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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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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