It seems longer than three and a half years ago that Astros fans flooded downtown to celebrate the club's first National League pennant. Since then, the team has spent plenty but failed to develop a foundation of solid young players. Even when the club made late runs at the playoffs in 2006 and 2008, it felt a bit like the 'stros were the nouveau riche at the country club, waiting to be exposed.
But hoping for the unlikely is half the fun. Even if the team is looking up at .500 halfway through the season, the ballpark remains a great place to spend a summer evening. Bring your kids, your friends or a date and allow yourself to engage in a little wishful thinking. That may not be a wise approach when judging whether to ford a flooded underpass, but when it comes to Astros baseball, hope has become a way of life. If you're not feeling optimistic, there's no reason you can't ignore the standings and let yourself get lost in a ballgame for a few hours.
And when it comes to predictions, we thought it'd be a good idea to get an assessment from a veteran. We sat down with first baseman Lance Berkman to get his thoughts on how the 2009 campaign will unfold.
Houston Press: Who do you think might break out this season?
Lance Berkman: (Outfielder) Hunter Pence is a guy who's a young player and I think he's got a world of ability. I don't know if you'd call it a breakout because he had a pretty good year last year, but I'd look for him to continue to improve...(Starting pitcher Felipe) Paulino has always had a good arm — last year he was hurt — but he's really a boon for us because coming into the season he's not a guy everyone was pointing to. But he may turn out to be a heck of a pitcher for us.
HP: Where do you see this team at the All-Star break?
LB: It's hard to know exactly how good we're gonna be, but I certainly think we're a well-above-.500 ball club. I would hope that we'd be above .500 by the All-Star break, but even if we're not, I'm not going to change my opinion of the team. I think that every team that I've been on that's done anything here has been around .500 at the All-Star break. So that would be a good goal for us, to be there this year.
HP: So you think this is a team that could put together the type of run that's gotten you into the playoffs in the past?
LB: Absolutely. I wouldn't want to do it like we've had to do it in the past, where we've had to play .700 baseball coming down the stretch just to have our chance to make the playoffs...But by the same token, I feel like at some point we are gonna put together a run. I don't know if it'll be good enough or not, but we certainly have the talent to do it.
HP: Finish this sentence: The Astros will make the playoffs if...
LB: If we continue to get good starting pitching. I feel like our offense is going to come around. If we continue to get good work out of our starters, we'll make the playoffs.
HP: Okay, say Rick Perry's comment becomes reality and Texas secedes. Are the Astros the best team in the nation?
LB: In the nation of Texas? We're definitely (better than the Texas Rangers) until proven otherwise. We've been to the playoffs most recently, been to a World Series.
HP: Would you play in the World Baseball Classic if Texas were a country?
LB: Absolutely. There's no doubt about it.
HP: But you didn't play in the last WBC.
LB: Not in the last one, no. That's just the United States. Not nearly as important.
HP: All right, let's do a little word association: designated hitter.
LB: Terrible for the game of baseball. It's not real baseball. When the pitcher doesn't hit, the strategy's not nearly as much. It's not how the game was designed to be played.
LB: Spring training. Spring training only.
HP: Okay, here it looks like I wrote "cognitive dissonance."
LB: I'm not sure I understand exactly what that means. It certainly has something to do with the mind...
HP: Kind of like being in a bad way. How do you break out of a slump?
LB: It's tough, there's not really a secret remedy to get out of them...you just have to keep going out there and trying to do things the right way, and eventually it'll turn...You've gotta get through that, and the worst thing you can do is make another out. And I've done that plenty. You've gotta go up there and try to have a good at-bat, try to be a tough out, and hopefully over the course of the season, my numbers will be where they're supposed to be.
HP: When do you think you'll call it a day?
LB: I don't know. I'll take it year by year. I've got one more guaranteed year on this contract, and we'll see what happens after that. It's hard to know. Some years I've thought, I've gotta be in the last couple years of my career, and some years you think, I could do this for another five, six, seven or eight years. I'm in no hurry to make a decision one way or the other.
Astros 2009 home schedule (all games at Minute Maid Park — visit astros.com for tickets):
May 21 Milwaukee Brewers
May 22 Texas Rangers
May 23 Texas Rangers
May 24 Texas Rangers
June 1 Colorado Rockies
June 2 Colorado Rockies
June 3 Colorado Rockies
June 4 Colorado Rockies
June 5 Pittsburgh Pirates
June 6 Pittsburgh Pirates
June 7 Pittsburgh Pirates
June 9 Chicago Cubs
June 10 Chicago Cubs
June 11 Chicago Cubs
June 23 Kansas City Royals
June 24 Kansas City Royals
June 25 Kansas City Royals
June 26 Detroit Tigers
June 27 Detroit Tigers
June 28 Detroit Tigers
July 6 Pittsburgh Pirates
July 7 Pittsburgh Pirates
July 8 Pittsburgh Pirates
July 9 Washington Nationals
July 10 Washington Nationals
July 11 Washington Nationals
July 12 Washington Nationals
July 20 St. Louis Cardinals
July 21 St. Louis Cardinals
July 22 St. Louis Cardinals
July 24 New York Mets
July 25 New York Mets
July 26 New York Mets
August 3 San Francisco Giants
August 4 San Francisco Giants
August 5 San Francisco Giants
August 7 Milwaukee Brewers
August 8 Milwaukee Brewers
August 9 Milwaukee Brewers
August 18 Florida Marlins
August 19 Florida Marlins
August 20 Florida Marlins
August 21 Arizona Diamondbacks
August 22 Arizona Diamondbacks
August 23 Arizona Diamondbacks
September 4 Philadelphia Phillies
September 5 Philadelphia Phillies
September 6 Philadelphia Phillies
September 7 Philadelphia Phillies
September 8 Atlanta Braves
September 9 Atlanta Braves
September 10 Atlanta Braves
September 11 Pittsburgh Pirates
September 12 Pittsburgh Pirates
September 13 Pittsburgh Pirates
September 21 St. Louis Cardinals
September 22 St. Louis Cardinals
September 23 St. Louis Cardinals
September 25 Cincinnati Reds
September 26 Cincinnati Reds
September 27 Cincinnati Reds
Of course, there's another game in town during the summer. Professional soccer in the U.S. may have a relatively low profile, but it's tough to beat in terms of excitement and athleticism. A Houston Dynamo match is a lively alternative to baseball for those who end up dozing in their seats by the seventh-inning stretch. It doesn't hurt that star forward Brian Ching and company have brought home two championships in the three years they've been in town. The adventurous should sit at the end zone with rowdy fan groups El Batallon and the Texian Army to get the full experience.
Dynamo home schedule (all games played at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus — visit http://houston.mlsnet.com/t200/ for tickets):
May 23 San Jose Earthquakes
May 30 Toronto FC
June 10 Chivas USA
June 20 Real Salt Lake
July 25 New England Revolution
August 1 D.C. United
August 9 Chicago Fire
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August 23 Seattle Sounders FC
September 19 Real Salt Lake
October 4 Kansas City Wizards
October 18 Los Angeles Galaxy