The Astros are playing their first playoff game in 10 years tonight. It's a playoff game that wouldn't have existed the last time they were in the playoffs, but nonetheless, it is a legitimate playoff game. The Astros can hang up an 'American League Wild Card' pennant to join those earned in 2004 and 2005. It was a rocky season where for much of it they were the class of the AL West, and still by most metrics were the best team in the division, but were passed, then for a day slipped out of the Wild Card spot, and then came back. They're in. That's all that matters. And now, I get to do something I haven't done in 10 years... be exceedingly nervous during an October baseball game.
I don't know if I'm a bigger baseball fan now than I was 10 years ago. I would probably say not. Back then, I watched baseball games religouusly, I followed games on MLB Gameday, I read everything I could. The Astros were really good, Roy Oswalt was in his prime, people were jacking 50+ HR a year, and I was a kid. It was natural I would love the game. Slowly over time, as the Astros stupidly staved off rebuilding for five years, then smartly committed, if not over-committed, for four, I've lost that love.
Now, baseball is still either my 2nd or 3rd favorite sport (with Hockey), and the Astros are probably the team I follow earnestly more than any outside of the Colts, but the last 10 years trying to believe in that team, that organization, it tested my strength as a fan. I learned to love other parts of baseball, and I learned a lot about it (my knowledge of advanced stats is far more now than in 2005), but it still isn't the same as having your team actually be in something meaningful.
That all changes, and I couldn't think of a better team for it to change against. There were a two close calls in the 9 playoff-less years in between. First, in 2006, the Astros almost made up an 8 game deficit to St. Louis in two weeks to end the season, coming within a half-game of stealing the NL Central from the eventual World Series winner. Then in 2008, the Astros, despite having their best players get hurt throughout the year on offense, ended 86-75 (a better record than this year), and missed the Wild Card by two games. They made an August charge that ended when they, one game back of the Wild Card, had to play a Labor-Day series in Milwaukee because of a Hurricane in Houston. They played it against the Cubs, who predictably filled Miller Park in a 'home game' for the Astros. Carlos Zambrano tossed a no-hitter in the series opener. They were never within one-game of a playoff spot in the 2nd half of a season again... until 2015.
I remember bits and pieces of those interim nine years, especially the first half of that period when they were foolishly thinking they could still do something. The Astros should have torn down and rebuilt in 2008 (despite the record, that was an aging, over-performing team with a barren farm), but instead waited until 2010. Instead, they traded away prospects for guys like Jason Jennings, an aging Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde. Luckily for them very few of the players they traded away amounted to anything, but it was the opposite of hte best strategy.
The frustration that those years brought was amazing. They still had Berkman and Oswalt, and a rising Hunter Pence. All three were traded in 2010, the year they finally said 'no mas'. Three 100-loss seasons followed, and my daily fanhood left, for two reasons. First, those three guys left to do some interesting things, and second, the Astros became an even greater disaster.
The teams the Astros put out there from 2011-2013 were embarrassing. Sure, that was the point. New GM Jeff Luhnow held a quorum with fans basically telling them that the team will suck for 3-4 years. They trotted out literal AAA lineups late in those seasons. The players were so anonymously awful in those three years I don't even remember half of them. Through that time, they were slowly starting to draft well and plan for the future, but they decided to get a new owner and change leagues also.
The Astros were MLB's red-headed step-child. They were the trade-chip the league used to go to two 15-team league's, moving them to the AL West from the NL Central, ruining old rivalries like Astros vs. Cubs and more importantly Astros vs. Cardinals (more on that later). More strikingly, they did it on the guise of creating a rivalry with the Rangers, while overlooking the fact that the Brewers had a shorter tenure in the NL, since they LITERALLY WERE IN THE AL BEFORE!!! The Astros were clearly a dark mark for baseball. They had payrolls lower than like 50 different players. They made no attempt to win. They signed under-slot guys at the top of the draft. They did all this... but it worked. Yet, even though it would ultimately be successful, it was embarrassing to be a fan.
The other reasons my fan interest in teh Astros waned was that Oswalt, Berkman and Pence all went away, and all succeeded. I took strange joy in watching Berkman win a World Series, despite it being for the Cardinals. He also played a crucial role, having a good season and then hitting the less-memorable game-tying two-out hit against the Rangers in Game 6. I also saw Hunter Pence win two World Series and became a beloved figure in San Francisco, and even to some degree baseball at large. And finally, I saw Roy Oswalt pitch a playoff game, including a great one in Game 2 of the 2010 NLCS against San Francisco. All three had their moments to shine outside Houston in the same three to four year period the Astros decided to intentionally become garbage.
It was an eventful 9 years, but we're back. The Astros tested my patience, tested my ability to care about a game when my team didn't care about winning. I can write umpteen thinkpieces on how what they did was the right course of action, how it ended up with them being able to draft Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, and George Springer before that (in Ed Wade's last draft), and how it ended up with the team we have now, but optimal strategy does not equal optimal interest. It was a science project more than a team. That has all changed.
The Astros will take the field tonight and allow us Astros' fans to experience something amazing, the joy of caring about October baseball. Only two things are comparable for me as a sports fan to an October baseball game. First is Overtime in Playoff Hockey, and then is a big NFL game. The NFL is a different animal, but October baseball is so close. A tight game, in the cool, crisp fall air, with those dreadfully nervous 20 seconds between each pitch, where everything can happen. That's how I fell in love with the sport. Watching the drama of the 2003-04 LCS's, all four of them great in their own way. I know the heartbreak, like with Albert Pujols's home run against Brad Lidge, but I also now the elation, like the Astros 18-inning game against the Braves in the '05 LCS. These are sports memories that last a lifetime.
2005 was a long time ago. I was in 9th Grade. I was not on Facebook, and Twitter was not a thing, and Youtube hadn't been bought by Google or inundated with ads and ruined by the Copywright police. I didn't have a TV that had DVR, so I had to sit, generally alone in my basement, watching on a small TV in Standard Def, the game live making me sit through commercial after commercial. I wouldn't have thought the next time I could watch an Astros playoff game I would be old enough to legally have a beer instead of a coke.
When I look back at my time as an Astros fan 30 years from now, there will be a dark 10-year period. I'll remember some of the names, but they'll be the guys who preceeded that run, or the one's that managed to stick around (Altuve, Castro). But I won't remember the time when Kaz Matsui played for the Astros, or Felipe Paulino, or Tim Byrdak, Wesley Wright (hold on, there's a lot to come), Chris Johnson, Tommy Manzella, Brett Wallace, Brandon Lyon, Jordan Schafer, Justin Maxwell, Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, Wilton Lopez, Carlos Corporan, Jason Bourgeios, Humberto Quintero, and so many other random call-ups that just stood there and took up innings and at bats and years from my life as a fan.
No, I won't remember those guys, but I did learn a lot about what it means to be a real fan during those years lost in the wilderness. I learned that you can wax and wane on your interest level and not lose that connection. I learned you can live by being embarrassed with your team, being annoyed, being generally disappointed. I learned you can find solace in the rare bright spots, in stressing the future and scouring the prospect reports. I learned that fandom is still substantive even when your team is lacking in substance.
Still, I also learned that having October baseball is so much better than not. I'm ready. It may just be for one game. Alternatively, as the Royals showed last year it may be for a whole month. Either way, the team is still young, the system is working, and the future is bright. But that's for another discussion. Right now, October baseball, and cycling through all my fingernails is what is on my mind.