Astros vs. Rays ALDS Game 5: This is what it’s all about

So it comes down to this Thursday night in Houston, the city and area where I grew up after moving there as a baby with my adoptive family from Huntington, West Virginia:

Astros vs. Rays, American League Division Series Game 5, tied at two games apiece after nothing but wins by the home teams. October baseball at its exhilarating, nerve-wracking, win-or-go-home, emotional roller coaster-riding finest.

The Astros’ Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t lost a game since May, shut down the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the ALDS. Let’s hope he can do the same in Game 5. (Photo by Frank Christlieb, high above the field in Section 421)

Anyone who read my blog post before the playoffs started – even though it was written prior to the wild-card game that determined the Astros’ foe – may remember my saying nothing’s assured for a team that won 107 games, more than any other. That whether they played the A’s or the Rays, the Astros would be pushed to five games.

So here we are, and it hasn’t looked pretty for our team these past two games after they won the first two in the comfortable, at times deafening confines of Minute Maid Park.

We all knew this wouldn’t be easy, right? After all, the Rays won 96 games, only 11 fewer than the Astros. And they did beat the 103-win Yankees seven times, finishing just seven games back of NYY in the AL East.

My close friend Gerald Gummelt and I, who met 40 years ago this fall when we lived in the same dorm at Texas A&M, have been Astros fans for life. We were camped out with his son Russell in right field during batting practice before Game 2 at Minute Maid Park — Gerald with the glove he’s had since high school — but no long balls came our way. (Photo by Russell Gummelt)

But speaking as the eternal pessimist I tend to be, I’m actually confident about Thursday. The Astros are back home, where they’ve won 62 games this year. They’ve got Gerrit Cole, 17-0 since late May, ready to take the mound as the playoff stopper his team desperately needs, a la Mike Scott in 1986 and Roy Oswalt in 2005.

They’ve got an overpowering offense that really hasn’t flexed its muscle during this series yet, due in large part to Tampa Bay’s unknown, unsung pitching staff that has, for the most part, shut down the Astros’ bats. It’s the same staff that compiled a 3.65 team ERA during the regular season, a smidge ahead of Houston’s 3.66, and limited opponents to a .230 batting average (trailing the Astros’ .221 and the Dodgers’ .223).

The Astros will be going up against a great young pitcher in Tyler Glasnow, who stands tall in stature and ability. I have no doubt he’ll pitch well. But I also think you’re going to see some guys come through for the home team. Guys who may not have done a whole lot so far.

I sat with dear college friend Denise Sechelski Bertelsen and her friend Kennedy Colombo, both of whom drove in from Austin for the game, in the tip-top row of Section 421, obstructed view and all (we couldn’t see the big scoreboard through the girders).
(Photo by Frank Christlieb)

As I’ve said before, I’m not into predictions, and I’m not necessarily making one here. But I do think the Astros will play one of their best games of the series. What’s more, to advance to the ALCS against the Yankees, they know that’s what they have to do. And they’ve been here before, which counts for a lot.

So let’s go, Astros! To borrow from a phrase we Aggies use in our traditional yells against football opponents … BTHO the Rays!!!

With the playoffs finally here, picking Astros’ best of all time

If you’ve got a favorite pro baseball team — one you’ve been a fan of most of your life like I have the Astros, or even one whose bandwagon you hopped on along the way — it’s a pretty sure bet you’ve also got your own team of all-timers from that franchise. They might be guys considered among the best ever to play for that team, or they could just be personal favorites who’d make your list but probably miss the cut on most others’ ballots.

I’ve never compiled my own list of the players I rate as the Astros’ best, but now that they’ve won 100 games for a third straight year, it seems like a pretty good time to do it. I started out planning to pick a top 10, but that turned out to be almost impossible. That’s how I ended up with a list of 17, plus three honorable mentions.

Most of these guys predate the current crop, going as far back as the ’60s to players like Larry Dierker and Joe Morgan, who were with the franchise almost from the beginning of its 58-season history. In fact, I’ve included only one player from the current era — Jose Altuve, for obvious reasons. In a few years, some of today’s stars will undoubtedly push a few of the Astros of yesteryear aside. Some of these picks are written in permanent ink, though — again, it’s pretty plain why.

So here’s my list. If you disagree with any of ’em, let me know. If you think I’ve left anyone off, please feel free to cast your own vote, too.

**Note: The cards pictured are all from my collection, which includes some from my childhood, others from among hundreds that my late father bought at a garage sale about 12 years ago and mailed to me. And, several are among those that my good friend Gary Stratton, a former colleague at The Dallas Morning News, graciously gave me a couple of years ago from the extensive card collection he has compiled over many years. Thank you, Gary!!

