It's not the best of times to be an Astros fan.
Last year they were not only bad, they were boringly bad. And they didn't exactly follow that dismal season with a stunning series of off-season moves to get themselves back on track.
Yeah, there's a new manager in town. Whether Brad Mills is the answer or not — he's never managed a Major League team before — is unknown, but he's got to be an improvement over the incredible reign of Cecil Cooper. When players are Tweeting reporters during games to laugh about the manager's moves — well, let's just say that never happened to Leo Durocher. (And Leo loved his Twitter, we're sure.)
Still, once someone catches the Astros bug, it's hard to get rid of it. Every spring you can imagine that, with just a few breaks and a couple of unheralded rookies having breakout years, you can be in the pennant race. Roy Oswalt will win 20. Lance Berkman will hit 45 homers and knock in 120 runs. Carlos Lee will run instead of jog on the base paths.
The Astros have had enough magical seasons, without winning a World Series, to ensnare generations of ever-hopeful fans, because if you're not a natural baseball fan there's always that one magical season that sucks you in forever.
Right now those fans are a bit down, with the prospects for 2010 looking so grim. So we decided to tap into the love between the Astros and Houston, instead of wallowing in the frustration.
We asked a number of prominent Houstonians to write us mini-essays on their favorite Astros memories. Among them was ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, whose dad was an organist at Buff Stadium, home to the Minor League predecessors to the Colt .45s and the Astros.
"I can remember sitting at Buff Stadium with my mother, sometimes my grandparents — my younger sister and I just used to love going — and we'd get to sit on the organ bench next to Dad and go get popcorn," he says.
His piece for us wasn't just off the top of his head — Gibbons did some research, uncovering the (we'll take his word for it) fact that the first air-conditioned space in Houston was the ladies' restroom at Buff Stadium.
Gibbons also displays some unique prose stylings. "I did some homework and, without sounding too academic, I was able to beatnik-speak enough to personalize it," he says.
Other entries include Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia on being an Astros Buddy, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on watching Mike Scott's no-hitter in a bar (Mayor Annise Parker, by the way, took a pass on participating), a Houston Symphony percussionist sprinting across downtown in a tux to catch the last innings of 2005's classic marathon playoff game against the Braves, and a father-son tale by radio host Lance Zierlein that would warm the cockles of Hitler's heart.
There's also, of course, rapper Paul Wall on Roger Clemens, and how Xanax was the only thing that got him through the World Series against the White Sox. (Got Wall through it, that is; we don't know what Clemens was using. Or maybe we do. We'll let the lawyers hash it out.) We had to catch Wall on the phone as he was leaving for a European tour, so his is in an "as told to" format that's more casual than the written word.
At any rate, gloomy Astros fans, let's remember some good times. Before the bad times come again.
Let's start with the original Sharp-Dressed Fan, who gave us his own headline, a stylish byline and an inimitable jazzbo, semi-stream-of-consciousness peek into the mind of ZZ Top.
Playin' Ball in H-Town...Astrostyle
By Billy F. Gibbons
A ball and bat is where it's at...! And that's exactly what H-town set into motion way back in 1907. Yep...it was the newest game in town, all right — and in a town that's seen some of the most unexpected expressions of enjoyment around...anywhere. Houston, Texas, got baseball. What once played home to cowpokes and wildcatters suddenly found some serious, solid backing to bring both back into the modern ways of the good Gulf Coast. Pistol totin' and big-game gamblin' was front and center with the arrival of the first franchise that started it all in this oil-rich city of Houston.
Now...call it luck, call it fortune, or call it doubled-down, downright dangerous, the two characteristic cornerstones became a reality following the foresight and fateful finagling of several farsighted soothsayers, to the delight of the many sports fans, surprised at the success of shuffling in a sporting event bringing in that elusive "winning combo" the community long awaited.
Make no mistake, back when Houston hosted home to the famed Buffaloes (the "Houston Buffs" for the uninitiated, by the way), Texas League baseball had found a supportive sector of the city that held passion for a ballgame. The original Houston ballpark houses, West End Park (1907-1927), Buffalo Stadium (1928-1952), later, Busch Stadium (1953-1958), just aside the super two-lane Gulf Freeway, set the stage for a lust of knuckles, curves and speed, all on the infield lawn where the humidified, summer seasoned crowds watched their home team "play ball!"...!
