Monday, March 10, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Houston Rockets Astros

This is the latest, longest and most colorful installment of our Know Thy Enemy series. Your author is Paul Menchaca of Last Exit Magazine.

As I write this, my Houston Rockets have won a remarkable 18 games in a row. That’s good for the fourth best streak in NBA history. They really are a fantastic team to watch too: Fluid, unselfish, a confident swagger and for roughly a month and one week now, absolutely dominant. This helps me forget about the fact that spring training is in full swing, Opening Day is fast approaching and my Houston Astros are going to suck.

For fans of the 27 Major League Baseball teams not located in either New York or Boston, the best way to determine how good your team is going to be is to look at the probable Opening Day starting lineup and figure out how many players either the Red Sox (a good sign) or the Yankees (a bad sign) would poach from it. I’m leaving the Mets out of the discussion because, for one, they already snagged the Bentley of available players in the offseason by trading for Johan Santana. But also, the Mets have almost always been the middle child in the Boston and New York stratosphere; sure they might be a part of the family you love to hate, but you always just sort of forget that they’re there. (Except, mind you, for that one glorious, despicable championship team of 1986. More on that later.)

Now when looking at the players Boston or New York will theoretically one day take from your team’s lineup, why should you separate the Red Sox (a good sign) and the Yankees (a bad sign)? Sure they are both awash in cash, have adoring, obnoxious fans and almost always play meaningful games into September. But even though the haters refuse to see any difference between the two franchises—like Duke and North Carolina, Boston and New York are bitter ESPN Conference rivals—there is an important fact that must be acknowledged: Since the turn of the 21st century the Red Sox have simply proven superior at building a better team. While the Sox have gone out and acquired prodigiously talented players like Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Josh Beckett (all of whom, by the way, deliver in big games), the Yankees have signed, well, Jason Giambi. And a broken-down Randy Johnson. And, of course, Alex Rodriguez, who is somehow both the best player in baseball and deemed such a colossal failure that his hometown fans loathe him.

With this recent history serving as our measure: If the Sox are interested in one of your team’s players it probably means he’s loaded with talent and has a knack for delivering when it matters; or if your team has never played in a game that matters, he just exudes a steel confidence that seems unbreakable in any situation. If the Yankees are interested in one of your players there’s a chance it means he is overrated (Giambi), washed up (Johnson) or seriously flawed (A-Rod).

When I look at the probable starting lineup for the Astros this season, well, we’re fucked. Forget New York or Boston, even the Royals would take a pass on most of these players. When the guy signed by your favorite baseball team in the offseason for his World Series experience happens to be Kaz Matsui, you better be a basketball fan or have another baseball team to root for. (Full disclosure: I’ve liked the Red Sox since 1986.) I mean seriously…OK wait, full disclosure: I’ve liked the Red Sox since 1986 because Roger Clemens was their star pitcher at the time. Sigh.

So Craig Biggio—an almost certain Hall of Famer and arguably the most beloved pro athlete ever to play in Houston—retires and your team replaces him with Kaz Matsui. I could end this season preview right here and my point will have been made. But because sports fandom will always be more about suffering than jubilation, let me continue. Let’s start by listing off the probable starting pitchers by last name only and think about how many you can confidently say you know: Oswalt, Rodriguez, Backe, Williams and Sampson. Be honest: One. One fucking starting pitcher that any fan outside of Houston or Peter Gammons could actually recognize on a last name-only basis. It seems like just yesterday we were poaching big-name pitchers with baffling career trajectories away from the Yankees.

To be sure, Roy Oswalt is one motherfucker of a power pitcher who, OK, played horribly in his only World Series appearance in 2005. But in his seven-year pro career the 30-year-old has a 3.66 career postseason ERA, a 3.07 career regular season ERA and he has that same death stare that every dominant pitcher has on the mound. He would be perfect for the Red Sox. (Editor's note: Thanks! We'll take him)

First baseman Lance “Fat Elvis” Berkman is the other lock for hypothetical Boston glory. He’s a power switch hitter who hit 34 home runs and drove in 102 RBI last season. He has also had seasons of 45 and 136, 30 and 106, 42 and 128 and 34 and 126. He also happens to be a career .300 hitter. Berkman would absolutely murder Fenway Park the same way he murders the former Enron Field.

After that it gets dicey. There’s Carlos Lee, a power hitter with a respectable .288 career batting average who puts up pre-steroid era home run numbers, meaning he tied a career best with 32 last season. While there is something strangely, depressingly noble and nostalgia-inducing about that number, it doesn’t erase the fact that the Astros probably overpaid when they signed Lee as a free agent in 2006 for $100 million over six years. Still, he actually had a really good season last year, made the All Star team and seems to be a bit of a fan favorite. So what the hell, turn him over to the Fenway faithful. (I realize that by now 99% of baseball fans outside of Boston want to torture and kill me, but this is too much fun to stop.)

Which brings us to Miguel Tejada, a player who seems so perfect for the Yankees it’s almost impossible not to imagine him in pinstripes. The Astros’ “prize” acquisition this year, Tejada was not only once a teammate of free agent bust Jason Giambi’s in Oakland, was not only named in the Mitchell Report on steroids, but he’s a former MVP who was probably never as good as he appeared to be and whose best years are behind him. The Bronx just isn’t the Bronx anymore without dysfunctional comedy gold like this.

And then there’s everyone else. Hunter Pence is a promising young outfielder that could someday be a star, but it’s still too early to know whether he will one day be good enough to play for the Yankees or Red Sox. The rest of the projected starting lineup is made up of a bunch of names like Wigginton and Bourn and Towles and the aforementioned Matsui.

So where does that leave me, a lifelong fan who fondly remembers the thrilling sound of Nolan Ryan’s blistering fastballs hitting the catcher’s mitt while watching games at the legendary, uh, Astrodome? Well, pining for the old days of course.

Which brings me to my final two points. The first one is this: While everyone will remember the 1986 baseball season as the year of Buckner and curses and the Amazing Mets, the Houston Astros were not only a playoff team, but a legitimate threat to win the World Series. The ‘Stros took the Mets to six games in the National League Championship Series, losing that last one in a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking 16-inning masterpiece of a contest at the Dome. The Mets that year were a beautiful, drunken, coke-addled, mess of a ball club that could possibly be the last truly awesome old school team in all of sports. They had players that were easy for everyone outside of Queens to despise: Keith Hernandez, Doc Gooden, Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, and Daryl Strawberry. They were really fucking good too, going 108-54 that year. And the Astros could have beaten them.

Waiting in the wings to pitch in Game 7 for Houston was Mike Scott, whose mastery of the split-finger fastball made him damn near unhittable at that point. Besides leading the league in strikeouts that year, posting a 2.22 ERA and eventually winning the Cy Young award, he also threw a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants to clinch the National League West in those pre-Wild Card days. Talk to Mets fans and even some of the former players, no one wanted to face Scott in that final game. Sure it wasn’t through-the-legs-of-Buckner, but it was nonetheless a bitter pill to swallow for a 10-year-old fan that also made the dubious decision to jump on the Red Sox bandwagon that year.

My second point is this: Those infamous, Summer-of-Love rainbow jerseys the Astros used to wear? They were awesome. There is no debate here. Those jerseys were so tough that even the hip-hop community has embraced them. In fact, they were so nice that they were coined with two amazing names: “Rainbow Guts” and “Tequila Sunrise”. If I played fantasy baseball, Rainbow Guts would forever be my team name.

Why do I bring up these final two points? Because it allows me to link to this sweet video of a drunken Charlie Kerfeld in his Rainbow Guts uniform celebrating Mike Scott’s division-clinching no-hitter.

But also, it’s much better than worrying about how some guy named Sampson is going to fare when he takes the mound every fifth day for the Astros this season.

Paul Menchaca is the proud new owner of He loves words in huge bunches and earns money by writing about the financial misery of others. More importantly, he co-edits an online magazine called Last Exit. He lives in Brooklyn where he often dreams of Texas.

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