Growing up Astros

by Milton Lawson

___

I spent many summer nights throwing a tennis ball against the wall of the other side of these stairs with the Astros game on the radio, pretending to be a fielder following the play-by-play

The Start

In June of 1978, there was nothing I hated more than the Houston Astros. I had just moved to a new city during summer break. I had no friends. The highlight of my day was watching a Spider-Man cartoon. 

As a latch-key Gen-X kid, I would make my own lunch and set up the TV tray in front of the Zenith television, turn the big dial to “U” for UHF and the small dial to channel 39, pull the on button, and sing along with the iconic theme song. But one day (very likely June 5th, 1978), there was no Spider-Man.  

When Spidey came to Memorial City Mall, my mother scoffed “he’s gonna kill himself” as the man in the suit climbed a high structural column inside the main atrium – but I assured her that he had climbing skills.

Instead, the Houston Astros were playing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Not only was Spidey preempted, but this dreadfully boring sport would eat up three hours worth of syndicated programming. No Spidey, no Gilligan, no Beaver, no Fonz, no Bowzer. The outrage! I remember only one thing from that first broadcast: the broadcasters praising the fielding of center fielder Terry Puhl. He would not commit a single error in the following 1979 season. With that observation embedded in my brain, I went outside to perform death-defying Evel Knievel stunts on my bicycle.

Later that month, I got sick. The kind of sickness that puts you down for a whole week. The Astros were on a road trip, so my TV favorites would be preempted again. I was trapped on the couch. Nowhere to go. No cartoons. Just these rainbow-jersey wearing men playing a game I did not understand. So I watched every game for a week. After my illness, my parents wanted to give me a special reward for having looked after myself. Instead of making them miss some work days, I followed my mother’s daily handwritten list, checking my temperature and eating pre-made meals. For my reward, I could request anything within reason. “What do you want?” they asked.

“I want an autographed baseball from Houston Astros pitcher, Joe Niekro,” I replied, surprising them as much as myself.

My First Game in Person

The first image I recall of the Astrodome was emerging from the ramp to the field level — at first, you’re enveloped mostly in darkness. As an indoor stadium without exterior lighting, the dome’s main walkway was cavernous.

My father led me up the ramp. We entered the main concourse with blackened overhangs and support beams. The dome’s interior was an engineered cave with minimal artificial lights. But then, as you approach the field box, a glorious expanse of pure green. The artificial surface — the Astroturf — looked like the felt of a gigantic billiards table.

We put our hands on our hearts and sang along with two national anthems, since we were playing the Montreal Expos. It was the first time I learned that other countries had their own songs to sing as well.

In the fourth inning, Bob Watson smashed a home run. The scoreboard went crazy. I was hooked for life.

Box score from the first game i ever saw in person

The Eighth Wonder of the World

In 1978, the Astrodome was in transition. The many gimmicks that had sustained the experience in its first dozen years were becoming less necessary. In the ’60s and most of the ’70s, the Astros were terrible, but now, with a new generation of talent, the product on the field was becoming the main attraction. In spite of the improvement, however, many of the dome’s circus-atmosphere traditions were still in place. “Foamer Nights” were nights that had attendees paying close attention to the scoreboard. During even-numbered minutes on the stadium’s clock, an orange light would appear, and if an Astro hit a home run while the light was on, there would be free beer for the rest of the night (until an 8th-inning cutoff). I may have only been seven years old, but even I took note of the rather lax enforcement of said cutoff time.

The mad rush for free beers at the Astrodome in the ’70s
When the scoreboard said this – it was off to the races to see who could hit the concession stands quickest to grab free beers

There were the “Astro-Nuts” — a band as loud in volume as its garish costumes — who would wander the stadium and jam some impromptu tunes. They played whimsical carnival music. Sometimes they’d be on the field. Sometimes they’d just randomly show up in your section. And the musicians were often three sheets to the wind.

There was “Chester Charge,” an odd mascot that would occasionally pop onto the field between innings and fire off a cannon charge.

