Falcon Points

Inside the mind of the guy that put the tombstone on the 2005 Astros

Photos by Getty Images. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Time truly does fly by. I was surprised this week to find out it is the 15th anniversary of the infamous Astros tombstone on the front page of the Houston Chronicle. Jake Kaplan of The Athletic interviewed me for it, and his terrific account can be found here. (Warning: You have to be a subscriber.)

The year was 2005, and the Houston Astros were supposed to be World Series contenders. Instead, they started 18-32 and looked very much like a bust. Based on history, they had little shot of accomplishing anything.

June 1 was always kind of benchmark date for the Astros, where we would take stock of the team. As Sports Editor at the time, my job was to come up with creative ways to display content, pass it on to our talented team of writers and graphics designers, then do the same thing every other day of the week.

My legacy will not be for all the great work we did there, awards we won, or talented people we hired or developed. I will always be the Tombstone Guy.

And I am good with that.

First, some context. In 2005, newspapers were still the most relevant media, especially when it came to sports. Talk shows used it for their prep and riffed off what we did. We had hundreds of thousands of readers, millions on Sundays. The internet was starting to take over, but had yet to render newspapers irrelevant. That would happen soon after.

As sports editor, I inherited a Super Bowl caliber staff. My predecessor, Dan Cunningham, had built us into one of the best sports sections in America. Our challenge was to build on that and try to be innovative and creative on a daily basis. From that perspective, we were a rousing success, winning unprecedented national awards. We set trends by adding things like Daniel Negreanu's poker column. We were the first major newspaper (along with the LA Times) to cover MMA on a regular basis. We added fantasy football coverage and tapped into the radio market by adding Lance Zierlein's incredibly popular Z Report. Chron.com became a monster website that covered everything (long before pay walls and slide shows). The idea was to try to attract younger readers.

And we had a world-class staff. Names you would know, like John P. Lopez (now at 610), Richard Justice and Brian McTaggart (now at mlb.com). Jenny Dial-Creech (now at the Athletic). Sam Khan, now at ESPN.com. Plus stalwarts who are still there, like the legendary John McClain and Jerome Solomon, and Joseph Duarte, who still covers UH for the paper. Plus some names you might not know - Jeff Rosen, now sports editor at The Kansas City Star and one of the best in the business. And my top assistants, Charles Crixell and Carlton Thompson, plus the late Joe Conway, who worked his ass off on the website. Not to mention one of the most talented graphic artists I ever worked with, David Jack Browning.

In the ultimately failed quest for younger readers, our group tried a lot of fun and creative designs and ideas on a daily basis. And that is how the tombstone was born.

My routine at the time was drop the kids off at school, hit the gym for two hours (I wasn't always old, fat and ugly) and think of ideas. At some point on a leg machine, I came up with the thought of putting a tombstone on the Astros season. I called our talented baseball writer, Jesus Ortiz, on the way to the office, and pitched the idea. He wasn't crazy about it, so it took some selling. But he eventually embraced it. I also hit up Justice, who laughed at me, but in a good way. He liked it. I often bounced ideas off of him and Solomon in addition to all of our editors.

The next step was our morning meeting, where all the editors from all the sections would get together and discuss that day's paper. The editor at the time, Jeff Cohen, was skeptical to say the least, but he agreed to let us try it. My old boss, Cunningham, gave that wry smirk he was known for, which was his way of saying it was OK for me to look stupid.

The pitch was simple; if the season really is over, no one will remember it. But if they somehow turned it around, it could become a page people talked about. The paper had done something similar a decade before with the "Choke City" Rockets headline, so it was always in the back of my mind that it could backfire, which is what I was hoping for. I wanted attention for the newspaper. I wanted our section to be something people had to talk about each day. I hoped the Astros would turn it around and the thing would take on a life of its own.

And boy, did it. You might remember that in 2005 the Astros went to their first World Series. And we had suddenly made news. Ortiz was widely ripped by fans and blamed for it, but stoically defended it. Lance Berkman called me an "idiot." We made several references to it throughout the season. My proudest moment was watching the broadcast of the World Series on Fox and there was our front page, in front of millions of viewers.

