TWO KINDS OF TEAMS TRULY capture our imagination: champions (Cowboys, Stars) and big, fat dysfunctional losers (Cowboys, Rangers). Then there’s the Houston Astros, a franchise of uncommon excellence that’s never quite excellent enough.
Since 1993 Houston’s boys of summer have won more National League games than any club except the Atlanta Braves, a run of success that has produced four division titles—and four first-round playoff flameouts. That continues a 41-year streak of playoff futility that includes the great eighties Nolan Ryan-Jose Cruz-Alan Ashby squads and has amounted to seven postseason entries and not a single series triumph.
In 2002 the team didn’t even make it to October, and its biggest headline-grabber may have been Ken Lay. But the Astros are a team every baseball fan should root for. Despite a medium-sized budget—in the past ten years, Houston spent $200 million less in aggregate salaries than Atlanta—the Astros have stayed competitive, thanks to a gritty veteran core and some of the best homegrown talent in the game. They’ve got a pair of young pitching assassins in Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, whose 2002 numbers compared favorably with the likes of Randy Johnson’s and Tom Glavine’s. They’ve got young slugging star Lance Berkman, who sealed his status as the latest Killer B by leading the NL with 128 RBIs in just his second full big-league season. And of course, they’ve got über-Astros Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, with the club for sixteen and thirteen years, respectively.
Most dramatically, they now have free agent Jeff Kent, fresh from the Fall Classic as a San Francisco Giant. The 35-year-old second baseman’s two-year, $18.2 million contract suggests that the Astros brass expects great things sooner rather than later. After all, Biggio, 37, doesn’t steal bases like he used to, and Bagwell, 34 for now (wish him a happy birthday May 27), is as likely to have an ice pack on his aching shoulder as a ball cap on his head. So the subtext of the season is clear: Ticktock, boys—no time like the present. Do it for the franchise, do it for the fans, and do it for yourselves, lest you join Ernie Banks in all those articles about the greatest players never to appear in—let alone win—the World Series.
“I’m sure it eats at the players and certainly at all of us throughout the organization,” Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker says. “When you’re in this game for a while, you realize how special it is just to