Hollywood enjoys movies about sad baseball teams. There’s just so much to unearth, so many feelings to mine. There was a movie made about the sadness of the Boston Red Sox and the futility of tethering your self-worth to a sports team that never wins. There was a movie, a funny one, made about the sadness of the Indians. There wasn’t a movie specifically made about the sadness of the Cubs, unless you count Rookie of the Year, but that’s because the sadness existed all around you, and it would have been like making a movie about oxygen.
There is no movie about the sadness of the Houston Astros. There aren’t any books, as far as I can tell. There aren’t any blogs named The Curse of Joe Morgan or The Murder Bodies Buried Under Tal’s Hill. You don’t think about the historical struggles of the Astros because it’s not a part of the team’s identity. You can talk with an Astros fan for hours — hours! — before getting to the part where his or her favorite team hasn’t won a single World Series game in its 56 years of existence. That’s not the story of the Astros. There are no goats, no Broadway plays.
To put it another way, everybody knows about the struggles of the Indians. They won the World Series three years before I Love Lucy premiered, and then they didn’t win it again. That’s brutal. But there’s only 14 years between them winning a championship and the Astros coming into the league. What’s 14 years in baseball time? That’s, what, the time since the Angels won the World Series? That just happened. They’re fine. There’s no drought there. That’s not a long time in baseball years.
The Astros’ drought isn’t baked into the team’s identity, but it’s still the truth. The team’s motto this season was “Earn it.” If Astros fans wanted to adopt, “C’mon, why not us?” as a motto, they would have earned that. I would also accept “COME ON. SERIOUSLY. OUR TURN” because a half century is a long time. Too long. C’mon, why not the Astros?
Instead, the motto is Earn It, simple and plain. Don’t feel like it’s owed to you. Don’t feel like the universe owes you anything. It’s how a team can avoid the deep sighs and self-pity, and it’s how this city in particular can fall in love with that team.
“Earn It” is a fine motto. But if there’s an unofficial motto for Houston, it might be “Fuck it. Try again.”
I’ve spent a half-hour workshopping different, kindlier mottos because I want my mom to send this to her Facebook friends, too. But none of the other words fits. The only ones that work are “Fuck it. Try again.”
The it in that unofficial motto is something huge and unwieldy. Take the Astrodome. It was called the Eighth Wonder of the World because it was an architectural marvel, a testament to unfathomable ambition. It was, in retrospect, something of a monstrosity. The Astrodome isn’t a monument to a great idea; it’s a monument to what someone thought was a great idea. And I can respect the hell out of that.
The first year the Astrodome was built, the hitters couldn’t see the baseball because of the glare coming through the windows. So the Astros painted the windows dark. That killed the grass. There were seemingly two choices.
- Blind the hitters.
- Let the grass die.
Except the Astros did the most Houston of things, which was to create a third choice. That choice was, and I’m paraphrasing, fuck it; let’s invent our own grass. There was more to it than that, but that’s the short version. There was a problem, and the solution was ambitious. The solution was also awful, but fuck it. They could always try again.
When the Astrodome crumbled and fell into disrepair, the Astros said fuck it, try again, and they built a badass stadium with a retractable roof. When it was finished, they slapped a train on top of the left-field wall because, heck, why not? It was perfectly ridiculous and ambitious, and the train currently has the words “TEXAS BEEF” plastered on the side, for good measure. They designed an ankle-munching slope in center field for the same reason, and it didn’t work, but I respected the hell out of that.
This brings up the biggest problem with the Bagwell-Biggio era. The people in charge back then weren’t willing to add the necessary rockets and flames and sparkles and explosives. The Astros were run like an extremely normal baseball team. They had JEFF BAGWELL and CRAIG BIGGIO, both at the same time, and they couldn’t do nearly enough with it. They needed to slap a train on top of that roster and see if it worked. The train never came.
The Astros lost 324 games over a three-season stretch, became the butt of baseball’s jokes, and there was absolutely nothing to do with that roster. Look, the Astros used to be bad, OK? They weren’t the 1962 Mets, but they also didn’t have the excuse of being an expansion team. They were forced into an obvious rebuilding situation, stripping the team down to the studs, sanding the studs, replacing those studs, and eventually burning the foundation, just to make sure. There was probably holy water involved.
Fuck it, then. Try again. That’s why they’re here. It’s how they got Carlos Correa, an obelisk of athleticism who has no right to be that graceful. It’s how they got George Springer. It’s how they got Alex Bregman, who is contributing now but will probably star later. It’s how they got Lance McCullers, who should be here, but is still an example of how deep this current team is. And while it’s fair to focus on the missteps — shudder at the thought of this team with Kris Bryant or Trea Turner or even J.D. Martinez — this team exists because of the decision to try again in the most dramatic possible way.
The Astros don’t have a Curse of Larry Dierker’s Mole because they don’t give a damn about curses. They just wanted to tear down the fossilized ambition and use the shards to build something even more ambitious. It’s what they do.
