I went to watch the woeful Houston Astros (Currently 51-100, 38 games out of first place) lose by a score of 6-2 to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Saturday night. The experience left a fuzzy, stale, sour taste in my mouth. Not just because of the $9.00 nachos, or the $8.00 cup of soda (with 1 free refill), not even because Minute Maid Park can hold 41,000 wildly cheering spectators, but on this evening was graced only with an announced total of 21,000 (a glaringly inflated number) mildly conversant seat warmers.
Baseball’s modern iteration leaves much to be desired. I miss the excitement and the drama of baseball and history – drama that contributed to meaningful seasons, not just highlights on ESPN, and history that covered years, if not decades of rivalries, relationships and records – even when the Astros weren’t doing very well. Interleague play has done much to destroy that history, as season-long battles between league opponents has been lost, and the significance and distinction of American League ball versus National League ball has all but been lost. The All-Star game was once the only chance outside of the World Series to see stars in the opposing league – and you couldn’t wait to watch it. Finally, you would be able to see your favorite opposing league pitcher take the mound, or see if the other league’s best slugger would rake one over the fence. That excitement – that thrill – is gone, now.
Along with the strike and premature ending of the 1994 season, the headlong pursuit of abusers of performance-enhancing drugs (steroids or otherwise) has left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, and diminished the stature once enjoyed by the Boys of Summer. So many of the game’s greatest were laid low by confirmed and suspected cheating, fans were forced to cheer for second and third-rate players. To continue to consider those who cheated the fans and the game heroes is gauche. I miss watching a game for the thrill of the contest, without wondering in the back of my head; “Is he cheating?”
I miss the National League. I can’t get into the idea of the Astros as an American League team. The excitement of seeing the schedule filled with 3-game series of the Cubs, Dodgers, Padres, Braves, Giants and Cardinals, knowing that each of these could potentially make-or-break the season. No one ever wanted to see the Expos, but that was ok. A look at the schedule now is depressing at best. Other than the Rangers and Texas Pride – who cares? Part of it comes from having a losing team, yes. But most of it is the sense of displacement, the lost sense of history and shared history.
I miss Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio completing the 6-4-3 double play, with Biggio flying over the sliding runner, and Bagwell digging the throw out of the dirt. I miss the crazy batting stance that Bagwell would adjust with every pitch, seemingly setting his feet further apart every time. Biggio played harder and with more passion than any other player I have ever seen – then or now. His pine-tar encrusted batting helmet became a Holy Grail of Houston baseball, and I touched it once, when he held it out to some fans before a game. I felt I had touched a sacred relic.
The epic pennant chases that lasted to the last day of the season. The retaliatory beaning of a player for a hit batsman weeks earlier – that fans remembered without being reminded incessantly by ESPN. All of those things seem to have faded away. Most of all, I miss the greatness, the interesting-ness of the players.
I miss “Junior” Ken Griffey, Jr. climbing the wall in Seattle, hitting homeruns with the quickest, smoothest swing ever, stealing bases like a fox and loping through the outfield like a cheetah to chase down a ball that should have dropped in between the fielders.
Why don’t baseball players have nicknames anymore? I miss “Big Hurt” Frank Thomas and his monster swing at Comiskey Park.
I miss the completeness of Barry Larkin at shortstop. 12 time All-Star, able to hit for power, field anything that came his way, and make a throw to any part of the field. I miss Mike Piazza being the best hitting catcher of all time, and probably one of the best catchers the game’s ever seen. I miss Wade Boggs, a perennial contender for the AL batting title aging and never failing to get the critical hit. I miss Omar Vizquel being perfect at shortstop, wining 9 consecutive Golden Gloves, and Roberto Alomar being a fiery multi-tool player while earning 10 Golden Gloves and 4 Silver Slugger awards at second base.
I miss the quiet, humble, deliberate greatness of “The Iron Man”, Cal Ripken, Jr. who never missed a game for 2,632 games. I miss the lethal trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz who won exactly one World Series title for the Atlanta Braves, but who always made the Braves one of the most imposing opponents (especially for my Houston Astros), and a perennial contender for the crown.
I miss the excellence of Tony Gwynn who could turn any at-bat into a 25 pitch marathon with ANY pitcher, and to the never-ending frustration of the opposing team, STILL end up with a walk or bloop single. A strikeout of Gwynn was tantamount to a disastrous inning averted. I miss the “Big Cat”, Andres Galarraga – always dangerous -who would strike suddenly, almost always when his team was behind and needed him to be the clutch player.
I miss “The Big Unit”, Randy Johnson who stood approximately 9 feet tall (6’10”) who was so intimidating, opposing batters would freeze in the box. I even miss Barry Bonds, who would be booed in every road stadium he played in, and would be heckled with chants of “BAAAARYY, BAAAARYY, BAAAARYY,” from seats packed with spectators – packed because they wanted to see him hit homers.
I miss the Homerun Record Chase in 1998 between “Big Mac” Mark McGwire & Sammy Sosa, which lasted the summer, and each day’s news – local or national, paper or TV – began with an update of who had hit how many homers that day or the day prior; Sammy hitting one, Big Mac responding with two more, as they leapfrogged during the season. The chase culminated with McGwire hitting #62 in St. Louis to pass Roger Maris against Sosa’s Chicago Cubs. Sosa being on the field at the time had the opportunity to watch the homer in person and congratulate McGwire on the field.
For me, the moment of the season came on Saturday, September 12, 1998, when Randy Johnson, who had been traded by the Seattle Mariners to my Astros, faced McGwire, who was packing stadiums everywhere as he eclipsed the home run record (he had hit #62 four days earlier), and was on his way to setting a new one. Tickets had been sold out for weeks in advance, and the Astros even sold out standing-room-only tickets. The Astrodome was positively electric, with people cheering while watching batting practice, as McGwire lofted ball after ball into the stands. Johnson was without question the hottest pitcher in the game (In 11 regular-season starts with the Astros, Johnson had a 10–1 record, a 1.28 ERA, and 116 strikeouts in 84⅓ innings, and pitched 4 shutouts), and he dominated the game that day, striking out 11, including McGwire – twice. The two times that The Big Unit struck out Big Mac, I very nearly went deaf from the roar that erupted from the crowd. Awesome and unforgettable.
Modern baseball is boring, lifeless, and pales in comparison. I almost feel sorry for today’s younger fan who didn’t get the chance to see the game when it was good. I understand completely the view of an old-timer who says something like “Oh, you shoulda seen the Yankees and Giants play in the ’50’s with Mantle, DiMaggio, & Mays – that was real baseball.” I can only be nostalgic for what I had, and what I have lost.
* UPDATE * I noticed this article online about the depths of irrelevance to which the Astros have sunk. On Saturday, September 14 (the game I attended & watched in person), the Astros had only 915 households watching them on tv at home. In a city of nearly 4 million. That is approximately 2 out of every 10,000 homes.