Remember that kitten who came out in the same litter as us? He's finally made it to the World Series.
Congratulations to Expansion Class of '62 alumni the Houston Astros. You've graduated to the championship course after 44 seasons, a mere 36 after we first did it, a scant 19 Octobers since we got in your way.
Nice going, I guess.
It's a relief to be championed at last even if it is by a neophyte champion. I thought going in it would be the Cardinals. In fact, my picks all year were the Cardinals and Angels. I can say that now because they both lost. Since I never mentioned it to anybody, it would sound more than a little self-serving to “admit” it had they each made it. But they didn't, so I'm a stand-up guy.
Didn't see this coming back in March, didja? That's why I don't bother with full-blown predictions. How the hell does anybody know anything? Nobody, even those who make their livings being experts, can't call a champion from seven months away. Back in April, when the White Sox were sizzling, I heard one of the big deal ESPN baseball analysts, don't remember who, on Michael Kay's radio show. At that moment, the Sox were 4-1/2 games ahead of the Twins, which I found pretty impressive. But the analyst and Kay had already decided that the Twins were going to win that division, so they chose to focus on how despite the White Sox' overwhelming start, they “hadn't done themselves any favors,” because the favored Twins had remained so close.
As for the Astros, much was made throughout the LDS and LCS on TV regarding the Houston Chronicle “burying” their hometown team when it was 15-30. What a silly newspaper! No, not really. 15-30 is a record that has a lot of resonance for a Met fan who clearly remembers 1977. That was the Mets' mark when M. Donald Grant fired Joe Frazier and replaced him with Joe Torre. At the time, the Mets were as bad as I'd ever seen them and would grow progressively more depressing. They finished 64-98. That's what 15-30 teams do. But not these Astros.
Shoot, we saw them an abnormal number of times for a non-division opponent and we couldn't have tabbed them as N.L. champions in April. In that opening series at home, they couldn't hit Willy Taveras' weight. By the time we got to Houston, they were rising. It was the early-June bonus series, however, when we couldn't have imagined we were losing to our league's eventual champions. They were still short on offense but whatever hits they cobbled together were timely and whatever pitching they threw was deadly. Even the Pedro non-no-hitter was no laugher thanks to Roy Oswalt (imagine being a shameless headhunter yet only the second-most loathsome righthanded starter in your own rotation; Cliff remembers and so do I, big boy).
At the season's outset, the conventional wisdom had the Marlins making the playoffs, either as division winner or Wild Card. Every time I turned on ESPN or any other outlet, even into September, I was told more often than not that the Marlins are really the best team left. The Astros have pitching but what are they going to do for bats?
Houston's in the World Series. Florida's playing Minnesota in the Oh They'll Come Around Eventually Bowl.
I don't mean for this to be another media-bashing session. People gauge situations badly all the time, often with consequences far greater than those attached to not picking playoff teams correctly. There's just something particularly grating about people paid to be experts who don't simply say “there's a chance I'm going to be wrong here, but let me tell you what I'm thinking.” In this world, it seems being aggressively clueless doesn't hurt your advancement as long as your aggressive about it. Thoughtful reflection leaves you covered in dust.
Anyway, the Astros are in the World Series and the Cardinals aren't. Though on some level I'd like the league the Mets play in to contain the world champion, I don't like either team. I don't like any National League team that isn't us. It's hard to drop that enmity to get behind one of our own. That said, there are reasons to feel genuinely sad about the Cardinals and reasonably good about the Astros.
While the holier-than-thou aspect that hovers about St. Louis baseball is a turnoff, it is a special franchise. There were moments during this series that I thought I was looking at Turner Field instead of Busch Stadium. That's because the red shirts the fans wore blended with the red seats, so from a distance I could make out only a handful of what looked like people. But they were there en masse. They show up in great numbers and they come from miles around. They've been doing it forever and they are to be commended for it. If they want to give Larry Walker a standing ovation just for getting out of Colorado, that's their business.
The team itself is quietly becoming a less embarrassing version of the Braves when it comes to this time of year. This is six post-seasons in the past ten years — five of the last six — that have involved the Cardinals and none of them have produced a world championship. Quietly, St. Louis has seeped onto the Those Who Have Waited Longest lists.
Next year it will be 24 years that the Cardinals have gone without a title. They are wedged among the Pirates, Phillies, Orioles and Tigers on a voyage of the demi-damned (and, no, we're not far behind). Those teams have been generally putrid since they won their last rings. The Cardinals haven't. Based on what they've pulled off in the past couple of regular seasons, they deserve better. Well, they deserve whatever they earn, but the 2004 Cardinals were the best National League team I'd seen since us in '86, and the '05 version persevered despite losing Scott Rolen. Although I love an underdog as much as the next Mets fan, I actually root, when I have no skin in the game, for the team that's played brilliantly and has worked hard to get so close to the pinnacle. That describes the Pujols Cardinals who have looked so good in this decade and I'm actually sorry to see them come away empty once again.
