Guilt, empathetic delight for Houstonians, a personal joy that was somewhat muted, and a great sense of wistfulness: All arose in me as I watched the Houston Astros build the solid Game-Seven lead that would make them World Series champions.
Please forgive this somewhat rambling discourse, but please do understand what it shows about the salubrious effect a game and a team can have on a child’s psyche.
I grew up in New Orleans as an Astros fan from the late 1960s through 1988. They were effectively our home team. Not only were they geographically the closest big-league ballclub, but their games were carried nightly on local radio and their Sunday (day) games were broadcast weekly on local TV. Beginning when I was less than five years old (in 1968), I often went to sleep listening to the Astros as they struggled to win games.
I think it was in 1968, late summer, my dad had a legal client in Houston, so he took the family for a weekend of Astro-World rides. I think I remember a Saints-Oilers pre-season game, and definitely an Astros game in the dome that Houston billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. At the latter, we sat somewhere vaguely behind-ish home plate, but towards the third-base side. I remember having a hard time understanding the concept of a foul pole: The Astros’ Jimmy Wynn — the “Toy Cannon” who shared Willie Mays’ number 24 — kept launching hits high into the stands, but was forced to stay and face more pitches rather than being credited with home runs. I insisted that meant the umps were cheating.
(The reason I remember it is because my brother later that summer took pains, when watching games on TV, to explain the whole foul-pole thing so I would understand there hadn’t been any cheating in the Astrodome.)
The Astros and the Saints were a revelation to me then, an entry into a world where tens of thousands of people would converge on a single stadium and have lots of fun making noise. I was hooked.
To this day, from memory, I can name most of the starters from those Astros teams from, say, 1968, when I was just 4½, through 1970. Maybe I’m putting different years together; maybe my mental lineup never actually converged in any one game, although I think it did. I swear I’m not looking this up, not online, not anywhere; here goes: Lee May usually at first base. At second, of course, was Joe Morgan. I wanted to be Joe Morgan: When I started playing baseball myself a few years later, that was my position. At short was Roger Metzger. I think he was nicknamed the Rooster. (Or was it not “Roger the Rooster,” but some other guy with an “R” name who was the Rooster? Was Metzger later, like in the early 1970s? I think so. So who was the Rooster?)
At third was Dennis Menke. (Somewhere in there the Reds and Astros made a trade. I don’t remember if May went from the former to the latter, or vice versa, but Morgan and Menke obviously went to Cincinnati. Wait, did May not come to Houston until the Morgan trade? Was New Orleanian Rusty Staub, not May, the guy playing first in the late 1960s? I think so….)
I think the catcher’s name was Robinson — Johnny Robinson, perhaps? No, the first name was Johnny, but the last name wasn’t Robinson. Something like that. In the outfield were Jimmy Wynn and Jesus Alou, the latter of whom rotated his head in a weird, exaggerated tic before he stepped into the batter’s box each time. I don’t remember who the third outfielder was: I think Cesar Cedeno came a years later. I don’t think it was another Alou brother. Was it somehow Cesar Geronimo, before he went to the Reds? Did Staub ever actually play outfield, and was he still there when the others (above) were — or had he already been sent to Montreal or the Mets?
So let’s start over, because I think my first try was wrong. Let’s go with Staub, Morgan, Menke, whoever the Rooster was, Johnny Whathisname, Wynn, Alou, and… we’ll say Geronimo, because kids remember it as the greatest name ever. Why can’t I remember for sure? Gee, it was only 49 years ago!
Anyway, the team was rounded out by its two ace pitchers, Don Wilson and Larry Dierker. Of those two, I’m certain.
These were good players! Why wasn’t the team a powerhouse? I loved that team.
I also loved them throughout the 1970s, through the airport-gun arrest of Cedeno and the tragic stroke of J.R. Richard, and through the time when I thought it was my destiny to love only teams that were godawful. (See also: Saints, with Archie Manning scrambling for his life behind the worst offensive line in football.)
