, and we couldn’t wait to see the seating chart and pick out our new seats.  That first year we were upstairs behind first base; we learned pretty fast that that meant we were also looking into the setting sun, and in 2001 we moved to the third base side, and later to a couple of other spots down the left field line.  About five years ago we were able to get seats in the upper deck directly behind home plate—living the life.

We were there for that first Enron Field season when they lost 90 games, and then for the playoffs in 2001—when they were swept by the Braves.  They got back to the playoffs as a wild card team in 2004…against the Braves (freakin’ Braves), and we were there to see the split—before they beat the Braves in Atlanta to win their first playoff series ever!  That led to the LCS against the Cardinals, who won the first two games in St. Louis; we were there in our seats in Minute Maid Park as our team took three in a row—Carlos Beltran became our hero, Jim Edmonds became hated—before they went back to St. Louis needing one win, and got none.

And we were there in 2005.  We were there when the home town team took two from the Braves (freakin’ Braves), including the clincher on a walk-off home run by Chris BurkeAlbert Pujols in the bottom of the 18th inning.  We were there for the League Championship Series against St. Louis and saw the Astros win two of three, the loss being the game in which Albert Pujols hit a three run homer in the top of the ninth off of Brad Lidge that would still be going if it hadn’t the back wall of the building.  And we were there for the first World Series in Houston history, in which our guys got swept by the White Sox but were outscored by a total of only six runs in the four games.

And we were there for what came next.  You know how the Bible tells us the children of Israel were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years?  We envied them as we sat there watching our team turn to crap.  At first just mediocre and then pretty bad, they then got worse and then became the worst team in major league baseball…and, they had to change leagues!  Nothing was going our way, but we were there for all of it, every stinking season.

In 2015 the Astros surprised everyone, themselves included I believe, by getting to the wild card playoff, winning that game, and getting into a series against the Royals.  We were there for that one, too: we saw the win that put the team just one game away from the League Championship Series, and then the loss in which they gave away seven runs in the last two innings, and with it the heart of most every Astros fan.

That’s 30 years as a (mini-) season ticket holder and no championships to show for it.  I’m not an all-or-nothing guy when it comes to baseball—it’s worth going to the games for the experience, and the ambience, and the ballpark food and drink, even if you don’t win the World Series—but it was disappointing.  Somewhere in the middle of the 2016 season it just came to me that there was another way: drop out of the group and spend the money on better seats to fewer games.  When it came time to renew for 2017, I told the guys I’d chosen to let them press ahead without me.  I faded away from the group without any discussion…maybe they too felt, as teams frequently say when changing managers, that it was time for a change.

It turns out that I went to just one game in 2017: in the middle of the season on a weekend, which we never did in the group, and with my wife, which we rarely did in the group.  We sat in better seats, right behind home plate, and had a great afternoon at the ballpark.  I watched the games on TV and read the game reports in the paper every day.  The Astros were winning and winning, but when people would ask me if I thought they were for real this year I often said I expected them to come back to Earth, while thinking there was a good chance they would crash into the Earth and explode in a giant fireball.  Because they were still the Astros, and I’d seen plenty of Astros.

I watched every game of every round of the playoffs this season, and I could never get rid of the feeling of impending doom.  I just couldn’t go all in.  By the top of the 8th inning of the Game 7 in Los Angeles I had a feeling:

…but I wasn’t sure if it was still that doom thing weighing on me, or if my subconscious had finally decided to believe.  In the end, that didn’t matter: the Houston Astros won the Series in historic fashion, and I think that was clearly in no small part due to my absenting myself from their presence throughout the year.  So I felt a certain kind of personal pride this afternoon as I watched the Astros players lead the citizens through the streets of downtown…

https://twitter.com/12upSport/status/925935383271092225

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I’ve got some great news, and I’ve got some less than great news

The great news is that the sale of the Houston Astros was approved by the Major League Baseball owners at their quarterly meeting today.  The Dreaded Drayton McLane Era in Houston Astros history is expected to finally be smothered with a pillow by the middle of next week; this will do nothing to immediately get us any better players, but it will make a lot of people feel better.

This past May when the sale agreement with an investment group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane was announced, I unburdened myself on the subject of McLane’s star-crossed stewardship of my hometown team.  In retrospect, the only thing I’d change would be to include better examples of how splurging on big name free agents made McLane feel like he was building a champion but really only reinforced his legacy of misguided priorities:

Kaz Matsui.  Woody Williams.  Vinny Castilla.  Sid Fernandez.  Dwight Gooden.  Mike Hampton.  Jason Jennings.  Pat Listach.  Brett Myers.  Russ Ortiz.

