A SILVER LINING

How Astros somehow harvested success where MLB planted a crop of excuses, failure

Could the Astros be MLB's saving grace? Composite image by Jack Brame.

You need another reason to admire the Houston Astros as a model sports franchise? You know the Astros, the team that lives within its budget, still puts a fantastic product on the field and wins year after year? And has intelligently built an American League dynasty?

The other day, former Yankee captain and current CEO of the Miami Marlins Derek Jeter was asked, why do you think young people are choosing the NFL and NBA and turning their backs on baseball?

Jeter blamed the kids. He told the Knuckleheads podcast, “Kids nowadays are into instant gratification, right?” Years earlier, he said pretty much the same thing to the Washington Post. “I think some of the other sports are sort of the sexy sports,” suggesting that baseball was a more thoughtful and deliberate game than football and basketball, it takes longer for players to reach the big leagues, and perhaps young people aren’t up to the long-form challenge of baseball.

What he should have said was, “It’s our own fault. Life is passing baseball by.” Like the Pogo comic strip, we have met the enemy and it’s us.

There’s no disputing that the NFL is our national passion and the NBA is surging here and around the world. If you want to know why baseball is reeling, maybe Jeter isn’t the guy to ask. He runs the Miami Marlins. There are 30 teams in MLB, the Marlins finished 30th in attendance in 2021. They averaged only 7,933 fans at loanDepot Park. He blames young people for veering away from baseball? It looks like all ages in Miami want little to do with the Marlins.

While sports fans gravitate to fast paced entertainment, baseball has slammed the brakes on putting the ball in play. Despite a slew of rules designed to speed up the game, the average MLB game sleepwalked to 3 hours and 10 minutes in 2021, the slowest in history. Back in the ‘70s, games lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes.

MLB attendance has fallen five years in a row. Last year’s average attendance hit a 37-year low. TV ratings are down 12 percent from 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

But there is a silver lining, the saving grace for baseball, hope for baseball’s future. It’s the Houston Astros.

Houston may be the only city that has all three major sports – NFL, NBA and MLB – and baseball, clearly and unchallenged, owns the market. Right now the football and basketball team aren’t even putting up a fight.

The Astros have won more games since 2017 than any other American League team. You know the numbers: they’ve been in the post-season five straight years, played in four consecutive ALCS, won four of the last five American League West titles, played in three of the last five World Series, and won the franchise’s first and only championship in 2017.

The Astros haven’t won over Houston by themselves, though. It takes a village, in Houston’s case, village idiots like the Texans and Rockets. If there were a popularity contest between the Astros, Texans and Rockets … the Astros would win by forfeit.

In other cities where the NFL dominates, like Seattle and Green Bay, fans wonder if their quarterback will go to another team. In Houston, fans wonder if their quarterback will go to jail. The Texans trade or release their most popular players and get very little in return. The Texans will be paying three head coaches next season, two of them no longer with the team. They’re one of the teams being sued by Brian Flores claiming racism.

Nobody likes the owner, nobody trusts the general manager after his recent press conference, nobody believes the franchise puppeteer is still here, and nobody believes the new coach was management’s first or second or even third choice.

The Houston Rockets, while not perceived as a halfway house for the dysfunctional, are foundering with a 15-43 record good for last place in the NBA’s Western Conference. The team has no stars and no veterans with All-Star pedigree. Well, they do, but John Wall, is making (not earning) $41 million this year despite playing no games. Wall is not hurt. He wants to play. Before the season started, the Rockets told him to go away and stay there. The team won’t play him and can’t trade him. This is how teams operate in the Bizarro World.

Pro sports these days are driven by star power. Houston loves us the Astros. They’re killers on the field and icons in the community. The team is loaded with shining stars. Yuli Gurriel is the defending American League batting champion. Jose Altuve is the franchise’s GOAT, it’s time to stop that debate. Alex Bregman is poised for a big comeback season and makes one heck of a Breggy Bomb salsa. Kyle Tucker is a budding superstar and Triple Crown threat. Yordan Alvarez hits homers at a historic pace. Michael Brantley is solid as a rock. And Justin Verlander is back! We’re crossing our fingers for the season to start.

The Astros games are fun and tickets are affordable. Rockets and Texans are flatlining duds and tickets are crazy expensive. Let’s see, Texans season tickets or send Johnny to college. Sell the damn team, Cal.

Yeah, baseball is in decline, Derek Jeter blames young people, another labor dispute is turning fans off, and the game is grinding to a stop. The NFL and NBA are dumping all over baseball, all over the country.

Except in Houston.

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Willson Contreras could give the Astros some extra pop in the lineup. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

“The Hot Stove League” is the nickname given to Major League Baseball's offseason. In particular, the free agent signing period in late November/early December. Trades are also made during this period. Now that Astros' owner Jim Crane has ousted all opposition to his idea of how things should be run, he's free to do things the way he sees fit.

He opened it by not hiring a general manager to replace James Click. Instead, he opted for a committee of assistant GMs. Those guys are assisted by some special advisors, like former Astros great Jeff Bagwell. Crane likes and wants to take a big swing at things. He'd probably hit about .250 with 30-plus home runs every season. Can't leave out his guaranteed 80-100 strikeouts. Typical power hitter. It's all or nothing, except Crane has been making great contact and knocking some things out of the park.

Signing Jose Abreu was an example. Yuli Gurriel looked as if he was losing the battle with “Father Time” during the regular season. This was an insurance policy at first, and designated hitter. Another prime example is their reported interest in C/DH/LF Willson Contreras. His bat would be a major upgrade over past Astro catchers. Although Martin Maldonado may not be going anywhere, having a quality bat to relieve him is key. Add the fact that he plays some outfield, and he's almost a “two birds with one stone” type of signing.

Abreu may be 35 years old, but he's coming off a year hitting .304 with 15 home runs. Contreras may be the younger of the two at 30, but his .243 average hurts the fact that he hit 22 home runs. Both sport an OPS above .800 for their careers. Bagwell said he wants Yordan Alvarez to play left field 45% of the time. The other 55% can be Contreras, Chas McCormick (assuming Jake Meyers is still in the mix for center field), and whoever else they sign or bring up from Sugar Land. When Contreras isn't in left, he needs to be behind the plate or hitting DH. I'd really love the idea of him sitting under Maldonado's learning tree for a year and taking over catcher long-term. Not many can be the catcher "Machete" is, but hitting 50 points better than him has its advantages.

Then there's the reported interest other teams have in Justin Verlander. Supposedly, the Mets have met with him via Zoom. The Dodgers are interested and are seemingly the leaders in the clubhouse to sign him. However, I wouldn't count Crane and crew out. He may come to JV last minute and offer him something comparable in order to keep him around. He strikes me as the type of guy who'll keep his plays close to the vest, then make a Godfather type of offer. He negotiated Verlander's last deal with the team himself. Coming off a World Series win, Cy Young win, and opting out of said deal, Verlander is most likely looking to get one final payday that'll also land him on a contender.

Having a winner is one thing. Having a winner committed to winning long-term is another. Crane wants to strike while the iron is hot. Sure, he wants his franchise to be sustainable. But he also wants to keep the World Series window open as long as possible. Kyle Tucker's next deal will be one to watch. Having an embarrassment of riches on the pitching staff means you have trade bait. Keep an eye on old Jimmy Crane. I think he might be the best thing to hit Houston sports in quite some time.

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