Best of the best (in no particular order, with the exception of the first two)

Craig Biggio, 2B: When this catcher out of Seton Hall made his first appearance in the majors at age 22 in 1988, I liked him right off the bat. But I never envisioned he’d be the first career Astro elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Management’s decision to move Biggio from behind the plate to second base in 1992 not only saved his knees and his speed, it turned him into a seven-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glover and a consistent table-setter from the leadoff spot, where he hit an NL-record 53 home runs to lead off a game. His offensive prowess, combined with his franchise longevity, allowed him to set Astros career marks for games, at-bats, hits, runs scored, doubles, total bases and extra-base hits, and he’s second in RBI, walks and steals. No other player in baseball history has 3,000 hits (Biggio finished with 3,060), 600 doubles, 400 steals and 250 homers. For Biggio and his fellow Killer B’s — Bagwell and Berkman — I wish they’d been able to win a World Series together. But No. 7 stands alone at the top of the charts.

Jeff Bagwell, 1B: One hundred years ago this December, the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. On Aug. 30, 1990, the Red Sox traded their top prospect, this hot-hitting third baseman, to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen for a bullpen boost in their push toward the playoffs. (Boston fans rank these the two worst trades in sports history. Of course they would.) The Bosox made the playoffs on the last day of the season, lost in the ALCS, then lost Andersen to free agency. In Bagwell, who would move to first base upon his arrival, the Astros got a 15-year franchise cornerstone, a four-time All-Star who would use his unorthodox crouch to hit over .300 six times, crush 449 home runs, drive in 1,529 runs and help his team get to the playoffs six times. Oh, and he’s in Cooperstown along with his best friend. Some criticize Bagwell and Biggio for their lackluster playoff showings. But their careers were more than Hall-worthy, and I’ll argue that with anyone. 

Jose Cruz, OF: The Astros have had many popular players over their 58 seasons, but none more than this hustling, sweet-swinging Puerto Rican. Every time Cheo came to the plate or got a big hit between 1975 and 1987, the Astrodome reverberated with the sounds of “Cruuuuuuuuuuz!” The two-time All-Star was a member of the Astros’ first three playoff teams (1980, ’81 and ’86) and hit a blistering .400 against the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS. An even more remarkable show of Cruz’s unbreakable Astros ties: He was also a coach for six playoff teams (1997-99, 2001, 2004-05), and an assistant to the GM for the postseason runs in 2015 and 2017. Incredibly, Cruz still holds the Astros’ record for career triples (80) and walk-off home runs (6). A model of consistency from the left side of the plate, he topped .300 six times and hit .292 overall in his 13 seasons in Houston, in addition to hitting 138 homers in the pitcher-friendly Dome.

Nolan Ryan, RHP: It was no coincidence that the year the best pitcher in the history of the game joined the Astros, in 1980, they finally tasted division-winning, playoff-clinching champagne. His superhuman right arm helped guide them to the postseason again in 1981 and ’86, but the World Series remained out of reach. Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter in ’81 and won the league ERA title that year at 1.69. I’ll never forget his unbelievable 1987 season, when — at age 40 — he led the majors with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts but finished with an 8-16 record because the Astros gave him such paltry run support. In a PR disaster some fans never forgave owner John McMullen for, Ryan didn’t re-sign with the Astros after a contract dispute, instead joining the Texas Rangers before the ’89 season at age 42. But he gave Houston nine great years, 106 wins, a 3.13 ERA and 1,866 of his never-to-be-touched 5,714 career K’s. And before we move on to the next guy, I gotta throw this out: Most know Ryan holds the record with 12 one-hitters, tied with Bob Feller. But did you know he also has the most two-hitters (18) and three-hitters (31)? Infinitely mind-blowing.

Lance Berkman, OF/1B: Drafted after playing his college ball at Rice University in Houston, Berkman cemented his name in Astros lore with his dependable bat and left-handed power that deposited many a pitch into the short porch in left field at Minute Maid Park. Not the least of those opposite-fielders was his eighth-inning grand slam that helped rally the Astros from a 6-1 deficit in one of the most thrilling playoff games in MLB history, an 18-inning, 7-6 victory over the Braves in the 2005 NLDS — ended by Chris Burke’s blast to those same Crawford Boxes to win it after almost six hours (and I was there!!). Berkman, who hit an unbelievable .385 for his college career, hit .296 in his 12 seasons as an Astro and wound up with 366 career homers (including his years with the Cardinals, Rangers and Yankees). Although I wish he’d won a championship with the Astros, it was great to see him get there with the Cards in 2011 — and play such a vital role — even though it came against the Rangers, a team I’d become a fan of living in the D-FW area for over 30 years (that fandom ended when the Astros moved to the AL). It was a classy move by the club to let Berkman and pitcher Roy Oswalt sign one-day contracts to retire as Astros in 2014.

