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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You never forget your first time

These days a mini-season ticket package for the Houston Astros gets you a seat to 28 games out of the 81-game home schedule, at least one game in every series the team plays at Minute Maid Park over the long baseball season.  My ticket for last Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers has been sitting on the shelf in my office since March, drawing no more attention than any of the 27 others on the pre-perforated sheets that I keep in the original mailing envelope.  When a colleague at work asked on Friday morning who that night’s starters would be, I had no idea and had to look it up.

The big news about this interleague series between one-time National League rivals was that Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ two best pitchers—two of the best in baseball—were to face the Astros on Saturday and Sunday.  The Dodgers’ Friday starter Brett Anderson was OK but not up to the level of his teammates, and the Astros’ Mike Fiers…well, he’s new here, and hasn’t really shown much so far.  The match-up didn’t generate much enthusiasm.

When I got to my seat the thing that had my full attention was something I’d forgotten.  At the game on Tuesday my friend Paul was wearing an AstrospMLB2-16625621dt blue batting practice jersey with the name and number of a player not on the team any more. He explained that he and other friends had wandered into a store that sells jerseys that were worn by players in real games, and as a joke they decided to treat themselves to the shirts of some players who might be said to have laid the groundwork for the first-place Astros of today.  That is, bad players who aren’t here anymore, or so-so players who’d been traded for better players: Paul was wearing Jarred Cosart’s Number 48, David had Brett Wallace’s Number 29.  He suggested I join the fun.

Sure, why not.  But that night the one store carrying those jerseys closed before I could get there, and Friday night I forgot all about it until I got to our seats and saw Paul.  So, with a giant beer in one hand and a giant soft pretzel in the other, and only fifteen minutes before first pitch, I set off: down from our upper level seats behind home plate to the concourse, around the concourse to a stairwell, down three flights of stairs to the main level, and the rest of the way around to the shop behind center field.  To improve my overall mobility, I stuffed the pretzel in my mouth and swallowed the last of it as I arrived at the Island of Misfit’s Jerseys, and put the can of beer on the ground so I could dig through the racks.  I must have spent four whole minutes grubbing through the hangers until I found a jersey that fit: not only from a player who fit the requirements for inclusion in our little stunt, but a shirt that fit me.  I walked away with the Number 22 of former backup catcher Carlos Corporan, in a size 50.  Jersey sizes run pretty big.

I was feeling it: not content to carry my trophy IMG_0220back upstairs folded up in a plastic bag, I threw it on over the shirt I was wearing, picked up my big beer and retraced my steps back around the concourse to the stairwell, up three flights to the View Deck (no, really, that’s what the upper level is called at Minute Maid Park), back around behind home and back to my section as the national anthem began.  I waited on the stairs, and after “…home of the brave” I bounced up on the front of our section, yelled for Paul’s attention and spun around to show off my prize.  He laughed as I dragged myself up the last six rows and plopped down before the first pitch.

Fiers had a slow start and was throwing a lot of pitches; I was sweating in the air conditioned building, a combination of catching my breath from my impromptu shopping trip and, as mentioned, I was wearing two shirts; before the Dodgers went down in the first I’d unbuttoned the Corporan.  By the end of the second I needed another beer, so that’s another trip down from Row 6, over to the concession stand that sells the cold beer (gotta know these things to be an Astros fan), and then back upstairs; I’d cooled off enough by then that I could button the jersey back up and look presentable.  The Astros’ pitcher had throw to the plate 60 times by the end of the third inning and didn’t look sharp, probably not long for this game.

By that time Paul had adjourned to meet other friends and I was fiddling with my phone, trying to get Twitter to work either with or without the stadium’s wi-fi and not having any luck.  I remember looking up at the scoreboard each inning and seeing that the Dodgers still had no hits, and thinking there was no way Fiers could stay in the game until the end.  But he kept coming back…and back…and back again.  He struck out the side in the 8th.

