Playing Out the String

Written September 19, 2013

I’m accustomed to rooting for bad sports franchises that show flickers of potential greatness every decade or so. That’s what you get when you are from the Houston area, and no team illustrates that better than the Astros. 

On Sept. 17, 2013, with 11 games to go, the minor league caliber major league franchise suffered its 100th loss of the season, by far the worst record in baseball. And it comes as no surprise, given that the team’s 2013 payroll is lower than nine members of the New York Yankees make in a year — each.

Four nights earlier, my good friend Eric and I attended the team’s game against the Anaheim Angels (another disappointing franchise, albeit with a much higher payroll) at a three-quarters empty Minute Maid Park. It came as no surprise that the Astros lost, but we had a good time visiting, reminiscing, and hoping for better times ahead.

We try to see the Astros at least once a year, having become friends after he inquired about a team cap I wore when our sons played coach pitch baseball together. Because we’re around the same age — he is a few years younger — we share the same points of reference as well as reverence for players such as J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Joe Sambito, Jose Cruz, Enos Cabell, and Mike Scott. And we can’t forget the “Killer B’s” (Bagwell, Berkman, and Biggio) who gave us hope for a decade starting in the mid 1990s.

Eric is a rabid Houston fan, despite spending much of his childhood far away in Vermont. He has a jersey with his name on it, and his Twitter handle is 703Astrosfan, the first three numbers referencing our Northern Virginia area code.

Growing up much closer to the team, at least in proximity, means that I have slightly more distance in my fandom, if for no other reason than seeing a region’s collective hopes get built up and shot down time and again. Anyone remember 1980? 1986? The first round playoff losses to the then-Braves dynasty in the 1990s? Or the World Series sweep in 2005?

At least the Astros made it to the World Series once, something the Cubs have managed to avoid since the mid 1940s. But the team is a long way from that now, despite predictions that the gutting of the franchise will lead to better times ahead.

Here’s hoping that Jim Crane, the team’s new owner, knows what he is doing. Rebuilding through the minor league system has worked — for the most part — for the Washington Nationals, and Houston’s rookie manager (Bo Porter) was the third base coach on that squad during their Cinderella run of sorts last year.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take as long for Houston to return to respectability as it did for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who clinched their first winning season in 20 years this summer. Or even the Cubs, who have been down so long that their fate seems forever intermingled with Charlie Brown’s inability to kick a football.

For now, however, the few Astros fans attending Friday night games in September will have to settle for a nice evening out with family or friends. They will have to walk around Minute Maid, as Eric and I did, and stare at past memories that are recalled fondly through the nostalgic prism of childhood. Because without question, no matter how hard they try, their team is playing out the string.

Postscript: The following June, Sports Illustrated took the bold step of predicting the Astros would be World Series champions in 2017. The Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, so who knows what could happen?