Hello. My name is Houston, your new neighbor in the American League West. I guess an introduction is in order.
I’m 51, a bit old to be making such a bold move. But the commissioner was looking for balance — two leagues with three five-team divisions — and while I’m as much a proponent of equality as anybody else, the real motivation was the $70 million baseball gave me for leaving the National League.
The payoff was sweet because times have been tough: A 106-loss season in 2011, followed by 107 defeats in 2012. Wiseacres call me the “Lastros” instead of the Astros. I see “Houston, We’ve Got A Problem” every day in newspaper headlines.
I’m a laughingstock right now, but I can take it. I’ve been playing this game long enough to know that down cycles don’t last forever. Besides, I’ve dealt with the cruel whims of fate (J.R. Richard, baseball’s most imposing right-handed pitcher in 1980, suffered a career-ending stroke at the age of 30), and I’ve dealt with ultimate tragedy (the mysterious, seemingly self-administered death of Don Wilson, another superior pitching talent.)
Between the heartbreaks, I’ve had some fun. During the 1970s, I wore a crazy uniform with rainbow stripes. Fuddy-duddy old-schoolers panned my outfit but, hey, it was the 1970s. If you were a high-school student from that era, check out your senior class yearbook and get back to me on your credibility as a fashion critic.
I was born as the Houston Colt .45’s in 1962, same season as my expansion cousins, the Mets, came along. Between us, I hate those guys. Both of us were terrible during our formative years, but the Mets were romanticized because they stunk things up in New York for legendary manager Casey Stengel. Meanwhile, I played outside, in the most unbearable summer climate you can imagine.
A Sunday afternoon doubleheader remains vivid. I forget the scores -— I probably was swept — but what stands out is that 100 fans needed treatment in the first-aid room of Colt Stadium. If it wasn’t the heat, it was the humidity, and if it wasn’t the humidity, it was the mosquitoes.
Out of nowhere, the Mets won a World Series in 1969 and returned to the Fall Classic four years later. I didn’t enjoy my first winning season until 1972, and it took me until 1980 just to qualify for the playoffs.
By then I was well-entrenched in my famously futuristic home, the Astrodome. Known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1965, fans marveled at everything from the artificial grass to the scoreboard — it cost $2 million, not insignificant in those days — which was 474 feet long and contained 300 tons of attitude.
When struggling opposition pitchers were replaced by relievers, the electronic message board showed a figure turning on the shower as tears ran down his face. Even umpires were baited, until the mopes in blue complained to the league.
As for the product on the field, it gradually improved once I realized the field — specifically, artificial turf — gave me a huge advantage at home. I loaded up on pitching, all kinds of pitching: the sheer heat of Nolan Ryan and the baffling knuckleball of Joe Niekro. Then I complemented the pitching with line-drive hitters like Enos Cabell, Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz.
The Astrodome got so loud during the 1980 NLCS series against the Phillies that broadcaster Howard Cosell couldn’t hear himself over the din. Which is saying something, because Howard was known as “The Mouth That Roared.”
A favorite year of mine was 1986, when I was served as host for the All-Star Game and later, in October, for the NL championship series against — who else? — the Mets. They wanted nothing to do with scuffle-ball specialist Mike Scott, who twice had dominated them and was prepared to start Game 7.
But the Mets rallied to take a ninth-inning lead in Game 6, and I rallied to take the contest into extra innings, and then they rallied again in the top of the 16th, and I answered with all I could in the bottom of the 16th, only to lose, 7-6.
Think about this: If I win Game 6 and Scotty mows down the Mets in Game 7, it’s the Astros who take on Boston in the World Series, and maybe Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner is recalled differently.
In any case, I’ll always be thankful for the Red Sox, who gave me first baseman Jeff Bagwell in a 1990 trade for reliever Larry Andersen. Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Lance Berkman — they were called the “Killer B’s” — served as the heart and soul of my best teams. Beginning in 1997, I reached the playoffs in six of nine years, culminating in a 2005 World Series appearance against the Chicago White Sox.
The White Sox won in four as the journey turned out to be a lot more fulfilling than the destination. My record in late May was 15-30, prompting the Houston Chronicle to print a cartoon featuring a tombstone with “RIP 2005 Astros” emblazoned on it. But I didn’t give up because there was a wild-card berth to be had, and I got it on the final day of the regular season.
So what happened to me? Eight years after the World Series came to Minute Maid Park, why am I looked at as a punching bag for the rest of the AL West? Why do I appear destined to lose more than 100 games for the third straight season?
The short answer is: I got caught up in a window-is-closing, so go-for-it-now mentality after the 2005 Series. Take the 2007 draft. I gave up my first-round choice as compensation for signing free-agent outfielder Carlos Lee. I gave up my second-round choice as compensation for signing free-agent pitcher Woody Williams, who was 40 years old.
No picks from that draft were signed above the fifth round. No picks from that draft are still in the organization. A shutout valve was used to stop the talent pipeline flow from the farm system, and in 2013 — when some former 18-year-old draft prospects would be 25 and in their prime — I’m left with a lineup bereft of impact players.
Here’s a trivia question for you: What do Lucas Harrell, Marwin Gonzalez, Rhiner Cruz, Wesley Wright, Bud Norris, Jason Castro and Jose Altuve have in common?
They’re looking like the only holdovers from my Opening Day roster of 2012. “The Return of the Magnificent Seven” has some marketing potential, perhaps, but we’re talking about Rhiner Cruz, Wesley Wright and Marwin Gonzalez.
Keep an eye on Altuve, my kid at second base. He’s the real deal. And Chris Carter, obtained a few months ago in a trade with Oakland, has the potential to hit 40 homers once he learns to lay off pitches out of the strike zone. Then again, even if he never learns to lay off pitches out of the strike zone, he might be good for 40 knocks.
Best news? The feeder system from the farm has been restored. It won’t pay immediate dividends, but you better whup me while you can because my dreams are as powerful as my memory.
Howard Cosell could tell you — if he were alive to tell you — how I rocked and rolled and accomplished something that can only be called miraculous.
I played baseball with the best of ’em, and the frenzied fans who came to watch were louder than he was.