I still get asked if I am embarrassed by it. Hell no. As I told Kaplan, I am proud of it. How many sports front pages make a TV broadcast, other than the "Champions" pages? I was a little known Sports Editor outside of my peers. Now I was the Tombstone Guy.

Some fun facts about the page: The story doesn't really fit the image. Ortiz did a nice job of working in all the historical angles, but the story itself was more positive. The Astros won that night, hence the headline to the right, "Astros find the formula." And in the headline on the tombstone, developed by Steve Schaeffer, the "it's off" was a play on the Astros slogan that year, "It's on."

The fair concern from the bosses (and a lot of the staff) was that if it did go viral, we would be embarrassed as a legitimate news organization. There was definitely some of that backlash later. But in my mind the reward was worth the risk.

One of the great things about having so many talented people around me was we built a team that would challenge my decisions and weren't afraid to call me stupid. I would take all the input, then make a call. We didn't always agree, but it made us a more effective staff. I learned the best way to be successful was to surround yourself with people better than you and they will make you look good. Bill O'Brien could learn a lot from us. Not everyone was on board, and at one point I almost scrapped it. I am glad I didn't.

The only thing that could have made it better? The Astros winning the World Series in 2005 instead of getting swept by the White Sox, which took away some of the shine. Yet people still remain curious about the Tombstone to this day.

Sadly, newspapers began their massive downward spiral shortly after. Just two years later, unwilling to stay on board for staff cuts, I took a buyout and started looking for a new career. Things have worked out pretty well since, with a decent radio show, two more successful sports web sites, a brief teaching career and several books added to my resume. But no one will remember those things.

I will, however, always be the Tombstone Guy. Perhaps they will find a way to put that on my tombstone.

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Houston gets the best of the Dodgers

Astros behind McCullers Jr. get shutout win in hostile Dodger Stadium

Yordan Alvarez added some big insurance runs against the Dodgers on Tuesday night. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Having dropped two of three in San Francisco against the league record-leading Giants over the weekend, the Astros exited an off day on Monday and entered a hostile environment at Dodger Stadium in the first of a two-game series on Tuesday night. With some timely hits and an excellent start from their starter, Houston would grab the win.

Final Score: Astros 3, Dodgers 0

Astros' Record: 65-42, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (9-2)

Losing Pitcher: Walker Buehler (11-2)

Houston scores first as McCullers Jr. out-duels Buehler

After nearly turning the game's very first pitch around for a home run but instead going foul, Jose Altuve still started the game with a single in the top of the first. A double play would erase him, though, as the game remained scoreless into the top of the third. Martin Maldonado led that inning off with a double, moved to third on a wild pitch by Walker Buehler, then scored on an RBI double by Michael Brantley, putting Houston ahead 1-0.

Houston threatened again in the top of the fourth, getting two on with two outs, bringing up Martin Maldonado with an empty base, which the Dodgers would use by intentionally walking him to get to Lance McCullers Jr., who grounded out to strand all three runners. He made up for it on the mound, though, out-dueling Buehler, who finished six innings while allowing a run by getting into the seventh scoreless. He would get two outs into that frame while giving up a single and a walk, leaving two on base for Blake Taylor, who came in to get the third out. McCullers Jr.'s final line: 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 9 K, 110 P.

Alvarez adds insurance as Astros take the opener in LA

Clinging to the one-run lead in the top of the eighth, Carlos Correa worked a one-out walk to bring Yordan Alvarez to the plate, who demolished a 415-foot two-run homer to add two big insurance runs, extending the lead to 3-0. Kendall Graveman took over out of the bullpen in the bottom of the eighth and, despite allowing a leadoff single and hitting a batter, was able to finish a scoreless inning.

With Ryan Pressly on the paternity list, Houston handed the ball to Ryne Stanek to close things out in the bottom of the ninth. He would get the job done, earning the save by retiring the Dodgers in order, giving the Astros the win at the dismay of the fans in Los Angeles.

Up Next: This short series's second and final game will begin thirty minutes earlier on Wednesday at 8:40 PM Central. For the Dodgers, they will get the debut of Max Scherzer (8-4, 2.76 ERA), while Jake Odorizzi (4-5, 4.30 ERA) will take the mound for the Astros.

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