And there was the Dome’s legendary scoreboard, which would erupt in a Lite-Brite like crude animation anytime one of the Astros knocked a home run. In its day, it was the largest, most impressive scoreboard in all of sports.

Less legendary but just as entertaining were the humorous short animated sequences that the scoreboard would play during game breaks. When an opposing manager made a pitching change, a short cartoon showing the dejected player going to the locker room to be swallowed down the shower drain would be shown.

But overall, the Dome’s signature tricks were stuck in the era of its inception: the mid-1960’s. Throughout the early 1980’s, the franchise didn’t update any of its iconography. For me, a wired-in nerd, those were symbols of the past. Why didn’t the scoreboard get updated with Space Shuttle references? And the ham-fisted nods to cowboy culture — longhorn bulls, rope-twirling cowboys — seemed completely out of place. This was the dawn of the video game and home-computing era, but the franchise that had once been about innovation and futurism was coasting by, or worse, looking backwards.

My Improbable Fan Winning Streak (Summer 1978-Summer 1980)

When I saw my first game in person, the Astros won. Whenever I would go to a game — over the course of three summers — the Astros won. How many games this winning streak reached is a matter of family lore. The exact number is unknown. My father was a serial exaggerator, and he would claim that I had seen 27 wins in a row. That number seems statistically improbable to the extreme. I’m fairly confident the number is higher than 20. But I’m not sure if it made it to 27.

My father eventually managed to deliver that wish in the following year. I got an autographed baseball and also I got to meet Joe Niekro after an Astros game, right outside the team locker room. I was distracted by seeing relief pitcher Joe Sambito walk out of the stadium in flip-flops. I’d never seen a grown man wear flip-flops! 

While we chatted with Niekro, my father informed him about the fact of my winning streak. Niekro joked, “maybe we should take him with us to Los Angeles when we face the Dodgers.” A responsible father would take that well-intentioned whimsical comment in stride, but instead my [decidedly irresponsible] father distorted the moment and would brag about me to his co-workers and church peers, slightly inflating the tale each time, and eventually led me to believe I was the team’s unofficial lucky charm and that Niekro, in fact, was going to fly me out to Los Angeles when the team really needed me. I was there, and overheard most of what the man had actually said, but through the force of repetition and my father’s incredible salesmanship/con-artistry, I eventually believed the story. Every once in a while, I would boast to a friend that I might be going to see the ‘Stros on the West Coast. 

My streak would continue well beyond that point. I spent three summers in my early elementary school years living the charmed life of the “undefeated fan.” In the beginning, the team winning when I showed up was just to be expected. I took it for granted. It was a solid team, on the cusp of their first-ever Division title. But after a while, I started feeling the pressure. We tried to pick games where we felt better about our odds — usually with J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, or Nolan Ryan pitching. Every once in a while, I’d get pulled along with a group outing. If our fourth or fifth starter was pitching, I’d be super nervous. But, each and every time, for those three glorious summers — 1978, 1979, 1980 — they won, every single time I saw them in person.

Adult Beverages on the Broadcast

Even as a kid, you can tell when the adults in the room are a bit off. One of my favorite memories of this variety was during a mid-afternoon game against the Cincinnati Reds. There was something about the seasons and scheduling in baseball to where it always seemed like heavy rainstorms would coincide with the Astros games in Cincy, and this was no exception. One day, an Astro broadcast began with images of a downpour. Weather reports indicated the game was very likely to be canceled.

Hours later and a meteorological miracle! The skies had cleared, the tarp on the field had been taken off, and the players were getting ready to play ball. The television broke into the cartoons to resume broadcasting the game (but this time I was overjoyed, now preferring baseball over cartoons). The camera cut into the booth to show the Astros announcers, and the two men were absolutely hammered. Their faces were redder than Soviet Russia. They struggled to get the first words out, and they had three more hours of broadcasting to do. Did they look frightened? Heck no! They could barely contain suppressed laughter. 