Jose Altuve, 2B: In nine seasons — including the three straight 100-loss years when the team was painfully rebuilding into the winner it is now — all he’s done is make six All-Star teams and win three AL batting titles, one league MVP and five Silver Sluggers. As an all-fields-hitting, lightning-fast defensive whiz who’s no taller than a chest of drawers, Altuve’s been a spark like no other, the energy constant that’s made the Astros go since joining the team in 2011. He’s had over 200 hits four times in his career, and his current total of 1,568 puts him ahead of the pace all-time leader Pete Rose set on his way to 4,256 by the time he finally retired at 45 (Altuve’s 29). Sure, he’s a free swinger and can look pretty silly reaching for sliders a foot outside. But when he makes contact with those pitcher’s pitches and sends ’em to the opposite field for hits, no one’s arguing with his approach. He can be streaky, and I’ll be the first to admit getting down on him when he doesn’t come through in key RISP moments. Most unbelievable about Altuve’s production is the power he generates from his alleged 5-6 frame. He’s hit a career-best 31 of his 128 home runs this season, and they’re not all pull shots. It’s no fluke he’s on this list.

Roy Oswalt, RHP: As the rotation’s ace most of his 10 years in Houston, this tough, cool-headed performer with the Mississippi drawl had an incredible run starting in 2001. He helped lead the Astros to the playoffs in his rookie year, compiling a 14-3 record with a masterful 2.73 ERA and finishing fifth in Cy Young voting. I mean, Oswalt was always nails. If the Astros were slumping and needed a stopper, he stepped up. He averaged a nifty 7.4 strikeouts per nine as an Astro, but he also pitched to contact and let his defense take care of the rest. Roy O went 143-82 in Houston with a 3.24 ERA, winning 20 games twice — in 2004 and ’05, when the team advanced to the NLCS and its first World Series. His biggest moment came that year, when he pitched the Astros into the Series by coming up huge in Game 6 in St. Louis — after Albert Pujols’ three-run tape-measure shot off closer Brad Lidge kept them from closing out the series in Houston. Glad I got to see him pitch a couple of times, including once when the Astros played the Rangers in Arlington in one of his last years in Houston. Ironically, Oswalt ended up spending 2012, his next-to-last season, with the Rangers.

Larry Dierker, RHP: As a kid listening to Gene Elston and Loel Passe broadcast Astros games on radio, I fell in love not only with them, but with many of the players. Rarely (never?) were they on TV, and only a handful of times each year did we see them in person when we attended games at the Astrodome. But Dierk was one of those guys I grew up admiring, for his longevity, his consistency and his downright likability. In later years, as he became a broadcaster for the team, then a manager, my respect only grew. How can you not love a guy who made his major-league debut on his 18th birthday in 1964 — and struck out Willie Mays in the first inning? Dierker laid a foundation for the Astros’ starting rotation until 1976 — the year he pitched his only no-hitter, against the Expos, prompting a headline in the Houston Chronicle to proclaim “Long-suffering Dierker pitches no-hitter.” You might look at his record as a Colt .45/Astro (137-117) and think he was pretty average. But when you consider how pedestrian the team’s offense was most of his career, and see that his ERA in 14 seasons in Houston was a sparkling 3.31, you realize how steadily solid he really was. Mostly because of low run support, Dierker won 20 games only once — in 1969, when he became the franchise’s first 20-game winner. He’s easily one of the greats.

J.R. Richard, RHP: The giant who stood 6-foot-8, fearlessly stared down hitters, then threw 100-mph heat that often ended up at the backstop — he led the NL in wild pitches three times, including a record six in one game — was forced to retire just when the world was about to get a chance to see his greatness in the playoffs. During the 1980 season, when he was only 30 and the Astros would finally get to the postseason, Richard suffered a stroke before a game that July. All he’d done to that point was lead the NL in strikeouts twice, ERA once, fewest hits per game three times, and win 18 games three times. Before Randy Johnson, Richard was the most imposing figure most NL hitters had ever seen on the mound. Until Gerrit Cole broke it this year, Richard held the Astros’ season record for strikeouts with 313, set in 1979. He tried to make a comeback, spending several years in the minors, but never had the same dominance. Richard later went through hardship that included two divorces and homelessness, but he’s now a minister and doing great. 