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid and been lucky enough to always live in cities with big league teams, except for a few years as a small boy and then in college, so going to games regularly and seeing all the best players in person has been a big part of my life.  I’ve seen a few really good Houston teams, and I’ve seen quite a few really terrible ones since I first walked into the Astrodome in 1966, but since then the Astros have been my team.  Baseball fans are, among many things, loyal to their team.

But, I got so tired of sitting through season after season of McLane and his minions oh-so-earnestly soldiering on, unable to stop meddling in the baseball stuff they didn’t know about, from scouting to farm system to broadcasting and more, while conniving to get taxpayers to pick up most of the tab for a (beautiful) new playpen and then raising prices on everything we buy when we’re there.  And now to top it all off, the team on the field has turned from a prince into a frog.

So, I’ve got nothing but positive feelings about the old ownership hitting the bricks (not the ones they’re selling for $100).  The new guys could be worse, but I’m willing to take the chance that they’re not.  I’m not so positive about the upcoming opponents.

The less than great news is that this sale turned out, as suspected, to be contingent on moving the Astros out of the National League and into the American League’s West Division.  Probably starting in 2013—the season after next—after more than 50 years with a National League team and before that minor league teams that were associated with National League clubs dating back to the 1920s—Houston will become an American League city.  This bites.

Since the expansions and realignments leading up to the 1998 season, there have been three divisions in each league with five teams in most of those divisions, but the NL Central has had six teams and the AL West only four (I can’t remember why).  In the past few years it seems to have become important to even that out.  The rules won’t let any team owner be forced to change leagues, but the commissioner’s office took advantage of this opportunity and made the league change a requirement for approval of this sale.  The Astros’ new owner had to agree, or walk away from the whole deal.

Now the Astros will be in the same division with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and play a larger percentage of their games against them instead of against their current NL Central rivals.  Three of the AL West teams are in the Pacific time zone, which means the Astros will play a larger number of road games that won’t start until 9 p.m. Houston time and won’t end until midnight or more.  That will cut into the size of the TV and radio audiences in Houston, hurt ratings and hurt the team and the broadcasters financially.

It will mean a big change in which teams we see come to Houston.  Instead of three visits a year from the Cardinals and Cubs and other NL Central teams, and once a year from the Giants and Phillies and other National League teams, we may see all of them once a year at most. Instead, we’ll get a therapeutic dose of our new AL West buddies and annual drop-ins from not only the Yankees and Red Sox but the Twins and Orioles and Royals, too.  Oh boy.

And as for the idea that the Astros will have a wonderful rivalry with the Rangers…well, that may come to be, but it’s far from certain.  Notwithstanding all the balloon juice emanating from Major League Baseball about the “natural rivalry” between the two teams from Texas, let me presume to speak on behalf of Houston fans when I say, we don’t care about the Rangers.  Don’t hate ’em, just don’t care about ’em.  Never have.  I think Rangers fans feel the same way about the Astros, but I’ll stand to be corrected on that.

And yes, I believe watching a team that plays all of its games with the designated hitter will be annoying.  It won’t be the end of the world, but it won’t add to my enjoyment and excitement, either.  I’m just not a DH kind of guy.  Now it turns out that that will be part of the price I have to pay to get the Old Grocer out of my life and out from that seat behind home plate in the centerfield shot on my TV screen.

Well, things have been worse…did I mention Kaz Matsui?

April 12

1633, Galileo convicted of heresy; 1777, Henry Clay born; 1861, America’s Civil War began; 1878, Boss Tweed died; 1947, David Letterman born; 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock”; 1961, Douglas MacArthur declined an invitation to become baseball commissioner.  Oh yeah, and a man flew in space.

For the first time.  Ever. Gagarin

I’ve never felt the significance of that.  I understand the significance, but I can’t feel just how earthshaking that must have been to anyone who was more than, let’s say, 20, at the time: people old enough to have an understanding of how things are, who lived in a world where people didn’t leave the planet except in flights of fancy.

Fifty years ago I was four years old, the oldest of three kids living in Birmingham, Alabama.   I knew nothing about Yuri Gagarin or the Soviet Union, or the Redstone Arsenal just 50 miles away in Huntsville, where Wernher von Braun and his team were developing the heavy lift rocket that would make the moon landing possible.  (You had three TV stations to choose from (not counting educational television), if you were lucky, telephones had dials and many lived in booths, cars as well as fish had fins, the prestigious post-season college basketball tournament was the NIT, and there were only 16 big league baseball teams.)

