Friday, January 06, 2006

1962: Houston Astros

Considering that the Astros are one of the best expansion franchises in baseball, they have had remarkably little luck in the postseason, and are therefore rarely thought of as one of the NL's stronger franchises. However, since their inception in 1962, the Astros have posted a .500 winning percentage (they're actually 3497-3503, just barely under .500). The only expansion franchise in all of baseball with a better record is the Arizona Diamondbacks (.503 Win. %), who've only existed for 8 seasons. But the Astros didn't win a postseason series until 2004, and they didn't win an NL pennant until 2005. They still haven't won a World Series, making them the oldest NL franchise still without a world title (the AL Senators/Rangers are a year older and still trophy-less).
But the Astros have been one of the more stable winners in the National League for most of their existence. They've never matched their expansion-mates the Mets for drama or sheer number of characters, but a lot of good baseball (and baseball players) have passed through the Lone Star State since 1962.
As one of the more active teams in the Continental League lobbying, the city of Houston was able to secure a National League franchise in the 1962 NL expansion. With many of the original supporters unable to fully bankroll the operation, it was left to Robert E. Smith, "the richest man in Texas," to step in and foot the bill. Smith brought along his associate, Judge Roy Hofheinz. Hofheinz's personality was such that Gabe Paul, hired away from the Reds to run Houston's baseball operations, resigned the team rather than work with him, the ink not yet dry on his 3-year contract.
Public relations man George Kirksey, a major player in the Houston Sports Association that lobbied for the team, stayed on under Hofheinz and had a hand in setting up the franchise. Kirksey handled negotiations to bring in Paul Richards, the force behind the rejuvenation of the Orioles in the late 50's, to replace Paul as GM. Kirksey also made a deal with the Colt Firearms Company to call the new team the Colt .45s. Smith and Hofheinz preferred to let the fans decide in a poll, but with Kirksey running the vote, the name chosen by the fans was, amazingly enough, the Colt .45s. Seeking to portray a Wild West/Texas image, Kirksey didn't see anything wrong with naming the team after a handgun, even when that meant that the uniforms would look like this.
In the expansion draft, Richards decided to leave the more familiar names to the Mets and concentrated on young players. This meant that while Houston fans may not have been enthusiastic about the presence of "legends" like Bob Aspromonte and Ken Johnson, the Astros had a much better foundation for building their franchise. So while the Mets were reaching new levels of awfuldom, the Astros were doing an admirable job of locating young players. What they weren't so good at was keeping them. More on that later.
A 64-96 finish may not sound very encouraging, but it was good enough for 8th place in the 1962 NL, ahead of the Cubs and the woeful Mets. The Astros had a pretty low-level offense, but did have some solid pitching. They didn't have any aces, but starting pitcher Turk Farrell (10-20, but a 3.02 ERA) and closer Don McMahon (1.53 ERA) had decent careers.

The lack of offense was magnified by the Colts' home park, Colt Stadium. While the AstroDome was already being planned, the Colts needed someplace to play and ended up in the most temporary of temporary stadiums. The biggest problem wasn't the Texas heat (which was oppressive), but the presence of giant mosquitoes. The grounds crew had to spray mosquito repellant during half-innings, and the ballpark was forever after known as Mosquito Heaven.
For the rest of the 1960's, the team scraped across, never finishing higher than 8th place. They were considered a relative success compared to the Mets, but weren't able to get off the ground. When a new manager failed to produce a winning season in the team's first season in the AstroDome (1965), GM Richards was out, fired by now-majority owner Hofheinz. Total Ballclubs tells a story about Richards being interviewed about Hofheinz, 20 years after his dismissal. The reporter asked if Hofheinz was his own worst enemy, and Richards replied, "Not while I'm alive he isn't."
The move into the AstroDome coincided with the team's redubbing as the Houston Astros. With the high-tech facility and Houston's growing reputation as the headquarters of NASA, the team replaced the smoking gun with the idea of the space-age turbo jet. It was better than the gun, but it resulted in these infamous uniforms.
Houston's second-division finishes disguised a team that was building up a strong nucleus of young talent. Among the star hitters developed by the Astro system during the late 60's were Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, and Jerry Grote. The pitching prospects included Larry Dierker, Mike Cuellar and Don Wilson. With the exception of Wynn, Dierker, and Wilson, all these players would spend their best years away from Houston, sent off in ill-advised trades.
But these young talents stayed around long enough to turn the Astros into a first-division team. Under new General Manager Spec Richardson and manager Harry "The Hat" Walker, the Astros jumped to a 5th-place finish in 1969. This was largely due to their move to the 6-team NL West, but it was also their first non-losing season (81-81). After competitive years in 1970 and 1971, the Astros made a run of it in 1972, finishing ( a distant) 2nd to the Reds. That was their peak; for while the Astros were usually competitive and never as bad as the Mets, they were never able to keep together their core group of talent long enough to make a run at the Reds and Dodgers.