Mike Scott, RHP: Scott came to the Astros in 1983, a below-average pitcher who’d gone 14-27 in four seasons with the Mets. There was no reason to think he’d blossom into anything special. He showed flashes his first year, going 10-6, then slipped to 5-11 in ’84. A season later, Scott transformed into an ace after learning the split-finger fastball from pitching coach Roger Craig. That year, he went 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA, but the Astros finished 12 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. In 1986, Scott’s split finger became even more devastating, not only carrying the Astros to the division title — remarkably, he clinched the crown with a no-hitter against the Giants at the Astrodome, the defining moment of Scott’s career. He went on to dominate the Mets in the NLCS, winning Games 1 and 4, but the Astros would fall short in six games. If only it had gotten to Game 7, where Scott was waiting on short rest. Scott’s brilliance that year — 18-10 record, 2.22 ERA, 306 strikeouts — earned him the Cy Young.

Jimmy Wynn, OF: One of the franchise’s original star-power players, Wynn played in Houston from 1963 to ’73. Generously listed at 5-10, 160, he was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for a reason, hitting 223 of his 291 career homers during his years in the Bayou City. He hit a career-high 37 in 1967, when he also had 107 RBI and was an All-Star, and topped 30 homers two other times — including when he was traded to the Dodgers in ’74 and was named Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 32 homers with 108 RBI. And who remembers the monumental blasts by Wynn and Doug Rader, the first hit into the Dome’s gold upper-deck seats? Every time we attended a game after April 1970, I looked high above left field for the Toy Cannon and Red Rooster seats, painted to commemorate the shots hit that month by Wynn and Rader. In my first job as a sports writer in Odessa in 1983, I had the chance to meet Wynn at a charity golf event in Midland, interview him and write a column. Good times.

Cesar Cedeño, CF/1B: The first Astros player touted as a five-tool potential superstar, the free agent from the Dominican made his debut with the team at age 19 in 1970. He quickly became a fan favorite after hitting .310 that year, then hit .320 in ’72 and ’73, prompting Astros manager Leo Durocher to compare Cedeño to Willie Mays at that age. Cedeño went on to win five Gold Gloves in center field, stole 50 or more bases six times, and was voted to four All-Star teams, but would hit .300 just once more — in 1980, when the Astros made the playoffs for the first time. Cedeño was a great player, but most folks say he never lived up to the greatness projected for him. Count me as being on the fringes of that group, but I’m not willing to say he was a bust. The expectations were set too high, especially when you start putting a guy in the same conversation as a legend like Mays — and when said guy, at age 21, beats out Roberto Clemente to start an All-Star Game. All in all, though, a solid career and an all-time great Astro.

Billy Wagner, LHP/closer: As tough and nasty a relief pitcher as has ever put on an Astros uniform, Wagner spent nine seasons in Houston — long enough to record a franchise-best 225 saves, 694 strikeouts, an amazing 12.4 K/9 ratio and a 2.53 ERA. He was a seven-time All-Star — four of those *after* he left the Astros — and went on to finish his career with 422 saves over 16 seasons. Simply put, Wagner is the best left-handed reliever in the history of the game. And we wouldn’t be saying that if, when he was 7 years old, the natural right-hander hadn’t broken his arm playing football, then broken it again, prompting him to decide to start throwing baseballs left-handed. Hmm, Billy’s only 42. Wonder if he’d be willing to come out of retirement?

Joe Morgan, 2B: Although the native Texan achieved most of his greatness after being traded from the Astros to the Reds in late 1971, he makes this list hands down. (After all, he did come back to town to help the Astros earn their first playoff berth in 1980.) “Little Joe,” he of the signature arm-flapping motion at the plate, played in Houston for nine seasons starting in 1963, becoming a rock at second base. But desperate for power, the team traded him, infielder Denis Menke and two teammates to the Reds for Lee May and two other players, and Morgan went on to win two World Series rings and an MVP in Cincinnati. Some might question my including Morgan because his contributions to the Houston franchise were fairly minimal (and manager Harry Walker reportedly thought he was a troublemaker) compared to what he did for the Reds. And a lot of folks didn’t care for him as a broadcaster, although I didn’t have a problem with him there. But Morgan did make an impact during his years in Houston, and there’s no questioning his overall contributions to baseball.

Yes, that’s an autographed Terry Puhl card, which my dear wife Kay bought for me a few years ago, all because she knew he was my favorite Astros player ever.

Terry Puhl, OF: Before you do a double-take, let me offer up that this Canadian-born outfielder, who fits perfectly into the good-guy mold this franchise has always had, makes the list because he’s at the top of my ranking of favorite Astros players. So, case closed. TP always went about the game quietly and like a pro, and he was revered and respected both in the clubhouse and in the stands. My affinity for the team’s longtime leadoff man and left fielder started in July 1977, when I was 16 and Dad and I were sitting in left at the Dome as Puhl, called up that day at age 21, entered as a defensive replacement against the Dodgers. The next night, he got his first major league hit in the 13th inning and scored the winning run on a Bob Watson double. Fourteen Astros seasons later, he’d amassed 1,357 hits, a .281 average and three seasons of .301 or better — including that rookie year. For years, Puhl’s offensive show against the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS — 10 hits in 19 at-bats for a .526 average (and he didn’t even start Game 1) — stood untouched as the best in series history. Take a well-deserved bow, TP.

