The Circle of Life

added 1/20/2005 by Scott Barzilla

We’ve certainly hashed and rehashed the events of this off-season more than Jim Garrison analyzed the Zabruder footage in JFK. Mistakes were made and mistakes are still being made, but our task is to make the best of the situation as fans. Oddly enough, Tim Pupura has that same task, but since he is sitting on his hands it puts the onus back on us to derive something positive from this off-season of nightmares. The Beltran/Clemens plan was faulty from the very beginning because it failed to recognize that an end to an era is occurring.

Even if we assumed that Beltran and Clemens returned it was still doubtful that the current nucleus would make another run like the one they made last season. Half of the nucleus is a year older instead of a year better and Jeff Kent was siphoned from the core in an effort to save a little money and look to the future. We have known that this day was coming. Let it come.

That day came fourteen seasons ago when the nucleus from the 1980s finally aged. The likes of Glenn Davis, Bill Doran, Alan Ashby, Mike Scott, and Dave Smith were finally aging. The club decided to trade the injury-prone Davis to the Orioles for Curt Schilling, Steve Finley, and Pete Harnisch. It’s hard to imagine any single trade being more pivotal in a franchise’s history. Yes, the Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran deals may have been more significant, but the Davis deal saw the Astros admit that the run was over.

The new nucleus would contain Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez, Finley, Harnisch, and Schilling. Like with any era, not all of those players enjoyed the majority of their success with Houston, but as a group they are as accomplished as any group that came through a team at one time. In addition to Bagwell and Biggio, Schilling, Finley, and Gonzalez have some hope for Cooperstown. However, it is clear that there time as a whole is coming to an end.

It’s certainly fair to wonder what would have been had all remained in Houston for their entire career. Yet, it’s not particularly fair to hold a grudge against management for the departure of some or all of these players. The Finley/Camniti might be one of the worst deals in Astros history until you consider the Schilling/Grimsley deal. Yes, mistakes were made, but focusing on those mistakes leaves out the good deals the club made as well. Since that 1991 club finished it’s last place campaign, the club had only one losing season in the next thirteen. That’s not bad at all.

Now, we see a new group of young faces ready to stake their own claim. Like Biggio and Camniti, some have already had several seasons before this fateful 2005 season (Cammy and Biggio both came up in 1987 initially). In particular, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt have already made a name for themselves. If Pupura does nothing else this off-season he needs to tie those guys into some long-term deals. They are the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

Time will only tell on the rest. Will Adam Everett and Morgan Ensberg be a blip on the radar screen or will they forge a long-term identity with the franchise? Will Brad Lidge continue to make people forget about Billy Wagner, or will he fizzle out? What other starters will develop with Oswalt? Will Willy Taveras develop into a good leadoff hitter and centerfielder? Will Chris Burke remind of us his boyhood hero (Biggio)? These are all exciting questions.

With the excitement comes the knowledge than an era is ending. I remember 1991 team vividly because I was working in the Astrodome as a part-time groundskeeper. Yes, I had watched Astros baseball since the early 1980s, but these were my Astros. They were the Astros that I came of age with. They are the Astros I will remember the most. Like many older fans from the 1960s with Jimmy Winn and Joe Morgan or 1970s fans with Cesar Cedeno, Bob Watson, and Jose Cruz, I have my 1990s Astros.

Drayton McLane has tried to delay the inevitable with creative moves. That is certainly understandable, but the worst thing he and Pupura can do now is try to make a series of blockbuster trades to put the 1990s Astros on life support. Yes, they could compete again in 2005 with two or three big deals. They could make Roger Clemens the highest paid pitcher in history, acquire Alfonso Soriano, Mike Cameron, Jeromy Burnitz, Jose Cruz Jr., or Randy Winn. Some of those might even make sense depending on what it will cost, but cost has to be the biggest consideration now. It cannot cost the Astros excessive money, key prospects, or worse: time. A two or three year arrangement with any of those folks only puts off what should have done last year or the year before at some positions.

It’s the circle of life in baseball. Letting go of the Killer Bs and their battalion means letting go of those last bastions of childhood. It is sad, but the alternative is depriving a whole generation of Astros fans the chance to find their heroes and their team’s identity. To this day, I can still remember the column Larry Dierker wrote when the Astros traded Larry Andersen. He spoke about how sad he was when the deal was done. Of course, we know that trade reaped many more victories than it cost us. Similarly, letting the old guard go is hard and final, but we might find the next Jeff Bagwell on the other side.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.” You can find them at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.barnesandnoble.com, and http://www.mcfarlandpub.com.