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Houston Astros

A professional baseball team in the National League

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Better than the Jetsons' Dog

  • Jan 10, 2013
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Rating:
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The state of Texas can never seem to catch any real breaks when it comes to getting new professional sports teams. The NFL, which is iconic in Texas, didn't show up until the Houston Oilers and Dallas Texans became charter members of the AFL in 1959, forcing the NFL to expand in the 60's, creating the Dallas Cowboys. The league is STILL ignoring the pleas of San Antonio, now the eighth-largest city in the United States. Well, aparently league ineptitude and/or doubt in Texas went back even further than that. Major Houston officials and businessmen had been making active efforts to bring Major League Baseball to Texas for at least ten years prior, since 1952. Of course MLB, that great beacon of progressive thought, kept telling them no. 

The wannabe-owners from Texas weren't the only ones trying to get MLB to expand, though, so they joined forces with a bunch of other businessmen MLB had shut down in the past in order to form... The CONTINENTAL SUPERFORCE! Okay, not exactly. They formed a whole new league called the Continental League in order to compete with MLB. The Continental League was actually a complete bluff on their part to force Major League Baseball to expand, but MLB didn't know that, and it took the shooting down of their Make MLB the Exclusive Major Baseball League Bill in Congress to get them to finally decide these Continental League guys were serious. Expansion was forced, and Houston got a team which was to start playing in 1962. The chosen name of the new Houston team was the Colt .45s, a Name-the-Team-contest-chosen name which depicted the Colt .45 as The Gun that Won the West. Now all that was left was the expansion draft, where the Colt .45s and their expansion-mates, the New York Mets, were faced with a hell of a disadvantage: When one of the American League expansion teams from the previous year, the Los Angeles Angels, ran to a respectable 70-91 record, the National League owners started shaking in their boots, fearing the new teams might actually be competitive. So they enacted a new rule which enabled them to reshuffle their rosters before the expansion draft in such a way that they could send all their good players down to the minor leagues and promote all the riffraff. 

It worked out well for the National League. While the Colt .45s didn't plunge into the absolute, murky depths the New York Mets famously did, in the first two seasons the Colt .45s were so bad that they only had one pitcher, Jim Umbricht, post a winning record in the span. And Umbricht wasn't able to become a building block or a reliable role player. In 1964, he died of cancer just before Opening Day. He was so well-liked by players and fans that the team retired his number in 1965. For pretty much the entire decade, the Colt .45s were never able to climb out of the second division, no matter what. They had started in 1966 pretty strong under new manager Grady Hatton, but they lost Jimmy Wynn for the year after he crashed into an outfield fence and broke his kneecap. When Wynn returned in 1967, he managed to hit a home run onto Interstate 75 in Cincinnati. In 1968, pitcher Don Wilson dueled Tom Seaver of the Mets in a six-hour pitching duel for the ages. Wilson went nine innings and Seaver went ten before eleven relievers all gave it a go trying to end the damn game. Even despite highlights like that, ninth place just seemed to have the name of the Houston Colt .45s written in the stars. 

It was in 1965 that the team moved into their iconic park, the Astrodome. The Astrodome was a novelty in that it was the first indoor stadium in the country. It didn't help the team out very much on the field, clearly, but people came from miles around to see the place, which was called the Astrodome in honor of Houston's newly-given spot as the location of America's new space program. The team was also given a new name, the Astros. Unfortunately, the Astrodome was not only the most notable thing about the team for the 60's, but it also became the basis for a lot of universally hated baseball trends. It began both indoor stadiums and Astroturf. 

In 1969, MLB held another expansion, and the team faces began making significant changes too. Several players were given their walking papers or traded. New faces were signed: Johnny Edwards, Jesus Alou, Denis Menke, and Denny Lemaster. Don Wilson stayed with the team, pitching brilliantly, and on May 1 he threw a no-hitter which lit a fire under the Astros' asses and sparked them to life. Six days after the no-hitter, the Astros tied a major league record by turning seven double plays in a game. The Astros put together a ten-game winning streak, Joe Morgan hit 15 home runs and swiped 49 bases, and the Astros put together a solid 81-81 season in the end. It was the first time the Astros finished without a losing record. It wasn't quite as good as their expansion-mate Mets, though, who also finished the year with their first non-losing record as well, a stellar 100-62 which also culminated with them beating the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, thus shaking up the Old Boys' Network of Major League Baseball. 