Joe Niekro, RHP: An average pitcher whose contract the Astros picked up from the Braves for $35,000 turned into one of the club’s biggest bargains ever. Thanks to his perfection of the knuckleball — which brother Phil fluttered past hitters on his way to the Hall of Fame — Joe became a workhorse in the Houston rotation. He pitched over 200 innings eight times in a nine-year stretch from 1978 to ’85, including a career-high 270 in 1982, when he threw a personal-best 16 of his 107 career complete games. Niekro had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1979 and ’80, and by the time he’d pitched 11 years in the Dome before being traded to the Yankees in 1985, he’d piled up 144 wins for the Astros, still a franchise best. He wound up with 221 in his career, and combined with Phil’s 318, the pair’s 539 victories made them the top-winning brother duo in history. Sadly, Joe died of a brain aneurysm in 2006 when he was just 61.

Bob Watson, 1B: “The Bull” spent 14 long years in Houston, never getting the chance to be on a playoff team but coming close a couple of times. What a strong leader and dependable lineup anchor he was all those years, blasting 139 dingers and driving in 782 runs in the Dome while consistently hitting for a high average. Watson, who went on to play for the Red Sox, Yankees and Braves, put up a .297 average as an Astro, including three seasons of .312 or above. He made the All-Star team in 1973 and ’75, and had the distinction of scoring baseball’s millionth run in May ’75 on a three-run homer by Milt May at Candlestick Park. (The feat won him $10,000 and a million Tootsie Rolls.) Watson went on to be general manager of the Astros and Yankees before a long tenure in the MLB front office. In recent years, Watson has suffered kidney disease and has turned down offers of transplants from his two children. Hang in there, Bull.

Honorable mention

Glenn Davis, 1B: Power-hitting mainstay of the Astros’ teams from 1984 to 1990, especially the 1986 outfit that pushed the eventual champion Mets to the limit in the NLCS. The two-time All-Star hit 166 bombs as an Astro with a high of 34 in 1989, putting up a monster year with 31 homers and 101 RBI in helping guide the Astros to the NL West title in ’86. Davis finished second in the NL MVP voting that year.

Dave Smith, RHP/closer: The junk-throwing righty saved 199 games (second in team history) for the Astros between 1980 and 1990 during a time when the use of closers on a regular basis was still evolving. From my faulty memory, he became the first pitcher the Astros used on a regular basis to finish out games. Smith’s highest save total (33) came during the ’86 NLCS season, and he made All-Star teams that year and in 1990. Smith died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1990.

Doug Rader, 3B: The Red Rooster gets mention here for his nine seasons of leadership as an Astro and for his stellar defense at the hot corner that earned him five Gold Gloves from 1970 to 1974. At the plate, Rader never hit for average and was strikeout-prone, but he had pop, hitting 128 home runs in the cavernous Dome and driving in 600. He had four seasons of 83 or more RBI, proving he came through in the clutch more often than not.

Astros playoff baseball: Is there anything better?

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.

The Minute Maid Park scoreboard looked awesome at the end of Game 3 of the 2015 ALDS between the Astros and Royals. That victory gave the Astros a 2-1 series lead, but alas, they’d lose the next two, sending Kansas City on its way to a World Series title. It was the second Astros playoff game I’d ever attended.

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.

I’ve had this jersey since the late ’80s, when it was what the Astros were wearing. It sat in the closet for years, mostly because it got just a wee bit snug.

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.

My longtime Texas A&M friend and former roomie Gerald Gummelt, who’s been lucky enough to have Astros partial season tickets in recent years, and I were at Astros-Red Sox ALDS Game 1 in 2017. We didn’t sit together, but I have him to thank for getting us our tickets!

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.

Here’s the guy I DID sit with at Astros-Red Sox ALDS Game 1 in 2017 — David Crouchet, a friend from my graduating class at Conroe High. We go all the way back to our days at Washington Junior High!

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.

To the father who never knew about me, happy 103rd birthday

One hundred and three years ago this week, a baby boy was born in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, to a young mother and her husband, a railroad worker. The baby was my biological father, although I never knew him and he never knew me. None of us – the three full siblings I found 14 years ago or me – believes Bob ever knew that one final flash of post-divorce passion with my birth mother Betty – whether a result of poor judgment, an attempt at reconciliation or something I’d rather not think about – had created another child.