The Astros did nothing in the 8th, and every eye around me turned to the home team dugout:

Yep, by then I was getting some connection on Twitter and I decided to see if my fat typing thumbs on a tiny virtual keyboard could keep up with the action:

Now wait a minute…

…this could really happen…

(It was Chase Utley’s first game with the Dodgers after the trade, and it took me until the middle of the game to realize: he was back together with Jimmy Rollins, his teammate from the Phillies who’d signed with Los Angeles in the off season.  So much for being aware of what’s going on!)

And that brought up Justin Turner, a Dodger I really had never heard of before…

I think this is going to happen…

Yes, I really think this is about to happen…here comes pitch number 134 of the night:

20150821_astrosdodgers_btc_12IMG_0219First no hitter in Mike Fiers’ career, which now totals just 59 starts, only three of them for Houston since he came over in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers just under the waiver deadline last month.  It’s the first no hitter ever thrown at Minute Maid Park, now in its sixteenth season, and the first one I’ve seen in person in a baseball-watching career that’s significantly longer than sixteen years.  I’m proud to say that I had enough awareness in the moment to turn on the camera on my phone and point it at the players celebrating on the field, and also at the people around me who were a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ and jumpin’ ever’ which way at this most unexpected turn of events on a Friday night.  I’m less proud of my skill at operating the smartphone and Twitter:

Yes, there was grumbling from the Dodgers on Friday about the umpiring, and a story today about accusations of a foreign substance seen in Fiers’ glove, but it really did happen: I got a new shirt just in time to see a little baseball history made in this unlikeliest of Houston Astros’ seasons.

A peek behind the curtain at The Juice Box

“OK, folks, let’s get today’s marketing department meeting started—Ben, what’s the view from the street?”

“Guys, this is highly unusual in Houston, but the baseball team is running a poor fourth vis a vis buzz on the streets right now: the football team has everyone’s attention and sympathy after winning the division and just barely losing the game that would have gotten them into the conference championship; the Rockets have gotten back over .500 and actually have a six-game winning streak that’s starting to attract attention; even the soccer team is getting the love, prepping for the opening of their new stadium and working out without two of their star players for the first time ever. Right now, we have fallen off the radar screen, Mr. Postolos.”

“Well, at least the complaints have died down about us agreeing to go to the American League starting next year; I think the people believe that Mr. Crane really had no choice on that if he wanted the other owners to approve selling the team to our group. OK, so we need something to drive attention our 45sway this week. I think it’s probably time to announce the ‘Fan Friendly Initiatives’ we’ve been working up out of the meet-and-greets with season ticket holders. Cyndi?”

“I’d suggest we start with, you know, the bring-your-own-food initiative: the people we talked to were, like, surprisingly insistent that Houston baseball fans should be allowed to bring their own food to the game instead of, you know, having to buy from our concessionaire. I mean, even though we expanded the menu to include some super-scrumptious new entrees…”

“Cyndi, if I might interrupt; I agree with you on implementing that initiative now, but I’d like to have a little reality check, too. God knows we’ve marketed the hell out of it for years now, but the truth is that the people in the stadium know that the product Aramark’s been peddling is just awful…it always has been. If they’d only been able to serve the hot food hot it would have helped, but nothing was going to make a lot of stuff palatable.”

“OK, OK, Billy, but let’s not get sidetracked with that old topic. I agree that we should go ahead and announce the new food rules—fact is, it’ll probably come as a first bluesurprise to a lot of the people that you can bring your own food or drinks to every other major league stadium but Houston’s, so let’s go ahead and get in front of this while we still have a chance. Other ideas…Moose?”

“Well, shoot, sir, if we’re gonna go that way then I reckon we oughta go along with the big guns, too—five-dollar beer! That’s what the good ol’ boys in the cheap seats want, so let’s git ’er done.”

“Agreed, and we’ll announce all the ticket price reductions, too. Is that going to be enough bang for our bucks this time out?”

“It’s solid, sir; yes, very solid. But I remain concerned in that I fear the bloom will fall from this rose far too soon; we need something to keep the interest at peak, to spark an on-going dialogue. We need to send a signal that bigger and more cherished aspects of the entire Houston baseball orangeexperience are in play, or at the very least that they may be ripe for change. Nothing gets people roiled up like the prospect of unexpected change.”

