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 have an opportunity to get to the postseason. So when you’re fortunate enough to get there with some regularity and not get past the first round, it becomes very, very disappointing.”

“I don’t feel like our careers are diminished if we don’t win a World Series,” says Bagwell, who doesn’t need to be reminded that he has just four RBIs and a .174 batting average in fourteen playoff games (Biggio has one RBI and a .130 average). “But that’s the whole goal of going out there and playing.”

Like Bagwell, new acquisition Kent is a former National League MVP whose greatness has been nearly fanfare-free. The average baseball nut knows he is a terrific player but how about one of the greatest offensive second basemen of all time? Kent is the only one in history to drive in more than one hundred runs for six seasons in a row. Four more seasons like that and he’ll be the position’s all-time RBI leader, and with just 25 more homers, he’ll pass Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, and Ryne Sandberg to top that category as well. He knocked out 37 last year and should have fun challenging Berkman (who hit 42) for the team lead now that he’s left Pac Bell for batter-friendly Minute Maid Park.

That the Astros acquired their most dazzling “name” since 1998’s short-term Randy Johnson rental was a big surprise, to Hunsicker as much as anybody. “We were no more looking to sign Jeff Kent, or an impact player like Kent, than the man in the moon,” he says. But Kent wanted to be an Astro, partly because Texas has been his off-season home for the past ten years—first in Austin and now at the Diamond K, his nearly four-thousand-acre working ranch about an hour south of San Antonio. “I like Texas, especially South Texas, because they don’t really care who you are or what you do,” he says. “The people are genuine, respectful, honest. There’s a lot of integrity, and that’s how I want my kids to be raised.”

Kent had a bit of a prickly reputation in San Francisco. One reason for that was his contentious personality conflict with Barry Bonds, with whom he once got into an on-camera shoving match. There was also the incident before last season, when Kent hurt his wrist. He told Giants management that it happened while washing his truck, but according to subsequent reports, he broke it while popping wheelies on his motorcycle. To Bay Area fans, the issue wasn’t his apparent lie but its seeming ridiculousness. After all, what multimillionaire washes his own truck? And who has a big enough truck that he could break his wrist falling off it?

That kind of culture clash won’t be an issue in Houston and neither will Kent’s unflamboyant, go-about-your-business personality. That’s what the Astros are all about, from manager Jimy Williams, who put the “no” in “no nonsense,” to Biggio’s and Bagwell’s laconic leadership.

“I’ve said it over and over again. This is one of the best clubhouses in the game,” Biggio says. “The only thing that we ask is when you come through the door, you’ve got to check your ego.”

It’s a ballplayer cliché but one that means a little more coming from the guy who began his career as an all-star catcher, became an all-star second baseman, and now steps to the plate accompanied by this sound: “Number seven, the centerfielder, Craig Biggio.” As every baseball fan now knows, Biggio lost his old job to Kent. Hunsicker gambled that his biggest leader would take one for the team. And at this point, Biggio is more concerned with chasing down fly balls than revisiting the controversy.

“It doesn’t really matter anymore,” he says, before reverting to boilerplate athlete-speak that helps emphasize the collective, not-quite-voluntary decision. “We’re gonna go out there and work as hard as we can and just try to be the best possible second baseman—I mean centerfielder—Craig Biggio can be.” He lets the Freudian slip go by without a blink or grin.

The Astros rewarded Biggio with a two-year extension, albeit a modest one. “This last contract was about the opportunity to finish my career here,” he says. “I want a ring. I want it in a bad way, and I want to do it with this organization. There are not a lot of guys that get the opportunity to play sixteen to twenty years in the big leagues with the same club. That’s a tremendous honor and an important thing for the fans.”

Indeed, Biggio and Bagwell are now the longest-running teammates in the majors, a lesson not lost on the younger players. “We have an owner who has shown that he’s committed to keeping guys, within reason,” says Lance Berkman, 27, who, as a New Braunfels high schooler and a Rice grad, has never played anywhere but Texas. “Everybody knows that it’s the best state in the union,” he adds with a grin. “I don’t want to ever leave.”

That may or may not happen. He’s due for a new deal come 2005, while Miller and Oswalt, who were a combined 34-13 last season, need new contracts after this one. And while Hunsicker’s shocking last-minute release of Shane Reynolds was spun to the public as a baseball decision, the longtime ace stood to make as much as $4 million more than the combined salaries of the two pitchers—Tim Redding and Jeriome Robertson—who will step up in his absence. It’s a move that could help the team keep Miller and Oswalt, but it also served notice that no one is immune. In other words, it’s not out of the question that Bagwell could finish his career as a designated hitter (perhaps the Red Sox would be interested). All the more reason to win now.

So will they? “They’re gonna score a million runs, assuming they stay healthy,” ESPN analyst Jayson Stark says. “But they need a lot of things to go right with the rotation and defense.”

Especially the rotation. As Stark says, “almost nobody has a Miller and an Oswalt to start out with,” but to catch defending NL Central champs St. Louis or stave off wild-card competition from the East and West, the Astros need big contributions (and good health) from third starter Brian Moehler, now the only veteran pitcher in Reynolds’ absence, and from the bull pen beyond fireballing closer Billy Wagner and nonpareil setup man Octavio Dotel. The Astros won four of their first five behind strong performances by Redding and relievers Ricky Stone and Pete Munroe.

At least one qualified observer is impressed with what he sees. Jeff Kent may love South Texas scrub, but signing with a team that can get him back to the World Series was also on his mind. Houston’s arms factored into that decision, maybe even more so than the hitters. “This team can pitch,” Kent says. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I’m here.” Let’s hope he’s right. Because as the Astros know from cold, hard swing-and-a-miss playoff experience, good pitching beats good hitting every time.

Click here to read Jason Cohen’s interview with Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker.