I have been reading the Jonah Keri books about the Tampa Bay Rays and the Montreal Expos recently and they have gotten me wishing there were in depth books for all teams. I don't think Keri has the time and life expectancy to research and get through writing about 28 more teams. Those books tell great stories like how Tampa was on the verge of getting the White Sox in the early '90's but the Illinois State Legislature passed a resolution to stop time so that that they could pass allocation for a new stadium (or something) before it officially stuck midnight on the session. Montreal had to play outside for a handful of seasons in a city park next to a pool because construction of their stadium was being held up, or that Reggie Jackson almost signed with the Expos but his visit was delayed when customs found his drug of choice in his luggage.
There aren't just any well written books about the history of the Houston Astros. The google search comes up empty when it comes to quality. MLB Network had a special on the Astrodome, but that leaves the history of the Astros in the 20th century. That is hardly the futuristic representation of the team named after space exploration. For this installment of the Hall of Good Enough we take a deep dive into the franchise history of the Astros.
The Early Years
The Astros have finally won their first World Series. It was their second time in the series and the franchise had been around since 1962. They started out as the Houston Colt .45's a name that was picked after a "Name The Team" contest was lost by everyone. They entered the National League with the Mets. The Cold .45's played at Colt Stadium, a temporary, outdoor stadium in Houston that was as hot and humid as you'd expect. The raging mosquito population necessitated the team to movie into a domed stadium as soon as they could leave their "barn-like thing" as one baseball publication described it. Cold Stadium was used after the Astrodome opened for workouts to acclimate the players to playing hot weather, Astroturf testing grounds by Monsanto, and apparently a rather dangerous rattlesnake sanctuary. When the stadium was closed it was moved to two Mexican cities after it had become a county tax liability. One of the Mexican fan-bases nicknamed their new stadium "Millón de Tuercas," or Million Screws, because it was able to be taken apart and put back together again like an Erector set.
After three apparently nightmarish seasons the brand new Astrodome opened as the first domed stadium in the world. The team and stadium were both named after the space program based in Houston. The original plan was to have a clear glass roof and natural grass playing surface. That glass roof made the stadium bake and killed all the grass and a couple of changes had to be made. First, the glass was painted white to help cool the inside, then Astroturf had to be invented as a playing surface because not enough sunlight was coming through the white glass to keep the grass alive.
The Houston team didn't have a winning year until their eighth season but saw a lot of former stars on their way to the Hall of Fame like Nellie Fox, Robin Roberts and Eddie Matthews making stops before the ends of their careers. Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan started their careers before Staub moved on to the Expos and Mets to be the heart of those teams and Morgan went on to be best known for his runs on the Reds, his entrance into the Hall of Fame, his broadcasting career, and a website making fun of his broadcasting career. Outfielder Jim Wynn was the only player of those Houston teams to be best known for his time on teams in the prime of his career. He played 11 of his 15 seasons in Houston and hit the bulk of his 291 home runs with the Astros. His power hitting earned him the nickname "The Toy Cannon." He was best known for a home run in Cincinnati that went over their 58-foot scoreboard and bounced onto the highway.
Astros Arms of the '70's and '80's
The Astros first made the playoffs in 1980 and they came just one game shy of the World Series. Joe Morgan was back at second base for Houston after seven years on the Big Red Machine where he won two World Series and two MVP awards. No one on this Astros team hit more than 13 home runs all year, but the offense was built around Jose Cruz (.302 AVG, 36 SBs) and Cesar Cedeno (.309 AVG, 48 SBs) in the outfield. For the Astros of the '70's to mid-'80's, Cruz and Cedeno were the faces of the lineup. Cruz finished his career with five seasons getting MVP votes, 2 Silver Slugger Awards, 2251 hits, 317 steals and a .284 average. Cedeno had five seasons of MVP votes, 5 Gold Glove Awards, 2087 hits, 550 steals and a .285 average. Cedeno was the second player in MLB history to hit 20 homers and steal 50 bases in a season and he did it three seasons in a row.