Today I’m 50 years older; I live outside of Houston, and I work in the American space program, for the public affairs office at the Johnson Space Center.  Today I interviewed the astronaut who will command the last flight of the space shuttle, which is planned for this summer.   Just a regular work day.

If I can’t imagine the amazement that people felt 50 years ago, can I imagine what the world would be like if we had never left the planet, even for brief periods?  Would we have had any incentive to create semiconductors (and then faster semiconductors), to miniaturize computers, to put geostationary satellites in orbit?  Would we still have put a powerful telescope in orbit that would revolutionize astronomy, or have figured out a way to fix it once it got there?  Would Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas still have been inspired to create other worlds that in some ways have come true in ours?  Would the Colt .45s still be in the National League?

1965, first National League game at the Astrodome (Phillies 2, Astros 0; oh well).  Less than two months later Houston became the Mission Control Center for U.S. manned spaceflight on Gemini 4, the flight that featured the first American spacewalk.  Then we went to the moon—for that, I was old enough to feel the amazement.  Then we stopped going to the moon, or anywhere else in space.

1981, first space shuttle flight.  It was amazing to watch that launch—it was so much different than other rockets we’d seen—and I remember being very skeptical about that thing making a soft landing when it came down.  Then it started pulling off missions that the Mercury 7 only ever dreamed about: retrieving and repairing satellites, supporting all kinds of advanced and (to the layman) esoteric science research, staying in space for weeks at a time—weeks, I tell you!  Then docking to a Russian space station, then building one of our very own in a successful partnership with most of the Western world.  Now that’s amazing!

2011: the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle mission, and NASA announces where Enterprise, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will spend their retirement.

April 12, 2061: Boy, I wish I knew…

Easily, the best news of the day

(…even though the day is very young.)  The owner of the Houston Astros is getting seriouser about selling the team!  I can imagine no more encouraging news, or anything more likely to improve the team on the field, than for Drayton McLane, Jr. to get the hell out of the way, not even the blockbuster news of the trade for a 31-year-old .254-hitting shortstop (for reals).

UPDATE 9:30 am

Thanks to Astros County for pointing out that Mark Berman at Fox 26 broke this story last night.

UPDATE 5:00 pm

The Old Grocer confirms, the team is for sale…now if he can just find somebody to pay his criminally inflated asking price, we’re in business.  Oh, frabjous rapture!

Don’t bet these guys on golf (you’ll hurt yourself carrying all the money home)

If you want a fresh perspective on things, and to have fun, get some old high school friends together to play golf.  Note: this works to best effect when none of you is a good golfer.

golfers

That’s us—Tim, Pascal, Tom and Pat—on the 18th tee at Wildcat Golf Club’s Lakes Course, just before it rained, during our high school reunion golf outing earlier this month.  The rain was brief but we were already wet from the inside out anyway.  We ended up eight over par, which is distressingly poor in a scramble.  And we had a great time—what would you expect when you spend the day with friends you’ve had for almost 40 years?

I have assiduously avoided high school reunions since number 10, when I went to a Houston Astros game because I’d never been in the Skyboxes at the Astrodome…and as expected, found that a seat at the top of a ten story building is less than ideal for baseball watching if you’re at all interested in the game.  But that’s not why I skipped reunions; I was just never interested.  This time, I kiddingly replied that I’m always up to play golf, and someone called me on it.  Good on them…better for me.

I’ve been friends with these guys, and a couple of others, since we were freshmen in high school, and I never needed a reunion to find out how they were doing.  We don’t all see each other regularly, but it’s the kind of friendship where you can pick up a conversation that was put on hold months and months before.  And so we spent the afternoon, scuffing around the course, amusing one another with pathetic displays of athletic ability and laughing at all the old jokes, and all the old jokers.

It made me feel great to realize that I’ve got these these guys in my life, that we’re still comfortable around each other despite the years.

The four of us went out to eat together afterward because we’re all still growing boys (just not growing vertically any more).  We watched a ball game on TV and drank beer (that was mostly me) and later told the old jokes and talked about what’s new, and learned some things about one other, even after all these years.

After I got home, it got better.  My friend Mark—the guy I play golf with regularly, the guy who joined me to scout Wildcat since none of us had played it before; the guy who gave me his copy of “Golf in the Kingdom”—had wished me “Tempo and Short Grass” in an e-mail that included this:

I sent the Soundtrack of the Day along to my old friends so they could share that part of my day, too.