The U.S.S. Astro

A baseball team is a lot like the crew of a 19th Century warship. Both travel a lot, are exclusively male domains, and have batteries — guns in the case of ship, pitchers and catchers in baseball. Both are helmed by skippers, who have various sub-officers or assistant coaches in charge of different realms of the ship or team. Trust me, I know this stuff. I'm a lifelong Astros fan and the great-grandson of a ship's captain.

Right now, the U.S.S. Astro appears to be foundering in storm-tossed seas. Sure, we're only two games in, but an aura of doom hangs over this team after the lowly Pirates sunk them twice at home, in heartbreaking fashion each time. After all, they failed to drop even one lousy game to the Bucs at Minute Maid all last year.

Bear with me as I drag this analogy to the far side of the world ...

In the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, there was a sub-plot about an ill-fated junior officer named Hollum. In the opening scenes, the British sailor is the only survivor when the rest of his gun crew is killed by a French shell. Later, Hollum publicly balks when called upon to save a crewman who climbed a mast during a storm, and the sailor drowns because of his loss of will. His underlings on H.M.S. Surprise start bucking him — one of them bumps against him and fails to salute and Hollum doesn't call him out for it. Captain Jack Aubrey sees the incident and has the crewman lashed, which only causes the rest of the crew to hate and disrespect Hollum more.

Aubrey calls him in for a heart-to-heart, and he fails to realize that Hollum, as an effective naval officer, is toast. After surviving the French shell and failing to save the sailor on the mast, even simple tasks like subduing insubordinate crewmen are beyond him now, but Aubrey doesn't realize how the extent of Hollum's demoralization.

Soon, Hollum's malaise proves contagious. The crew starts heaping every misfortune on Hollum's slumping shoulders. When Hollum spies the vastly stronger French man o'war Acheron in the distance, the crew believes he must have conjured it. When the Surprise gets mired in a doldrums of a week's duration, it's all Hollum's fault. After all, it was on his watch that the wind stilled.

One night belowdecks, a grizzled, oracular old salt pronounces judgment on Hollum. Seemingly apropos of nothing, he starts quoting the Bible: "And they said unto him, 'For what caused the evil?'"

One of his fellow seamen immediately recognizes it as the story of Jonah. "They found out on their ship that one of their men - this Jonah cove - he'd offended God and was the cause of all their bad luck," he explains.

The old salt continues his muttering. "Evil comes," he utters, his eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare, "from him who evil thinks and evil is." Then the crew simultaneously thinks of all the bad luck they've been having and how Hollum was in the middle of it all.

In short, they all realize that Hollum is their Jonah, and that their luck will not change until he is gone. They decide to do away with him. Without saying a word, by simply staring him down and shunning him, they make clear their thoughts, and Hollum himself begins to believe that he is a Jonah, a jinx to the whole ship. In fact, he is made to feel so hopeless and miserable that he is left with no better alternative than to strap himself to a cannonball and jump overboard. And soon enough the winds again swell their sails and they are on their way.

The Astros have a Jonah aboard, and his name is Brad Lidge. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's mammoth moon shot was his French cannonball, and the Podsednik World Series dinger was the helpless sailor on the mast he failed to save. Now he can't even punch out the Pittsburgh Pirates at home. He has lost the faith of his teammates and the fans — who booed him on opening night. In fact, as with Hollum and Captain Aubrey, he appears to have lost the faith of everyone on the planet except his skipper Phil Garner. He can't shake the evil of that N.L.C.S. homer, and now evil he is and from him comes only evil.

And his ninth-inning evil is choking the spirits of the whole team. His bullpen mates — so effective in 2005 -- have lost their mojo. Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane mysteriously misplaced their strokes. Guys like Roy Oswalt have to be frustrated watching the tallies in their "W" columns dwindle as Lidge's uncannily ill-timed gopher balls mount. And you can bet Roger Clemens is none-too-eager to come out of retirement so he can hand Lidge the ball.

Lidge was so invincible for so long, and now look at him -- the likes of Xavier Nady are yanking his toughest pitches out to the left field concourse. His aura of power is gone, and now nobody feels safe handing him the wheel. He'll steer the ship straight into the rocks, and all hands will be lost, especially when it matters most. Like naval officers, closers have to be mentally indestructible, and Lidge is now a basket case.

No wind will fill the Astros' sails until Lidge walks the plank. Or, at the very least, is demoted to the set-up role or traded to the Red Sox. As Captain Aubrey said, "Sailors can abide a great deal, but not a Jonah."

And then the team can go about mending the other leaks in their hull, such as the below-average outfield defense, shallow starting pitching, and inept and/or past-their-prime hitting at short, second and catcher. — John Nova Lomax

PS: Since writing this post, an eerie coincidence has come to my attention. Last night, the winning pitcher for the Pirates name was Bayliss. Jonah Bayliss.


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