How sweet it is to be able to type these words: The Astros are the defending world champions.
Last year’s Astros sterilized, cauterized, stitched up, and bandaged a wound that had festered for more than a half-century. It’s amazing what just one championship will do to your psyche. The razor’s edge of painful memories—playoff losses to the Phillies, Cardinals, and Mets; Albert Pujols’s destruction of Brad Lidge’s baseball mind—has been blunted by the 2017 Astros.
And it appears that they’re coming back from the off-season even stronger than before. Led by the core four of reigning American League MVP José Altuve, 2017 AL All-Stars George Springer and Carlos Correa, and rising superstar Alex Bregman, the Astros have the most fearsome top-to-bottom lineup in baseball. Altuve and Springer are both in their primes, and likely won’t drastically improve over their already stellar career norms, but Bregman and Correa still have an upward career trajectory ahead of them.
Oddly enough, none of those sluggers led last year’s team in RBIs; that honor went to Marwin Gonzalez, who also returns, along with Yuli Gurriel, Evan Gattis, and Brian McCann.
So the ‘stros have all that, plus another potential prodigy on the way: at 21, top prospect Kyle Tucker averaged better than an RBI per game in spring training to go along with a batting average well over .400. His legend grows daily. In his first plate appearance at Minute Maid Park this week, Tucker lofted a grand slam into the right field bleachers. And even though the slender left-handed outfielder’s graceful swing and gaudy stats are drawing comparisons to none other than Ted freakin’ Williams, the Astros are now the type of club that has the luxury of stashing a prodigy like Tucker in Triple-A until mid-season or later.
The pitching’s not too shabby either. Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, two Cy Young winners, anchor the starting rotation. The middle and back end—with the addition of Gerrit Cole and the expected steady improvement of relative youngsters Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers—look to be an upgrade over 2017. (Despite a combined 2017 record of 18-4, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh now find themselves spot starters/long relievers: talk about an embarrassment of riches.) Yeah, closer Ken Giles’s playoff woes called to mind Lidge’s demoralizing demise, but maybe this team is so stacked it doesn’t even need a real closer.
This team is crafted, artisanal, curated—any number of buzzy restaurant adjectives genuinely apply. Most of Houston’s stars are homegrown products of the Astros farm system, with the exception of Verlander, who has proven himself as the furthest thing possible from Randy Johnson-style hired gun through his public display of “literal love” for José Altuve and the rest of his teammates.
Small wonder that the Astros are odds-on favorites to cruise to a second consecutive AL West title, and co-favorites with last year’s World Series foe the LA Dodgers to win it all. There is even some talk that the Astros could threaten the 2001 Major League regular season win record of 116 victories. On paper, this team is the best fielded in any sport in Houston history, and maybe in the history of Texas professional sports. (Prove me wrong, 1990s Cowboy fans; give it your best shot, Spurs nuts.)
And yet, a poll of Astros fans about their expectations for this season elicited a surprising cross section of replies, some sharing my Billy Mumphrey-esque level of unbridled enthusiasm and others taking a much more cautious outlook.
“I’m not that spoiled yet after just a year of glory,” says John Lomax III, my dad, whose fandom goes back to the Colt .45s. “If we win our division and are thus in a position to win it all and keep developing players, I’ll consider that a success.”
Clint Heider echoed my dad’s temperate, long-term view. “It’s really just about building an organization that can consistently make it to the playoffs, but leave some gas in the tank once they get there,” he says. “The Astros of 2005 were an amazing, gutsy team but they were running on fumes by the time they got to the World Series. They overachieved, and actually were more of a miracle than the team that won 2017, despite the flat final series. It seems like the new regime gets the math: if you get in the playoffs a lot, at some point you are going to catch fire and win a title.”
There were other variations of this tempered, sensible outlook. “I’m hoping against hope, don’t want to jinx anything, though I know realistically it is unlikely,” says Summerlin Burnette. “I can’t help thinking maybe, just maybe, we could catch lightning in a bottle and do it again. Plus, I am a really short girl and half in love with José Altuve.”
Already winners? Consistent playoff appearances? Mere division titles? In my mind, all of that is simply settling. With all due respect to my friends, father, and fellow Astros fans above, I’d like to paraphrase Dallas’s Jock Ewing’s reply to some sensible advice from his son Bobby about the best way to run a company safely, legally, and ethically: “That’s loser talk, Bobby.”
Talk of division championships and the long-term health of the franchise is loser talk, pure and simple. A few fans shared my suddenly-entitled, spoiled-rotten view.
“I’m going to say it: I would be disappointed if the Astros don’t repeat in 2018,” says Rick Lee, Houston blues guitar legend. “I didn’t truly believe that they could do it last season—but now, they have raised my expectations greatly.”
Simon Jung, who has cultivated a histrionic outlook that careens from “This team will never lose another game” to “Time to fire Hinch and Luhnow and dump Altuve, Correa, and Bregman for prospects,” shared this newfound optimism.
“For me, anything outside a perfect record and a clean sweep thru postseason is a failure!” he exclaims. But after citing a full season out of Verlander, the addition of Cole, and an upgraded bullpen, Jung does temper that prediction somewhat. “In all seriousness, I’ll be disappointed if they don’t repeat since on paper they have a better team this year,” he says.
And then you have a third group, Houston fans so beaten down by ineptitude and heartbreak over the past fifty-plus years that even last year’s glory could not suffice to dispel the gloom. “I’ve rooted for the ‘stros for most of 50 years,” Barry Jacobs says. “Last time they got my hopes up was going into the ’80 series with Philadelphia. I learned. I expect them to be miserable and then if they have a decent season, I’m pleasantly surprised. But they always return to the mean.”
Others even seem that they’d rather return to mediocrity. “I’ll be disappointed if they don’t disappoint us,” Cort McMurray says. “I’ve been here too long—Houston has warped me.” (McMurray, it should be noted, spent his youth in Buffalo, New York, so his indoctrination as a sports Eeyore began long before he moved to Houston.)
So, despite my unbridled enthusiasm, there’s a diverse sampling of how Astros fans are dealing with their first bout of actual expectations, as opposed to forlorn hope bred by a half-century of “Maybe this’ll finally be our year!”
And that taste of success—as Marcus Chamberland, another multi-decade Astros fan points out—could ultimately make even the most optimistic of us vulnerable. “Expectation is the seed of disappointment,” he says, going on to cite Ray Wylie Hubbard: “Days when I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”
Wise words, when applied to anything but sports. And must we remind Chamberland that, enlightened or not, Hubbard hails from Dallas, and thus is probably a Rangers fan? That’s just the kind of hippy talk you’d expect from those championship-less wonders in Arlington.