Telling someone that you are a Houston Astros fan is like telling them that your favorite food is cabbage. Certainly, the current line-up hits like cabbage–they just set a major league record for most strikeouts in the first three games of a season (43)–and will probably lose 105-110 games again this year. When your skipper says before the season starts that “success will not be measured in terms of wins and losses” you know it will be a very long year…again. When Rick Ankiel–yes, that Rick Ankiel–is your team leader in home runs, with exactly one after four games, you know it will be a very long year…again.
And I’m getting real tired of hearing about the “lovable losers” on the north side and the long-suffering Cleveland Indian fans. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have had 20 losing seasons in a row, have any real claim to the Astros title of “most frustrating team in baseball.” At least the Pirates are improving, and they’ve got a history of championships.
Yes, there is enough suffering to go around, but it is a statistical fact that no one alive, other than a Houston Astros fan, has any idea what it’s like to endure at least three years in a row of 100 + losses and to never have won a world series championship–ever. No one (o.k., not even me yet, but I’m assuming another 100+ losses this year–not a stretch). There have been worse teams in a given year (1962 Mets and 2003 Tigers come to mind), and others have had longer 100 loss streaks (Philadelphia Phillies 1938-1942, New York Mets 1962-1965, Washington Senators 1961-1964) but all of them have at least won one World Series title. Astros fans don’t even know to whom they should sell their souls. The devil has obviously locked in a long-term deal with the Yankees.
Somehow, however, I still feel compelled to check the box score every day, and I must admit that I actually felt a great deal of pride while watching our opening day performance against the Texas Rangers. It even gave me the illusion, for one stinking day, that we may not be as bad as everyone said we would be. But three games later, the second stage of baseball grief has set in: anger. When you’ve gone through as many frustrating and crappy seasons as I have, acceptance comes early, but it doesn’t make you happy.
For some god-forsaken reason I still bleed orange (or Tang, or whatever that color is). I believe that this deserves an explanation. My life, you see, began in 1963, exactly one year after the Astros, then called the Colt .45s, began playing outdoors in an old bandbox called Colt Stadium. I didn’t live in Houston then–I was from a little ranching community in south-central Texas called George West–but the Colt 45s were the only professional baseball team in the state. I was stuck with them then, and have been stuck with them ever since.
Today, as I connect the dots backwards, I recognize many uncanny parallels between my early life and that of the Astros, such as the fact that my father was a minister, and the Astros obviously needed our prayers; my mother was a school teacher, and the Astros needed someone to teach them how to play baseball. I also find it interesting that it was just about the time my father left the ministry to become a psychotherapist that the Astros began driving me crazy. But, as the late great Darrell Royal said, “You gotta dance with the one what brung ya.”
I attended my first game in 1970. I was seven years old and had already learned that the Astrodome was the “8th Wonder of the World.” I didn’t know, nor did I care, what the other seven were. Perhaps I would have if Don Wilson had ever pitched in the Babylonian Gardens. We were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, who would go on to win the World Series the following year (which is why if you are a Pirates fan I believe my suffering to be worse than your suffering). We lost the game, but it was a road trip I’ll never forget.
I kept my mitt on the entire drive from Corpus Christi to Houston (my family had recently moved to Corpus from George West). I saw my first hippies on that magic walk from the parking lot to the Astrodome entrance. They were wearing cowboy boots, and looked to me like some sort of space aliens preparing to board the world’s largest flying saucer. And here we were, a nice, “normal” family, taking the ride with them (albeit at a different altitude). Very cool… I also remember getting dizzy trying to follow the baseball as it arced just below the bright panels of light that served as the Astrodome’s ceiling and roof. At one point during the game my Mom pointed to a photo of Roberto Clemente, who was of course featured in the program, and said, “Billy, that’s their big dog.” No lie. Later that night he hit a triple with the bases loaded and had an assist on a put-out at home plate. It was one of his famous one bounce ricochets from right field. That night, the Pirates became my second favorite team, and Clemente my second favorite player, after Astros rookie Cesar Cedeno.
As I got older, and my family had moved to Friendswood, just outside of Houston, I learned the joys of skipping afternoon classes for the “businessman’s special,” and once slipped ten dollars to an entrepeneurially gifted security guard to let me and my buddies in through a side door so that we could see Nolan Ryan pitch against Steve Carlton. Carlton threw a two-hitter that night, but somehow, even in losing, Ryan’s performance was the more impressive feat. I’ve never seen anyone with such overwhelming power, charisma, and authority on the mound. After every pitch he would circle it like a jaguar contemplating the kill. And each time he threw a fastball the thunderous BOOM! and POP! in Alan Ashby’s mitt was so shocking and sublime that it actually quieted the home crowd.
That era, for me, was the golden age of Astros baseball. They weren’t cabbage then. The roster included the names Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl, and Joe Morgan (who was, of course, a prodigal Colt ’45). In 1980 they won their first division title, and any true fan over forty-five years old remembers that achievement with more fondness than when they actually made the World Series (and were swept by the White Sox).
There were other good teams, such as the Larry Dierker squads of the 1990s–the Killer Bs–but as much I appreciate them, they weren’t of my era, the time of my youth, when the rainbow on the uniform started looking like it might actually lead to a pot of gold. So, as I sit here today, April 6, 2013, celebrating my fiftieth year with the Astros, instead of getting angry at them, maybe I should remember that for some young boy or girl in George West, Corpus Christi, Friendswood, or Cuero, the names Jose Altuve, Justin Maxwell, and Bud Norris may well be recalled with as much fondness as I have for J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, and Cesar Cedeno. But for goodness sakes, they’ve gotta stop striking out so much!