Hey, wasn't there supposed to be a World Series in town right about this time? Aren't we supposed to be watching television reporters shouting over drunken fans in sports bars in a gallant effort to deliver news? What happened to all that Astros gear everybody was buying?
Apparently the good guys didn't win. You could blame it on suddenly cold bats or on the odd managerial decisions of Phil Garner. You could blame it on the Astros' Curse of the Bandwagon, Houston's version of the Red Sox's Curse of the Bambino or the Cubs' Curse of the Goat.
Astros history has made it clear: Once everyone in town gets busy declaring themselves to be "lifelong fans," the team is doomed. You know the stands are filled with Johnny-come-latelies when a ball is hit to Craig Biggio in left and most people are not cringing in fear.
In accepting the inevitability of an Astros crash, it's important not to overlook just what an entertaining, bizarre season this was.
First, they sign Roger Clemens, who is inexplicably held out to be a god by many Houstonians, people who obviously haven't talked to many Bostonians, or New Yorkers or Torontoronianians. One immediate effect of the signing: We are force-fed many, many reports on Clemens's awe-inspiring training habits. People have joined the Navy SEALs to relax rather than try to keep up with Clemens, apparently. None of these reports, by the way, sees fit to mention Clemens's occasionally frosted hair, which makes him look like an X-popping bottom at Montrose Mining Company. A really fit X-popping bottom, of course.
The off-season also brings pitcher Andy Pettitte, who never stops talking about how he worships God (an actual God, not Clemens). Alas, the flattery gets him nowhere, as God smites him with an injury that ends his season.
At any rate, the Astros' opening-day lineup includes a first baseman whose shoulder is so shot he can barely throw the warm-up grounders between innings; a second baseman with a porn-star moustache and a bad attitude; an outfield that can't catch and a catcher that can't hit. And everyone is convinced they're going to the World Series.
For a couple of weeks, the predictions look good. But then grim reality kicks in, grimly. Really grimly.
Throughout the summer, the Astros are, in a word, bad. Not just bad, but boring bad, win-a-game-and-lose-two bad. Nights when even Milo Hamilton sounded bored on the radio. Days when sports-radio callers urged the Astros to trade their newly rented center fielder, Carlos Beltran, because obviously it wasn't worth keeping him.
The dreadful summer dragged on and led to the single most depressing All-Star Game ever, hosted by Houston. First, Astro manager Jimy Williams gets heartily booed by fans in the pregame introductions. We're not saying he didn't deserve it -- Williams was to managing what Mad Libs are to writing -- but still, it wasn't the image owner Drayton McLane wanted the nation to see. And then God -- in His temporal form of Roger Clemens -- got shelled. God got lit up like the head of some third-world religion. And the National League lost.
The torpid summer continued, but fans never lost hope (according to what they said in October). Williams was replaced by Garner, whose own quirky managerial style will be overlooked as long as he keeps winning, and not a second more.
And as the dog days ended, so somehow did the dead-dog ways of the 'Stros. Seven games out in the Wild Card chase, they went on a streak only rarely seen in the bigs. Bats that had been limp suddenly awoke (insert Viagra joke here). Runners in scoring position, who under Astros tradition start heading to the dugout whenever there's two outs, actually began crossing the plate.
Locked in a three-way race with the Cubs and the San Francisco Giants, the Astros took the Wild Card on the season's last weekend, a raucous three days at Minute Maid Park.
All of which, in a typical season, would lead to a quick playoff exit. The annual Houston rite had become immutable: Each successful regular season ended with an unending litany of how this year's team was different from all those who had choked in the playoffs. And then the team would choke in the playoffs.
Somehow this was accomplished each year without causing anyone to change the ritual the next year.
And then Man Bit Dog. Dewey Defeated Truman. Wayne Dolcefino Didn't Investigate a Strip Club.
Actually, that last one didn't happen, but something equally unlikely did: The Astros beat the Atlanta Braves. In terms of local sporting events, this was as unprecedented as the WNBA's Houston Comets winning a championship. (Sorry, we've just learned the Comets have won four WNBA championships.) This was as unprecedented as anyone caring about the WNBA's Comets winning a championship.
And so the Curse of the Bandwagon began its inexorable rise. SUVs had "Go Astros" scrawled on the windows. The mayor proclaimed Astros Day. Everyone in the bar had an opinion on when to use Brad Lidge, or how Jeff Kent could somehow think the porn moustache was still in style.
From that moment -- from the time the first few secretaries donned Astros buttons, from the second the face-painted experts on the Texans became face-painted experts on the 'Stros, from the instant everyone started believing this Astros team was nothing like every other semi-successful Astros team -- the season was over.
Game 7 in St. Louis was little more than a re-enactment of every tepid playoff effort of the '90s: weak hitting, pitching that eventually broke your heart, mumbled locker-room comments about "a great season" and how there's always next year.
And, apparently, there will be a next year. Pettitte will be back -- God willing -- but Beltran won't. Roger may or may not return. But hey, there's no way the Cardinals will repeat their unbelievable year, the Cubs always find a way to lose
Keep that bandwagon warmed up, willya? We may be needing it again soon.
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