Getting to Good: With the Astros on the Upswing, so Are Attendance and TV Viewing

On the surface, it was just a garden variety strikeout to end your normal, mid-July Major League Baseball game. Astros reliever Josh Fields set down Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval to close out a cookie cutter 8-3 Astros win last Tuesday night, keeping these spunky, young Astros firmly in the 2015 playoff mix in the American League, running their record to 52-43.

Peel a layer of the onion back, though, and you’ll see this particular win means a little more than that. There’s significance to the Astros’ 52nd win of the 2015 season. In 2015, their 52nd win came on July 21. Last season, they didn’t get their 52nd win until August 17. In 2011 and 2012, the first two years of the darkest four-year period in the history of the franchise, they didn’t get their 52nd win until deep into September. In 2013, the darkest year of them all, their 52nd win never came.

The Astros’ record in 2013 was 51-111. If you’re looking for the pile of smoldering ashes from which this burgeoning young Astros phoenix has risen in 2015, look no further than the 51-111 debacle in 2013. That team was a train wreck in every conceivable way. Bud Norris, with his 28-37 career record, was the ace of the pitching staff (and, by God, I am using the term “ace” loosely). Jason Castro was the team’s lone All-Star representative, mainly because by rule every team had to have one. The roster was so stripped down to young players and castoffs that the total payroll was under $19 million (which coincidentally is what Sandoval himself makes in one year with the Red Sox), about $25 million less than the next-lowest-paid team in baseball that season.

And these were merely the baseball issues with the 2013 Astros. Never mind that there was a much larger public-relations storm swirling around the team that season. A botched television deal was part of it, but much of the fan outrage in 2013 was over the Astros’ move to the American League, a contingency that owner Jim Crane agreed to as part of his purchase of the team from Drayton McLane in late 2011.

In order to help Major League Baseball tidy up the math of its divisions, Crane agreed to move his team into the American League West starting in 2013, giving baseball two 15-team leagues, each with three divisions of five teams apiece. In exchange for that concession, McLane agreed to knock $50 million off the $600 million-plus purchase price of the franchise.

Houstonians were livid. In the eyes of longtime Astros fans, Crane had just conceded all their childhood memories and baseball rivalries (not to mention every future double switch after pinch-hitting for a pitcher in the eighth inning) and flushed them down the toilet just to make a deal, like a car salesman giving away rust-proofing and free floor mats in order to hit his monthly quota.

Try as they might, Astros fans could do nothing about the move to the American League. They created protest websites, they created anti-Crane Facebook pages (even one with a tombstone that was labeled “Killed by Greed”), they even argued that the move to the AL violated the stadium lease. Yes, the desperation was palpable.

They claimed they would boycott the team forever and tried everything short of putting folding chairs on the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park and staging a sit-in, like a wrestler coming out and sitting in the middle of the ring and demanding a title match at the beginning of Monday Night RAW. “Crane, we will NOT leave this field until you move our Astros back to the National League…and that’s the bottom line, because STONE COLD SAID SO!”

It didn’t matter, though. The deal was done; the Astros were moving to the American League West. Not even the promise of a new geographic rivalry with the Texas Rangers could soothe the ill will.

So Astros fans, in the summer of 2013, did the only thing they could do to make their point — they stayed away, not that it was that tough to do. It’s not exactly like they were swearing off pizza or ice cream. Swearing off the 2013 Astros was more like swearing off wheat germ. Attendance plummeted, with only Cleveland and the two Florida teams having lower attendance figures in 2013. Television ratings bottomed out, with the team actually pulling a 0.0 rating for a September game against the Indians.

On top of that, the Astros were available on television to only 40 percent of the homes in the city, because of a then-ongoing dispute between the 46 percent-Astro-owned Comcast SportsNet and various television carriers. The general perception was that Crane was the one holding up the clearance of the network, crying poor over the insufficient carriage-fee offers. Even though 2013 Astros baseball probably should’ve come with a TV-viewing WARNING label, this television fiasco furthered the public relations catastrophe.

So in 2013, this was the status of baseball in Houston — a Major League team with virtually no Major Leaguers being followed by a dwindling fan base who stopped going to games and stopped watching on TV, assuming they could even watch the channel that carried the games. As Henry Hill said in Goodfellas, “This was the bad time.”

There was a silver lining, though, in all the Astros’ ineptitude from 2011 through 2013. With high draft choices and through trades, General Manager Jeff Luhnow began to stockpile young talent throughout the organization. In 2014, a 70-92 campaign felt like a minor breakthrough. You could see a young team begin to take on Major League features, like an infant slowly becoming self-aware, growing hair on its head and showing some personality.