In 1970, the Astros were now expected to compete. And compete they did! Unfortunately, their record is more a record of respectable losses. The Astros went 79-83 despite looking great: Cesar Cedeno hit .310, Denis Menke hit .304, and Jesus Alou hit .306. The team batting average shot up by 19 points, and pitchers Don Wilson and Larry Dierker both had winning records, but the rest of the pitchers just had an off season. The following year, the Astros made a ginormous blockbuster trade with the Cincinnati Reds: They sent Joe Morgan, Denis Menke, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Ed Armbrister to the Reds for the incredible trio of Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Jimmy Stewart. Baseball nuts recognize this trade as the one that created the heart of the mighty Big Red Machine in Cincinnati that dominated the 70's. The Astros spent the 70's middling between decency and obscurity, and Sabremetrics research tells today's experts that had the trade never been made, the Houston Astros would have been one of the dominant teams of the 70's. The acquisitions weren't really BAD; in 1972, the Astros went 84-69, their first winning season. It wasn't until 1979 that Houston was really able to be good again. They went 89-73 that year, their best ever at that point, and finished just a game and a half behind the division winner Reds. 

Joe Morgan, as it turned out, regretted leaving the Astros and was back in 1980. When he returned, he brought the experience of two MVP awards and two World Series rings, and the need to turn Houston into a Pennant winner. Between Ryan, Joe Niekro, JR Richard, and Ken Forsch, the Astros of 1980 fielded one of their greatest pitching lineups, and they rode those guys right to the NLCS. It was one of the great classic NLCS series in history, one which featured four extra inning games (and don't forget, the NLCS was five games long back then) against the prevailing Philadelphia Phillies, who won the NLCS and the World Series. They returned to the NLCS to face the Los Angeles Dodgers the next year, but lost, again, and once again the team they lost to went on to win the World Series. After a short rebuilding phase, Houston returned to the NLCS again in 1986 to face their expansion mates, the Mets. The Astros were sporting a stellar 96-66 record, and against the clearly superior Team of Destiny juggernaut that won 108 games that year to be considered one of the all-time greats, the Astros took it to the Mets, matching them blow by blow for six hard-fought games, the last two of which ran into extra innings. Game six went 16 innings. Four of the games were decided by a single run, and the series could easily have gone either way. Several of Houston's players from that year swear to this very day that the Astros should have been representing the National League in the World Series that year against the Boston Red Sox.

The window closed after 1986 and Houston knew it, so it was time to start rebuilding again. Nolan Ryan and Jose Cruz left, but the team got lucky and unearthed Craig Biggio in 1988. They also managed to trade Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell, a big deal that gave Houston a great player and fan favorite for years to some. The Astros were on the rise again by the time The Strike hit in 1994, and they finished second before the players quit. 1995 and 1996 saw two more second-place finishes before the team nabbed consecutive division titles in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In 1998, the team even performed like a dynamo, winning their team record of 102 games. Unfortunately, they also developed one of those cases of first-round playoff hiccups and made inauspicious exits at the hands of the Atlanta Braves in 1997, San Diego Padres in 1998, and the Braves again in 1999.