“Oiled up? Yer gonna try to git ’em all oiled up? What’s that about, Bentley?”

“No, no, Moose, I said roiled—made turbid by stirring up the sediment or dregs. We can get people focused on the Astros by making them think there are big changes in the wind, changes they had not heretofore contemplated; yes?”

“Uh, I guess…OK.”

“Bentley, it sounds as though you have something in mind here—let’s have it.”

“I do indeed, Mr. Postolos; thank you. In fact I have a two-part plan, and the first element targets the team logo and uniform. In conjunction with the opening of this new stadium in 2000, our predecessors implemented a thorough upgrade of the visual branding elements of the team logo and uniforms. Although this scheme was accepted, our research shows it has never been fully embraced, and I propose we now begin planning to implement a similar refresh of the team totems and other symbology to coincide with our debut in the American League next year. Marketing is over the moon at the prospect, by the by. And FYI, should we choose to advance along this path our deadlineOpenStar copy to submit planned changes to Major League Baseball is Opening Day of this season, this April 6.”

“Mr. Crane and I have discussed that prospect and it’s very much in play; as you noted, a change in uniform that dovetails with our opening up in the AL next year makes intellectual sense and we think it will keep interest in the change brewing throughout this season, then spark a landslide of buying the new merchandise during the off-season next year. I’d say to you that this change is a virtual certainty. Now, what’s the second part of your plan.”

“Excellent, sir. Then following along this path of New Beginnings in 2013, and in conjunction with a new look for the uniforms and the logo, I propose we look at raising the wager. In its fifty years as a major league baseball organization, the Houston National League Base Ball Club has had, shall we say, a rather spotty record of achievement; no need to dredge up the details. Today, under new leadership, with promising young players, we stand on the cusp of a successful new future, one so bright that one ought to wear dark glasses. So let’s not hold back in this presentation, in this re-creation, of the team. I propose that when we unveil the new uniforms and logo, that they herald a fully new brand—we will change the name of the team!”

“Bentley…that’s pretty out there, my friend. You really want to drop the name ‘Astros’ after all these years—don’t you imagine that that will, if you’ll excuse me, piss people off?”

“Some, undoubtedly, sir; no doubt at all. But this doesn’t come from any ill will felt toward the fans or the space program, rather from that place that sees a potentially enormous marketing payday that should not be permitted to go to waste. And if I may, I propose we truly raise our gaze above the horizon: let’s be open to changing the ‘Houston’ part of the team name as well. Names indicating representation of a broader area, such ascurrent the Minnesota Twins or the Colorado Rockies, are by no means unheard of, although it would indeed be rather awkward for our organization to go by ‘Texas’ since that name is already employed by the team in North Texas. But as an organization, I suggest we give open and honest consideration to all of our available options.”

“I don’t know, it just seems so drastic to sell off so much of our history just to make a buck—oh crap, did I just say that out loud?”

“Not at all, sir, not at all.”

“I git what Bentley here’s saying, but I don’t think too much of going through with it; folks around here might feel like they’re being exploited, and you know how they can hold a grudge.”

“Excuse me, sir, but I just had an idea: we don’t have to actually make any change, but what if we, you know, just let it be known that a name change is being considered? That’ll get people paying attention to the Astros, and, like, thinking about what they love about the team, and talking about it all, and, then we’ll be all, you know, like announcing that the whole name change idea has been dropped, and they’ll thank us for supporting team history and, you know, not feel so bad about buying fresh new hats and shirts. What about that idea, sir?”

“Cyndi, lunch is on me. Good meeting, everybody. Go Astros!”

UPDATE Jan. 30: Late this evening owner Jim Crane announced a decision that the team name will not be changed. (No word on the size of Cyndi’s raise.)

