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Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Open Letter to the Houston Astros

It all started innocently enough.  Having grown up in West Jersey the neighborhood kids all took decidedly different directions when it came to following a professional sports team.  It's a weird area, about an hour from Philly and about an hour from New York City.

There were a handful of kids that gravitated toward the Phillies, Eagles and their cheese steak eating brethren.   Others were Yankee/NY Giants devotees.  And, since it was the late 70s, early 80s, America's teams were sprinkled in.  The Dallas Cowboys, Dolphins, Steelers all come to mind.  You know, the teams that won Championships.

In 1980 the Philadelphia Phillies were the team to beat.  Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and, ick, Pete Rose were the talk of baseball.  Their disgusting players were topped only by their disgusting excuse for a stadium, the now mercifully demolished Veterans Stadium.   A few kids on the block ate this nonsense up.  They wanted to throw lefty during wiffle ball games emulating Carlton.  They shook their hips like Schmidt when they stepped in the batters box.  They annoyed the living hell out of a certain 8 year old.

But how could you root for the Yankees?  We weren't really near NYC.    I can count on one hand the times our family visited New York.  That was as foreign a place to me as Texas

Right, Texas.  Where everything is bigger.  Everything is better.  Don't mess with it.

And in 1980 the Houston Astros were the other toast of the National League.  This is back when two teams won divisions.  Two teams played for the pennant.  Kids could watch a Championship game at 4pm.  Oh, and those bright rainbow jerseys.  And the Astrodome.  And Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl and Cesar Cedeno.

Saturday afternoons were spent in basements playing Strat-o-Matic and waiting for Mel Allen to show highlights of the week that was and utter his famous "How about That?"  Salaries were low and intensity was high.  Sideburns and afros ruled the day and steroids were nowhere to be found.  Beer guts and chewing tobacco were pretty darn prevalent though.  Polyester uniforms and players who stayed with teams for more than 1 or 2 years too.

If the Phillies, and more importantly their loud mouth fans thought they were going to convert me, they had another thing coming.  The hell with that!!  If kids can root for Roger Staubach and Joe Montana why can't I root for a baseball team from out of the area??  It was that season my heart headed to the southwest.

Houston lost that Championship series to the Phillies in what is now considered a classic.  4 of the 5 games went into extra innings.  The Astros blew a 3 run lead late in Game 5 and the Phillies eventually went on to beat the KC Royals and win the World Series.  It was heartbreaking.  But, there was some measure of satisfaction.  This team was a fun group to root for.  They played small ball and pitched well.  They used speed and the cavernous Dome to execute their plan.  They out-hustled you.  They out willed you.  And they never gave up.  That year they were just a hair short.

And the year after that...  and after that...  and here today, some 32 years later, they stand 39-82.  Without question the worst franchise in baseball.  Perhaps, the worst franchise in sports.

This after the 1986 NLCS against the Mets.  Another brutal and devastating series loss that included the 16 inning classic that clinched it for the Mets.  I remember wrapping up my own practice and racing home to catch Billy Hatcher hit the huge home run off Jesse Orosco in the 14th to tie up the game.  It was minutes later the Mets would be celebrating on our turf.  It was days later Bill Buckner booted a ball and the Mets magical run culminated with a title.

Couldn't Houston lose a big series to a team further away???

Of course they could.  Atlanta, several times in the 90s.  The Bagwell and Biggio days.  Mike Hampton and Lima time.  Teams that would roll through the regular season and then get swept away in the (snore) Wildcard round.  Chipper Jones and Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine and that insufferable Tomahawk Chop would ruin many an October.

But how could I give up now??  They were a legitimate franchise with a new stadium.  Enron!!  A can't miss gem in the center of town!!  A buddy of mine and I flew there to catch the opening series.  They opened with the Yankees for an exhibition just like they did with the Dome in 1962.  What a weekend!!!  "This is going to be the decade!!"

Needless to say Enron does not have the naming rights anymore.  And that gem in the middle of Houston is empty as my hopes of an Astros Championship these days.  Oh, and the team in Arlington, Texas has had all the success lately.  The Rangers have an ex-junkie superstar and a coke sniffing manager.  Yet all they do is get to the World Series every year with Nolan Ryan (He's the friggin Principal Owner!) watching from behind the plate.  Kick me when I'm down Nolan!!

Now, just hours after the Astros fired their manager and a couple of coaches, the harsh realization that things will never be the same.

I haven't watched a game all year.  They have been made a pawn in the larger game that is MLB ownership and the chase for the television dollar.  Next year my beloved team moves to the American League.  The league where pitchers keep their jackets on when it's their turn to hit.  The league where Evil Empires are littered in every division.  The league where my team has no bloody chance.

The AL West with Albert Pujols.  Ya know the guy who hit broke my heart with a bomb off closer Brad Lidge in 2005.  I swear that ball is still moving.  The AL West and Nolan Ryan's Rangers.  The AL West...  a division that does not include New York or Philly.  It was always fun to know I had a chance to see my boys head East for a series.  That series will be less and less frequent.

The Astros may have rallied from Pujols dagger in 2005 and made their only World Series (it goes without saying that they were swept...  by the Chicago White Sox.)  They showed a toughness for getting off the mat and, thanks to Carlos Beltran, they gave their fans a hell of a ride.

But how much can a fan take?  If you grow up despising a league and its rules can you now accept your team moving there?

MLB Commish Bud Selig had the Milwaukee franchise in Houston's NL division.  When I grew up that team was in the AL!!  Robin Yount and Paul Molitor were legends from that City.  Why couldn't he just move them back?

Right.  The mighty dollar.  And the Brewers were Selig's old team.  Turns out since they joined the NL a few years back the Brew Crew has done pretty well.

So as the new owners bought Houston he lowered the selling price if Houston took the move.

What would you do?  Owner Jim Craig spent $610 million rather than $680.  That's a lot of leather boots and bar-b-q.

And it's a real shame.

Championship games are no longer be televised a 4pm.  Players are now suspended for performance enhancing drugs during the middle of a pennant race.  Beers are $10 and parking is far more for a day at the park.  And the DH still exists.

Me?  I'm looking to disengage like more and more kids these days.  Maybe the NFL is really the answer.  Games one day a week at 1 and 4pm EST.  There are primetime events but all the important events are easily accessible.  They have the fan, and more importantly the young fan, compelled and eager to see the next game.  Every year there is a renewed hope that his or her team can make a playoff run.  There are class organizations with rabid fan bases.

Oh wait, I like the Seattle Seahawks.  Good grief.  Guess I will catch up on the DVR.  Project Runway and Chopped sounds about right.  Fare thee well Houston.  Dare I say "Thanks for the Memories?"

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