By 2004, the Astros had been through a pair of good seasons which didn't result in any postseason appearances. The previous year, the New York Yankees had won the American League Pennant in part on the pitching of a certain Roger Clemens, a Texas native who may be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. Clemens was supposed to retire after that season after years of speculation, but he pulled the first of many Brett Favre-style unretirements and let the Astros coax him out to pitch again after the Astros signed his friend and former Yankee teammate Andy Pettitte. Thought washed up, Clemens dazzled in Houston. With Biggio and Bagwell, as well as solid veterans like Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent, the Astros fought their way to a climactic NLCS showdown against the Saint Louis Cardinals. It was one of the great postseason series in history, only no one knows it because while the Cardinals/Astros series was incredible, it was overshadowed by the incredible theatrics happening in the American League. The Yankees and Red Sox were duking it out for the right to hoist the AL Pennant (again). The Red Sox, thought to be the superior team this year, fell into one of those 0-3 holes which normally indicate the team in hole's proverbial turning into toast. And the Yankees, with the Red Sox being toast…. Played like the Red Sox were actually toast. Sensing the opening resulting from what was clearly a false sense of security on New York's part, Boston returned from the dead, winning the next four games and becoming the first team to ever win a seven-game playoff baseball series after being down 0-3. Although the series itself was actually inferior to the Astros/Cardinals series, the comeback was quite notable for the history between the two teams and the storybook ending of Boston winning the World Series for the first time since 1918 in a four-game sweep. Unfortunately for Astros fans, their team came up on the losing end of the NLCS, so the Red Sox got to sweep Saint Louis instead of Houston.

After having gotten so close in 2005, the Astros managed to overcome a slow 15-30 start and angrily storm their way to the NLCS once again. They faced the Saint Louis Cardinals once again. Once again, the Cardinals were considerably better (Saint Louis had won 105 games to Houston's 92 in 2004; 2005 saw them bring 100 wins and 89 wins, respectively). It was another hard series, but this time it only went six games. More importantly, this time the Houston Astros emerged victorious, with their first-ever Pennant and a punched ticket to the World Series, where they would face the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox were in their first World Series since 1959. Their previous World Series victory had been in 1917, and their only Pennant prior to 1959 was the notorious 1919 Pennant after which eight of their own guys threw the World Series for payoffs from gamblers. The 2005 World Series went only four games. It was a sweep by the White Sox, but it deserves to be remembered more than it is, because all of those games were exciting battles which could have gone either way. Game three is one of the great World Series games, and the longest World Series game in history by virtue of its five-hour, 41-minute length, and tied with game two of the 1916 World Series for longest by innings. If the Astros were cooked after that marathon, they certainly didn't show it in game four; they held the White Sox to one lone, single run. It was a terrific achievement, but the Astros themselves were totally shut out. Chicago won the 1-0 game and its first World Series title in 88 years.

2005 was THE window. After 2006, the team let Jeff Bagwell walk. Pettitte emerged back with the Yankees, and Clemens continued to perform his ritualistic washed up athlete retirement dance until every team in baseball finally decided the mounting controversies regarding Clemens weren't worth anything he could bring to their rotations anymore. The decline started slowly, but when Brad Mills was signed as manager in 2010, it grew out of control. The Astros finished 76-86 in 2010, but bottomed out in 2011 with a 56-106 record, their historical worst. Until 2012, that is, when they went 55-107, their NEW worst, and were threatening the 1962 Mets for the ineptitude mark for a good chunk of the year.

There are no Astros in the Hall… Okay, you know what? This is now officially fucking redundant. I never truly bought into the joke the Baseball Hall of Fame is, but others do, so I always felt obligated to mention it. Not anymore, though. Yesterday, when the Sportswriters' Association of America decided not to elect any new members, my point was conclusively proven. They found all sorts of dumbs excuses to keep out one of the most sterling classes in baseball history, so the place needs to be burned to the ground. Forget it, I'm not capable of bullshitting anyone about my feelings on the subject anymore. Okay, now that I've done that, The Astros HAVE retired the numbers of nine of their players: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, Jim Umbricht, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Don Wilson, and Larry Dierker. Although number 57 isn't officially retired, the Astros haven't issued it since 2002. Their last player to wear that number was pitcher Darryl Kile, who died of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 33. Ryan is considered one of the greatest pitchers in history. Mike Scott may or may not be a cheater - when author Jeff Pearlman wrote his account of the 1986 Mets, he interviewed Scott about how he turned from a run-of-the-mill arm in the rotation count into a dominant All-Star and Cy Young winner. He was accused of scruffing, but nothing was ever proven. Bagwell and Biggio are considered two of the league's classiest.

