The weird, sort of co-dependent player pipeline between the Phillies and the Astros has risen to the next level with the trade of Hunter Pence to the Eastern seaboard for prospects. It makes two Astros icons shipped to Philly in the last two years. Roy Oswalt was, at least, in the twilight of his dominant years, and Brad Lidge needed to try out his volatile talents on a different stage. Hunter Pence, however, is playing in his prime, bandying around the bases in the bloom of youth. Which means that we sent a player to Philly who will be a prominent part of their lineup for the next two years and possibly more. Pence is not a salary dump who may have a few good games left in him. He’s a really good player who could take the Phillies back to the World Series and be a fantastic third best hitter on a big time contender.
There is general agreement that this was a good trade for both teams. I tweeted awhile ago, though, that I would have preferred a trade with another team, just for the sake of variety. Instead, it feels like Hunter Pence got called up to the varsity squad, leaving us down here at JV to get by as best we can with the talented but raw freshmen. Ruben Amaro pursued Pence with uncommon determination, which is flattering but a little unsettling, like he can’t quit Ed Wade and the Astros. Not a real pleasant sensation, especially for a city with such strong ties to its baseball stars.
Astros fans grow more attached to great Houston players more deeply than the fan bases in any other baseball town I’ve lived in or near. We have trouble, I think, even imagining an Astro icon in another uniform. When I saw Lance Berkman playing for the Yankees–and even now when I see him as a Cardinal–I think I feel more emotionally vulnerable about it than, say, Red Sox fans felt seeing Nomar elsewhere. Astros fans have trouble letting go, and understanding when a player’s time in Houston has come to an end. The last few years of dismal baseball have whittled away at this tendency, though, and if there is a height of unsentimentality for this franchise, we reached it yesterday when we traded away the closest thing to a great player this team has.
It’s true that Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio spoiled us with their commitment to a single franchise, and to Drayton McClane’s commitment to them. We defended Craig Biggio as he moved to center field and as his OBP plummeted, because he was an Astro who could do no wrong in the city. Few fans get the chance to enjoy the stability that the Bs provided, and there is a generation of Astros fans, of which I am one, who feel a slightly deeper sting when a player we consider to be an Astro on the strata of those two leaves town. We’ve never been shy about accepting the temporary assistance of icons from other franchises. Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran contributed their stardom to two thrilling half-seasons in exchange for young talent. But when it comes to giving up our own, you’ve got to pry them away from us fighting.
Houstonians are friendly people, who enjoy the comforts of rich food, jovial company, beer from bottles with Texas flags on them, and leisurely conversation with elbows propped on the edge of the bed of an old pickup truck. In the past these comforts, like knowing that Craig Biggio would retire an Astro, trumped the discomfort of fading ability and the gnawing awareness that it didn’t make the team much better. A subpar performance didn’t necessarily justify the undignified jettison of a player like Biggio. Patience is a new muscle for Astros fans as the McClane era comes to a close, and the maturity with which the Astros fan base, and the online Astros community, have accepted the trade of Hunter Pence, shows that we have entered a new stage in the life of the franchise. It’s a hard stage, but a necessary one. The Astros have been great, and these are the growing pains if they are to be great again.