My birth father Bob Workman — born Orval on Sept. 26, 1916 — with his parents Kathryn and Orval as a young boy.

If Betty, in her early pregnancy and after his arrest in a drunken domestic dispute, hadn’t moved her children to safety out of Huntington, West Virginia, and across the river to Ironton, Ohio – where she got a several-month gig singing with a band at an upscale hotel’s bar in summer 1960 – he surely would’ve found out about me. And that surely would’ve changed her life, my brothers’ and sister’s lives, and my life.

But I’m certain Betty’s love for her unborn baby, and her fervent wish to give him a safer, better life than she knew she was capable of, made the adoption decision for her long before I was born. As for Bob, I’d like to have met the man, but he drowned a 45-year-old homeless resident of Tampa in July 1962, when I was barely 16 months old and growing up a Texan in the great city of Houston. I don’t feel a compelling need for us to have met in this life.

Not the same with Betty, who died of lung cancer almost 27 years ago. I have an intense longing to not only meet her, but to hold her in the longest, most loving hug I’ve ever given anyone, to make up for all the hugs we’ve missed out on for 58 years. To thank her, to tell her how much I’ve missed her, to tell her about all the wonderful things I’ve learned about her from my siblings and other people I’ve talked to about their memories of her. To tell her it’s OK that she never told her children the truth about me, that I was alive and had been adopted. And to let her know how much I adore her beautiful singing voice, which I can listen to anytime, thanks to the priceless, reel-to-reel recordings we all heard for the first time nine years ago and I arranged for transfer to CDs.

Most important to me is that I’m able to tell Betty that I understand why she did what she did, that it was all because she loved me and wanted her baby to have the best possible outcome in a painfully difficult situation. She needs to know that I know and believe with every cell in my body that she made the right choice, even though my childhood didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped.

Bob served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1937 to 1941.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about Betty. It’s Bob’s birthday. So, happy birthday to the man born Orval Bradford Workman, who changed his name to Robert “Bob” as a youth. About whose childhood my sibs and I know little. The guy who served his country for four years in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1937 to 1941, spending his last three months of duty in the Navy hospital in Norfolk, Virginia with ulcer and stomach problems before getting his honorable discharge the month our country was attacked at Pearl Harbor. The guy who played guitar and standup bass, was a talented refrigeration mechanic, and loved to shoot and develop his own photos. I’m sure Bob had many more gifts none of us know about.

About the poem you see below: My sister Terry isn’t sure when Bob wrote it to Betty. But sometime in the 1960s, the neighbor who lived next to my birth family when Bob was arrested early in Betty’s pregnancy in 1960 brought her a suitcase with photographs and papers that had been left behind when Betty swiftly packed up the kids and moved out of town that year. The poem was in that suitcase. Terry leans toward thinking Bob wrote it after Betty and the kids left town, but says it also could’ve been after Betty and Bob’s divorce became final in April 1959. Strangely enough, Terry and our brothers Crys and Robin were never even aware that our parents had divorced – until I was able to get a copy of the divorce decree from Cabell County a couple of months after I found my birth family in 2005.

Some of you have read the narrative I wrote about Bob that we published in The Dallas Morning News on Father’s Day 2017. The piece was a reworked version of the original honored at UNT’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in 2016. That original was published in Ten Spurs, the anthology of winners that UNT publishes each year. If you’d like to read it (it’s longer, and I know you’re not at all surprised), you can find it at the link below, which I’ve shortened for you. It starts on Page 32 (table of contents says 31).

Thanks for reading. And if you have a moment, please wish Bob a happy birthday in heaven.

The decree from Betty and Bob’s divorce in 1959. My oldest brother Crys says he remembers Bob being in and out of the picture for a while, but he and our brother Robin and sister Terry, who was just a little girl at the time, never actually knew that our parents had divorced.
Clippings from the Tampa Tribune about Bob’s death in July 1962. I got these from a fellow I found named Bill Hodgin, who was in the police report and had been one of the people on the boat that pulled Bob’s body to shore after he was found in the Hillsborough River the day after the fight.

25 years later, the love knot keeps growing stronger

Although it seems inconceivable, Kay and I reached 25 years as a married couple this week. On 9/24/94, we stood nervously, excitedly, lovingly at the altar with not one but two ministers at First United Methodist Church in tiny Mercedes, Texas, the same beautiful little church where her parents, Caryl and Shelley Collier, had married 36 years earlier.

Kay was a vision of stunning beauty during our wedding reception at the Tower Club in McAllen, Texas on Sept. 24, 1994. Next to me is my best friend and best man Doug Brown, who sadly passed away in October 2002 at age 45. Our treasured friends Steve and Valerie Kaye are at left.