Quite a history for what was to become Space City. And all well remembered with a broadcasting bark by announcer Loel Passe, later joined by an enthusiastic Dan Rather, backed by none other than my Dad, Freddie Gibbons, and Ms. Lou Mahan on twin Hammond organs lending to the sporting sounds still resounding today in ballparks, coast-to-coast. Again, "play ball!"...!
1960 saw R.E. "Bob" Smith, the oilman wildcatter, and former Mayor of Houston Judge Roy Hofheinz, the ruff-'n'-tuff cowboy, form the Houston Sports Association, which later secured the bona fide, big league franchise for Houston. Yes, indeed, The Colt .45s were ready to "play ball!"...in Colt Stadium, a temporary facility for the '62, '63 and '64 seasons.
Fast-forward to the imaginative vision with an archetypal architectural challenge which again would place Houston back in the spotlight with the creation crowned "The Houston Astrodome," which brought change to the Colt .45s handle with a new team name known since as "The Astros," who really stepped up to the plate!
(Side note: ZZ Top, Astros fans extraordinaire, performed in the 'Dome at the world-famous Houston Rodeo for closing night in that fabled facility back in '02. Quite an honor!)
During a game between the Astros and Dodgers, I shared a box directly behind home base on reserve with some fine fellow Houstonians: team honcho Mr. Drayton McLane, car-collecting aficionados J.P. Shellnutt and Galen Medlenka, along with the fantastically fetching Farrah Fawcett and her Dad, Jimbo. We were attempting to decide which dugout to lean toward; as we were guests of both outfits, we all agreed the excitement was simply that real ballgame feeling, through-and-through. We nodded in agreement with a shout, "Play Ball...!"
Houston Symphony Percussionist
My wife and I bought tickets to see Game 5 of the National League Division Series in 2005 against the Atlanta Braves. Of course, this was the year the Astros would eventually find themselves in the World Series, helped greatly by the pitching trio of Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. The Houston Symphony had a concert scheduled that afternoon, and we knew we wouldn't be able to stay until the end of the game, but we bought the tickets and went anyway.
It was our first playoff game, and we weren't disappointed. Inside Minute Maid Park, with the roof closed — the playoff atmosphere was electric. After early scores by the Braves, the game seemed out of reach until Lance Berkman launched a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was hard to do, but at that point we had to leave so I could play in the afternoon concert. The symphony's stagehands often have the games playing on a backstage radio or on the Internet. By the time I got to the hall and had my instrument set up, I had learned that Brad Ausmus tied the game with a dramatic 9th-inning home run.
The music started, and I enjoyed performing one of my favorite pieces of music, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. As soon as the music ended, the stage manager greeted me at the door, exclaiming, "They're still playing, they're still playing! And Roger Clemens just came on to pitch!"
My wife had since gone home, so I grabbed one of the other percussionists, and we started running the nine blocks from Jones Hall to Minute Maid Park. I had not scanned the tickets exiting from the park, so we had to plead a little with the ticket lady, but she eventually let us in. The concert attire probably helped.
We made our way to the upper deck, near home plate, and found Clemens on the mound wrapping up the top of the 16th inning. We enjoyed a few more nail-biting innings before the Astros took the field in the 18th inning, now participating in the longest postseason game in MLB history. Roger Clemens was up first and struck out. With one out, the young, likable Chris Burke came to the plate.
The first pitch was a ball, and so was the second. Burke hit the third pitch hard, landing it comfortably in the Crawford Boxes — a game-winning, series-winning home run! At that moment, I experienced a level of mass excitement like nothing I had ever seen or heard. It was nothing short of spectacular.
Sheriff Adrian Garcia
Some of my fondest memories of the Astros have to do with when I was a proud "Astros Buddy!" A neighborhood friend, Anthony, and I signed up to become members of the club and were so excited when we received our membership packets that included several tickets to see games, attend baseball clinics and have entry to the arcade at the Astrodome.
I remember studying the bus routes to find out what buses we needed to take to get to the Astrodome from Houston's near northside, which was quite an adventure for a couple young guys like us. When riding the bus became old hat, we started to learn how to get there on our bikes, which was the adventure of a lifetime given that the ride took us through good old downtown. The rides and memories through downtown would later serve me well as a Houston City Council member and showed why we needed to support the continued revitalization of the core of our city.
While at the games, we would watch carefully the great players Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno and others. Then after the games we would come straight home and start the "instant replays" of strikeouts and great catches in our yards, each of us taking turns on the color commentary, like, "He's stepping up to the mound and he's staring down the batter. He wants to send this guy packing, and he's winding up and he lets go of a rocket of a pitch! The batter must have blinked because he never saw the pitch coming and he's outta there!"