Now here we are, in 2015, and the whole thing has come together even earlier than the experts thought.

“There’s just a lot more excitement around the team this season,” said outfielder George Springer, who made his debut in 2014. “With [Carlos] Correa, [Preston] Tucker, [Lance] McCullers and a veteran like [Evan] Gattis. They’ve all changed the culture of this team.”

With the trade deadline fast approaching, Luhnow actually has a nucleus at the Major League level that he can deem “untouchable” for the first time in his tenure. “If someone wanted to trade for Lance McCullers, that’d be pretty tough. Obviously, Dallas Kuechel, José Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa aren’t going anywhere,” Luhnow said.

In two seasons, the team has gone from no foundation to distinct foundation, with the 20-year-old Correa as the crown jewel. The first overall pick in the 2012 draft, the 6-foot-4 Correa, a clone of the late-’90s Seattle version of Alex Rodriguez, hit eight home runs in his first 34 games, the only shortstop to do so in the last century. However, it’s his mental approach to the game that really impresses his teammates.

“It’s his poise; he’s just extremely calm at all times,” Springer said when asked about Correa’s defining traits. “He’s only 20, but his poise and maturity are impressive. He’s doing a great job on the field, but people don’t see how hard he works off the field.”

It would also appear that this core group of players has the perfect managerial voice to grow along with them in first-year skipper A.J. Hinch, who interviewed for the Astros’ post when it went to Bo Porter back in 2012. “[Hinch] has done an unbelievable job at letting everybody be themselves and creating an atmosphere where you do whatever it is you have to do to get yourself ready to play,” said Springer. “He understands that it’s a hard game. It’s helped everybody pull in the same direction.”

As for the fan base, if you were one of the small handful of Astros followers still watching closely enough last season, you knew there would be a day of reckoning for those who swore off this team in 2013 — would they really stay away forever? How offended were they really by the team’s changing leagues, by their stripping the franchise down to an embarrassing shell of a Major League team in 2013? Do they really know what “boycott” means?

While it may not yet be confirmed that all is forgiven, it would appear that at least some is forgiven. On paper, through 47 home games, attendance was up 2,755 per game in terms of ticket purchases. One glimpse of an Astros game on television, though, and you can see that the increase in actual people attending games is much sharper than 2,755 per game. The stands are much more full, and the team has even had three sellouts for the first time since 2009. Also, speaking of television, through a combination of a better on-field product and a new network that’s actually in nearly every Houston home, TV ratings have quadrupled over last season.

Business is good, so good that fans seem to have forgotten how much they hated the American League. As it turns out, playoff contention trumps perceived tradition, and that ol’ designated hitter thing isn’t so bad after all. The Astros have spent virtually the whole 2015 season in line for a playoff berth in the American League, something that would be far more difficult in their old home, the National League Central, which has three of the Top 10 teams in all of baseball.

Hell, there may even be something to this whole in-state rivalry thing with the Rangers, too! In their second game after the All-Star break, the two teams got into a bench-clearing scuffle when Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor was slow getting into the batter box, which Astros catcher Hank Conger perceived as Odor’s showing up his pitcher. There was some screaming, some bench clearing and even a shove from Rangers slugger Prince Fielder to Hinch.

“It’s a lot of defending your own turf, defending your own people,” Hinch said after the game. “There was high-end emotion. People want to win this game; we want to compete a little bit.”

“Emotions run high,” Conger said. “Especially when you play rival teams.”

When the decision was made to move the Astros to the American League, the key point of contention among longtime Astros fans was that the rivalries the team had developed through the years would be no more. They brought up the Dodgers in the 1980s and the Cardinals in the 2000s, but truth be told, those were rivalries born more from sharing a baseball division and coincidental periods of relevance.

The Astros and Rangers have the potential for something deeper than that — a rivalry based upon intense mutual geographic sports hatred, intrastate vitriol that you can feel up and down Interstate 45. A few more relevant series, a few more important games, a few more “You think you’re better than me?” kerfuffles, and we’re right there.

Even Springer was having some fun with the dust-up with the Rangers. When asked which three teammates he would choose to fight on the Astros’ behalf in a street fight, Springer laughed and said, “Evan Gattis, definitely. Chris Carter, for sure…and probably Colby Rasmus. Don’t underestimate ‘Skinny Pop.’”

Rasmus, perhaps validating Springer’s “street fight” scouting report on him, promised this Astros team won’t back down. “Down the stretch, we might see some more of that,” Rasmus said. “That’s the way this game is. We’ve had a good run, and teams are after us.”

Indeed, other teams are now “after” the 2015 Houston Astros. Simultaneously young enough to be the hunter and good enough to be the hunted, the Astros are relevant once again. This is the good time.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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