Friday, August 31, 2012

Y'all Gonna Be an American (League, That Is)

Today's heaping helping of deathless prose goes out to the worst team in baseball, the team whom the Giants just swept on their home field, who play in the ballpark Barry Bonds called "Arena Baseball," whose uniforms once upon a time resembled a Fruit Whirl popsicle... yes, those zany, unpredictable, thoroughly transferable Houston Astros, who, after 51 seasons in the National League, have agreed to, or anyway have been obliged to, move to the American League next year in order to balance everything out and restore justice to the universe.

With interleague play now firmly entrenched in the schedule, the leagues now will contain fifteen teams each, five teams in each division, eliminating that unsightly six-team NL Central and its equally tawdry four-team cousin, the AL West.  Though we remain immune to the charms of regular-season interleague play, we actually applaud the idea behind this move.  If you're gonna have it, have a little bit of it spread out all year long, and by all means do balance the divisions to give every team an equal shot. It's not as inspired as the second wild-card team (yes, we love that, too, and we'll explain why in a future screed)  but it's a good idea-- at least in theory.

It's not so good in practice. Why the Astros, f'revvinsakes? Why not the Arizona Diamondbacks?

Although on the face of it the move could create a lively intrastate division rivalry between the 'Stros and the Texas Rangers, it also cedes the entire Lone Star State to the AL, which is a bit wacky (they went to some trouble to prevent the same thing from happening in Florida back in '92, after all), and it places the Astros some 1500, 1900, and 2300 miles-- not to mention two time zones-- away from their other division rivals. No other team will play so many division games which the bulk of their fans will be unable to watch live. Well, except the Rangers, that is. Okay, it's kind of like the old NFC West in football, when the 49ers and Rams were constantly traveling across the country to play the Falcons and Saints, and vice versa.

Evidently the Diamondbacks still have some pull with the MLB HQ. We remember Jerry Colangelo, the team's original owner (is he still? We're too lazy to check) paying a premium to play in the National League from the start. The Astros have 36 years of NL seniority on the 'Snakes', and in our opinion it would have been the better move, in terms of justice as well as practicality, to shift Arizona to the AL West and Houston to the NL West.  But what's done is done.

What will Giants fans remember about the Astros? Here are a few blasts-from-the-past kicking around in the cobwebbed recesses of our mind this morning:

  • The Astros were originally called the Houston Colt .45s. The name was changed in 1965 not out of some cowardly politically-correct hoplophobia, but because the American space program's Mission Control had just relocated to Houston, as had the original Mercury astronauts. Presumably "Astros" was short for "Astronauts", though taken by itself the Latin translation scans better as "Stars."  

  • September 14, 1965 in the Astrodome. Willie Mays comes up in the top of the ninth with one on, two out, and the Giants trailing by two runs. Battling against Houston relief ace Claude Raymond, Willie fouls off six straight 99-MPH fastballs, then belts his 501st career home run to tie the game (the Giants eventually won in ten innings.) Nobody who heard it will forget Russ Hodges' call of that titanic moment. "It was the greatest at-bat and batter-pitcher confrontation I have ever seen," recalled Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan, second baseman for Houston at the time.

  • June 6, 1980, also in the 'Dome. The legendary James Rodney Richard, 6-foot-8-inch ace pitcher on Houston's first division champion, strikes out 13 Giants in a dazzling complete-game three-hit shutout. Every single Giant bats the breeze at least once. It's the last time "J.R." will face the Giants. Less than two months later he will collapse during a workout after suffering a stroke, his career over at age 30.

  • September 8, 1987, once again in the Astrodome. Roger Craig has a regular conniption fit as Houston ace Mike Scott shakes off a bad start and retires 26 Giants in a row, thanks to the "scuffball" he made famous (or infamous). Craig claims he actually saw the sandpaper in Scott's hand, but the umpires by rule aren't allowed to search a player on the field. The Giants dugout is still simmering over Scott's scuffball-induced no-hitter at Candlestick the previous year, which cinched the pennant for the 'Stros; Craig's repeated play stoppages and protests rile up the fans but have little effect on the game. (Winning is the best revenge; the Giants clnch the pennant exactly three weeks later.)

  • October 4, 2001, at "Enron Field" (remember?). Houston manager Larry Dierker has his pitchers walk Barry Bonds eight times in three games rather than risk giving up a home run. The strategy is questionable as Bonds scores six runs in the three games anyway and the Giants sweep the series. Finally, in the ninth inning of the third game, a 9-2 rout, the Astros challenge Barry-- and there it goes, homer number 70 to tie Mark McGwire's record. It was on or about this date that Bonds reviewed Houston's new, picturesque park with its colorful features and short dimensions, and said hitting there was like playing "Arena Baseball."   

  • September 23, 2004, at Pacific Bell Park. With ace Jason Schmidt on the mound, the Giants go for a three-game sweep that will all but eliminate the Astros from contention. Schmidt does his part and leaves with a 3-2 lead after eight... only to see Houston explode for five runs in the ninth after Jeff Bagwell beats out a twenty-foot dribbler down the third-base line. The Giants never recover. Ten days later, Steve Finley destroys their season and the Astros clinch the wild-card spot.

So it's goodbye and Godspeed to the Houston Astros, who will become the second team in the last fifteen years to switch from one league to another, after the AL and NL had enjoyed 97 years of relative stability. What's next?


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