Ready to Rumble
Houston is doing something this week that no Texas city has ever done: hosting some World Series games. It's not like Austin or Port Arthur ever really had the chance to do so, sure, but at least we beat Dallas. (Or Arlington, or wherever it is the Rangers play.)
If you're going to host the middle three games of the Series, you probably would rather not do it being down two games to zip. Still, after 43 seasons of frustration, Astros fans will take whatever they can get. They were down 2-0 in last year's NLCS before beating the Cards three straight at Minute Maid, right? (Feel free to ignore the fact that they went on to lose the series.)
Houston has hosted a Super Bowl, it's had the Rockets win the NBA Finals twice, but it's never seen anything like a Series. So as the Fall Classic finally comes to town, let's revel in some Astro-mania.
Houston, sad to say, has a bit of a reputation in the sports world -- namely, if you're not playing football, you better be winning if you want to keep the fans' attention.
A few years after the Rockets' wins, the team was struggling to fill a posh new arena. And despite the Astros' first-ever playoff win last year, fans were quick to abandon them when they slumped early this season. Now, of course, everyone you run into is a long, longtime fan with expert opinions on where Morgan Ensberg should be placed in the batting order.
It can make it tough if you're the host of one of the city's highest-profile sports shows, like Charlie Pallilo on 790 KBME-AM, the new-ish ESPN affiliate taking on the entrenched 610 KILT-AM.
Pallilo, of course, was a veteran star at KILT before jumping to the new station, so he's familiar with Houston's bandwagon ways. This year was no different. As the city gorges itself on Astro love, it might be instructive to look at what actually went on this season.
It began with a lot of grumbling, as free-agent stars like Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran went elsewhere without being replaced. "Going into the season, I'd say the mood was one of cautious pessimism," Pallilo says. "There was a game of musical chairs going on, and the Astros were diddling around while the other teams were grabbing all the chairs."
That pessimism turned out to be justified, as the Astros began a pathetic early stretch, at one point going 2-21 on the road.
"Their effort to score on the road was laughable," Pallilo says. "It wasn't quite where the Texans are now, but it was close."
And that, if you're a sports-talk host in Houston, is where things can get dicey. Houstonians were close to not only giving up on the Astros but also not caring about them. When you have to fill up four hours a day and no one's paying attention to the only game in town, that's not good. You can spend only so much time talking about the Texans' backup DL options, or how they should trade Domanick Davis for Peyton Manning.
"May hits, the Rockets are gone, and it's shaping up to be a long, hot summer," Pallilo says. "In Boston, people love to eat their own when the team's going bad and they'll talk about it all day long. Not here...Sports is all about passion -- [a team] being great is good, even being good is good, and at times being bad is good. But if you're bad long enough, you get indifference."
Of course, after the All-Star break the Astros went on a tear, as Lance Berkman came back from an injury and the young players started getting hot.
All of a sudden the phones were off the hook. And yeah, it was kind of obvious that some of the newly minted experts were a little light on their baseball knowledge.
"People will give themselves away sometimes with the things they say, where you can tell they haven't really been following things," Pallilo says. "But that's okay -- the more people along for the ride, the more fun it is."
Who's the happiest over the full bandwagon? Probably the Houston Texans. "We had one call in the first three hours today about the Texans, and they've been blown out all year and are 0-6," he says. "If the Astros had lost the NLCS, I'm sure 95 percent of the calls would have been about whose heads should roll at the Texans, whether [head coach Dom] Capers or [GM Charlie] Casserly or both. It's the first time that football's been going on and been irrelevant."
So is this Series season going to change things and make Houston something more than a football-first town?
Probably not, Pallilo says. "Houston's a great sports town, but I doubt people think this will become St. Louis in any lasting way," he says.
If it means we don't have to live with Tony La Russa, that's a cross we all can bear.
