Nostalgia all the way around

added 6/27/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Drayton McLane is doing what he does best: he’s using that PR brain of his to bring the fans into the seats. When the interleague weekend opened up this past weekend with the Rangers, McLane booked two huge events on back to back nights. Being a humble school teacher, I could only afford to go to one and what a night it was. The 1980 Astros reunion didn’t bring back a lot of personal memories because I was a little too young for that team, but I do remember 1980s baseball and the team embodied it perfectly. Check out the following lineup:

                      AB    OBA   HR    R  RBI   SB
2B Joe Morgan        461   .367   11   66   49   24
RF Terry Puhl        535   .357   13   75   55   27
LF Jose Cruz         612   .360   11   79   91   36
CF Cesar Cedeno      499   .389   10   71   73   48
1B Art Howe          321   .350   10   34   46    1
3B Enos Cabell       604   .305    2   69   55   21
SS Rafael Landestoy  393   .306    1   42   27   23
C Alan Ashby         352   .319    3   30   48    0

I don’t think I need to tell anyone that we will probably never see a lineup like this again much less one on a division winning team. Of course, players like Denny Walling, Craig Reynolds, Jeffrey Leonard, and Luis Pujols played key roles as well. In fact, you could easily put Walling at third and Reynolds at short (Cabell played a lot of first base).

I certainly expect that many of you remember this team fondly and are screaming at me for getting the batting order wrong. Unfortunately, my mind automatically sets up lineups the way I think they ought to go. However, haggling over the batting order misses the point of this team. Any of those top five guys could have hit leadoff and any of them could have been the cleanup hitter. You will never see a team after the Dead Ball Era come in first place with 13 home runs going to the team leader.

The remarkable thing about this club is what I like to call serendipity. Sure, everyone remembers the horrible luck that J.R. Richard had personally and the team collectively because of his tragic stroke, but a lot of lucky things happened along the way. How about Alan Ashby hitting a walk-off home run when he had only three on the season? How about a team of two Hall of Famers coming within one out of moving onto to the World Series?

More importantly, you have some pretty darn good ballplayers that are relatively unknown to the modern fan and those outside of Houston. Jose Cruz had more than 300 win shares (normally a decent standard for a Hall of Fame career) and Cesar Cedeno might have been one of the top five players in all of baseball throughout the 1970s. Joe Niekro has long been written off as “the other Niekro” but he was one of the top five pitchers in the game that season.

There were others there that night. The nucleus of the great bullpen (Dave Smith, Joe Sambito, and Frank Lacorte) were all there. The night ended appropriately enough with a thirteen minute firework display that had all of the fans “oohing and aahing”. All of this was done for a team that didn’t even make it to the World Series. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the most amazing group of all: the fans of Houston.

Living in Houston most of my life, it is easy enough to forget just how different a sports town this is. Sometimes I get frustrated when it seems that the press and the fans give certain people a free pass when their feet should be held to the fire. Sometimes a manager/coach is held onto for too long or sometimes general managers or owners aren’t taken to task soon enough for their lack of vision, but can you imagine the alternative?

I remember hearing stories about how Mitch Williams got death threats from the Phillies fans for surrendering the walk-off home run to Joe Carter in the 1993 World Series. Dave Smith was intimately involved in blowing Game 5 of the NLCS in 1980 and Game 6 of the NLCS in 1986, but he was given a hearty ovation on Friday night. There aren’t too many towns in America that would do that after what had happened in Smith’s career. Cynics could say that is because Houston fans don’t care as much, but I would say that is a show of appreciation for the 199 saves Smith did have and not for the two saves he didn’t make.

In a world where “winning is not the main thing, it’s the only thing,” it’s refreshing to see a group of ballplayers that are honored for giving the city of Houston one of its most exciting summers. Maybe Houston fans are lethargic, but I don’t think that’s why we feel this way about the 1980, 1986, and 2004 Astros. I think there’s something more to it.

The 1980 Dodgers and Phillies arguably had more talent than the Astros. They certainly had players that amounted to more in their careers than the Astros. Despite this, those Astros found a way to win games when most people would look at their roster and predict mediocrity. If you are a loyal reader of my column you know I like to use numbers, so when expounding on that let me leave you with this. The offense had an offensive winning percentage of .498. That means they found a way (along with the great pitching staff) to win 57 percent of their games.

You can’t help but see the parallels in this 2005 club and the 1980 club. Both teams have great pitching staffs and meager offenses. The difference is that the 1980 club found a way to win 93 games where this current club is still seven games under .500. Yet, our Houston nine looked more and more like the 1980 nine on Friday night. They used small ball tactics to scratch out five runs and Roy Oswalt looked like a young Nolan Ryan. Who knows, maybe miracles can happen again.

In all likelihood, the 2005 Astros will fall short of the ultimate goal of winning the World Series. I think we all agree with that statement. Yet, I think what they’re missing in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and the other cutthroat sports towns across America is that effort and perseverance should be rewarded even if it doesn’t end up leading to ultimate victory. I like looking at the statistical part of the game, but every once in awhile it’s good to look at the human side. After all, no one wants to watch a bunch of guys with calculators and slide rules crunch numbers.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”