July 30th, 1980 – The Darkest Day in Astros History

The harshest lesson I learned as a young baseball fan occurred on July 30th, 1980. You may have heard of Nolan Ryan. Texas legend. Fireballer. This was his first year with the Astros, but he wasn’t the team’s most fearsome pitcher. That honor belonged to James Rodney Richard. J.R. had an intimidating 6-foot-8 frame, a 100+ miles per hour fastball, and a slider that could be damned near unhittable. Opposing players would call in sick when he pitched. The fear on the faces of the opposition was palpable. Richard was undefeated in his matchups against the team’s great rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Don’t take my word for it – look at this quote from Atlanta Braves legend Dale Murphy when asked who was the toughest pitcher he ever faced:

“Anybody that played in the late 70’s or early 80’s will probably give you the same answer: J.R. Richard”

Dale Murphy, Atlanta Braves slugger

On July 30th, 1980, while practicing a simple round of toss in the Astrodome outfield before a game, J.R. collapsed in the outfield. He was rushed to a hospital. He had suffered a stroke. Further scans indicated he’d actually suffered multiple strokes from various arterial obstructions. 

Richard had complained and sought medical attention from the team several times in the weeks leading up to the collapse, but the team’s doctors were dismissive. The stroke ended Richard’s Major League career. 

I had actually met J.R. in person and stood next to him. When you’re eight years old and short, a six-foot-eight pro athlete is peerless in stature. But now, that towering hero of mine was struck down in his prime. Once so dominant, so fierce, taken from the game in an instant. This was a formative shock. As I grew older, I learned of layers of additional adult complexity surrounding these events. After the stroke, Richard sued the Astros organization, alleging its doctors had been negligent and treated him differently than other players due to racial bias.

To this day, the franchise, despite increasing in value exponentially, has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing in Richard’s case, and the mutual animosity has prevented the number 50 from being lifted to the rafters, retired alongside other Astro legends, where it belongs.

One of my prized possessions — a baseball autographed by J.R. Richard — in the 2000 season I saw him hanging around at the stadium and nobody knew who he was. I quickly rectified that and let him know how much he meant to me.

The Long-Distance Relationship

After the 1981 season, my family moved away from Houston. In my early days, we were nomadic, living practically everywhere below the Mason-Dixon line. But I kept my allegiance to the Astros. In this era, the dawn of cable broadcasting placed the Atlanta Braves in everyone’s living rooms 162 days a year, and everywhere I went, I was surrounded by Braves fans.

That was until 1986, when I moved to Jackson, Mississippi: home of the AA minor-league affiliate for the New York Mets. The dynamic, rowdy, and felonious Mets were the sensation in baseball that season, and they would meet my Houston Astros in that year’s league championship series. I was surrounded by the enemy. The Mets’ youngest superstars Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Lenny Dykstra had all played in Jackson, so the city was behind them. I snuck portable radios into class and occasionally skipped school altogether to watch or listen to games in the series.

On my birthday, the final game of the series — an extra-inning nail-biter that went 16 innings — resulted in further heartbreak. At the time, my mother was working nights, my father was working in another city, and my brother couldn’t care less. Eventually he’d become an equal if not bigger baseball fan than me. But on this day, I was alone in my misery, surrounded by apathy at home, and once I stepped outside of our apartment, taunting and ridicule from peers. Most of the Jackson fans were bandwagoners who couldn’t have named anyone on the team prior to the playoffs, a fact I frequently pointed out to classmates who harassed me. Another harsh lesson learned: in an argument of this sort, if you accuse your opponent of being a poser, it won’t affect them in the slightest, no matter how well you may support it. Their team won. Your team lost. And winning trumps all other angles in a sports argument. 

[I’m sure while I was crushed, EA head honcho Daniel Kaufman was celebrating his Mets’ victory.] 

The Strike & The Counterfactual ’90s Astros

Growing up as a Major League Baseball fan at an early age and coming into adolescence, I faced my first trials and difficulties in supporting the league: becoming aware of the business side of the game. The history of greed, collusion, corruption, and racism.

As the 1994 season started, fans were braced for a work stoppage to occur mid-season. League owners and the players’ union were at an impasse.  

The team was just hitting its stride — its two future Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were in their prime. Bagwell would be named the league’s Most Valuable Player.

