Thursday, October 20, 2005

So ... what's the answer to Albert Pujols' crushing Game 5 HR?

This guy. He's a 5' 11", 175 lb. ball of fire from Weir, Mississippi. Meet the NLCS MVP and the Cardinals' worst nightmare.

Long before 28-year-old Roy Oswalt was born, many Houston fans were spending their Octobers watching the heavyweights of baseball in the World Series. No more. Chicago, here we come.

As my sons started looking ahead to the World Series in the ninth inning last night, I chastized them again for their youthful exuberance. Monday night's crushing loss was just the latest in a long line of disappointing Astros' playoff foibles. Then, to my horror, Fox put up "Astros @ Chicago" for World Series Game 1, before the last out was recorded. I chastized Fox accordingly, and then Mark Grudzilanek got a solid single to left. More nerves. Then, the majestic routine fly ball to right field was snared by Jason Lane, and the Cutter family (the males at least) let the jubilation go. Oh, boy. No dogpile yet,though. We are saving that for the World Series.

My immediate comment in the aftermath: "I still can't believe the President nominated Harriet Miers." No really, here is what I said: "If you live long enough, you'll see everything."

I then started going over my Astros memories ... I remember my first game at the Astrodome, which was way ahead of its time in the 1960s. I remember a short power hitter, Jimmy Wynn, the "Toy Cannon". I remember Enos Cabell, Craig Reynolds, and the first left-side of the infield that I could remember cheering for: Roger Metzger and Doug "the Rooster" Rader. Tommy Helms and Lee May rounded out that infield. But they never made the playoffs. That was for other teams.

My first "Astro Buddy" was a skinny kid pitcher named Larry Dierker, still the team's all-time leader in wins. I still remember when he threw his no-hitter. He was a workhorse, and I cheered when he was hired as manager. But I like Phil Garner just fine, too. The guy who hired them both, Drayton McLane, is just one of those optimistic guys who wears on you initially, but then you see that he really means it. He has said "champion" so many times around here that Houstonians just roll their eyes. They're not rolling eyes any more.

I remember summer nights with the radio and the unflappable Gene Elston. And there was the late and great, Loel "he breezed him one more time" Passe. Gene was so cool, but I remember one meaningless game in the dog days where the Astros scored 6 runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Expos, 6-5. Gene was so excited; he was just screaming. I was, too.

In 1980, they scored 7 runs with two outs in the ninth in Montreal to beat the Expos again. What a hoot. Almost as big a hoot as listening to Milo "I am the play-by-play guy, but I bet you can't guess the score" Hamilton. My boys and I have gotten many kicks through the years as Milo continues to pile up the follies and wear out his supply of cliches. He is especially funny when griping out the Astros after a loss. Or when he forgets how many outs there are. Or when he forgets that we can't see what's happening, so we need some one who can to tell us. But I digress ...

There I was as a kid on opening day, watching in a packed Astrodome as a young pitcher named Mark Lemongello (yes, Lemongello) baffled the Dodgers and the Astros won, 4-3, in 10 innings. Later, I would take my boys to the same Astrodome to teach them the game, and teach them to cheer for our team -- the Astros. One Father's Day, we took my dad to the Dome and he couldn't believe the boys' knowledge and interest in the game. We Cutters are Astros' fans.

All those years ... all those players. The sweet swing of Terry Puhl, the multi-talented Cesar Cedeno, the clutch Bob "the Bull" Watson, Don Wilson, Cliff Johnson, Joe Morgan, Jose Cruz, Denny Walling, Jesus Alou, Dickie Thon, Moises Alou, Charlie "all the NY fans cuss, are drunk, and have black teeth, and that's just the women" Kerfeld, Dave Smith, Joe Sambito, Joe Niekro, Bob Knepper, Billy Doran, Ken Caminiti, Mike Hampton, Alan Ashby, Darryl Kile ... There was some guy from Alvin who pitched here for a while, yeah, Nolan Ryan.

I remember seeing a young kid who played catcher. Man, he could run for a catcher. I thought ... "this kid can play". His name: Biggio. And I recall a trade of one of my favorite relief pitchers, Larry Anderson, for a pretty good young hitter, Jeff Bagwell.

Man, you've gotta be happy for Biggio and Bagwell.

One night I saw Bagwell hit a wayward slider from Byun Yung Kim seemingly all the way to Galveston to win a ballgame. I also saw Baggy in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and he was every bit as good as any hitter around today ... including Pujols. He won the league MVP then and hit something like .368 with 37 homers in a shortened season. Incredible.