Words of Love
The Astros' unprecedented success has taken Houston by storm. Not only is everyone wearing T-shirts and hats with the Astros logo, they've started to speak an entire new language. Some excerpts from the Astros Dictionary:
Bagwell (verb) -- To keep something around for sentimental purposes. "I've bagwelled these jeans, but I wish I could still fit in them."
Berkman (noun) -- An adventure. "There's a sharp grounder to first " Or "Let's not make any set plans for the trip. It'll be a real berkman."
Crawfordbox (noun) -- A term in nanotechnology describing something that is extremely close. "The cell's vacuoles are only 1.65 crawfordboxes from the nucleus."
Garner (verb) -- To make a completely illogical move and pull it off. "He garnered it again by using Vizcaino as a pitch hitter in Game Two." Or "Yes, I know it was stupid to have sex with that crack whore, but no worries -- I completely garnered it. No diseases."
Lidgey (adjective) -- Something that once was safe but is now very risky. "I don't know, that rope bridge across the Piranha River looks kind of lidgey to me."
Pettitte (noun) -- A method of holding your glove in front of your face while getting the catcher's signal so that you look like an eligible daughter fluttering a fan in a Jane Austen novel. "I must say, his pettitte is très elegant."
Live, from NY: The Astros!
For almost ten years, Houstonian T. Sean Shannon has been a writer for Saturday Night Live. For much longer than that, he's been an Astros fan. His take on the Series:
" 'Congratulations' echoed across the studio floor after the Astros won Game Six of the NLCS. From the camera man who loves the Phillies, to Wally, the cue-card guy who loves the Red Sox, and Mike, the guy who I've worked with for eight years and still have no idea what he does on the show, but the one thing I do know is that he loves the Yankees. One of the producers turned to me and asked why everyone was congratulating me. 'Because my Astros are going to the World Series,' I said.
"He looked at me like I was an asshole. What did I do to deserve congratulations? He doesn't know. He's not a baseball fan.
"When I was in first grade, I joined the Astro Buddies. Dennis Menke was my Astro buddy. I saw a doubleheader against the San Diego Padres with my Cub Scout troop (props to pack 575). My brothers and I talked our dad into driving us to Fingers Furniture Store off the Gulf Freeway to get autographs from Bob Watson, Doug Rader and Joe Morgan. When I played baseball in the street, I used my black bottleneck bat that I got on Bat Night.
"As a teenager, I spent my summers trying to sneak past those old guys that checked your tickets to get down to the field level. Later, my friend Ricky Perez became an usher and we'd go down and sit in his section. I made fun of the mascot Chester Charge, then wondered how you get a job like that. In 1980, I skipped our school carnival (which was a big deal at Mt. Carmel) so I could go to the Astros-Phillies playoff game.
"I remember booing Tommy Lasorda at the All-Star Game because he didn't put Billy Doran on the team even though his stats were better than any other second baseman in the league. (It's a fact; you can look it up.) During the '86 NLCS, I hated that fat woman who sat behind home plate at Shea Stadium and twirled her arms trying to distract our pitchers. Now, I hate the people on their cell phones who wave.
"As I got older I was able to use my adult powers to fulfill childhood dreams. I traveled to Florida for spring training in Kissimmee. I've seen the Astros at Wrigley, Fenway, Shea, Chavez Ravine, Safeco Field, both of the Padres stadiums. I was at Yankee Stadium when six Astros pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter against the Bronx Bombers.
"If you're a baseball fan, no matter who your team is, you have a similar story. Instead of Dennis Menke, you have Toby Harrah. Instead of the Mets, you lost a heartbreaker to the Twins. If you're not a baseball fan, you will never understand why people congratulated me, but I deserve it, because for the first time ever, my Astros are in the World Series."
You know who's really excited about the Astros being in the World Series? The guys at the Web site www.castefootball.us.
Don't be fooled by the name -- they cover all sports. Mostly by extolling in all sports that great overlooked underdog: the white man.
"We're about cheering for white athletes that do well, and we want to see whites get a level playing field, to put it in a sports analogy," says Don Wassall, executive director of the American Nationalist Union and the force behind Caste Football.