But, near the end of Summer, the season was stopped, and the playoffs were canceled.

I believe that ’94 Astros team would have made it to the playoffs and faced a formidable opponent in the Montreal Expos, who were loaded with legendary talent. The Expos were better, but we fought them hard. I think Montreal would’ve had the better of us but it would’ve birthed a major new rivalry. The fact that the season was canceled abruptly set both franchises back financially. The Astros even threatened to move to Virginia and be renamed the Virginia Fury. The loss of the ’94 season and fan backlash eventually resulted in the team being unable to afford to keep two of their best developing future superstars: Ken Caminiti (who went on to win the 1996 NL MVP for San Diego) and Luis Gonzales (who went to Arizona and in 2001 was third-place in the NL MVP and drove home a World-Series-winning run). The Astros and Expos, had they been able to fight out that postseason, might have gone on wildly different trajectories. Perhaps the Expos wouldn’t have been moved to another city. Perhaps the Astros wouldn’t have had to wait until 2005 for their first pennant.

An Eleven-Year Drought Ends

At the end of the 1997 season, the Astros clinched their first playoff spot in eleven years. The team was young and on the rise. It was a relatively weak division that year. But we didn’t care. Getting to the playoffs meant something. Eleven years is almost half my life at this point. The game in which they clinched the division was seen in the background on televisions during the gimmick live episode of the prime-time tv show “ER.” I was in the outfield pavilion — the cheapest of the “cheap seats” — first come, first served. So we showed up early and got front row seats. When the final “out” was made, pandemonium erupted. A banner was unfurled, confetti exploded everywhere, and fans ran onto the field. I wanted to join in on the celebration. I stepped out onto the fake flower beds about fifteen feet above the Astroturf, between the seating area and the home-run fence. When I pressed my weight down, I quickly discovered that those fake flower beds were not nailed down and they were affixed onto a thin bit of plywood. My weight caused the plywood to lose its positioning and I began to fall backwards. The sudden loss of solid footing caused one of my legs to kick upwards and my shoe came flying off, and it went HIGH into the air. I managed to grab hold of the fence and dangle for a moment to catch my center of gravity and control a jump onto the field below. I’m lucky I didn’t seriously injure myself. I could’ve been paralyzed. The adrenaline of the foolish near-accident, coupled with the joy of victory, sent me along with thousands of my fellow Astro fans, rushing the field. I ran to home plate. I filled my pocket with infield dirt taken from near home plate. To this day, I still have a tiny bit of that celebratory infield dirt!

I nearly killed myself jumping onto the field
Dirt from home plate at the Astrodome 1997 celebration – I still have it !!

Sammy and Big Mac

In the 1998 season, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa set the baseball world on fire with their steroid-fueled home run record-setting chase. On Sept. 25th of 1998, Sosa briefly took the lead in the race, launching his 66th home run. I was there for that game. It was thrilling to be there knowing that, at least at that moment, I had witnessed something nobody had ever seen before.

Hell’s Bells

In 1998, I was finally old enough to have a professional job and enough disposable income to become a season-ticket holder, which I did. My seats were just underneath the broadcast booth, and when you listened to games on the radio you could hear the treat-selling woman from my section yelling out “Lemon Chill!” in an iconic fashion any Astros fan from the era would recognize (“LEMM-ONNN CHEEEEEL”).

We were favored to make it to our first World Series. I bought advance tickets for all four games. But then, the underdog San Diego Padres rolled into the Astrodome, and their pitcher Kevin Brown unleashed some of the filthiest pitches I’d ever seen and shut us down. He struck out 16 Astros and many Padres fans still consider that the best pitching performance in Padre history.

To make matters worse, the Astros effectively only had eight innings to try to score against the Padres because their closer Trevor Hoffman was the definition of dominance. His walk-out routine was to be serenaded by AC/DC’s “Hells Bell’s.” When you faced the Padres, and that song started to play, that was it, game over, that was your ass.

And we were done. My pre-printed World Series tickets were never used, because we didn’t make it.

