Texas Rangers v Houston Astros

Much of the baseball cognoscenti spent the last two years falling over itself praising the Houston Astros for rebuilding the “right way”. The ‘stros astute stripped the roster down to the wood, rebuilding the farm system and loading up on talent.

There is another side of the equation: Astros fans left to watch their favorite club struggle through (potentially) three straight 100 loss seasons. For a window into this very unique situation, Getting Blanked reached out to Astros fan and co-founder of Pitchers and Poets Ted Walker for his perspective on watching his favorite team play out the bottom ebb of an arduous rebuilding process.

Speculative Fandom

If a team could skip an entire season, would they do that? The Astros definitely would.” – Dustin Parkes during a recent episode of the Getting Blanked Podcast

The Houston Astros deserve the treatment above, because my hometown team is itself a living hypothetical statement. In the Astros’ case, the query is: What happens if we intentionally and wholly ignore the fans of today in favor of the fans of a tomorrow? The payroll could not be lower, the players could not be younger, and my fellow fans and I are essentially coerced into a state of constant night, hoping that the sun will rise, as promised.

It’s enough to jump ship to the Rangers or, using the opposite logic, to the Mariners or the Yankees. But I won’t. Instead, when I turn on the Astros, a strange suite of emotes rises in my chest, characterized by a sense of quiet satisfaction, contentment and even, yes, I’ll say pleasure. There are no fairy tales, here. The Astros are indeed the crappiest crowd of losers in all of baseballdom. And because I am a lifelong Astros fan and Houston native, I feel like I am supposed to have sunk into a quicksand miasma of despair over a litany of circumstances, like our coerced move to the AL (accompanied by an equivalent repulsion toward the DH), our years of basement play and the sorry state of our 25 man roster. Logic dictates that I should be miserable, but I just can’t manage it.

The Astros, it turns out, are not so horrendous that baseball has ceased to be baseball. I am afforded a reasonable number of familiar faces — Jason Castro and Jose Altuve among the most prominent — our new uniforms make for decent laundry to root for, and they still pitch and catch and hit and run in circles. What keeps me out of a Cubs-fan-like depression is the set-up. First, no team could live up to — or down to, as the case may be — the epic and even gratuitously morose predictions for our futility in 2013. Even if our record matches what many sadistically hoped for, no season is so devoid of short runs and surprise performances to be totally joyless. Say that someone threatens to cut off all of your toes. When they stop at five, you’re having a good day.

So how many toes do I have left? Where is this Houston Astros franchise? Let’s mosey along and see if anything sticks to the wall.

Re-building

The Astrodome has been sitting dormant for more than a decade, its insides rotting while local politicians find creative ways to continue ignoring it. A structure that defined an epoch in Houston is now a neglected heap bleaching in the sun like a cow skeleton. Brown stains streak the walls and the domed roof is as yellow as a pair of dentures. Too expensive to knock down and too expensive to revamp, it floats in a municipal purgatory, neither letting us forget it nor allowing us to consider it in a new light.

Is there some productive creative parallel to draw between the sorry state of the Astrodome and the sorry state of the Houston Astros franchise itself? Neither the building nor the franchise seem to exist fully in their own time, in the present. Both hang in a state of suspended animation, defined more by what will happen to them soon (we promise!) than what happens today. When it comes to the Dome and to the team, Astros fans are being asked to consider not what they can see with their own eyes, but what they may one day lay eyes on in a shimmering future-world.

By the time Jeff Luhnow arrived, the franchise was so devoid of creative solutions that any executive with the faintest intellectual pulse would be received as a savior. To his credit, Luhnow brought a focused vision that he has yet to diverge from, and he has communicated the message of this vision unremittingly at every step of the way. This means a lot to me, as a fan.

With that said, Luhnow is asking a lot.

The Astrodome was an optical illusion that projected a magical realist vision of the space program, interstellar Manifest Destiny and American dominion over the moon and the stars onto a baseball field. Jeff Luhnow and Jim Crane, with their highly conceptual intellectual exercise, the nuclear option detonating the existing roster and adding value only to the subterranean foundation, demand both boundless imagination and profound patience. They project onto the baseball field a kind of sabermetric Utopian dream in which prospect development and hope supplant “winning” as the intoxicant du jour. They stand, back-to-back, atop the rubble of a franchise, preaching about a glorious future that we can’t see but can know and feel, the way that Dennis Hopper’s character in Waterworld, Deacon, prophesies the rise of verdant dry land just over the next horizon from the bow of a decidedly marooned Exxon Valdez.

The Astrodome, by contrast, was the means to prove a desired outcome by showing rather than telling; a Houston-style trait in this land of high agency. Luhnow and Crane ask us to believe in an outcome that is years from fruition and is, in fact, far from guaranteed. A stock market play rather than a capital investment. There are cities where this approach would swim — Seattle comes to mind, though that fan base is well into a cycle of melancholy as the franchise’s young assets continue not to pay dividends — but Houston would not rank high on the list. We are patient in sports through necessity, not proclivity, and we still haven’t let go of the win-heavy decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. A mid-major market in sport only, our flagship industries — energy, health — wait for no outside directive to charge forward into the marketplace and make hay. There are many news stories out there right now about Houston’s promise, its robust food scene, its economy and its diversity. No surprises there, to the Houstonian. The rest of the country is only now seeming to realize that we will stop at little to stake our claim. We have a long history of attracting similar personalities from all over the world and letting them melt into the queso, too.

In this light, the current state of the Astros would not seem to be a fit. In lieu of a long rebuild, many should want to sign a series of expensive free agents.

Many fans did not take well to the move to the AL, which they felt was, if I might generalize, a slight against the tradition and history of a franchise based in a city that looks forward with far greater clarity than it looks back. Commenters on the local newspaper web site have taken to manic decrying of these circumstances, railing against the conspiracies and the acquiesces that have robbed us of 50 years of NL history.

I, personally, am happy enough at the epicenter of this drawn-out thought experiment. I view it the way many draft enthusiasts do, that every move is a long play. The 2012 draft was a perfect example: we drafted a signable teenager, then used the slot money we saved to pay big money for lower picks who would have been picked higher but for their money demands. Jeff Luhnow is the quiet kid at the hearts table who grins when his opponents realize far too late that he is about to shoot the moon.

Much will on whether we do shoot the moon, but most exciting about this process is that it has few precedents. The extremity of the move, to ship out decent and cost effective players like Jed Lowrie because they are 29 instead of 23, to put every single decent player on the trade block, to sign nobody but veterans well past their value, this is the stuff of baseball simulator video games and sabermetric, well, hypotheticals. And we as Astros fans are a part of this novel process. The team is bad, no question, and it will last. The choice is in how we decide to live in that reality.

I choose to enjoy today for what it is: baseball. The daily routine, the personalities of the broadcasters, the look and feel of the team, the players young and old (by which I mean 27), the bats and balls. So, to answer your question, podcasters, no, we wouldn’t skip this season, or any other, even if we could.

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