Lifelong Astros fan laments team’s years in last place, keeps faith

On Sept. 29, the Houston Astros played the New York Yankees to a 1-1 tie through 13 innings at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Although neither team was vying for a spot in the playoffs, it was a hard-fought game that featured clutch relief pitching and 35 combined strikeouts. But come the top of the 14th, the floodgates burst open under the force of a home run and two run-scoring hits for the Yankees. Before the young Astros could catch their breath, David Robertson retired them in short order in the bottom of the inning, bringing the season to an end. What was left of the majority Yankees contingent of a crowd of about 40,000 erupted. Public address announcer Bob Ford sighed out the final losing totals for the 57th time at home this season and the 2013 Astros went as gently as possible into that good night, again.

This loss was more than just another extra-inning heartbreaker. The Astros competed for most of the game, but when push came to shove, they were left clobbered. It was truly a microcosm of this decade’s Astros.

The best major league talent the organization could muster this year was painfully easy for other teams to scout and defeat, and the last two weeks of the season were a culmination of the Astros’ first doormat-like summer in the American League — they lost 15 in a row to close out their third consecutive miserable season with over 100 losses. The final 13 of those came against teams with winning records, who in some cases played their way back into playoff contention thanks to the hapless Astros. Houston finished 51-111 — 60 games below .500. There’s a certain beauty to that. Not only did it break the franchise record set in 2012 (52 games below), but it gave me some hope that after years of saying “this has got to be rock bottom,” this actually might be rock bottom. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to puff out my chest and proclaim my undying allegiance for this sorry excuse for a baseball team.

Back in the day, being an Astros fan was something to be proud of. I remember bounding through the playground in fourth grade wearing my Astros jersey, bragging to my friends that my team was going to the 2005 World Series. However, it wasn’t just my team at that point. Everybody likes a winner, and many of my peers claimed the Astros for their own when they reached baseball’s upper echelon at long last. That bothered me to no end.

My peers hadn’t been crying on their bedroom floors, tuning into a static-filled Houston radio station and listening to their team fall to 15-30, asking the Lord why He couldn’t let the ‘Stros be as good as they were in 2004, when they were a game away from the World Series. I had. These kids hadn’t sat cross-legged in certain corners of their beds for hours on end during late-night extra inning games, because the first time they did that, Morgan Ensberg had hit a go-ahead double in extras against the Mets and they swore they’d never move from that spot if the game went longer than nine innings, otherwise all mojo would be lost. I had.

Astros baseball was my raison d’être, and I was not going to let the petty fair-weather fans grab a seat next to me on the bandwagon. But they found their way on and, like garbage workers, hung on just long enough before hopping off when they felt it was time to unload. Losing four straight close, gritty games in the franchise’s inaugural World Series just didn’t keep a whole lot of fourth graders interested. Gut-wrenching as those games were, I was still walking on thin air. There’ll be room for those kids on the bandwagon next year, I thought. You just wait and see.

But next year never came.

The Astros meddled around the .500 mark in 2006, fell further in 2007, and after a slight upswing in 2008, fell slowly down the ranks of Major League Baseball towards the abyss they find themselves in today. The front office kept trying to recreate the scrappy group that had brought home the ’05 NL pennant, but eventually, trying to put it together with chicken-wire-and-duct-tape free agents came back to bite the organization square in the hindquarters.

I was all too optimistic as the Astros traded away young talent for washed up veterans who lived up to their washed up billing. As these wastes of dugout and salary space failed to produce, the team had no choice but to call upon its already gutted minor league system, whose top talent was nowhere near/never going to be big-league ready. This was 2006-10, or as the Astros’ Wikipedia page calls it, “The Decline.” Much like the fall of the Roman Empire, there was corruption at the top of the totem pole. Then owner Drayton McLane and general manager Ed Wade systematically put together a string of bad drafts and threw gigantic black cauldrons of money at useless veterans who had only been fringe All-Stars in their prime, four or five years before Bush’s second term. It was a formula for disaster, and the team faded slowly into the depths of awful until 2011, when things took a turn for the worst. It clearly hasn’t gotten any better since.

It’s painful for me since I have so much emotional investment in the Astros, but this extended trend invokes a memory from way back in that 2005 season. As a scrawny fourth grader in Austin cried in his bedroom and the Astros stunk up the joint through their first 50 games, the Houston Chronicle ran a front page story (including a large illustrated tombstone) in the sports section that declared the Astros dead for the year. Of course, they were later proven wrong, but the Astros’ prolonged mediocrity hasn’t given many fans a reason to stick around. According to, the Astros finished 27th in attendance at home games this year. On average, Minute Maid Park was 49.8 percent full. Throw out games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers and the numbers are sure to be even lower than that. The city of Houston and, it appears, the majority of the fanbase, has left the team for dead, but for real this time.

But there’s been hope on the horizon for a while now. In 2011, McLane sold the team to Jim Crane, who immediately relieved Wade and brought in Jeff Luhnow, one of the architects of the perennial World Series-contending St. Louis Cardinals and their 2009 draft class, which some baseball analysts have called the most successful by one team in our era. Although it was painful to have to watch the Astros switch over to the American League at the league’s request this season, I was convinced, despite the dismal summers of ’11 and ’12, that the Astros were going to prove a lot of people wrong this past year. It was going to be a fresh start. But alas, it was just worse than what I had already come to expect.

A vast proportion of fans have given up on this team, but while the major league product continues to scuffle, Luhnow has had two extremely impressive drafts and built the minor league system into one of the top five in baseball by trading away veteran talent for highly touted prospects. There’s a lot of young talent coming through the pipeline, and most of it’s just now cracking the Major League surface. Can we bury the Astros for perhaps another three years? Yes. Probably. But that’s all part of the organization’s “Five Year Plan” for extended success. There’s no reason to think they won’t be resurrected by Lord Luhnow’s wizardry within the decade.

As I watch loss after loss, my heart aches. Even now, after watching an Astros player make the final out 313 times since 2011, it still hurts me a little bit to watch the opposing team line up to celebrate a victory. I keep watching, hoping and praying. Some might say “just follow the Rangers, they’re actually good,” but I can’t do that. I’d quite literally lose my religion. The Astros may let me down time and time again, but I have to stick with them. Perhaps that comes from my persistence as an elementary schooler who never lost faith in my idols, or perhaps that comes from my pure hatred for the Texas Rangers. One way or another, I’m here for the long haul. I still make the trek out to Houston a few times a year, and I watch as many games as I can, even if it means hiding my Wi-Fi location so I can stream CSN Houston through my school-issued iPad without getting blacked out. Don’t tell the goon squad.

Are my efforts worth the payoff? Right now, no. But despite my sorrow, I still have faith that someday, somehow, the Astros will rage, rage against the dying of the light. And I know that someday, somehow in my lifetime, that faith will be rewarded … in some far off “next year.”