How happy are they at Caste Football? Check out columnist J.B. Cash: "The 2005 World Series will be the whitest Fall Classic in many years There will be no 'Manny,' no 'Pedro,' no 'Papi,' no 'A-Rod,' no Jeter, no Mario. The media will not be able to slather over Albert Pujols or Reggie Sanders."
Sounds great -- but it gets even better! "It will be the first post-Jackie Robinson World Series without a non-white superstar. That is nearly 60 years!" Cash writes.
And who are the folks at Caste Football cheering for? They stand with you, Astros fan.
"I think the Astros are probably the whitest team in baseball, from what I can see," says Wassall.
Glad to have you on the bandwagon! Sit in the back of the bus, a-hole.
A 'Stro by Any Other Name
The Astros have battled through 43 seasons without getting to, much less winning, a World Series. The Boston Red Sox have gone to plenty of World Series.
The Sox, before they won it all last year, spawned an entire industry of literary navel-gazing about their plight. Ne'er did Sisyphus, wayward son of Aeolus, futilely push yon rock up the hill without bringing to tortured mind yet again the red-stitched spheroid spinning through noble Bill Buckner's legs, and so on. (And on.)
The Astros, on the other hand, get bupkis from the literary world.
Houston is home to the respected Creative Writing Program at UH. Shouldn't those Coogs be pounding out the Astro-angst novellas?
No. It's just too soon, says English professor James Pipkin. "If you think about the mythology of the Astros, the bronzed, mythological figures of the Astros are still wearing uniforms and still playing -- guys like Bagwell and Biggio," he says.
Houston's whole mind-set is not adapted for the nostalgia so prevalent in the Red Sox kvetching, says Pipkin, who lived in Cambridge while getting his Ph.D. from Harvard. "In Boston, you go to the oldest restaurant in town. In Houston, you're much more likely to go to the newest."
The Astros may never be immortalized in literature, Pipkin says. Not only are today's players more exposed -- and more media-savvy -- but Houston just isn't a baseball town.
"It's a football town," Pipkin says. "You don't mythologize football in New England."
Pipkin is an expert in British romantic poets, which may help explain why he picked the Astros in six. ("That's more of a hope now than a prediction," he admits.)
So what would a British romantic poet have to say about the Astros making the World Series?
He goes with William Wordsworth, writing from the French Revolution. "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote, "but to be young was very heaven!"
Only if the bullpen gets its act together, Wordsy.
A Guide to Houston for Sox Fans
Why you can't get a hotel room: There's a quilters convention in town. Really. They were going to throw out the Katrina evacuees if they were still tying up hotel rooms when the quilters came. It's odd to us, too.
Why you can't get a decent pizza: Because this is Houston. And because if a Houstonian tries to imitate his betters in the pizza world, he will aim for the One True Pizza, New York-style, instead of that lasagna-on-crust you guys call a pizza. Really, between that and your salad-bar hot dogs, you need to scale back the mix-and-match stuff.
Why you don't need a hooded parka with two thermal undershirts: Because, again, it is Houston. Nighttime lows in the 50s. Which means it will be the locals wearing the hooded parkas. You guys, on the other hand, will be in Bermudas and wife-beaters.
Why you need a car: Because you're going to get on that light-rail train, look up at the map to see where it will take you, and laugh. Although if you somehow feel the need to go to an empty Reliant Stadium or something called "Smithlands" (even Houstonians don't know what the hell that's all about), you're in luck.
Second reason you need a car: Because Houston is the country's capital of gentlemen's clubs. There is, to be sure, a "three-foot rule" in existence. There is also a college-football rule against pushing a runner into the end zone. In terms of enforcement, consider yourself Reggie Bush.
Why you should get along with Houston fans: Hey, we hate the Cubs, too. And seeing how we were never even aware of the existence of the White Sox until about a week ago, we don't have a lot of ill feelings toward you. Although Crede and Podsednik are doing their best to change that.
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