Joaquin Andujar died earlier this week. Andujar was one of my favorite players on one of my favorite ever Astros teams, the 1979 squad that nearly shocked the baseball world. That Astros team was supposed to be bad, but behind great pitching, excellent defense, and the excellent use of Astroturf, they ended up leading the National League West for most of the season before falling to the Cincinnati Reds at the end.
Andujar was in and out of the rotation that season, as would be the case for most of his career with the Astros. But I didn’t care. I loved watching him pitch. There was a passion to his pitching, and a daring. He threw inside, and he attacked the batters. And he was one of the pitchers who loved to hit and would always swing for the fences, and I think what I remember most is that, when he did get on base, rather than wearing the jacket that most pitchers wore once getting on base, he’d instead wear a sleeve on his pitching arm.
The 1979 Astros were a fun team. It didn’t hit for power — this was in the days when the Astros were lucky to have guys hit in the teens for home run numbers because of the Dome — so they’d leg out singles, steal second base, get bunted to third, then score on a sac fly. It always seemed that Terry Puhl would lead off the game with a single and that by the time Craig Reynolds had finished batting, Puhl would be on third where Cesar Cedeno or Jeffrey Leonard or Jose Cruz would knock him.
I write about the 1979 Astros, and about Andujar, because there’s a lot about this 2015 Astros team that reminds me of that 79 squad. Nobody expected this current Astros team to compete for the playoffs, and observers have been waiting for the team to fall back to earth for the entire season. This team hits a lot of home runs and is really not as good defensively or when running the bases, but both teams relied on a starting staff that got better and better as the season went on.
J.R. Richard was already one of the most feared pitchers in baseball when the season started, so he’s kind of the equivalent of Dallas Keuchel, though Keuchel’s probably more Tom Glavine-esque than Richard-esque. Collin McHugh’s probably Joe Niekro, Scott Feldman’s probably Ken Forsch. That 1979 squad had guys that floated in and out of the rotation, primarily Rick Williams, Vern Ruhle and Andujar who’d probably line up with Lance McCullers, Scott Kazmir, and Mike Fiers.
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Both teams had this underdog vibe, that they knew nobody really believed in them and that they were going to prove the doubters wrong. This squad is much younger though, as many of the key players in 1979 (Richard, Niekro, Cedeno, Cruz, Bob Watson, Alan Ashby) had either been with the Astros for a long time or had bounced around the majors for a number of years, and manager Bill Virdon had been managing for many years. And there was no force of nature player like Carlos Correa on those Astros (maybe Richard, but he only pitched every five days).
We don’t yet really know how this season is going to play out, but it’s not too early to start looking forward, to next year, and what the Astros do to improve the team. That 1979 team was purchased during the season by John McMullen and he made a huge splash that off-season by signing Nolan Ryan to the largest free agent contract in baseball history while also bringing back Joe Morgan to the Astros (by the way, does anybody else remember Ryan and Bob Feller making stops in Houston malls not long after as part of some Baseball Hall of Fame thing). So what do these Astros do once the season ends? Do they rely the stacked farm system to produce more players for next year who will hopefully be key contributors, or does Jim Crane, his team on the rise and no longer a laughingstock, go out and make a huge free agent signing?
Andujar was always one of my favorites because of his passion, and because he looked like he was having a good time. And that 1979 will always be one of my favorite Astros teams because what it did, to me as a kid, was so unexpected, and forced the city of Houston to take notice. That’s what these Astros have done. They’ve stormed to the front and forced the city of Houston to take notice.
Win or lose, it’s fun again to be a fan of the Astros. It’s been a few years, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.