However, my most treasured memory in baseball has to do with when I had the pleasure of attending the All Star game in 2004 at Minute Maid with my dad, who was one of the biggest Astros fans I knew; he would pass away later that year.
When I grew up, I think baseball was the most affordable sporting event you could go to. Football tickets and basketball tickets were always so expensive, so we would go and sit in the dollar seats and see the games at the Astrodome.
I remember as a kid, my mom used to live in San Francisco for a little bit, so I remember when Barry Bonds came through one time and hit a home run, she got up and was so excited because she knew how big a player he was, and I was like, "You're cheering for the other team's player!" and she's like, "No, you're gonna remember this one day, that you got to see Barry Bonds hit a home run." And I'm like, "I don't care. I'm rooting for the Astros."
But it's kinda funny, I remember I had my son, he was three weeks old when Barry Bonds came through with the Giants, and he was like two home runs away from tying Babe Ruth when they came through Minute Maid. And my son was two-three weeks old, and my doctor — I asked him, and he said no, but I said, "You know what? I can't miss this opportunity. If Barry Bonds ties Babe Ruth or passes Babe Ruth, I've got to bring my son to the game so he can say he was there to see it."
Thankfully for the Astros, we didn't give up any home runs. But still I remember bringing him there, and it being crazy and crowded and me hiding him underneath a towel so the noise wouldn't get to him.
My era was the Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio kind of era, so just to see them play their whole careers with one team, in Houston, is something you don't see in any sport these days. So there's something iconic and legendary right there. They were loyal to the team and to the city.
I was also a huge Roger Clemens fan, still am. Every game he'd pitch I'd always be there. On the road, too — I'd go on the road to see him pitch. My mom, when he went to the University of Texas, my Mom went to the University of Texas around the same time, she used to sit in the section called the Wild Bunch, where they used to heckle the other players and opposing pitchers and stuff. She always told me stories about Roger Clemens, so I was always a real big Roger Clemens fan.
My son, his due date for being born was the same date that Roger Clemens was arbitration-eligible: May 1. So I told my wife, "If he signs back with the Astros, we're going to name our son Roger. And she was like, nah, no. And I was, "If he signs back with the Astros on May 1 we're going to name him Roger."...My baby ended up being born a few weeks early, so we went with the family name William, which is my grandfather's name.
I told that same story to Debbie Clemens, Roger's wife, said we were going to name him Roger, but ended up not, and she said, "What did you name him?" I said William, and everybody's mouths just hit the floor, and they're like, "Oh my God — don't you realize that's his first name? William Roger Clemens? So he ended up signing back with the Astros and I named my son William, I think that was an omen right there.
I remember going out to throw the first pitch, I did it a couple of times but the first time I did it I was so nervous. And I've performed in front of thousands of people, I think the biggest crowd was 70,000 people, I did a couple of 55,000 events, so performing and being in front of thousands of people is not anything new to me, but when I threw out that first pitch I think that was the most nervous I've ever been in my life. Just to step out onto the field, onto the grass of Minute Maid Park where the legends come to play and to be there, I couldn't believe it.
I was so nervous, and I was like, "Damn." One of my boys was like, "First pitch — do it half-way. Do it half-way, throw from the grass like the old people do." And I was like, "No, man, I gotta get up there on the mound, with my foot against the rubber like Roger do it."
So I went up there, tried my best, but the ball — Brandon Backe caught it, but it kinda hit the plate. My split-finger kinda got away from me a little bit. I was so embarrassed. It's not like I'm a wimpy guy or something, it was just I was so nervous. My second time I did better.
My wife, we were engaged to be married in Cancún and a hurricane came, so we had to change our wedding plans.
We were going to change it to Jamaica, but the Astros, we were at the  game against the Cardinals, Game Six when Brad Lidge gave up the home run in the ninth inning to Albert [Pujols]. And I was sitting right there, under the Dasani sign, and it went right in front of my face, and I remember how loud it got and then when he swung and hit that homerun how quiet it got.
I told my wife — our honeymoon was supposed to be to go to Jamaica, but when the Astros went to the World Series, I went, "No way — sorry baby, but we're gonna have to postpone the honeymoon. I can't miss this, this is once in a lifetime."
