The Human Experience and the Houston Astros

Astros
Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

It’s a simple notion—you take this stick, and I’ll throw this ball at you and you try to hit it. Uncomplicated, bare, modest. One might be shocked, or possibly offended, to know that this, America’s Favorite Pastime, the sport with humble beginnings that are hard to nail down, the one nobody really knows how it started or who started it, the one that pulls family, friends, cities and states together, is so simple. Where’s the deep dream? The complicated process that’s surely needed to bring all of us together?

There’s ease in the game. Solace, elation, nostalgia, they all accompany the lumber and the leather. The dirt, the scoreboard, the lakefront breeze, the Gateway Arch, and the hot dog. The sites and the smells, the cheering and the booing—all of these things are part of the game that brings with it, in this vehicle, the human experience. A chance at companionship, at pure love, passion and anger. The sport of baseball moves with the seasons and it moves with our emotions. It brings The Cold and it delivers The Warmth. The months rotate like the clock, all twelve of them move in predictable fashion, but are not in the slightest sense foreseeable.

In 2003, I barely remember the October, but I know it well enough to know it happened. October 10th, the remote was thrown, Alex Gonzalez let one slip by, Moises Alou jumped and cursed in left field, proclaiming fan interference, and it was The Cold.

It was cold for a long time in Illinois.

Inseparable opposites. The Cold and The Warm. Pleasure and pain. Elation and agony. You can’t know one without the other. How else would we know winter was here if baseball didn’t exist? Necessary heartbreak is the offseason. Just as the Astros averaged 108 losses per season at one point, and then proceeded to put on a show for the ages. Lest we forget the Dodgers, with their deep arms and young bats. As the losses were worth it, and the failed attempts on the mound by the likes of Kershaw and Jansen, The Cold too is worth it. Come April, the greatest show on dirt begins again. We forgive the hiatus, as we’ve dreamt through the interlude and waited patiently for another chance at seeing our team go the distance.

The game is worth it—in all my years at least, this being my 34th, the game of baseball has never let me down. The game has given me relationships I’d otherwise never have. Much like a welder lays down a bead to join two parts steel, the game does the same with father and son and uncle and cousin and wife and mother. I once charged my mom when I was 10 or so for hitting me with a pitch. My mother and I have that much in the same way Carlos Correa has his proposal with his wife. Or my dad throwing BP after work, 12 hour days, much like Kris Bryant’s dad throwing to him in the 2015 Home Run Derby. What other game allows you to get this close?

This World Series was not unlike Homer’s Iliad. Achilles, played by UCONN’s George Springer. He’s the one on the cover of Ben Reiter’s Sports Illustrated. The 11th pick in 2011, nobody ever from the University of Connecticut, baseball wise, has ever been more esteemed than this third version of George Chelston Springer—as this youngest carries the name from father and grandfather. He’s the Ray Allen of the baseball program. He got game.

Baseball is cinematic gold. It’s Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. What is happening isn’t supposed to happen. It all began with that cover of Sports Illustrated, the one which Reiter predicted the results of this 2017 season, presumably with the Sports Almanac that Marty McFly and Biff fought over. Fast forward 3 years and 4 months and George Springer’s photo in the Polaroid was vanishing right before our eyes. If only he had more time, a fifth at bat, maybe 3-1 isn’t the final score. He struck out four times in game 1 of the World Series. The Golden Sombrero. Three of them dealt by the greatest pitcher in the game, and the fourth by the greatest closer in the game. Those four strikeouts stuffed George in the trunk, he almost missed the kiss on the trophy. And this was all coming off a 3 for 26 ALCS performance against the Yankees—making him 3 for his last 30. That’s a .100 batting average over that span with only 1 HR and 2 RBI the entire postseason.

Pried out of the trunk with a Philips head just before game two, Springer went 3 for 5 with an 11th inning two-run home run that won one of the wildest games you’ll ever see, 7-6, swiping home field advantage away from the 104-win Dodgers and tying the series 1-1. And that’s baseball. Year after year, filled with things people aren’t supposed to do. The sudden, unpredictable triumph over the enemy, prevailing through the fire, or in this case, a bastard named Harvey, to bring home a championship for the city. A steep hill in New York, written off like last years’ taxes if you’re General Electric, the Astros were ducks on the pond as they dropped three in a row to the upstart Bronx Bombers. But, in pure Texas style, guns a blazing, Justin, Charlie, Lance & company smothered the hot bats of Aaron, Gary, Starlin and Didi, allowing 1 run on 10 hits over 18 innings to advance to their second World Series in the team’s history. It’s as if some sort of cave man instinct kicked in, the bear was getting close. I mean, we all know bears climb trees faster than they run, Dwight Schrute told us that and the Astros were Leo from The Revenant. The human will—it defies odds, and there isn’t another sport where this happens. Clutch kicks in if the team has it, and this year they had it and the best team won, in the most dramatic fashion.