While we focused on each other and the love that had brought us to that moment and would carry us into forever, both us were trying, but failing, not to be distracted by the dozens (hundreds?) of gnats — yes, gnats — flitting around our faces. They’d rudely welcomed themselves into the sanctuary while the doors stood wide open and the string quartet played Pachelbel’s Canon in D and other beautiful pieces as the guests arrived.

Kay and I resisted the urge to discreetly blow or swat them away, and all we could do was smile, her blue eyes into my brown, trying not to crack up.

With the challenges we’ve overcome and those we face today, we’re still in that mode — and everyone needs to smile and crack up to get by in life, right? I thank Kay for finding the resolve and patience to put up with my many quirks for the past quarter-century. She would say the same to me, and of course, that always goes both ways in a marriage. We’re a couple of fortunate ones, of that I’m certain.

Kay and I went on a Mexico cruise on Royal Caribbean in July that we treated as a 25th anniversary gift to each other. It was our first trip without the kids in 10 years. We took this selfie as the ship was leaving Galveston.

Twenty-five years have brought us a son and a daughter, two blessings we weren’t sure we’d ever have, the way things were going as we tried to start a family. Though each has a set of difficulties that requires daily attention, Kay and I know that life without Will and Lindsay wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling as it has been with them. They’re now 18 and 15, and we know their best years and greatest achievements lie ahead of them.

We’ve grown as a couple in so many ways, yet have so much more growing to do, which is what I look forward to doing in the coming years. She puts up with my fanatic devotion to the Astros and my often less-than-adequate listening skills. I’m patient with … well, I can’t think of anything at the moment that requires any exceptional amount of patience.

We have a lot of plans that we hope will fall into place, including getting some kind of midsize trailer (not an RV) for traveling/camping as we progress in years (not that I have plans to retire anytime soon). Monday night as we had an early anniversary dinner at Fireside Pies in Fort Worth and on the way home, we talked about some bucket list wishes, the first time we’ve had such a discussion. I guess hitting your silver anniversary makes you start doing things like that.

Another photo from our reception including family dear to me: My brother Isaac, his daughter Lauren, my late dad Clark, and his mother Alma, whom I loved like a son loves his mother.

Here’s the story behind the main photo, which we took when we got home from dinner: When Kay and I went on a Mexico cruise in July — our first vacation without the kids in 10 years — we made that trip our anniversary gift. In Cozumel, I bought her that silver love-knot bracelet for our anniversary. So we didn’t do much for our actual anniversary Tuesday, since we’d already celebrated on the high seas. (I did bring in Fuzzy’s takeout on the way home from work at 9:30 p.m.)

Cheers to 25 years with my beautiful wife, and to 25 more filled with happiness, sharing and adventures together. 

My heart aches for Odessa, where a newspaper career began 36 years ago

Heartbroken for the people and neighbors of Odessa, Texas, where I spent the first four years of my newspaper career as a sports writer for The Odessa American after graduating from Texas A&M in 1983. More lives shattered by a gun, including a teenage girl who had her whole life still to seize. More children left without parents. Another example for future killers of how to go about killing.

These horrific scenes will just keep replaying, an LP on endless kill, kill, kill repeat. Because we’re never going to come up with the solutions to save us. We’re. Just. Not. This country is too divided, too unable to listen to one another, too focused on the issues as we see them and as we believe they should play out, no matter the cost, in lives or in irreversible impact on our children’s and grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s future.

Odessa’s a fine place, full of rock-solid people of every color, a blue-collar city in oil country where folks sweat and dedicate themselves to every task, in the oilfields, in the schools, at the hospitals, playing football and cheering football players. Over the past 40 years, the oil industry’s triumphs and lumps have been the city’s as well.

I’ve always joked about the flatness and lack of trees and water in West Texas. Having grown up in the Houston area, where there are overloads of both, it was quite an eye-opener when I flew to Midland-Odessa for my job interview 36 years ago and was shocked to see how desolate the area seemed. I’d never seen a tumbleweed or a dust devil, but I saw plenty while driving up U.S. 385 through Andrews, Seminole and other outposts on the way to Lubbock to cover the occasional Texas Tech football game.

In those West Texas flatlands lies a rugged, brushy beauty that can grow on even a blind outsider like me. I loved those four years in Odessa, covering high school football, basketball and track, junior college basketball and track, minor-league baseball — and, of course, mighty Permian High Mojo football (well, they once were mighty). After covering smaller schools and writing up untold numbers of called-in and tracked-down games on Friday nights back at the office for two years, I earned the privilege of covering Permian for one glorious season in 1985, when the Panthers made it to the state final at Texas Stadium before losing big to Houston Yates.