The Dome is Abandoned

In the late ’90s, given the success of Camden Yards in Baltimore, every baseball owner had retro-architecture field envy. The fact that the Astrodome was the first American pro-sports facility to operate indoors was not enough of a reason to keep the team in the dome. A series of disputes involving all three pro-sports teams in Houston, some dreadful local politics, and plain old greed caused the Dome’s fate to be sealed. The final regular season game ended on a high note: another division-championship-clinching performance. I still have the commemorative replica Astrodome they handed out that day, as well as my ticket stub.

My brother also managed to snag a souvenir – an actual seat from the pavilion section. We had quite a bond with those seats. They weren’t comfortable, but, they were only $4.00 per ticket for adults ($1.00 for kids), and often those were the only seats we could afford. And since you had to get there early, you would strike up conversations and relationships with the hardest hard-core fans.

But after that celebratory day, about a week later, the Astros played their last game ever in the Astrodome and were harshly eliminated by the Atlanta Braves. A bitter way to end decades of tradition.

SOME DOME SOUVENIRS

The Storm

In 2017, an unprecedented hurricane sat over Houston. One trillion gallons of water poured onto the city over a four day period. We Houstonians had been through many a hurricane.  But this storm, Hurricane Harvey, was a once-in-a-century event. Usually, storms would just hit Galveston, chill a bit, roll into Houston, and be gone in half a day. This one stayed in place, rotating, pouring endlessly. Day after day, it would not move. I’m sure many of us are still haunted by that week of hypnotic images of weather segments on local television with a meteorologist standing in front of an image of bands of rain on an endless loop.

I was among those displaced by the storm. I didn’t suffer anywhere near as badly as many of my fellow Houstonians, but it was a pretty devastating experience, being temporarily homeless and completely unsure about your future. A coworker came to get me and my brother out of our apartment as the floods rose to dangerous levels. We stayed in a FEMA-funded shelter for about a week. We relocated out to a distant part of the city. I lost a lot financially, and am still not fully recovered, but I’m almost there. So many people helped us recover, from loans, to fundraisers, and someone even gave us a used car, since we’d lost two cars in the flood. We got on waiting lists for new apartments to live in, and one friend, without even asking, pulled out a wad of cash and offered to secure a down payment for us to find a new place to stay. Some volunteers from Louisiana came by with boats to help us go back to our abandoned apartments after the waters started to recede to retrieve prized possessions we couldn’t take out during our impromptu evacuation.

The way the city pulled together in those days was inspirational. I saw things I never thought I’d see: armed guards with machine guns in front of grocery stores; the national guard erecting ladders to scale the barriers at an apartment complex next to me; and massive sections of the city fully under water for weeks. I started looking for jobs everywhere I could and had no idea if I’d be able to stay. I had no idea if the city would continue to function.

At one of the worst moments in the crisis, while trying to get some sleep despite the total mental and physical exhaustion, a glimmer of hope came across my phone. The Astros made a last-minute trade deadline deal to acquire the pitching legend Justin Verlander, instantly transforming our team from a second-tier club into one capable of winning it all for the first time.

And they did*.

The series of 2017 was thrilling and joyous. It didn’t “save” us, but it gave us all those three hours of diversion during some of the toughest days we ever faced.

*The Trashtros

Two years later, the Astros lost a tough World Series against a young and dynamic 2019 Washington Nationals team. Less than a month after that loss, the Astros effectively retroactively lost the 2017 World Series as well. It was revealed the team had been using advanced sign-stealing methods to cheat. They cheated both during the regular season and the playoffs.

After the scandal broke, the reputation of the franchise was the worst in the league. They became the ultimate villains. The league sanctioned the team with losses of draft picks and lengthy suspensions of certain personnel. Fans across the nation felt the penalties were insufficient. Many fans, including some Astros fans, felt the 2017 championship should be retracted from the official records. 

