Baseball’s postseason has arrived, and there’s just no better time of year for a true-blue sports nut. With all due respect to college football and its debate-charged playoff setup, and the NFL and those diehard (crazy?) fans who make it such a huge draw throughout the fall and winter months, October’s where it’s at for purists like me and so many others who have more of a passion for America’s pastime than any other sport.
If you’re like me, you’ve been following your baseball teams for the past 162 games and six months, whether online through GameDay (like I most often do), the ESPN app, MLB Network, radio stations, Sirius, DirecTV — or wherever you can track down their games. I get in the car after work at The Dallas Morning News, usually at 8:30 p.m. or later, and the first thing I do is tune the radio to 790 AM (I don’t have Sirius) — a Houston station. All static, of course.
On the 40-minute commute, I adjust the volume up, down, up, down while straining to barely pick up intermittent bits and pieces of broadcasts of the team I’ve dearly loved since early childhood: the Houston Astros. I also often pull up GameDay on my cell and monitor while I’m driving. (Not the safest move, especially at night.) Being a lifelong, unflappable fan, I’ve done some pretty crazy things to keep up with my team, no matter where I am, what I’m doing, or what other commitments I have that may be much more important.
Or are they?
If you’re like me, you have a loving spouse who, after the All-Star break, signed up for Fubo TV so you could finally watch your team’s games. Although I often get home in time to catch only the later innings, I feel lucky we’ve gotten to see the Astros’ games these past few weeks as they’ve rolled to a team-record 107 wins and a third straight American League West title.
So here we are, days from opening the AL Division Series against either the Tampa Bay Rays or the Oakland Athletics — whichever wins the wild-card game Wednesday night at Oakland. This’ll be the Astros’ 13th venture into the postseason, where they’ve lost 11 of the 19 series they’ve played, compiling a 39-49 record. After losing their first seven playoff series between 1980 and 2001, they’ve now won eight of their past 12.
Coincidentally, the Astros — who were the Colt .45s their first three years as a franchise — and I are both in our 58th seasons. They didn’t play .500 ball until I was 8 years old in 1969, didn’t make the playoffs until I was a sophomore at Texas A&M in 1980, and didn’t win a postseason series until I was 43 in 2004.
That. Was. A. Long. Time. To. Wait.
Now that they’re here again, a streak we fans hope they’ll stay on for, oh, ever, I’m really excited. Stoked. And really nervous. Worried. But that’s nothing new for me.
I know the Astros are loaded in every area. Statistically, they’re a juggernaut. They’re not without weakness (baserunning? RISP droughts?), but they’ve got everything they need to win another World Series to go with the one from two years ago. I’m not taking anything for granted, though, because I know how crazy this game is and how anything can happen. Can you say Bill Buckner?
Last year’s Jose Altuve home run in Game 4 against the Red Sox that wasn’t, but really was, is a prime example. Think about how that affected the outcome of Boston’s eventual 8-6 win. Who went on to win the series — and the WS? And if there were a listing for “crazy things that happen in baseball” in the sport’s almanac, you’d find Cubs fan Steve Bartman and the fate his team suffered in the 2003 NLCS, due in no small part to his role, near the top of the list.
Just because a team wins the most games in the regular season doesn’t mean it’s assured of winning anything. Not even the first round. Just ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games, which only the 1906 Cubs have ever duplicated. Did Seattle win the World Series? Nope. Didn’t even get there. Lost to the Yankees in the ALCS, and then the Yanks fell to the Diamondbacks in a true Fall Classic, courtesy of former Astro Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off RBI bloop in Game 7.
I’m confident about the Astros’ chances to #TakeItBack. I really am. I mean, why shouldn’t they be able to win it all? They’ve got the two best starting pitchers, the most formidable offense (and the hardest to strike out), one of the top bullpens, and a solid defense that backs up its pitchers with stellar fielding at every position.
Let’s just say I’m realistic enough to know every team that makes it this far deserves to be here, and it’s not a given that the best team in the regular season will go all the way.
What I do know is that the Astros are laser-focused on this goal and have been all season — really, ever since they were knocked out short of the World Series by the Red Sox last year. Sure, we know about all the talent — Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Gurriel, Reddick, Brantley, Correa, Verlander, Cole and the rest. The numbers and performance of the past three seasons have been phenomenal. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got a hell of a manager in A.J. Hinch, uber-supportive of his players and a field boss whom, from all indications, his guys love.
But to me, one of the most impressive aspects of this team is its ability to bond with one another. The on-and-off-the-field chemistry, the way they pick each other up, the fun they have and the unwavering support they show serves as another strength, an intangible that seems to give the Astros an extra edge. Baseball teams are always tight-knit, but there’s something about this group’s bond that’s a difference-maker when things get down to the nitty-gritty like they so often do in this sport.
And all I know is that for the fourth time in my life, I’ll be attending an Astros playoff game. I’ll be at the “Juice Box,” as folks down in Houston call it, for Saturday night’s Game 2 of the ALDS, sitting high up in Section 421 with Denise Sechelski Bertelsen, a friend I haven’t seen since we worked together in spring 1982 for one semester on the staff of The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper, before she transferred to that other school in Austin. She’s invited another friend and they’ll be making the trek separately to join up with me at the ballpark. I’ll also be seeing my dear Aggie friend and fellow Astros fan Gerald Gummelt, a native West Texan and longtime Houstonian who has partial season tickets and is always there for playoff games.
I’ll be hitting the road from Arlington at 5 a.m. to make Saturday’s alumni breakfast at my alma mater, Conroe High, which will be honoring our football coach from our 1970s glory days, W.T. Stapler, as students from Class of ’79 are in town for their 40th reunion. We’d been guessing the ballgame would be in the afternoon but found out Monday that it’ll be an 8:07 p.m. start, so I’m looking at a looooong Saturday. Luckily, Gerald has invited me to sleep over so I won’t have to drive back that night.
I’m planning a couple more Astros blog posts this week — one on my picks for the team’s top players of all time, another on its top playoff games — so be on the lookout for those.
In the meantime, if you’re a fan of the Astros, I hope you’re ready for some great playoff baseball. It’s time to get serious. I’m not really into predictions — probably because I don’t want to look stupid when they don’t pan out — so you won’t get one from me here. Heck, we don’t even know who the Astros are playing yet.
But I know it’ll be a competitive series, whether it’s Tampa Bay or Oakland. The Astros have dispatched their division series foes in three and four games the past two years, but my gut tells me it’ll go the full five this time.
So there’s your prediction. Sort of.
Time to #TakeItBack.