Hundreds 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.
The 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.
The 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 took 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 moved 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 Burke 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…