Wearing a Houston Astros ballcap in the streets of New York City as I did during the World Series of 2019 establishes my cred as a true Astros fan. I was in New York for a film festival, and I watched the series games in sports bars, where I and my team were enthusiastically heckled. “Cheaters never prosper!” was among the milder taunts.
The Astros’ victory in the 2017 World Series had lifted the spirit of a city battered by Hurricane Harvey and given Astros fans something to celebrate. News that the victory was marred by illegal sign stealing pushed us back flat on our asses in the muck.
Talk about indignity.
I say it’s time to put this cheating thing behind us. The Astros have now made it to the World Series three times in the last five years. And in the last two trips, they’ve done it by simply out-hitting and out-pitching their opponents. Going into this series against the Braves, Astros fans deserve to hold their heads high.
The 2017 World Series win remains in the record books, despite howls of derision from other cities. Chalk up the stinging 2019 loss to the Washington Nationals as an act of atonement. This year decides whether this drama in three acts ends up as a comedy or a tragedy.
Of course, win or lose, the Astros will remain arguably the most hated team in baseball. It’s not the sort of begrudging hatred tinged with respect directed toward the Yankees as they won series after series in the mid-twentieth century. It’s more like fans in other cities are looking down their noses at us.
Granted, the franchise’s odd history invites a little mockery. The team started out in 1962 as the Houston Colt 45s. They were named after “the gun that won the West,” not the malt liquor, but it wasn’t the wisest choice of names. The team ended up in a dispute with the firearm manufacturer over marketing rights.
With the move to the Astrodome in 1965, the team name was changed to the Astros in recognition of the city’s prominence in the space program. Billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World by promoters, the cavernous Astrodome favored pitchers and challenged long ball hitters. Fans enjoyed the air conditioning.
Glare from the dome’s roof blinded so many fielders that the glass had to be painted over. As a result, grass wouldn’t grow on the indoor field. Which is why the world famous synthetic playing surface called AstroTurf had to be invented. It was only fitting that Houston, the high tech capital of the world, should change baseball with such amazing innovations.
Okay, so the air conditioned dome and its plastic grass don’t seem as modernistic as they once did. But the Astros’ polyester rainbow-colored uniforms of the 1970s, once mocked as shockingly gaudy, are enjoying a retro fashion comeback. And new uses for AstroTurf are constantly being discovered. Surely you’ve seen automobiles covered with the stuff.
I became an Astros fan when I moved to Space City in 2000 to become the restaurant critic at the Houston Press. It helped that the newspaper had season tickets on the third base line, which I got to use whenever advertising clients hadn’t claimed them. Weekday games started at 7:05, just in time to head over to the ballpark after work.
The Astros started playing in a brand new downtown stadium that year. It was built on the site of the former Union Station, a classic railway station in the grand concourse tradition. The entrance to the new ballpark uses some of the old station architecture.
The stadium was named “The Ballpark at Union Station, Enron Field” when it opened. As you may recall, Enron was a Houston energy trading company that exploded in a burst of accounting scandals and SEC investigations in 2001. The mayhem resulted in the largest bankruptcy reorganization in U.S. history at the time and a slew of felony allegations for high-flying Houston businessmen. In 2002, Enron sold the naming rights to the stadium back to the Astros. It subsequently became Minute Maid Park, as it’s known today.
I took my son Joe and my daughter Ava to their first baseball game there. We sat in the Crawford Boxes. El Real Tex-Mex Café, the Houston restaurant where I was once a partner, had a concession stand at Minute Maid Park. My kids were wide-eyed when I bought them tacos there.
I wish we were going to see the opening game tonight. But it’s not in the cards. For the last few years, I have been dividing my time between Houston and County Clare, Ireland. I timed some of my Texas trips to coincide with Astros home stretches. But the pandemic interrupted my travel plans.
So this year, I’ll be following the World Series from the other side of the Atlantic on another high tech innovation—internet radio. I’ll be cheering for the Astros, as long as I can stay awake. The first game starts at 1 a.m. Irish time.
This year’s Astros are an outstanding baseball team managed by baseball legend Dusty Baker. The players who were around in 2017 have suffered enough abuse for the sign stealing scandal.
If you ask me, it’s time to call those who continue to bear a grudge what they really are: sore losers.