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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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.)

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?

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!