West Texans were awfully good to me, a kid just trying to figure out what the heck he was doing.

Like any city of 100,000, we had our share of crime in Odessa. The year I got to town, a national anti-handgun group named it the “homicide capital of America,” thanks to the city’s 1982 murder rate of 29.8 per 100,000 residents. Second place went to Miami.

But we didn’t live in the environment of violence and fear holding our country hostage today. The term “mass shooting” didn’t exist while I lived in Odessa from June 1983 to April 1987, when I moved over 300 miles east for a new job at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Just as they were when I lived there over 30 years ago, Odessans are a strong lot. They will grieve, they will pray, they will question why, and they will hold one another in a loving and protective embrace. And they’ll do their best to be ever on their guard, for their families and for their city.

Take care, Jackrabbit Capital of Texas. I’m so sorry this has happened to you.

Happy birthday, angel Betty

Happy birthday to the sweet angel who brought me into the world at Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia, in February 1961.

Betty in the 1970s

Betty Louise had known for months that she couldn’t keep her fourth child, already having two teenage sons and a 6-year-old daughter at home, and as a divorcee months from turning 40 who had fatefully conceived me with her ex-husband. She had divorced Bob in 1959 over his drinking and other deplorable failings that had caused the breakup of their family after 20 years of marriage.

Every ounce and crevice of my heart believes Betty wished she could have taken me home and raised me just like she did my three long-unknown siblings, Crys, Robin and Terry. It was a choice I know she had to make, not only for her children’s well-being, but for my safety, since she didn’t know what Bob might do if he found out about me.

Instead, Betty lovingly gifted me to a never-met family that had already adopted one son and was months from the end of a brief three-year stopover in Huntington on its way to a forever life in Texas. (As many of you know, Bob moved to Tampa, and after I researched his July 1962 death, I learned that he had become homeless and tragically drowned in the Hillsborough River in a drunken fight.)

Betty with my sister Terry in 1988 at Terry’s home in Arvada, CO. Betty died of lung cancer four years later.

The bond I’ve felt with my full-blooded siblings has been a blessing that has changed me in ways I can’t begin to describe. Even though we don’t talk or see one another as much these days as I’d like (Crys and Terry are in Colorado), we text often, and I can’t imagine life without them. And my connection to angel Betty has been everlasting since the day I contacted Crys in June 2005 and started learning about the loving, selfless, hard-working, forgiving, musically gifted woman she was. Not a person I’ve found who knew her has said a negative word. She married two alcoholic men, so it’s clear her heart was never out of place.

My birth mother Betty Louise Campbell Workman in the early 1940s in Huntington, WV. She’s outside the home where she lived with my birth father Bob and his mother Kathryn. Behind her is the floodwall built after the devastating 1937 Ohio River flood that killed hundreds. Betty was in her early 20s and had not had any of my 3 siblings yet. My brother Crys was born in February 1944, followed by brother Robin in July 1947, sister Terry in December 1954 and me in February 1961.

Betty died at the young age of 71 when lung cancer overcame her in 1992 — 13 years before I found my sibs — and Robin joined her 10 years ago when he was just 61. Although I never fulfilled my dream of meeting her here, I know I’ll get that chance someday. For now, I celebrate her memory, thanks to all the Betty stories and sweetness shared with me.

Speaking of sweetness: Kay bought me this yummy chocolate-chocolate chip cake today from Nothing Bundt Cakes so I could celebrate Betty’s birthday. I told Kay I sure hope they have cake in heaven. Said Kay, whose preference is always obvious, “Or at least ice cream!”

Not surprisingly, the first story I ever wrote for publication about my birth family was about Betty, published in The Dallas Morning News on Mother’s Day 2011. If you haven’t read it and would like to, here’s the link. (…/essay-a-son-gets-to-know-and-l…)

Also, if you haven’t had a chance to listen to Betty’s beautiful singing — or if you have and would like to hear her again — here are links to her crooning with a dance band in Logan, West Virginia, around 1950. I could listen to these on repeat all day!…/bettyworkman_ithadtobeyou.mp3…/bettyworkman_themanilove.mp3…/bettyworkman_somebodylovesme.mp3

We’ll always love you, dear Betty.

Betty, my sister Terry and Betty’s second husband, Ronnie Cazad, at Terry’s graduation from Huntington East High School in 1973.
I love this photo so much. It’s Betty with my brother Crys (in back) and my sister Terry (front right) with Crys’s three children: Brad (left), Lewellyn (Lew) and Tim, who’s been a Lakewood (CO) police officer for years. The pic was taken in 1988 when Betty and Ronnie visited Colorado.