Part of the problem was the Astros' difficult relationship with their players. One of the reasons the Astros traded Morgan is that they considered him a "troublemaker." This image was dispelled when Morgan went on to become a team leader (and 2-time MVP) with the Big Red Machine, causing some to wonder whether Morgan's race may have influenced his being so depicted. The Morgan trade came about because Richardson felt that the team needed a power hitter to be competitive; the cavernous, airless AstroDome was a pitcher's paradise; one of the best pitcher's parks in the post-war era. It made good pitchers look great and kept more than one hitter (Jose Cruz and Jimmy Wynn, to start) from being recognized as true superstars.
So the Astros traded Morgan, along with infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister and pitcher Jack Billingham, to Cincinnati for slugger Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart. The trade helped turn the Reds into a dynasty and embarassed the Astros. May was a good slugger, but his poor OBP made him a bad investment, and once inside the AstroDome a lot of his home runs turned into long outs.
The 1975 season was the end of the beginning; it marked the last time an Astro team posted a winning percentage below .400 (.398, or 64-97). It saw former Pirate Bill Virdon take over as manager, a move that would eventually get the Astros into the postseason. After revelations of mounting debt, Hofheinz was out in the front office, and Tal Smith eventually stepped in to run baseball 0perations.
The season got off to a terrible start when pitcher Don Wilson was found dead due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The team insisted that the death was accidental, and only afterwards did stories of Wilson's depression emerge, leaving suicide as the most likely explanation.
The team was building a new core of young talent in their run towards the 1980s. Along with the aforementioned Cruz was center field sensation Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno emerged in 1972 as one of the best all-around players in the league, drawing comparisons to Willie Mays. He hit for average, hit for good power, drew walks, played good defense, and stole bases. Tragically, injury would stop what looked to be a Hall-of-Fame career, along with the specter of a manslaughter charge involving the death of his girlfriend.
The lineup, supplemented by ace hitter Bob Watson, right fielder Terry Puhl and a free agent Joe Morgan (now past his prime) helped support a very strong pitching staff. Along with relievers Joe Sambito and Dave Smith, the Astros sported one of the league's best rotations. Stars such as Joe Niekro and Ken Forsch were supplemented in 1980 by the free agent acquisition of native Texan Nolan Ryan. Ryan left his best years in Anaheim, but was still a major force not just on the mound, but in legitimizing this young team in the eyes of baseball fans everywhere.
The most electrifying member of the mound staff, however, was probably J.R. Richard. The 6'8" right-hander burst onto the scene in 1975, striking out 176 batters in 20 innings (along with 138 walks). The fireballer looked like another Ryan, dominating hitters with record numbers of strikeouts (and walks). Richard had struck out more than 300 batters for 2 straight years in 1978-1979, a feat matched by only 5 other pitchers in history. He looked on his way to more success in 1980, but was shockingly felled by a stroke that ended his playing career at the age of 30. The Astros came under criticism for ignoring early signs of Richard's condition, with stories in the papers claiming the Astros felt he was "too lazy."
Even with all the turmoil, the Astros succeeded in 1980, taking over the NL West. They went into Dodger Stadium for the final 3 games of the season, needing just 1 win to eliminate Los Angeles and clinch the division. Amazingly, the Astros lost all 3, but did win a playoff game to secure their first-ever postseason birth. What followed was an amazingly tense NLCS against the Phillies, with the series going the full 5 games, the last 4 all being extra-inning affairs. But the Astros came up short, falling to the Phillies 3-2.
The Astros added free agent Don Sutton in 1981 and returned to the postseason, winning the NL West in the second half of the season, a further playoff round added due to the midseason players' strike. Houston faced the Dodgers and won Game 1, but then lost three straight to drop out of the postseason.
With the team composed of older free agents such as Sutton and Ryan, they failed to develop new stars in the mid-80s, and the team returned to also-ran status. A new batch of hitters such as Kevin Bass, Bill Doran and Glenn Davis helped the team take a surprising NL West title in 1986. But the biggest surprise was the emergence of ace Mike Scott. After learning the split-finger fastball from Roger Craig, Scott became (if only for a short while), one of the NL's best pitchers. Scott took home the 1986 NL Cy Young Award by leading the league with a 2.22 ERA and 306 strikeouts. In the NLCS, Scott was the biggest hero the Astros had. Facing the 108-win Mets, the Astros fought hard in perhaps the best NLCS ever. It went only 6 games, but the 16-inning decisive 6th game was one for the ages. Scott made two starts and threw two complete games, allowing just 1 run overall, but the Astros still lost the series. Scott was named the NLCS MVP regardless. Now the Astros were beginning to look like more than an unlucky team; they were beginning to look like chokers.