That 1980 team was more known for their pitching, Joe Niekro was a 20 game winner, future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan had 200 strike outs, but it was the last season of J.R. Richard's short career. Richard only played for ten seasons and only had five full seasons in the majors. He received Cy Young votes in three of those seasons, was an All Star in his final season that was cut short, led the league in ERA once and strike outs for consecutive seasons. For his last full season at the age of 29 he broke the NL record for strikeouts by a right handed pitcher. The next season, 1980, Richard had a 1.90 ERA through 17 starts, had nearly as many strike outs per 9 innings as his prior season, and had a WHIP of 0.924. He only had 2 wild pitches in just over half a season after he had lead the league in wild pitches the year before with 19 (the third time he had lead the league in that category) and had led the league in walks three times earlier in his career. Richard retired at 29 years old at an age he should have been breaking out into greatness.
In the last game of Richard's shortened season he had trouble seeing the pitcher and his right arm was feeling "dead." He went on the disabled list and later went to the hospital for tests. He did not have blood pressure in his right arm due to a completely obstructed artery, although it had been decided he didn't need surgery. Five days later he returned to the team and while warming up before a game he had a major stroke and collapsed in the outfield. Richard was never able to come back to play MLB baseball and missed the playoffs the first year the Astros had made it. He went back to Louisiana, had some failed businesses and marriages, and in the early '90's found himself homeless living under and underpass. Richard went to a church for help, rehabilitated himself and went on to become involved in Houston helping to create baseball programs for children.
During the '70's and '80's the Astros were known for having the premier strike out pitchers in baseball. First it was Richard, then Ryan joined the team in Richard's last season, and in 1983 Mike Scott joined the Astros. There were rumors the Astrodome would change the direction of the air conditioning vents between innings to blow out when they were hitting and blow in when they were pitching. In 1986 this may have resulted in Mike Scott leading the league in ERA, shut outs, WHIP and strike outs with 306 earning him something Nolan Ryan never accomplished, a Cy Young Award.
Killer B's Teams of the Late '90's
After the days of the big Arms of the '70's and '80's Houston had a playoff drought until the Killer B's (Hall of Famers Bagwell and Biggio) matured into making the playoffs from '97-'99. Those teams excelled on their supporting casts. Moises Alou played in the very first game I ever saw in person and joined the Astros in '98 with 38 homers, 124 RBI, .312 AVG, .399 OBP and he had an impressive 3 seasons (including a .355 AVG in 2000) to highlight his career 2134 hits, 332 homers, .303 AVG, .369 OBP, 6 All-Star games, 7 seasons of MVP votes. Luis Gonzalez started his career in Houston and came back for the '97 playoff run before he changed his stance in Arizona to become a 5-time All-Star with 354 homers and a .283 AVG. Finally, Ken Caminiti came back to Houston after being an NL MVP in San Diego and 3-time All Star and Gold Glover. Unfortunately these San Diego season were fueled by PED's that ultimately killed him.
Billy Wagner defied physics. Gravity mandates that at the speed that a human can throw a baseball from a mound at 60 feet 6 inches, the ball cannot rise. All accounts are that Billy Wagner was able to defy science with his rising fastball. From his first full season in '96 to '03, Wagner was the staple of the Houston bullpen saving 30 or more games five times during that span an ERA under 2.00 twice. He ultimately finished his career with a single season with the Braves at 38 years old where he saved 37 games, had a 1.43 ERA, 13.5 strikeouts per 9 innings, and a 0.865 WHIP for what is one of the greatest age 38 seasons or final seasons for a pitcher. He finished his career with 422 saves, 2.31 ERA, 11.9 strikeouts per 9 innings, a 0.998 WHIP and was a seven-time All-Star.
For the 2000 season the Astros entered the millennium in a new stadium because they weren't being futuristic enough in the Astrodome. Their new stadium had a moving train in the outfield, a hill in the outfield a retractable roof and a new name: Enron Field. At the time, Enron was a wildly successful company and the corporate face of Houston. George W. Bush flew to his campaign stops in a donated Enron corporate jet. Fortune magazine had named Enron "America's Most Innovative Company" for six straight years... then in late 2001 it all came crashing down as it was revealed that they had been conducting extensive accounting fraud. This was brought to light and Enron further played villain through audio tapes of energy traders laughing about ripping off older and poorer people causing brownouts and blackouts so that they could run up the price of electricity around the country. And in 2002 they had a new name on the stadium: Astros Field... to be replaced before the end of the season with the more corporate name "Minute Maid Park." The train now carries large oranges as it chugs over the outfield for home run celebrations.