And I loved the Astros even more when, after Nolan Ryan arrived, they finally became real contenders. Those were the days of Jose (can you see) Cruz, Enos Cabell, Joaquin “youneverknow” Andujar, Joe Niekro, Art Howe, and Phil Garner. It was full of smarts and grit and memorable personalities, and one of the best pitching staffs ever assembled. It may have been the Kansas City Royals who had pioneered the “pitching, speed and defense” style of play, but those Astros nearly perfected it. As for me, I fancied myself a cerebral student of the game (and in real life I was a good-glove, singles hitter), so the idea of “manufacturing” runs without much power seemed to make the games more intellectually interesting.
It is in such ways that a fan takes on the personality of his team, or perhaps projects his own, mixed-bag attributes onto the team to which his fealty already is pledged.
And then came 1986. My favorite American League team was the Red Sox. (That’s another long story, immaterial here.) My second favorite National League team was the Mets. And the Sox, ’Stros, and Mets were the three best teams in baseball. I told everyone who would listen that if the Astros and Sox both reached the World Series, I would have an identity crisis.
Two excruciating, extra-innings Mets wins kept the Astros at bay in the National League playoffs, kept my identity intact — and, though I did not know it then, marked the beginning of the end of my Astros loyalty. When the Sox so agonizingly found ways to lose that 1986 World Series to those same Mets, my sense of Greek tragedy took over. Sure, the Astros were a hard-luck team, but the Sox’ jinx was the stuff of legends and literature. I started, without realizing it, to follow the Sox not just equally with the Astros, but more loyally and lovingly.
And then when the Astros let Nolan Ryan go after 1988, in a way I thought was classless, I cut them loose.
Hard and fast, no regrets. Twenty years of loyalty, and suddenly they were anathema. I can’t explain that psychology; it’s unlike me. Maybe I just needed an excuse to be a one-team kinda guy instead of a two-timer.
It took me nearly six years to reconsider my fury, but just as I began to forgive the Astros for unceremoniously ditching Ryan, the whole Major League went on its horrid strike of 1994. For Halloween, I dressed up as the “Dead Baseball Season,” and after that I protested the strike by boycotting baseball entirely — except for the Sox, or unless either Cal Ripken or Will Clark (a fellow New Orleanian against whom I had played once or twice) happened to be at the plate when I walked past a TV set. An all-but-Sox boycott meant that reconsideration of the Astros, like a second chance for the whole Major Leagues, was out of the question. And nearly a quarter-century later, the boycott, with loopholes and amendments, continues.
That’s why I feel guilty. Here were the Astros this year, not just suddenly terrific, but also seemingly lovable. And here was a city, like my New Orleans had been after Katrina, devastated by a hurricane, but with a lovable team trying its darnedest to lift up its citizenry in mutual joy.
The people of Houston, by all accounts, had acquitted themselves marvelously after the storm. Bravely, humanely. Inspirationally, in fact. And yet there I was, in the first round of the playoffs, still rooting for my adopted Red Sox, now long past their Greek-tragedy era, over my first love, those orange-clad Houstonians. Do I have no soul?
I tried to rouse my long-lost soul. I watched parts of the early World Series games against the Dodgers — but never long enough to stick around for the wild, late-inning fireworks of games 2 and 5. I was pulling for the Astros, for the sake of their storm-ravaged city, but still without any depth of feeling.
And then, in game 6, I finally watched until the end. The Astros lost. It must have been my fault. Now I myself was the jinx.
Game Seven came. I found myself smiling, even laughing, as the Astros built a 5-0 lead. And then something unexpected happened. I decided to root for the Astros without watching the final innings. Watching might still jinx them — plus, there was something more.
Those last four innings belonged to the people of Houston. Those last four innings belonged to the fans who hadn’t abandoned ship in a huff over the 1988 treatment of one player. Those winning innings belonged to them, not to me. I could and would be truly happy for Houston and the previously star-crossed franchise, but if I watched the end and celebrated as if it were my victory, too — the way true fans do when their team wins — then it would be unseemly.
It would have been like trying to count a foul ball as a home run. And that, that, would have been cheating.
This win wasn’t for me, but for Houstonians who stuck with the team for more than 50 years. And it also was a win for Jimmy Wynn, Jesus Alou, Larry Dierker, and Don Wilson — and for the Rooster, whose real name I’ll remember probably five minutes after I submit this column.
Now, about the Toy Cannon…. That man could play some ball!…
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Editor of The American Spectator. His new novel, Mad Jones, Heretic, is available at Amazon.