added 7/18/2009 by Bob Hulsey
What are the best things the Houston National League franchise have ever done to better themselves? What were the most positive changes the club has ever made? Let's rank the Top Five. In another column, I'll list the corresponding Bottom Five moves in the team's annals.
To provide what little suspense I can, I'm going to list my Top 5 moves in reverse order:
5. Purchased Joe Niekro from the Braves for $35,000.
The Astros were facing tough economic times in 1975. The team's longtime owner, Judge Roy Hofheinz, was facing bankruptcy and failing health. He started to sell off parts of his "Astrodomain" to pay the bills. So, when free agency started in earnest, the Astros were not involved. They lacked the money to go sign top players.
However, they made two moves during that time which seemed minor but paid major dividends for over a decade. In 1974, they purchased a 27-year-old reserve outfielder from St. Louis who couldn't crack the Cardinals' everyday lineup. His name was Jose Cruz. In the next dozen years, Cruz would set several team records while batting .292 and becoming the most consistent bat the team had during their "rainbow" years.
But perhaps an even better move was when they bought the rights to a journeyman righthander with a famous brother. Joe Niekro had a big league repertoire and kicked around the majors between 1967 and 1974 with the Cubs, San Diego, Detroit and Atlanta. His record to that time was 58-63 and his ERA was 3.93.
Unlike his All-Star brother Phil, Joe threw the normal assortment of fastballs, curves and changes. But Joe needed something more so Phil taught Joe the finer points of throwing the knuckleball. At age 30, Joe was sold to the Astros and, with his new knuckler worked in with his other pitches, he began seeing greater success.
The Astros tried him in every role before settling on a job in the starting rotation. He wound up setting a franchise record for victories (144), posted two 20-win seasons and beat the Dodgers in a one-game playoff to take the Astros' first pennant in 1980. He followed that up with a ten-inning blanking of the Phillies in Game 3 of the NLCS. In his 11 seasons as an Astro, Niekro compiled a 144-116 record with a 3.22 ERA.
4. Hiring Gerry Hunsicker as General Manager.
Hunsicker had worked previously as a player agent (slugger Glenn Davis was one of his clients) and in the front office of the New York Mets so he was something of an unknown when he was chosen to lead the Astros in December, 1995.
While his track record wasn't perfect (he lost Bobby Abreu in the 1997 expansion draft, lost Johan Santana in the Rule V draft and sent away Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen for a two-month rental of Randy Johnson), Hunsicker had a knack of trading dross for gold.
It was his quieter deals that often were the most handsome. He dealt John Hudek for a young Carl Everett, acquired Moises Alou for a pair of minor league relievers, plucked Jose Lima from Detroit and got Mike Lamb for practically nothing. He parlayed a fluke season of Jeriome Robertson into a trade for Willy Taveras and Luke Scott. He traded away Brad Ausmus when he thought Mitch Meluskey was going to be their future and, when he discovered Meluskey lacked the temperment for catching, sent him away in return for Ausmus.
There were some salary-dump trades he was forced to make (Everett, Mike Hampton and Billy Wagner) and others that could not be re-signed due to budget issues (Alou) but, were it not for Hunsicker's touch, those Astros clubs of the late 1990s and early 2000s would not have won four division titles.
Hunsicker resigned after the 2004 season but it was essentially the team he built that went to the World Series the next year and he's still spinning his magic as special assistant for the Tampa Bay Rays.
3. Signing Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens prior to the 2004 season.
While Hunsicker was the General Manager when these two top pitchers were signed, owner Drayton McLane did more to make that happen. He had to, because nobody else was going to approve the expanded payroll to get these two hurlers under contract.
Pettitte, whose parents live in suburban Houston, left the Yankees basically to "come home". He arrived with more postseason wins than any pitcher in baseball history.
But Pettitte was the appetizer who lured the main course, Clemens, out of retirement and into a Houston uniform. Clemens grew up in the Houston area and pitched at the University of Texas before starting his pro career. The pair were not just exceptional pitchers; they were guys with Texas roots who easily fit into the community.
While both became rather high-drama, high-maintenance guys during contract times and later became tainted through the Mitchell Report, it's unquestioned that they were major cogs in two playoff runs, the first time in their history the Astros had won in the postseason or reached the World Series. They also drew large crowds, justifying the cost of their hefty contracts.
2. Trading Larry Andersen to Boston for Jeff Bagwell.
Clemens' Red Sox needed some late-inning relief help in the 1990 pennant race so, just before the September 1st deadline, they acquired righthander Andersen from Houston for a AA third baseman named Jeff Bagwell.
The Red Sox had Wade Boggs manning third and a good prospect named Scott Cooper at AAA so they thought Bagwell was expendable.
It would be great to think the Astros knew all along what Bagwell would become but, at that time, he was a line-drive hitter with a good bat but not big power numbers. Once he came to Houston, though, he was unstoppable. Houston already had Ken Caminiti at third so they converted Bagwell to first base and the rest was history.
449 home runs later, Bagwell had rewritten the Astros' record book and perhaps written himself a ticket to Cooperstown. In addition, he and teammate Craig Biggio established a work ethic in Houston that dominated the clubhouse. Phrases like "honoring the game" and "playing the right way" were staples of their speeches, earning respect for themselves and the Astros throughout baseball.
Andersen can say he held up his end of the deal and helped Boston win their division. That's what they made the trade for. But bringing up that swap anywhere in New England is bound to elicit scowls and grimaces, thinking about what Bagwell might have accomplished before the Green Monster year after year.
1. Building the Astrodome.
Critics scoffed from the very beginning. Baseball under a roof. Artificial turf. Starting a generation of "cookie cutter" parks.
But critics should accept the Astrodome for what it was - necessary for Major League Baseball to survive in Houston.
It was the idea of an indoor stadium that sold National League owners on putting an expansion franchise in Houston back in 1960. The Texas heat, stifling humidity and twin-engine mosquitoes would have kept a lot of people away during the summer months, as the three years of Colt Stadium (1962-64) illustrated.
The brief time of outdoor baseball in Houston meant fans (and an umpire) suffered heat stroke, bug spray cans were sold by concessionaires, players stuffed ice cubes in their socks and other nods to nature that would have killed the sport there if nothing had been done.
Inside the Astrodome, there was air conditioning, cushioned seats, a Texas-sized scoreboard and a sense that Texans could conquer anything - except the Reds and the Dodgers.
Once the novelty wore off, the ballclub drew just enough to survive and while rumors circulated at times that the Astros would be sold and moved away, it never happened.
Long after the Astros and Oilers moved out, the Astrodome had perhaps its greatest moment, providing shelter for thousands of evacuees after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. As it sits awaiting a new place in life, it deserves some thanks and respect from its citizens. It's still the Houston landmark most recognized throughout the world.