I remember surprising my young bride by springing for tickets in 1986 and catching a plane to Houston to watch the Astros take on the Mets. In that game, the Astros blew a 3-run lead in the ninth inning when Darryl Strawberry homered. But my all-time favorite Astro, Craig Reynolds, hit a game winning homer in the bottom of the ninth. From there, the Astros went on their incredible run to the NLCS against the Mets. They got there with the incredible division-clinching no-hitter by Mike Scott.

I remember the depressing loss in the 1980 LCS. Tal Smith, the incredible GM then, is still the team's president. I felt the exhiliration of Billy Hatcher's game-tying bomb in the 14th inning of the 1986 LCS, and the sting of Kevin Bass's strikeout in the 16th to end it.

The LCS losses in 1980 and 1986 were both to eventual World Series Champions.

I remember when they drafted some hefty outfielder from Rice. But that kid Berkman could hit.

I was there when Randy Johnson threw his first game as an Astro in 1998 ... a complete game shutout over the Phillies. That 1998 team may have been the best Astro team ever, with a playoff rotation of Johnson, Hampton, and Lima ... and a flame-throwing closer named Wagner. There have always been great pitchers in an Astro uniform.

I have seen playoff collapses year after year ... I was there in 1999, the last season in the Astrodome, when Walt Weiss made "the play" on a bases-loaded shot by Tony Eusebio; 52,000 thousand people gasped, and the Astros collapsed. The Braves won the game and the series on the next day at the Dome. I was in the stands then for the last game ever played at the Dome. I've been in the stands twice when the Braves eliminate the Astros in the playoffs.

My family and I were there on Opening Day at Enron Field in 2000. Man, what a bad season that was. The pitchers were shell-shocked and psyched out by the new ballpark, as opposing hitters salivated. The last few years, my boys and I have had some great days and nights at the stadium that has become Minute Maid Park. They win everytime we go. We're going to Game 5 of the WS. The Rocket will be on the mound.

I remember when the Astros signed Andy Pettitte in '03, and then later Andy coaxed his buddy Roger to join him. Then, we started dreaming again around here. It was just too much to resist. And the Rocket lifted the team, almost immediately.

Indeed, last year, even with Pettitte hurt, the Astros traded for Carlos Beltran and went all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS. I remember watching as Jeff Kent hit his walk-off homer in Game 5. We dared to believe. But it was all for naught, as the Cards won it in 7.

Earlier this season, my sons' baseball team went to watch the Astros on May 31. They played pretty well and beat the Reds, 4-3, behind Galveston's Brandon Bakke on that warm night. That win made them 19-32. The very next day, however, the Houston Chronicle pronounced them dead, saying that the focus should be on next year. The team was laden with too many young players, too many old players, indeed too many question marks. Bagwell was hurt.

They were dead alright. Like Lazarus.

Later this season, we also saw them beat the Rockies. And ... oh, yeah, we were there on the last day of the season when they clinched. Some guy named Oswalt was on the mound. Bedlam.

But when the incomparable Albert Pujols hit his devastating moon shot on Monday night, all the pain of the past came back in an instant. The Astros were given up for dead ... again.

But this team had come too far to die. It had the best "big 3" starting rotation in baseball ... Oswalt, Pettitte, and the Rocket. And they had the best closer in baseball, Brad Lidge -- a great pitcher and a better young man. Morgan Ensberg had become an All-Star and Lance Berkman recovered from knee surgery to continue to pick up clutch hits down the stretch. Mike Lamb stepped up big. Jason Lane had a huge, breakthrough year. Biggio's bat looked quicker than ever. And the role players ... Everett, Ausmus, Wheeler, Burke, Astacio, Qualls, Gallo, Bruntlett, Rodriguez, Springer, Vizcaino, Palmeiro, Bakke, Taveras, and (this year) Bagwell ... filled their roles.

But the bottom line was: The team's stellar pitching staff just wouldn't let this team lose. As a result, they had the best record in baseball from mid-May through the end of the season. And they needed every single win just to make the playoffs, as they edged the Phillies by a solitary game for the Wild Card.

The other night, after the Astros were given up "for dead" again, I commented to my boys that if the Astros got by the Cards, the adversity in Game 5 could actually make it more likely that they would win the World Series.

It seems possible now. Because if you live long enough ...