Not long after a pair of New York real estate speculators founded this city on the banks of a torpid bayou in the 1830s, every home and every business flooded. Though settlers tried draining their humid, swampy, sweltering surroundings, the inundations came again and again, with 16 major floods in the city’s first century.
Try again, try again, try again. There’s no reason this city should exist. It’s hot and sticky. It’s where the kids invented the trend of wearing backpacks with one strap, because wearing them the way they’re intended will make the backpack squish-meld into your skin through your shirt. It’s hot and sticky, and calamity will occasionally shoot from a fire hose out of the Gulf of Mexico. Why is this place here?
Doesn’t matter. It is here. There’s NASA and oil and a port, and the whole thing keeps oozing out to the point where it’s nearly three times the size of Chicago. Houston has more square mileage than Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Atlanta combined. The thing that should not be is, and it’s huge. When parts of it don’t work, it’s rejiggered and rebuilt, and sometimes there’s a metaphorical flagpole and hill in the middle of it all.
This is the current story, where Houston is being slammed with 500-year storms every other year and forced to reckon with existential questions. The exponential growth is probably the reason for a lot of the flooding problems, but that’s not going away. The growth is Houston’s identity. It’s where a line chef can afford to split the rent; where someone can work and actually live, which isn’t something that happens in America’s biggest cities. But Damocles is chucking swords at it, one after the other, and Hurricane Harvey devastated it like no hurricane in memory.
The response? Well, you know. The f-word. Try it again. Maybe a little wearier this time. Certainly with a heavier heart. But it’s there.
It’s hard to see where a sportsball team playing in their pajamas fits into all this. Houston has bigger problems than Drew Pomeranz and Mookie Betts, and you would forgive the city if it was indifferent to the Astros’ postseason run, but you know that’s not how it works.
You know that’s not how it works because this is somehow where sports loops back around and becomes even more important. It’s why Minute Maid Park shook after the first Jose Altuve home run on Thursday, shook harder after the second, and absolutely quaked after the third. The baseball is appreciated right now, thank you very much.
Beyond the normal fuss paid to wins and losses, though, there’s something else about this team. The players like each other. I’ve talked to Astros people who’ve been around baseball for a while, and they commented how that isn’t just a feel-good cliché. The 25-man roster has somehow been assembled without an obvious jackass in the middle, and there are some truly vibrant personalities at the top.
The secret might be in the makeup of the roster. In the most popular lineup permutation, the infield goes like this: Georgia, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, New Mexico. The outfield often goes Venezuela, Panama-Puerto Rico, and Georgia. And the DH? Man, I have no idea where you’re supposed to say he comes from.
It’s this mix that helps Club Astro go off. After every Astros victory, George Springer is the DJ, and his job is to keep coming with the tunes to keep everyone happy, from the Dominican to the Floridian. If you think that’s easy, check out a sample of walk-up and entrance songs on the team.
The elder Carlos Beltran is all about El Caballero de la Salsa, and one of the youngest players on the team, Bregman, picked “Baba O’Riley,” one of the oldest songs. Luke Gregerson comes in from the bullpen to some Danish rockabilly-metal, and the Cuban first baseman, Yuli Gurriel, comes to the plate to the sounds of a Puerto Rican icon. Evan Gattis walks up to Richie Havens, which is incredibly on-brand.
Club Astro is greater than the sum of its parts, something just a little more than the teams that would play, I don’t know, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” in the clubhouse after winning a game in 2000. Springer is in charge of it all, and by all accounts, he has a second career lined up if this whole baseball thing doesn’t work out. The whole experience is important enough that Carlos Correa used Club Astro to lead off his rallying cry for Houston on the Players’ Tribune:
It’s fog-machine time!
We’ll hit the button on that thing and turn on these club lights we got, and then all of a sudden you look around and see the pitchers are all dancing, and the position players are going nuts.
It gets loud in there. It’s mostly hip-hop, and Latin music, and reggaeton, but we throw some country in there, too. I’m always requesting Kendrick Lamar, but there’s lots of Migos and Daddy Yankee and Ozuna. It’s a good mix.
It’s possible to build a fine team out of people who hate each other. It happens often enough that I don’t need to list the examples. But that’s not the kind of winner that would do best with Houston right now. This is the model that fits, mostly because it looks a lot like Houston itself. Spencer Hall wrote about it last December:
It’s sprawling in more than one sense of the word. Houston can be super-Texas-country: the requisite pickup trucks, gun shops (oh my god the gun shops), churches, the giant lawns in all the easy marks. There’s also the biggest Hindu temple I’ve seen outside of India because of a booming South Asian population and a slew of Spanish language radio presets in the rental car thanks to a huge Hispanic community. The banh mi game is extremely real thanks to the Vietnamese and other immigrants who settled in Harris County after 1975. The Chinese community is large enough that you can fly EVA Air direct to IAH from Taipei. One in four Houstonians is foreign-born, including the University of Houston’s President, Renu Khator, who hails from India.
