Friday, July 28, 2000

35 Years at the Dome: No Thanks for the Memories by Kip Yates

It was billed as the 8th Wonder of the World. A beacon of new and improved times, it was to be the first ever-domed baseball park. Neither rain, sleet, nor snow could stop the throngs in Houston, Texas from enjoying the American past time. A new age was dawning, the space age, and what better way to usher in this new era than with a brand spanking new domed stadium with a name right out of the Jetsons. The Houston Colt .45's had been conceived in 1962 and had only been a major league team for three years, but now they were taking their franchise to the next level. The Houston Colt .45's hadn't seen a whole lot of success in their relatively short life span, but for the Houston Astros, all of that was about to change. The Houston Astros, featuring a short, spry rookie second basemen and future Hall of Famer named Joe Morgan, were moving into a much improved ballpark that would send them galloping out of the Twentieth Century and skyrocketing into the 21st.

The Houston Astros moved out of temporary home, Colt Stadium (now rebuilt in Torreon, Mexico), and into their space-age home on April 9, 1965. For the very first game ever at the new pad, our brave space cadets played the New York Yankees. The Yankees were baseball's royal family and featured the beloved Mickey Mantle. The Astros prevailed over the Yanks 2-1 in that first ever game, albeit an exhibition game, at the newly christened Harris County Domed Stadium, or, as it was better known, the Astrodome. The victory over the defending American League champs was a harbinger of better times to come. Certainly, a brighter future lay ahead for the Houston Astros. The rag tag Colt .45's had morphed into the new look Astros and would lay to waste even the proud juggernaut that was the New York Yankees and conquer any foe in the National League, whether they were the powerful LA Dodgers or St. Louis Cardinals. And they would leave other laughing-stock franchises such as the New York Mets or Atlanta Braves in their dust. At least that is what was supposed to happen. Sadly, the glorious future turned into year after year of unfulfilled expectations and the Houston Astros had to watch those same Dodger and Cardinal teams enjoy postseason success, while teams like the Braves and the Mets passed them by, often at the Astros’ expense.

I grew up in Arlington, Texas rooting for the hapless Texas Rangers. Rooting for the Texas Rangers was particularly tough because of the bonehead moves the front office under owner Brad Corbett consistently made. Local legend has it that Mr. Corbett used to make trades on the backs of bar napkins. So long story short...I could not afford to give my undying allegiance to a sorry franchise that routinely made unsound business decisions, so I gave up on them. I took my allegiance south to Houston, Texas. It was the summer of 1980 and something was catching on in the city by the Gulf...playoff fever. I had yet to witness this phenomenon in baseball, though I was extremely familiar with it in football, being a Dallas Cowboys fan. Where my Rangers had failed, my adopted Astros were succeeding. That summer, led by manager Bill Virdon and newly acquired million-dollar man, Nolan Ryan, the Astros were finally a winning franchise.

The 1980 Astros captured a piece of me that I can never take back. I gave so much to them. I completely forgot about the Rangers like the wicked stepsister they were. I now belonged to the other team down the highway. Never mind the ribbing I would take when the Astros and Rangers met for their traditional grudge match before their futile seasons began! Never mind that my Houston Astros lost the very first game I ever saw them play. Current pitching coach Vern Ruhle and the Astros went down in defeat to Craig Swan and the Mets. It would take them eighteen years to finally win a game with me in attendance against the expansion Colorado Rockies!

For all the adoration I gave to the Houston Astros, the losses I witnessed in person paled in comparison to the heart-wrenching playoff losses my beloved ’Stros suffered one way or the other through the years. I could do nothing but shake my head and mutter, "Wait till next year!" circa Brooklyn. The only problem was that next year sometimes took a decade to arrive. In between lay much futility and below par years. However, no one can disclaim that when the Astros finally did get their chance to perform in the postseason that they did not shine. Their luster just wore off at the most inopportune times.

The Houston Astros have lost every single playoff series they have ever played. Yet, I cannot ever give up hope on them picking themselves up and hopping back onto the field to challenge once again for that elusive first championship. The Astros always seemed to never be far from reaching the next plateau in the postseason. They always conjured hope when all seemed to be lost. Miracles were never out of reach. And just when you thought everything was going to be all right and they were actually going to win, BAMMO! Something outright ridiculous always reared its ugly head. In the strike-shortened 1981 season The Astros lost a two game lead over the eventual World Series Champion Dodgers in the best three out of five Division Series. They were only able to get two runs across the plate in the final three games played at Dodger Stadium. The fall before, in 1980, the Astros blew a two games to one lead in the NLCS. They came within three outs of playing in their first ever World Series, but blew a three run ninth-inning lead to the eventual World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies and (eventually) lost in the fourteenth-inning of the final deciding game.

Six years later, led by manager Hal Lanier and his blue collar crew featuring pitcher Mike Scott and scrappy Phil Garner, the Houston Astros lost a tightly contested six game series against the Mets. The last two games were lost in extra innings. The final game of the series was a memorable, sixteen inning loss in which the Astros again blew a three run lead in the top of the ninth-inning. Both the Mets and the Astros exchanged runs in the eleventh-inning; but the Astros could only score two runs, one less than the Mets, in the final frame. The Mets were the eventual World Series Champions over the Boston Red Sox, another team all too familiar with their own postseason collapses.

In 1998, the Astros finished the regular season with their best record to date, 103-59. The outlook was good. They were hosting the San Diego Padres, who had finished last only a year earlier, in the Division Series. On top of all that, the Astros had an ace up their sleeve. They had made a deal at the trading deadline for Seattle's Randy Johnson, probably the most feared fireballer in baseball. Johnson had been virtually unbeatable since joining the Astros and his home ERA at the Astrodome was ludicrous. 1998 was the year! It was our year. Johnson lost a game one pitcher's duel with Kevin Brown when the Astros’ bats went silent and the momentum of the series took a 180-degree turn. The Astros eventually lost in four games. I personally regarded that loss as the toughest one the Astros had succumbed to. That was until the fall of 1999.

The Astros had fought Central Division foe, the Cincinnati Reds, in a neck-and-neck battle for first throughout the regular season. They weathered injury storms and the near fatal seizure of manager, Larry Dierker, but when the dust had settled, the Astros had won the division title on the final day of the season. Their hard-fought victory earned them the right to play the Braves, the best team in the National League, in a playoff rematch of the one-sided 1997 Division Series. The Astros took the first game and went home confident with their chances of beating the Braves. While trailing the third game 2-0, the Braves came roaring back in the sixth inning to take the lead. But it wasn't over! In the bottom of the tenth inning, with the bases loaded and no outs, the Astros had the Braves against the wall. Their most consistent, postseason offensive threat, Carl Everett was at the plate. When he swung at Kevin Millwood's ball four offering and hit a dribbler to the mound, the Braves had the first out of the inning and a little breathing room. As a fan you try not to think about past playoff ghosts; but I watched, horrified, an all too knowing blankness permeating my being. I knew what was going to happen next. Yet I watched as Tony Eusebio hit a screaming liner up the middle and Ken Caminiti lumbered home from third with the winning run. The Astro bench erupted and poured onto the field to welcome Caminiti in open arms and hoist the hero, Eusebio, onto their shoulders in loud, voracious victory. If it had only happened that way! Braves manager Bobby Cox had replaced error prone shortstop Jose Hernandez earlier with the more reliable Walt Weiss, who snatched Eusebio's liner from thin air and nailed the lumbering Caminiti at home before the victory celebration could begin. The Astros lost the game and more or less the series in the twelfth-inning.

Crazy stuff! Such is the recipe for the franchise postseason futility. Wild, crazy, wacky, insane! I cannot explain why the Houston Astros cannot get over the playoff hump any more than I can explain why Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio's bats go soft come October. I cannot even venture to guess why such immortals as Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson were vulnerable in their postseason starts. I cannot fathom how Joe Sambito could just lose everything that made him unstoppable in previous relief appearances and self implode like he did in 1980 against the Phillies. These are all questions I can't answer. I want to. Are the Houston Astros cursed? Are the baseball gods punishing them these many years later for beating the Yankees? It sounds ludicrous but try explaining that to a Red Sox fan that watched Bucky Dent's puny fly ball go over the Monster. Or try to explain the silliness of a Bambino curse to Bill Buckner! Granted, Astro fans have not even come close to the sorrow experienced by die hard Sox and Chicago Cub fans, but even those franchises heartaches had to begin somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, the Astros problems started on that spring day in 1965 when they left Colt stadium behind and moved into the Astrodome. After all, the spacious Astrodome and her green-carpeted field have contributed to many letdowns in October.