In the 2020 spring training, I waited to see how the team would handle the next season, how they would confront the scandal. They made one great move, hiring manager Dusty Baker to bring wise, experienced leadership on the field. But the players? Their comments were atrocious. Their apologies were non-apologetic. They evaded. They embarrassed themselves. They rightly earned the ire of opposing fans and teams. Ownership was terrible and pathetic, refusing to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened and kept trying to brush past the scandal. It was a P.R. disaster.

Despite my disappointment, I found myself wanting to see how they would react. Would they fold under the pressure? Would they reveal that, indeed, their success was artificially boosted or entirely due to their unethical behavior? Or would they rally, prove their doubters wrong, and somehow redeem themselves and the franchise?

Some of the sting of the scandal lessened as eventual revelations came to light that other teams — notably the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees — were also engaging in sign-stealing methods similar to the Astros. Many players and league observers have concluded that the Astros organization was a scapegoat for a larger problem in baseball. Starting in the 2022 season, the league has employed electronic relays from catcher to pitcher to eliminate the chance of signs being stolen.

Did the cheating even help the team? Many statistical analyses have been made investigating the question. Some have even concluded that the Astros did worse when cheating versus when they weren’t. (sources: LA Times, The Athletic, The American Statistician).

In some ways, that makes it all worse. They tarnished their personal reputations and the name of the franchise for something that wasn’t even needed.

Oct. 12th, 1980 – The Night I Learned the Fundamental Lesson of Baseball

Let’s get back to that winning streak when I was a kid. Those three summers of undefeated fandom. Oct. 12th, 1980 was a crispy Fall night, back when Houston actually had four distinct seasons. On that night, I sat in the golden upper deck ring of the Astrodome literally on the edge of my seat. If the Astros were to win that game, they would become National League Champions and make it to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. It was the final game of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. This entire playoff series, and the riveting finale which went into extra innings, is generally regarded as one of the most exciting postseason series in league history. Four of the five games in the series went to extra innings. A bizarre and controversial potential triple play occurred in game three, with a series of events so convoluted that the umpires literally went to the front row of the stands to consult with the cigar-puffing National League President to adjudicate the final ruling.

The finale still holds a special place in the heart of baseball fans. The Extra Innings podcast called it “the greatest game in (franchise) history.” The problem for me is that it is arguably the greatest game in Phillies history. 

The Astros lost

My streak was over, one inning away from a World Series appearance.

The next day at school, my friends told me that they could see Jose Cruz crying in the dugout as the game ended – an image caught in the national tv broadcast. He played amazing in the series – and never got this close to a championship again.
Fuck these guys. I’m still not over it.

Young and naive, in spite of my bitter disappointment, I was a true believer. I just knew that somehow the team would bounce back and make it back the following year.

But I was wrong. It would be 25 years before the Astros got that close to the World Series again.

And that’s really the fundamental lesson of baseball: it’s about losing.

The greatest hitter I ever got to see in person is probably Tony Gwynn. He retired with a .338 batting average. The greatest pure hitter I ever saw — such discipline; such seemingly effortless technique — his eyes were incredible. And yet, two out of every three times he came up, he failed.

That’s what growing up Astros taught me most about: how to handle losses. But also how to calibrate expectations. How to take the long view. How to be patient. How to enjoy living in the now, focusing on the moment, one pitch at a time. Never getting too high off a success or too low from a defeat. Equanimity. Humility.

Epilogue

Cut to 42 years later, and the team that broke my streak and crushed my little elementary-school heart — the Philadelphia Phillies — are coming back to Houston, on the very day this essay is posted. 

Despite being a fan since 1978, I’ve never been able to go to a World Series game in person. That changes tomorrow, October 28th, 2022. I have my tickets. I have my rainbow jersey. And I say to hell with all of that humility and life-lessons crap. I WANT REVENGE.

here’s hoping my thirst for revenge ends up with a better outcome than Darth Maul’s

Photo Gallery

Comments

2 responses to “Growing up Astros”

  1. Wonderful reminiscences and sports history!

    And yes, I was celebrating the Mets in 1986, at your expense!

  2. venividigrizzly

    I appreciate your memories. I’ve never been a guy to follow sports in real time, but I like playing them, and I like when they’re turned into narrative.