I never particularly cared for Busch Stadium, but I'll never tell the fans of another team what to think of their own place, therefore I'm glad they got back inside it one last time. Everybody deserves closure. In '96, the Braves (at the very last moment when one could wish them well) looked ready to close out Fulton County Stadium in style. They returned for Game 3 of the World Series up 2-0 to…I can't remember who, and they appeared poised to steamroll their competition. They were going to be the first team to end a ballpark's life with a World Championship. But then they lost four in a row to somebody whose identity escapes me and Fulton County was eviscerated without a definitive farewell. (Maybe that's why they act so cranky when we visit.)
I availed myself of XM Wednesday night, switching back and forth between the Cardinals' and Astros' stone-homer radiocasts — very different tones, as you could imagine — and from the St. Louis end of things, Mike Shannon more or less ignored the final score and focused on how this was it for ol' Busch. The Cardinals were aware enough of the circumstances to show a video tribute long after the Astros had danced off the field and the fans were sentient and sentimental enough to stick around and, in Metlike fashion, keep a Let's Go Cardinals! chant going until it hurt to listen.
It's not like they're moving to San Francisco or Los Angeles. They're just heading across the street. The Cardinals will be back sooner than later. Good for them.
The Astros deserve to be where they are. I can say that this year. Couldn't bring myself to that conclusion last year. As I alluded to in my final Flashback Friday segment, I used to edit a magazine that was part of a company that was owned by the same man who owns the Houston Astros. My parting from it in early 2004 was not my idea, so whatever simpatico I felt for my former colleagues in the baseball division was pretty well frayed by October. The executive who ran my department told me after our maximum leader signed Roger Clemens that it would be super to see the Rocket lead the 'Stros to the Series at Yankee Stadium. From the moment I was let go, I could think of nothing I wanted to see less. Like all Mets fans, I was thrilled when Boston beat the Yankees. Unlike most Mets fans, I was just as elated when St. Louis stopped Houston. My nerves were that raw from my and my staff's budget-related dismissal (trust me, the resources they devoted to the magazine were less than what they spend on sunflower seeds before the fifth-inning of a B-game in Kissimmee).
It's a year later and I don't feel quite the same way. Sure, when the Astros owner was handed the N.L. championship trophy, I didn't exactly toast his good fortune, but I can only hold a personal/corporate grudge for so long; time has marched on for me. Baseball grudges are a whole other matter, and our two 1962-model ballclubs, the erstwhile Colt .45s and the Metropolitans, have never been rivals of the first order. We've had our moments of ire, some that worked out (I don't have to mention which one in particular), some not so much, but we haven't played within the same primary jurisdiction since 1968. There is no 1985 or 1987 lurking in the subconscious as there is when the Redbirds do their semi-annual flyovers. The Astros are just some team from another division most of the time.
I don't think you can be a baseball fan and not find some joy on behalf of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. I don't think you can be a baseball fan and not find some joy on behalf of the fans (except for the yahoos who wore BELTRAN $UCK$ t-shirts) who have dug in for 10, 20, 30, 40 years waiting for this. I don't think you can be a human being and not remember the way Houston pitched in for the Katrina evacuees. Surely some of those do-gooders own Astros caps.
Finally, they're a good story. Forty-four years. 15-30 to the World Series. No-name kids, grizzled vets and, if you like pitching, serious arms. Of course they still have Clemens, but ya know what? I no longer have it in me to actively despise him with every fiber of my being. I mean, sure, I will always hate him with every fiber of my being for 2000, but I'm wondering if being a Skank made him a far worse person than he would've been otherwise. Really, did we hate Roger Clemens before he became a Yankee For Life? He wasn't a sympathetic character when we faced him in '86 but after that, who really cared? Rob and I made a point of going to Shea to see him face the Mets as a Blue Jay in '97. He was heartily mocked as he was lit up but nobody's fangs were showing. A year later when he was dusting Skanks left and right, it was all right by me.
Roger Clemens is a drama queen, threatening to retire every other week, but in this post-season he has not lunged for the spotlight. In the commotion that followed Chris Burke's 18th-inning home run, ESPN's on-field reporter made a move to interview Clemens. He answered one question, literally grabbed Burke and said this is the man you want. After the pennant was clinched, he went out of his way to steer reporters to Oswalt and Pettitte. He's still not far removed from the criminal we all despised for going after Mike, and his look-at-me tendencies aren't hidden all that far beneath the surface, but we are in the presence of an all-time great here. Being sentenced to watch him ply his craft another couple of times before it snows is hardly baseball punishment.
I suppose there are Mets fans — and fans of 27 other teams — that tune out once their seasons are over. Not me. I love the post-season, especially when there are no games left in the Bronx. I like getting wrapped up in somebody else's storylines while my own are on hiatus (unless Felix Heredia's shady doings are your cup of 'roids). Four to seven baseball games will be contested by two teams that almost never stop by this time of year. That's worth dwelling on for another week and change.
Go White Sox. Go Astros. Go play ball. We're happy to have you.