The dimensions of the Dome are far too steep for just any hitter. One has to be a prolific power hitter to continually reach the fences at the dome and many a shot toward the fences have drifted into an outfielder's mitt. Sluggers like Jeff Bagwell and Jimmy Wynn have accomplished a great deal more than what is customary considering that they play half their ball games in the stingy Dome. It has always been a doubles ballpark and the Astros have done well in drafting and signing speedy doubles hitters like Biggio and Cesar Cedeno. Instead, the Astrodome has been regarded as a pitcher's ballpark, which explains the recent success of Jose Lima and earlier success of Greg Swindell. It is also no coincidence that Astros pitchers generally are often among the league leaders in pitching.

Aside from the dimensions, the cavernous ballpark has had other problems that even a rocket scientist couldn't foretell. First, the Dome's roof was made of glass panels. It looked real pretty from outside, like a "space station" off the highway; but it played ugly from inside like a drunk, naked, coed softball game. On sunny days, the light shining through the glass panels created problems for outfielders trying to catch high pop-ups. Judge Roy Hofheinz, the "Father of Indoor Baseball" and the mayor of Houston, was the genius that built the Astrodome and her glass ceiling; but it took the village idiot to fix the "glaring" problem. The solution was simple really. They just painted over the glass panels and the problem was solved. No more dropped flies and no more busted noggins ...and no more green grass! Without sunlight, the luscious green grass died. Major League Baseball would not tolerate its game being played on yellow grass so the grounds crew just painted it green before homestands and did minor touch-ups between games. Problem solved! Now Major League Baseball also would not tolerate its player's playing God's game with green paint on their uniform. (Though I guess those uniforms of the ’70s and ’80s were OK.) So everyone was sent back to the lab because there was no way that this thirty-one million-dollar stadium was going to serve as only a place for Republican Conventions and as a gathering ground for Jehovah's Witnesses. The Astrodome was built for the Astros and the Astros were going to make it their home come hell or high water. (Incidentally, the only rained out game at the Astrodome was due to flooding and well... high waters). So "a team of scientists" set out to make the Astrodome playable and what they developed brings me to the other problem with the Dome and consequently played a role in Astro postseason failures...Astroturf!!!

Astroturf, the man-made, hideous, career-shortening, synthetic garbage named after my beloved Astros has come to be the bane of all professional sports. Astroturf has ended many careers and led many others to a hasty demise. It also plays wicked wonders on routine ground balls hit in the infield that seem to take off like a rocket, whizzing past shortstops' heads, zipping into the outfield before caroming off the wall with a hard thud. It can make All Star fielders look like error-prone journeymen. The wear and tear of laying on artificial turf for half of a season can wreak havoc on a human body and this has been a prominent problem for the Astros, as they have never entered the postseason at 100%. Both teams that they have played in the past three Division Series have been teams accustomed to playing on natural grass. It is not presumptuous to suggest that teams that play on natural turf are crisper than the teams that play on artificial turf when it comes time to play in the extended season. The facts speak for themselves. The last team that played on artificial turf to play in a World Series was the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays. The turf at the Astrodome is so old and dilapidated that players have likened it to playing on asphalt. 81+ games of Major League Baseball played on a parking lot are not conducive to winning championships.

This season the Astros leave the Astrodome and will try to plant the seeds of success that eluded them at their old home. Enron Field is supposed to be a wholly different park than the Astrodome. It is reported to be a hitter’s ballpark with short fences down the lines. We'll all know soon enough. Enron Field also will have a retractable roof and enable the Houston Astros to play on natural grass. It will mark the first time the Houston Astros have played on home grass in 25 years. Will the Astros finally get over the hump and win their first World Series Championship this year, or if not this year, sometime in the near future while the "Killer B's" are still wearing stars? I hope so. I hope I'm not 70 years old and still waiting for that first one. I am aware that the Astrodome, though hard on the body and the senses, was not the sole cause for the playoff futility. Offensive power failures and defensive lapses cannot always be blamed on ballpark dimensions and silly playing surfaces. Though playing outdoors on grass in a launching pad can't hurt! The Houston Astros have a new red and black pinstriped look, a new home, some new faces, and hopefully a new outlook. I hope their only worries now are the mosquitoes.

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