It's tough to describe rivals of the Houston Astros because they tend to get overlooked. The Astros used to play in the NL Central, after all, where there's an unending turf war between the Saint Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Between that fight, the strong performances of the Milwaukee Brewers of late, and the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates making things interesting, the Astros were considered so expendable that they were actually kicked out of the National League after last season and placed in the AL West, where they'll be able to capitalize on the rivalry between Houston and fellow Texas city Dallas, creating a rivalry between them and the Texas Rangers. The identifying marks of the Astros are a lot of playoff series - they tend to turn playoffs into incredible marathons worthy of Hercules. The 1980 NLCS, 1986 NLCS, and 2004 NLCS are among the greats. If you see the Astros in the postseason, you KNOW that, no matter how many games the series runs, the Astros are going to give it everything they've got for all of them. Hell, even their sweep in the 2005 World Series could have easily been a Houston sweep of Chicago.

Sadly, the Astros are also known for some very bad baseball trends. Although they were the team that created polyester uniforms, the designs on those uniforms were U-G-L-Y. One famous design had horizontal stripes of red, orange, and yellow which fans nicknamed "the rainbow." They were pullovers, which didn't help the design very much. The team is also responsible for indoor baseball, and it's at a point where one of the things most identified with the Houston Astros is horrifying stadium design decisions. The Astrodome was bad, even though it helped boost attendance. Worse was the fact that since grass couldn't grow inside the Astrodome, the team was left to introduce Astroturf, thus creating a widely hated baseball trend which has been largely disposed of. It didn't stop when they finally moved to a new home, either; first, their new home opened under the now-ominous moniker of Enron Field. After things went south for Enron, the naming rights were bought by Minute Maid, who didn't swallow their pride enough to give it a name worthy of the team, and so now there's a ballpark in Houston bearing the embarrassing title of Minute Maid Park. While Minute Maid Park has a grass turf, the designers also paid tribute to the location's history by placing a train on the left field side. Now, I like this idea, and it's a great tribute to the location's history because the park's largest entrance is inside what was once Houston Union Station. Most people, however, mock this feature. The best-known feature of Minute Maid Park, however, is the fact that there's a hill in the outfield, complete with a flagpole! It's called Tal's Hill, for former team president Tal Smith. The hill and flagpole are both in play. In one game, Richie Sexson of the Milwaukee Brewers hit a ball off it! It's absurd, though it does lend the park a unique identity which is also a showcase for how every field is different, something I love about baseball.

The Houston Astros are younger than a lot of teams in baseball, but with a sterling all-time roster and many of baseball's inarguably great historic moments, they feel like they've been around longer than they have. They're a good team to root for, especially in the playoffs. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like fans will get to see them in the playoffs for a good long while these days.

Thus concludes my series on Major League Baseball! I actually started my Teams Project with baseball. When I started, my format was extremely rudimentary and inconsistent, because I hadn't yet decided to do every team in the country, and I hadn't found a format, either. Also, I switched to football after eight baseball teams, intending to just do everything at random, but I soon decided against that idea because I feared losing track of what I've done and what I haven't done, so I took the rest of it league by league. This means you'll have to go back a ways to find my original baseball team reviews. My next, final league in the Teams Series is in the sport I'm most attached to: Hockey! Ironically, it's also the sport whose history I know the least about, mainly because I noticed early in my sports book-reviewing career that there's no such thing as a good hockey book. Also, I was hoping someone would start a hockey group for me to put my NHL reviews into, and since no one did, I'm going to take it upon myself. So I'll start the NHL reviews after a brief hiatus. Stay tuned...

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January 13, 2013
you should be writing these things in a sports mag.
 
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #19
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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League: National League
Ballpark: Minute Maid Park
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