Springer finished batting .379 in this Fall Classic. He became the first guy to homer in four straight World Series games in the same series, hit 5 total to tie a few guys you may know—Reggie Jackson and Chase Utley, recorded more total bases than anyone who had ever played in a World Series, and had more extra base hits, 8, than all of them, too.

And Jose Altuve, yeah, the guy who is often photographed next to Aaron Judge, to show the height difference between the tallest and the shortest, as if we don’t understand math or have never seen any other human taller than ourselves. He’s had the short thing attached to him all his life. Defining him, as if Altuve in Merriam-Webster’s literally means “the shortest things that are overly photographed because of their fanciful size.” The Astros, and all of America now, Literally Love Jose Altuve, and it wasn’t easy. He showed up to try out for the team and was sent away, his 5 foot 6 frame deemed unworthy for baseball. But then, he came back. He knew they were wrong. This personal, physical attack, the physical they could see with their eyes without any further inspection, had nothing on the heart, the intangible that cannot be measured by any sabermetric or CT Scan. He tried out for a lot of teams, the Angels, The Cubs, Giants, Rays, Braves, Yankees, the Athletics, and none of them could see anything past 5 feet 6 inches. And it wasn’t a bifocal problem either.

When trying out for the Astros in his home country of Venezuela, he was cut and sent home. But he showed up the next day anyway to play. He wasn’t supposed to, and nobody expected it. That was the first of the heart you saw. The Astros’ scouts let him play, asked another scout who knew him well “does he play like this every game?”

“Yes, that’s him. Doesn’t matter who’s watching. Doesn’t matter how many people are in the stands. He loves to play the game.”

Impressed by his attitude, smile, energy and skill, Houston offered Jose $15,000. When he was a kid, it was hard for him to find a baseball to play with, so he would go to local baseball games, hoping to catch a home run or to get a player to throw him a ball. Once he would get one, he would leave immediately and go play baseball. So it’s no surprise that he showed up after getting cut, and that he took the small amount they could give him to play the game.

Once the size of the player was put to the side, the potential was obvious. He made it to the majors when he was only 21. When the GM called him, he told Jose that he needed to come to Houston, to which Jose replied something like “I can’t, what do you mean, we have a game tonight.” The GM told Jose that he was coming to Houston to play with the Astros. The first call Jose made was to his dad.

Jose could barely find a baseball to play with when he was a kid. He wasn’t supposed to bat .389 in the minors and get called up, all at the age of 21. He wasn’t supposed to win a World Series.

I could go on and on about this team, and how they shouldn’t be here. How they shouldn’t have won. How they played big money LA, with the best pitchers and hitters that have these launch angles and high leg kicks, and with the best pitching pickup at the trade deadline. There’s no way Justin Verlander was supposed to go 4-1 with a 2.21 in the postseason. He was the last pitcher taken at the deadline, too old, washed up, he wasn’t Sonny Gray or Yu Darvish, who the Dodgers took while quickly dismissing even the idea of taking the 34-year-old Tiger. Overpaid, he was. Too old for the money.

How much is a World Series worth, Los Angeles?

Evan Gattis, everyone has seen the picture by now, was a janitor who battled substance abuse and anxiety, and instead of going to college, he went to rehab. He bounced around the country like a chopper two-hopper up the middle, and at one point, like when Jose didn’t have a baseball, Evan didn’t have food, having to beg for it, broke in New York City. Evan told his dad he was done with baseball, went our west like Ricky Williams to find a spiritual advisor, then called his step brother and told him he was ready to play again. Like an aged whisky in an oak barrel, he was good with time, not affected by his time on the shelf, galvanized, with a fire so hot he can’t wear batting gloves! No way in hell he should be here, but you bet your ass he is.

Baseball is like nothing else. It’s a story as old as time, but one that gives us the new, year after year. It brings with it The Cold and The Warmth. You’ve never seen anything like this Astros championship, and you never will.

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