Archive for Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Astros’ fans know better than to start celebrating

October 20, 2004

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— Hold on, Astros fans. Remember 1980? How about 1986? Of course you do.

While the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs get plenty of mileage out of their tortured pasts, Houston's baseball fans have a lot more to lament than the old rainbow jerseys. After all, at least the Red Sox and Cubs have been to the World Series.

Not the Astros, now one victory away from beating St. Louis in the NL championship series. Houston has had big league baseball longer than any city without playing host to a World Series, much less winning one -- 43 years.

The Colt .45s-turned-Astros were 0-for-7 in postseason series until this year.

And add in the heartaches: players dying (Jim Umbricht at 33, Don Wilson at 29), a pitcher who had a stroke in the prime of his career (J.R. Richard at 30), and a manager's seizure in the dugout (Larry Dierker in 1999).

The accumulated agony is enough to prompt a former leader of the free world to say an Astros appearance in the World Series "would mean everything."

"It would be great for the city, great for the club and it would be great for all of baseball," former President Bush said Monday as he headed to his usual front-row seat behind home plate.

By beating the Atlanta Braves to get out of the first round, the Astros took a baby step forward.

But that's just a good start to anyone who has been rooting for the team since the pre-wild card days, when winning a playoff series meant going to the World Series.

Coming close to being NL champs isn't enough. As the locals say: We've seen this rodeo before.

If the Yankees and Red Sox weren't hogging the spotlight with their thriller of an ALCS, Houston's plight would be a compelling October story, perhaps even making the Astros sympathetic favorites.

The team's saga began in 1980, the year Nolan Ryan brought his heater home.

The NLCS was best-of-five then, and the last four against Philadelphia went extra innings. Houston's general manager those days, Tal Smith, quickly rattled off Monday seven things that went wrong, from injuries to blown calls by the umps. Houston still barely lost.

"But it was our first time in the playoffs," Smith said, "so people were saying, 'You'll have more chances.'"

They did, the very next year.

Houston led Los Angeles 2-0 in a division series put in place only because a strike eliminated nearly one-third of the season. But the Dodgers won three straight games, holding the Astros to just two runs.

Then came 1986, the year of Mike Scott's unhittable splitter and a club-record 96 wins. It felt like THE year because of all the improbable, memorable victories, such as Scott's no-hitter to clinch the division title. But the New York Mets won the series in six games.

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