The Clemens/Pettitte Teams of the Mid-2000's
The fortunes changed for the Astros in 2004 when they signed Houston natives Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte for Jeff Bagwell's last two seasons for an NLCS appearance and their first trip to the World Series. Pettitte pitched in eight World Series, winning five championships, received Cy Young votes in five seasons, and won 256 games. Clemens has achieved more as a pitcher than anyone in baseball history: 11x All-Star, two-time World Series Champion, seven-time Cy Young Award winner, AL MVP, 354 wins, 3.12 ERA, and 4672 strike outs. These are two of the most accomplished pitchers ever, and one or both of them may never make the Hall of Fame because of their PED use while working out in the off season in Houston. I honestly don't know if where I side on PED users in the Hall anymore, but their achievements are still worth note.
Roy Oswalt was a tiny in stature starting pitcher no one suspected of PED use on these Astros teams. he received votes for Cy Young in six seasons, three-time All-Star and was the 2006 NL ERA. He was a two-time 20 game winner for 163 career wins over 13 seasons with all of his success coming in his nine and a half year run with the Astros. He was a consistent pitcher with a 3.36 career ERA as the only other ace of his time that was smaller was probably Pedro Martinez.
Jeff Kent joined the Astros for a pair of seasons leading up to the NLCS appearance in a move that created a domino effect to move Biggio from second base to centerfield after he had started his career at catcher. Kent was the most prolific home run hitting second baseman ever, was an NL MVP, seven-time MVP vote-getter, four-time Silver Slugger, five-time All-Star. He had 2461 hits, 377 home runs and a .290 average and was one of the most vocal opponents of PED use in baseball. He has not been getting much traction in Hall of Fame voting after his career. A good chunk of that lack of interest might be his mustache, or his personality, but it also might be that he broke his wrist falling off his truck while washing it... or as he later admitted, while crashing his motorcycle while doing wheelies.
Carlos Beltran came to the Astros in middle of the 2004 for his first postseason appearance where, in 12 games across two series, he was a one man offense. For the NLDS against Atlanta, a five game series, he hit four home runs, nine RBI, with a .455 AVG. He came back for an encore in the ALCS against St. Louis, a seven game series, hitting four homers, five RBI, scoring 12 runs, with a .417 AVG and .563 OBP. Over his career that appears to have ended after 2017 World Series win with the Astros, he a the Rookie of the Year, nine-time All-Star. hit 435 home runs, 565 doubles, 312 stolen bases, .279 AVG and 2725 hits.
Maturing of Prospects
Beltran was back as an elder statesman off the bench in 2017 as the Astros won their first World Series. He was the old man on a team of exciting young players (later to be joined by another veteran, Justin Verlander). The new, young core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel could bring a class of future Hall of Famers that even surpass the years with Biggio and Bagwell. Altuve has already led the league in hits the last four seasons, AVG three of the last four, SB's two of the last four, has an MVP award, four Silver Sluggers and five All-Star game appearances after seven seasons in the majors. Kuechel has a Cy Young Award, three gold gloves and two All-Star visits in his mere six seasons. The Astros changed leagues in 2013 to the American League at a time when they were expected to move from a softer division where they could not win games to a much tougher league and now they are at the top of the league with a team full of young players.
For most of their history, the Astros have had a lot of bad years. They've had a lot of young players come through that didn't stick around of the likes of Mike Marshall, Kenny Lofton, Curt Schilling, Bobby Abreu and J.D. Martinez who ended up finding success further down the road. In the case of Tuffy Rhodes, he was a failure with the Astros but was ultimately a home run champion in Japan and one of the biggest stars in the NPB. Many other veterans stopped by Houston on their way out to the end of great careers or even Hall of Fame plaques like Nellie Fox, Don Sutton, Buddy Bell, Vinny Castilla, Darin Erstad and Carlos Pena. It has truly been a franchise home of the Hall of Good Enough that has finally earned itself a championship.