I’m back. Back to Houston, back to being an Astros fan. When you leave your hometown, there’s no telling when you may get back. For me, that time has come, after more than half a decade living in various corners of the country. I am excited to relearn this baseball team, to absorb each player’s style and substance, to track the course of the team from inning to inning, rather than from highlight to highlight. Sound bites will give way to long evenings of baseball. I’m back on home turf, where I’ll spread my blanket and enjoy.
And I’ll do so with this blog, Foamer Night, whose title refers back to a cockamamie promotional effort from the 70s that we’re all lucky didn’t devolve into some disco era nightmare still being written up decades later. History–especially 70s history–is fun fodder, and I think the title is a worthy nod to what seems like a wilder time that the Astros, with their reputation as a Biggio-Bagwell team of calm, metered leadership and reserved emotion, could stand to draw on for some fire and fury.
The last time I followed the Astros day-to-day, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were in their primes, impressing their local fans without the national acclaim that they’d later gain in other cities. A World Series appearance was on the horizon following numerous playoff showings (I watched the third game of the 2005 series in a Chicago bar full of White Sox fans, and the final game in my living room as my neighbors discharged celebratory firearms into the air). I was in Cubs country for a time, then in Reds country, and most recently and significantly in Mariners country, where I dug in deep with the Mariners, and wrote a lot about Ichiro as one of the most singular players in baseball. I readily admit that even I, a devoted NL fan, fell for the designated hitter, and now I believe it to be the right way to do things. I will also admit that I miss the Mariners already. How could I not? I spent two years with those players, in those trenches, watching them scrap their way to the state of relative relevance that they are enjoying today.
But now, again, I am an Astros fan, and I will dig in with them the way I did in Seattle. But the connection is deeper. This is my home team, and you can’t do better than that. I watched Randy Johnson burn this town up in the playoffs. I watched Derek Bell perplex with his baggy pants, I watched Jeff Bagwell turn on junk and spin it like artillery fire. I watched Craig Biggio hit his 3,000th and I watched him add a few more that same night.
I have returned, a humbler Odysseus, to see what condition the house is in. Well, as many baseball fans know well, affairs are in disarray. This team is the worst in major league baseball, by a good stretch. Oswalt and Berkman are elsewhere, playing good baseball and otherwise moving on in the twilight of their careers. The players who, several years ago, were young and hungry have moved into the heart of things, and have become the gravitational centers of this bad team.
I don’t know if it’s such a good thing, to see the same faces some years later. On the one hand, they are deeply Astros, who’ve established themselves on the team and in the minds of Astros fans. On the other, they are no great stars, and it wouldn’t hurt for them to evacuate the spotlight in favor of a truly elite player. Carlos Lee, El Caballo, no longer occupies that spot. All that I’ve heard of him is the clogging up of the lineup that he does nightly. I don’t know the rest too well: Barmes and Norris, Johnson and Wallace, these are baseball strangers to me right now. They, as regulars on a terrible team, ask for my trust, in a way. Trust that they will improve, that they will dig and claw and get better as each day passes.
Only a few teams reach the destination, the shining palace in the sky. I look forward to the path.
The Cast of Characters
Michael Bourn is a player who receives almost no publicity outside of Houston, but even in his first at bat he drills a single to left center field. I haven’t ever watched Bourn play every day. When I left Houston, he was an unknown trade piece gotten for a flailing closer, Brad Lidge. But even in this first at bat he shows a calmness and solid swing that fans had hoped would develop. I greatly anticipate getting back into Bourn’s daily grind, and his work in the field.
Then there isHunter Pence. The All-Star, the foundation, such as it is, of the Astros lineup. He was the Eric Hosmer of his time of my last check-in, forcing his way into the lineup by hitting the tar out of minor league pitchers. Since then, he’s built himself up with several layers of grown-up muscle, though he retains his boyish fidgetiness in the batter’s box. That he has maintained his manic style while hitting above .300 and hitting for power and earning wide respect is the latest of baseball’s miracles.
Carlos Lee is in that school of hitters who can still hit a baseball well, but who does it so infrequently that his stats tank out, and the impression offers more optimism than the reality dictates. He rings a line drive down the left field line this game, but the odds suggest he doesn’t do it too often.
Wandy Rodriguez, like Pence, has grown up since I was gone. Real stat heads like him a lot, and he’s on the map nationwide, despite a Pence-esque youthful demeanor that, on a subconscious level, holds fans like me back from handing him ace status. But he’s an ace, and his curveball has an ace’s action.
The rest of this story is yet to be written as the cast removes the masks that distance molds.
These Pirates, like the Mariners over in the AL, are in a half-season revival, displaying the sort of energy that decimates teams like Houston who are still mired in what Pittsburgh can count as a recent memory.
On a July 4 hangover day, Brandon Wood, cast off after years by the Angels, reappears in the NL and cracks a home run off of our best player. He is a big, powerful kid, and deserves mention as someone in the midst of the vaunted “change of scenery.” In any event, the kid puts the Pirates up by two runs very early in the game, and improbably drives in another run in the 4th, putting the game effectively out of reach and rendering Wandy Rodriguez’s night a disappointment.
Andrew McCutcheon swung at bad pitches like a player attempting to prove others wrong. He attacks fly balls in the gaps with equal conviction, and in the 4th he grabbed a soaring Brett Wallace effort and flipped it into the stands before it had time to figure out why it wasn’t kissing the outfield wall. The All-Star-jilted stud, however, had much trouble with Wandy’s vicious curveball.
Clint Barmes, for his part, is a much larger player than I thought, and for a middle infielder. In the top of the 5th, he leaned back and then leaned into a fastball that landed in the 4th row of the left field bleachers.
The rest is something of a blur. A few more good turns for the Pirates, none for the Astros. The later innings breezed past as I pondered my return to the team, a little more wistful than analytical and focussed. But that’s alright. I’ve got plenty of time.
So, once again, welcome to Foamer Night.