The team went back to its also-ran status for the remainder of the 1980's, even finishing last in 1991 for the first time in 16 years. What eventually led the team back to respectability were 4 things: Drayton McLane's purchase of the team in 1992, Gerry Hunsicker getting the job of the GM in 1995, and the emergence of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.
The very definition of franchise players, Bagwell and Biggio came to the Astros in roundabout ways; Biggio came to the club as a catcher in 1988, but was such a good hitter and runner that the team moved him to second base to prolong his career. Bagwell came out of the Boston organization, but showed little of his characteristic power in the minors; he came to Houston in a trade for relief pitcher Larry Andersen, a truly lopsided swap. Bagwell came to the majors in 1991, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and never looked back. Both men are first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, and Biggio is one of the 6 or 7 best second basemen of all time.
The Astros climbed back to respectability, claiming three straight 2nd-place finishes in the newly-formed NL Central from 1994 to 1996. The Astros won the NL Central in 1997 thanks to what were now known as the "Killer Bs" of Bagwell, Biggio, and Derrek Bell. Equally important was a mound staff anchored by Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile, and the rise to fame of ace closer Billy Wagner. But all that earned them was an NLDS sweep at the hands of the Braves.
This would be the story of the Astros. They had fine teams; some of the NL's best in the late 90's and early 00's. But they were woeful in the playoffs, losing early usually to the Braves, as shown here:
1997: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Braves 3-0
1998: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Padres 3-1
1999: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Braves 3-1
2001: NL Central Champions, lost NLDS to Braves 3-0
It was starting to look like a blight on HOFers Biggio and Bagwell that they never performed well in the postseason. The run of frustration cost former Astro Dierker his job as manager, despite having won 4 division titles in 5 years as manager. The team hired Jimy Williams, and has finished in 2nd place every year since.
But nowadays, 2nd place does not preclude a postseason berth. The Astros amazed everyone in 2004 by zooming past the fading Cubs and Giants to snatch the NL Wild Card on the last day of the season. This was despite the fact that many considered them out of the race by mid-summer. The team had traded disappointing closer Octavio Dotel to Oakland as part of a 3-team deal that netted them Kansas City slugger Carlos Beltran. Beltran had a career year in 2004, and saved his best stuff for the Astros, but it looked like he was nearly alone. The Astros had an excellent hitter in Lance Berkman (a new Killer B developed from the farm system), but the team as a whole was sluggish. Injuries plagued the starting rotation, shorn up by the presence of Roger Clemens and young phenom Roy Oswalt. The starting lineup was boosted by free agent second baseman Jeff Kent, but it was a decidedly old team. It was thus to everyone's surprise when they streaked to the Wild Card.
The Astros drew the Braves again in the NLDS, and it looked like it would be the same story all over again. But the Astros rode strong pitching past the Braves in 5 games, marking their first-ever postseason series win. They would go on to the NLCS against the Cardinals. Despite facing what was realistically a much better team, the Astros challenged the Cardinals in a dramatic 7-game series that eventually saw St. Louis victorious.
2005 was an oddly similar tale; the loss of Beltran and Kent to free agency, combined with injuries to Bagwell, made the Astros seem doomed. The Houston Chronicle even published a picture of a tombstone, pronouncing the Astros' season dead. But in yet another miracle charge under manager Phil Garner, the team zipped to another close Wild Card, beating the Phillies with a win on the last day of the season.
It was the Braves again in the NLDS, and the Astros were victorious in 4 games this time, although it took an 18-inning barnburner to decide it in Game 4. The 'Stros exorcised some more old demons when they rode Oswalt's arm to victory over the Cardinals in the NLCS, winning their first-ever NL pennant. With Andy Pettitte healthy and Clemens as dominant as ever, it looked like it might be the Astros' year. But luck was not on their side in the World Series, as they fell victim to a Chicago White Sox sweep. It was, along with the 1950 Series, the closest sweep in Series history in terms of being outscored, but that was small consolation.
The Astros look to 2006 with mixed feelings. The offensive cupboard is bare; Biggio has little left and Bagwell is all but finished. Apart from Berkman and third base phenom Morgan Ensberg, the Astros (as evidenced in the postseason) aren't going to score many runs. Their pitching staff, anchored by Oswalt, Pettite and ace closer Brad Lidge, is excellent, but the (possible) loss of Roger Clemens is big. A lot will depend on the farm system. While it may take a while to see the effects, we must remember that the Astros have developed one of the most fruitful farm systems of any expansion team, and have always managed to return to glory in the past.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

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