The funny thing was, ever since that game, I get so much anxiety attacks at the games, especially when I'm watching someone I really like, watching Roger Clemens pitch or Roy O, so I couldn't — my anxiety attacks were so bad I couldn't even go to the World Series. I had tickets to all of them, but I was like I can't go, I don't want to bring bad luck, I had all these omens, since I was at the game where Brad Lidge gave up the homerun. Maybe I'm the bad luck. My anxiety attacks were so crazy. I'd go to the game with my Xanax to calm my nerves down.
County Judge Ed Emmett
What is my favorite memory of the Houston Astros? Like many others, I suppose the quickest and easiest answer is my first trip to the Astrodome.
When my family moved here from East Texas in 1966, I was just completing my junior year in high school. I had never attended a major league baseball game. The Dome was packed. Attendants were dressed in spacesuit-looking attire. I still remember how different the hamburgers tasted. I liked them, but others thought they were strange-tasting. And, oh yeah, there was a baseball game featuring the Astros and some other team.
As far as a specific Astros memory, I have one of those, too. As a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1979 to 1987, I traveled between Intercontinental Airport and Austin quite frequently. I remember getting off an airplane at the old Austin Airport in 1986 and glancing at the television in the airport lounge. The Astros were playing the San Francisco Giants in a decisive game, so I had a seat. A couple of drinks later, Mike Scott completed his unforgettable no-hitter, and the Astros had clinched the National League West.
For the first time, I and everyone in that lounge saw the Houston Astros as a real winner on the national stage.
My best Astros story is a hard one because there's so many of them.
I'm a lifelong 'Stros fan and always will be. I've been there at almost all the important home games since I was a kid....I've sung the National Anthem (scariest gig I ever did), and was even allowed to call the game for two innings in the booth with Milo Hamilton, but my dearest Astros story goes like this.
My best friend is a guy named Lew Temple from Houston. He used to be the equipment manager and did some Minor League scouting for the 'Stros as well. Now, Lew is a big-time character actor in the movies in Los Angeles; he's just finished making the new Tony Scott movie with Denzel Washington. He calls me one day in the early '90s and says, "You wanna bring a buddy and come out to the ball park today?" I say yeah, and he gets seats for us down with the players' wives right behind the ump.
Casey Candaele is up to bat, he swings, strike...swings again, strike...swings a third time...BAM! A pop fly ball comes over the fence. Me and my buddy both dive for it, as the players' wives look at us with smiles on their faces. My buddy gets the ball bare-fisted and yells, "Hell yeah!" Casey swings again, and the first baseman catches it. Boom, he's out. Candaele takes off his batting helmet, walks up to the fence right in front of me, looks me right in the eye as though he's totally pissed, slings down his helmet and walks back to the dugout.
Lew comes down to our seats the next inning. "How are the seats?" I say, "Great, but I think Casey wants to kick my ass." Lew says, no way, he's just in a slump and he's cranky. Anyway, the 'Stros end up losing that day to the Braves (by the way...what baseball teams do I like? The 'Stros and anybody who beats the Braves!), and everyone's down about it except my buddy who caught his fly ball.
Later that night I'm playing with the Road Kings (my old rockabilly band) at the Pig and Whistle Live on Richmond Avenue and Lew walks into the club with Ken Caminiti and Casey Candaele. Candaele walks up to the stage in between songs, hands me a baseball with most all the Astros names on it and says, "Lew says you think I wanna kick your ass. I don't, so here's a little something from the team. Just had a hard day." I'm speechless.
After my show, me and Lew, Ken Caminiti (God rest his soul) and Casey Candaele proceeded to drink every drop of bourbon in the bar and leave the club about 5 a.m. Next day, Caminiti and Candaele both hit homers and win the game against the Braves. Maybe I helped Candaele with his slump, maybe not. Either way, it's one of my most cherished memories.
1560 AM Sports Radio Co-Host
I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1979, and my favorite player in the world was Cesar Cedeno.
Cedeno was one of the most talented young Astros in years, but he was also a few years removed from an involuntary manslaughter charge which didn't exactly make him a fan favorite with some Astro fans like my dad.
Anyway, I was actually staying at home and my dad was headed to the Astro game with some friends. I was so upset that my dad was going to get to see Cedeno live while I would be taking my 9-year-old ass to bed.
As I lay in my bed fast asleep, my dad — who hated my favorite player, Cedeno — was headed home. Dad was nice enough to wake me up when he got home just to say, "The Astros lost and Cedeno struck out three times and everyone was booing him. Goodnight."
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