Monday, March 28, 2005

Getting Over the Hump by Kip Yates

Something happened this fall that hadn’t happened in almost 90 years. I am not talking of the World Series victory for the Boston Red Sox or reelection of another incumbent goof. I am talking about the Houston Astros winning their first postseason series…ever! The Astros were the first team from Texas to win a postseason series in a combined 90 years. Before this season, the Astros and the Texas Rangers were o’fer the postseason. They played in a combined 10 series and had managed only nine wins between them and the Astros had eight of them. Combined both teams had suffered 31 October losses. With those kinds of numbers, even diehards think, “Just stay home!” Sometimes, a missed October is better than a dreary one right? Not so fast! We all know it is better to have been invited to the party than to be left outside the door. Of course, when it came to cheering for these two teams in October, you just hoped they didn’t make an ass out of themselves at the big dance. When it came to the big October party, Houston always seemed on the verge of at least asking the pretty girl to dance; not content to sit in the back of the room against the wall hoping she would ask you first, averting eye contact. The Rangers, on the other hand, would slosh its way onto the dance floor, trip on its own two feet, smack the pretty girl across the face and fall into the punchbowl. Clumsy! How else can you explain one win in 10 tries (and they won their first ever playoff game which means they are on a current nine game losing streak not seen since, well, the Astros, who dropped six in a row from 1999 to 2001. But the way the Astros stormed into the postseason had me thinking they would finally join the winner’s circle. They came on like gangbusters in late August and September and won 36 of 46 games. They clinched the wild card on the final day of the season with expected starter, Roger “The Rocket” Clemens in bed nursing the flu and unheralded starter Brandon Backe pitching his hometown team into the playoffs.

If you told me back in August that there would come a day in October where I prayed for the Astros to win—that’s right, prayed!—I would have said you were nuts. At 56-60, I had given in, resolved to cheer for Boston and St. Louis the rest of the way. Houston was already about a trillion games behind the Cardinals and the wild card looked bleak with Houston eight games back and behind six teams, including the Mets, who would end up 21 games behind the Astros. I would have never guessed what could and would happen. Not in a million years! Not with the Astros anyway. This is the franchise that is always coming close but just cannot close the deal. Going into the final game of the season, I still didn’t expect a miracle. Houston only needed a win or a San Francisco loss. I was certain that Houston would lose and the Giants would win and then the Giants would beat the Astros in a one game playoff at Willie Mays stadium. (I don’t believe in corporate sponsorship.) ESPN would get its dream of having Barry Bonds in another postseason. I was used to that kind of collapse. Remember—in the other league, I am a Red Sox fan.

It didn’t go that way. Houston won. I couldn’t believe it myself. They actually won, ending the Giants playoff hopes in the process. They leaped the final hurdle. Now the harsh reality of October baseball set in. I found out the first obstacle en route to a first World Series appearance would be none other than the Atlanta Braves, whom Houston had fallen to in 1997, 1999, and 2001, all the while managing one win in nine tries. Houston won the first game and predictably lost the second. There was the requisite talk of taking one in Atlanta and gaining home field, but they did the same thing in 1999 only to tank at home. The ball would be handed to Backe for the pivotal swing game three. He was marvelous and then after a strong start by Clemens, the bullpen gave away game four. It had been since 1986 that the Astros had won two games in the postseason and they had already equaled that mark against Atlanta but a tough road lay ahead. The Astros would have to play a final game in Atlanta on a Monday night to advance to the National League Championship Series. It had been nearly 20 years since Houston had advanced to the NLCS and since Divisional play began in earnest in 1995, they were 0 for four. So I found myself on the floor, eyes to the sky (that’s right, eyes to the sky), and pleading for an Astros win. A win meant that none of the pundits could ever talk about Houston never winning a postseason series again. Never again would I have to see a graphic that Houston had never won a postseason series. Team stalwarts Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio could get a huge gorilla off their back with not only a strong post season showing but helping Houston to their first series win in franchise history.

The morning before game five was played, long time Astro Ken Caminitti died of “cardiac arrest.” Oh no, only one of two things can happen now: his ex-mates will either tank or play like their balls were on fire. They chose the latter. They won. I couldn’t watch the game either. A few times, I asked my wife Jamie to give me a sign of good or bad. 2-0, she gave thumbs up. 3-2 she was a little apprehensive to say. “Just tell me!” I shouted. “Ok,” I said. “I will just put River to bed.” I remember hearing my phone ring. I ignored it. When I emerged from the silent darkness I checked my phone. Matt called. Damn it! I didn’t bother even listening to his message. I knew Atlanta had scored 12 runs to take a 15-run lead. Oh well! There is always next year. About an hour later I let my curiosity get the best of me and I closed my ears and eyes and asked Jamie to check the score for me. She woke me from my blind and silent stupor and sent me reeling into a fit of excitement. Bottom of the ninth; Houston 12, Atlanta 4. I had to watch. I could not let Astros history unfold without watching. It was momentous. I thought about waking River to witness the event but then thought, “No, I will wake him when we are about to win the World Series.” Okay, that will come later. Anyway, the Astros won. Astros win! Astros win! Astros win!

You know how this particular chapter ends. Houston is still waiting for its first World Series birth. St. Louis defeated Houston in the NLCS in seven games. Houston came within one game, though. Clemens, Backe, and Roy Oswalt were playoff stalwarts. I am left to ponder what might have been had Andy Pettitte been healthy and a solid number four instead of Pete Munroe. Perhaps if the bullpen had not imploded in Game 6, but that involves a game of woulda, coulda, shoulda. The team played their cajones off. I am proud of what they were able to do and hope they can finish the journey next season. Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran won’t be around this season except when the Dodgers and Mets come to town. Pettitte is a question mark. Clemens will make about half a million per start next year and will earn every penny of it. Lance Berkman will not play in any more flag football games. Adam Everett will learn to get out of the way of those inside pitches a little quicker. Journeyman extraordinaire Jose Vizcaino returns. Phil “Scrap Iron” Garner will be at the helm for a full season and if the second half of this season is any indication of just how good he is with these guys, I have every reason to believe and hope during next season. The Anaheim Angels and the Red Sox have both won in recent years after a history of playoff futility. Can the Houston Astros be far behind?

Kip Yates is an avid Houston Astro fan... Well duh... Convinced that someday, the champagne will taste sweeter and the victory dance will linger longer after the Stros win the Series. He keeps telling himself each year after watching another team celebrate jubilantly on the field that someday, so too will the team he has followed since 1979 leap to the heavens and shout out of sheer joy. Then the tears on his face will be tears of happiness. Kip is even passing this unrequited love for the Astros to his son. But it hasn't caught on yet. Is he delusional? His wife thinks so. What can I say? Kip is a great guy. He also HATES the Yankees with every fiber of his being but admits he appreciates Derek Jeter. What baseball fan doesn't?

No comments: