HARRIS COUNTY – HOUSTON SPORTS AUTHORITY INSIDER

Astros gear up for what they hope is another magical run

Can the Astros do it again? Courtesy photo

The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Insider will take you inside Houston Sports each Friday because #WeAreHoustonSports!

We are just hours away from first pitch in the ALDS and the city is buzzing. Has been since, well, last October.

A World Series title will do that to you.

Think about it. That 2017 trophy has been just about everywhere in the sprawling metro area – at least once. People stood in long lines just for the opportunity to take a selfie with the iconic symbol of best in the game.

And rings? The Astros gave out a quarter of a million replica rings over the last few months and, thanks to social media, we know putting those giant rings on small fingers never gets old. Neither does trying on – or coveting – the one your neighbor just picked up at the final regular-season series at Minute Maid.

Just like their Astros, Houstonians aren’t about to settle. One title for this team? Not happening. They’re thinking at least one more.

The last team to do that? The Yankees, who won three in a row from 1998-2000.

Come this afternoon, Minute Maid will be rocking. And, if Astros president Reid Ryan has his way, the Cleveland Indians will be staring at a sold-out sea of orange. #NeverSettle orange.

When he joined Mayor Sylvester Turner, Astros owner Jim Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow at Wednesday’s pep rally in front of City Hall, it was hard to tell who has more excited – the fans or Turner and Ryan.

“It’s neat to see the connection this team has had with the community,’’ Ryan said. “And having all these people out here, it’s got me fired up and ready to go. So lets go play some baseball.

“I’ve seen this Astros fan base over my life. The ‘80s and ‘90s and to be able to revive this and see how much passion for this team there is in the community, it was an easy sell to ask them to wear orange.’’

It was an easier sell to pack the place.   

A year ago, the Astros started as a distraction for Harvey-weary Houstonians and became their Northern Star. No matter how tough things were in flooded neighborhoods where people lost everything, the Astros’ electric playoff run gave them hope. And something to cheer about. #HoustonStrong.

Justin Verlander, a last minute addition in 2017, was a question mark in a way. No questioning his talent, but was he a fit for Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, Alex Bregman and the rest of the team? It didn’t take long to realize it was silly to even wonder about that one.

Every series at least one someone stepped up. Every game – ALDS, ALCS and World Series -- was roller-coaster scary, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs and don’t-dare-fall-asleep crazy. Game 2 and Game 5 of the Series? They’re probably still on your DVR along with Game 7.

Three up. Three down. Storied franchises, that is. The Yankees. The Red Sox. And finally the Dodgers – in Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.

No wonder why the Ryan-Crane-Luhnow brain trust chose #NeverSettle for this year’s motto.

The 2018 regular season wasn’t picture-perfect. There were injuries, batting slumps and bullpen questions. There were also 103 wins, Bregman and those dug-out stares, Verlander’s Cy Young-worthy stats, Altuve, George Springer, Tyler White (aka Great White Shark), Tony Kemp and, well, the whole lineup.

The big difference? Defending a title.

“I won’t lie,’’ Ryan said. “Once you’ve won it all and you realize everyone is gunning for you, the pressure to keep on top is there. It’s real. And this is a great group.

“Jeff’s not going to settle, I’m not going to settle and Jim’s not going to settle. It’s the reason we came up with that as our mantra this year. We wanted people to know we wanted to do more than win a World Series. We want to win multiple World Series.’’

Added Luhnow, “I think our players know what’s in front of them. We have enough that haven’t been there yet, who want to get back there and wanna do this. We’ve got to stay focused.

“We still have the same core, but we’re probably a more talented team than we were last year.’’

With pitching additions of closer Roberto Osuna, right-hander Ryan Pressly and surprise ALDS roster addition rookie Josh James, the Astros have an edge on the mount.

Pressly said they’re ready for the Indians.

“I’m eager,’’ Pressly said. “I’m ready to get this thing going. It’s the anticipation that’s killing me. Yes, there’s been homework. Every night been going over film, scouting reports and making sure we’re mentally prepared to get after these guys.

“Their lineup is mentally tough. They’re in the situation they’re in right now because they’re good. We’re going to go out and we’re going to enjoy it.”

A year ago, everyone took turns with big plays and big moments and Bregman gave us a glimpse of what he’s brought to the table this year – a season that even Altuve touts as an MVP one.

"He never ceases to amaze me with how controlled he is in the big moments, whether it's any part of the game, any situation, any pitcher, any pressure situation," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "He's had a ton of walk-offs, some of the biggest in franchise history."

That’s saying something on a team that was rotating highlight reel last fall.

But the Astros know this isn’t going to be easy. Starting today.

“They’re a good ball club,’’ Kemp said of Cleveland. “They’ve played us tough all season long. It’s going to be a good series. I’m pretty sure everyone is excited for it. It’s going to be a dogfight.’’

And it’s going to be loud. Or, as Kemp said, “energy at high volume.”

“Having the crowd into every single pitch, up on their feet making it loud, making it uncomfortable for the Indians . . .’’ Pressly said  pausing. “That helps us. (They’ll) be that 12th man, 11th man, 10th man or whatever you want to call it.’’

But the key? Kemp said it’s playing Astros baseball.

“We’re going to go in with a positive mindset,’’ Kemp said. “At the end of the day, it’s another day at the playground, another day to play baseball.

“But for a bigger meaning this time.”
Like #NeverSettle.


 

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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