This is the current face of fuck it, try it again. It’s why the airport PA pauses and announces the location of an interfaith chapel every few minutes, an exhortation for everyone to come together and believe for a bit, regardless of how you do it.
If you think this is color for the story, it’s not. It is the story. In the Netherlands, there’s a national ethos of aspired cooperation that’s known as the polder model, and it’s assumed that people from different backgrounds and beliefs should stop banging their heads together and collaborate.
Where did it come from? Here’s a popular theory:
A third explanation refers to a unique aspect of the Netherlands, that it consists in large part of polders, land reclaimed from the sea, which requires constant pumping and maintenance of the dykes. So ever since the Middle Ages, when the process of land reclamation began, different societies living in the same polder have been forced to cooperate because without unanimous agreement on shared responsibility for maintenance of the dykes and pumping stations, the polders would have flooded and everyone would have suffered. Crucially, even when different cities in the same polder were at war, they still had to cooperate in this respect. This is thought to have taught the Dutch to set aside differences for a greater purpose.
The specific threat of flooding might be a coincidence in this case, but the idea that self-preservation is a powerful bonding tool shouldn’t be controversial. There’s no time to bicker when you’re muttering obscenities and trying again. It just has to be.
That’s the backdrop of the Astros, who are thriving with their differences, hoping to inspire the city, which wants to thrive with its differences. It’s a dumb sportsball game, but you can understand why the idea of this team succeeding is so enticing, so important right now. And it has nothing to do with it being their turn.
Something that caught my eye about Correa’s article in the Players’ Tribune:
I was just so very sad. (And for me and Carlos and Juan Centeno, it’s unfortunately a deep sadness that we’d experience again when Hurricane Maria devastated our native Puerto Rico.)
He writes with a heavy heart about what he wants the Astros to give Houston, and the utter desolation of his home has to be squeezed into a parenthetical. That’s not a criticism; it’s entirely understandable. But it’s a reminder that the awfulness keeps coming, and it’s impossible to dodge forever.
Before Game 1, there were tributes to first responders, and the Cajun Navy drove a caravan of gravediggers onto the warning track to wild applause. A gigantic American flag was unfurled, right above a gigantic Texas flag (which made me daydream about the improbability of a huge test-pattern-ass Maryland flag being unfurled before an Orioles game), and the mood was solemn but resolute.
Then there was an announcement asking for a moment of silence for Las Vegas. The timing was a right cross, and it was a reminder of just how much has happened in the past two months. Beltran, Correa, and Centeno have to be absolutely reeling right now, pulled between their home and their adopted home, unable to divide their capacity for grief, which makes increasing the maximum capacity the only possible solution. Derek Fisher went to school in Charlottesville. McCullers and Joe Musgrove are from Florida. Every player from Venezuela is dealing with a more methodical tragedy every day.
Several Astros players are caught between competing miseries, and there’s no crawling back into bed. They go and play, and if they win, they get to dance around like a bunch of idiots. Everyone on the roster is there because of a series of transactional dominoes.
Beltran is there because his talent, age, salary demands, and perceived contributions were exactly in line with what the Astros were looking for. Altuve is there because years ago, someone who isn’t around anymore hired a very wise and convincing scout. Correa is there because those same someones who aren’t around built one of the worst baseball teams in modern history. Everyone on the team found themselves in Houston because of cascading events beyond their control.
That goes for the people who live there, too, whether they’re fourth-generation or if they just moved there for a better life. They’re there because a bunch of shady developers in the 1800s decided that hot, sticky, and flat was the place to be, and the city grew exponentially because it’s apparently where all the prehistoric animals decided to die. The people who live there didn’t have anything to do with it, and they’re all caught up in it now. If they’re smart, they’ll use the silly fun of this baseball team to help them through.
There are limits to what the Astros can do for the city. The damage from Harvey has an easily identifiable toll when it comes to lives and homes, but that’s leaving out some of the larger stresses that accompany a tragedy of this scale. You need a car to get around Houston, and tens of thousands of cars were taken off the road. The people who can’t afford to replace a 1989 Fiero might not be the people who can afford to take a load off and watch the ol’ stickball. It is just sports, after all.
It felt like more to the people screaming before Game 1, though, especially when Springer — Connecticut-born to a Panamanian dad and Puerto Rican mother — grabbed a Texas flag and waved it wildly. Baseball isn’t something that’s necessary after a tragedy like Harvey, but as long as it’s here, at least it’s the best possible kind, both on and off the field.
The city is being forced to take a deep breath, say fuck it, and try again. They get to watch the fuck-it-try-again Astros, a team that was built from the ashes of one of baseball’s greatest debacles. They get to see a bunch of disparate souls from all over the world who were put there because of years-old roster machinations making the most of it.
And there’s a chance that, when this is all over, they’ll have built what they were trying to build in the first place, and everyone will get to dance like a bunch of idiots. They’ll just have to earn it.
If it doesn’t work, you’ll never believe the four words they’ll tell themselves ...