Life imitates art that makes people laugh; Life nearly as funny

I ran across this short post today calling attention to a new site that’s tracking real newspaper headlines that read like the front page of The Onion.  When you’ve got folks going with headlines like “Man pulls knife on friends, runs away, hits head, injures self” and “God caught backing multiple candidates” you may not need professional comedy to ease the woes of a bad day at work, but I like to be prepared so I’m heading off to The Juice Box to see what my last-place Houston Astros (now featuring the worst record in both leagues!) have to offer.

UPDATE, later the same night: after battling to limit the Braves to just nine runs in the first five innings, our heroes played them even the rest of the way for a classic 11-4 loss.  And, they won the all-important LOB battle 8-7!

Dear Drayton McLane,

McLane and CraneI heard your announcement today that you have a deal to sell the Houston Astros and I just wanted to drop you a note to say thanks for getting the hell out of the way.

Like most Astros’ fans back in 1992, I was pleased that you bought the team from John McMullen because that got rid of the guy who ran off Nolan Ryan.  With his team meandering in the bottom half of the division, McMullen didn’t want to pay a 41-year-old power pitcher despite the fact that he was still effective and was (and still is) a local icon; bad enough, but Ryan ended up having another five years (three winning seasons) and two more no-hitters and thus became wed to another team which he now, in fact, owns, and whose cap he wears in Cooperstown.  Not that I’m bitter.

It’s not that I felt you would be a big improvement, mind you; since I wasn’t involved in the grocery business or Wal-Mart I didn’t have any idea who you were.  But you weren’t McMullen, and that was good enough.  My mistake.  What I didn’t know then was that you weren’t capable of trusting the people you hired to run your business—even though it was a business you readily admitted you knew absolutely nothing about—and that you’d turn into a pain in the neck meddler who eventually chased off the best baseball leaders this franchise has ever known.

Some say that you were too cheap to spend the money it took to win; that’s not true.  You spent plenty of money, but a lot of the time you spent it on questionable free agent pickups (Greg Swindell?  Carlos Lee?  Miguel Tejada?) rather than the things that keep a team and an organization strong and competitive: high draft choices, pitching and defense.  Some think your legacy is the team’s winning record, and it’s true the Astros have had success on the field during your tenure: the majority of playoff appearances, and the only World Series appearance in franchise history.  Congratulations on that, it was a great ride…and seems so long ago now.  But we still have a few things we’ll be able to remember you by:

Like Minute Maid Park!  Beautiful ball park, I agree…good thing, too, since you used my money to build it—ironic, too, since you’re the one who’s the billionaire and the owner of a company that employs dozens 1402_Minute_Maid_Park_and_Rooftopof millionaires, and I’m not.  But you blackmailed all of Astros Nation and even the parts of the city that never gave a damn about baseball when you threatened to move the team—the ball club and the economic engine—if we didn’t front you the money for a new ball park to boost your revenue streams, or some such business euphemism.  Insisting that taxpayers finance a private business construction project was surely a surprising position to see from you, being such an outspoken supporter of capitalism and all.

And there’s the new level of tasteful presentation: oh, all the advertisements in said Minute Maid Park!!  You know, back when the doors opened in 2000 I thought that my ass was the only flat surface in there that didn’t have an ad slapped on it, but over the years you worked your ass off and proved me wrong.  The Chick-fil-A Eat More Fowl poles is a monumental achievement, and dovetails nicely with wonderful and all-too-serious promotional events like Dog Day in the Park—I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard howling about that one!

Finally, you’re leaving us with the excitement of watching a young baseball team come into its own.  Sure, they have the worst record in the National League right now, but we play in the same league as the Pirates so I expect to jump up and nestle into fifth place any day now.  The best part of that is, this is a gift that could just keep on giving for years to come!

So, fair winds and following seas, Drayton, as you shove off…no hard feelings, but I’m pleased you’re leaving.  As was the case in 1992, I don’t know much about the new guy; although he knows baseball in a way you never did, we’ll have to wait and see what he does when it comes to running the business.  But if his first decision is to pull the plug on your buddy Milo, I’ll be lining up for World Series tickets!