In the misery-limned annals of Houston sports history, this week marked a nadir. Not the nadir, because, as any Houston sports fan knows, surely there’s worse to come in the future. We’re cursed to endure a baffling series of cosmic misfortunes without any apparent connection to reason, justice, or mercy.
Why would Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, blessed with a 21-0 lead on Sunday in the second quarter of the AFC Divisional Series, play it safe by kicking a field goal on fourth-and-one deep inside Kansas City Chiefs territory? What compelled him to turn around a few minutes later and attempt a fake punt on fourth-and-four on the Texans’ own 31—a botched trick play whose failure set the stage for the Chiefs’ spectacular comeback?
And why would the Astros finally win a World Series in 2017— lifting the city’s sagging spirits in the wake of Hurricane Harvey—only to have it tarnished by revelations of a sign-stealing scandal? Why, even after Astros owner Jim Crane cleaned house on Monday by firing manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, does he still employ accused domestic abuser Roberto Osuna, whose 2018 hiring as relief pitcher completed the team’s transformation from plucky underdogs into amoral supervillains? (To say nothing of former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman, who was fired in October after unleashing a bizarre tirade against a female reporter in the Astros dugout, then lying about it.)
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There’s no answer to these questions. These things just happen, again and again. Call it bad luck, fate, or, in the case of the Astros, getting what the team deserved for its arrogant flouting of the rules. Chiefs fans will no doubt call the Texans’ squandering of a 24-point lead inevitable given that they proved themselves the superior team over the remaining three quarters. It’s a fact of life that Houston sports teams always find a way to choke. It’s what they do.
I won’t rehash the long, depressing history of Houston sports—former Texas Monthly senior editor John Nova Lomax did a fine job of that in his 2015 essay “Misery City: Houston Is the Saddest Sports Town in America,” where he compares Houston with other contenders for the nation’s most cursed sports city (Cleveland, Atlanta, Buffalo) before concluding that Houston’s misery is unparalleled. But that isn’t reflected in national rankings; a 2014 Buzzfeed listicle of America’s saddest, most tortured sports cities, for instance, ranked Houston as low as number ten. (“Even when it comes to losing, Houston can’t win,” Lomax observed.) Houston is forever down on its luck, even when winning is involved: Although the Rockets took home back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995—the city’s first championships in a major sport—critics continue to discount those seasons because Michael Jordan was out playing minor-league baseball for most of them.
That’s the way it’s been my entire life. I was born in Houston in 1983, the year the University of Houston basketball team, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, was seconds away from winning the national championship. Then, Olajuwon inexplicably failed to box out North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles beneath the basket, letting Charles turn a desperation shot into a slam dunk that won the game for the Wolfpack. It haunts my father, a UH alumnus, to this day.
My own first taste of Houston sports agony, though, was the Oilers’ epic playoff collapse against the Buffalo Bills in 1993. Every Houston football fan of a certain age remembers where they were that day. I was watching the game with my father on our recently purchased color television in Austin. I distinctly recall the knot in my stomach got tighter and tighter as the Oilers sank from a 35-3 lead in the third quarter, to, when it was all over, a 38-41 loss in overtime. After the game, my dad and I took a long, queasy walk around the neighborhood to digest what had just happened, and I vowed to never support the Oilers again.
Owner Bud Adams moved the Oilers to Nashville four years later, where they became the Tennessee Titans and made the Super Bowl in 2000. They lost in a very Oilers-like way when wide receiver Kevin Dyson came up one yard short of the goal line as time expired. The Titans are knocking on the Super Bowl’s door again this year, punching their ticket to the AFC Championship game by upsetting the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday. Had the Texans—the replacement team Houston was finally awarded in 2002—managed to beat the Chiefs, it would have set up an epic grudge match at NRG Stadium this weekend between Houston’s current and former football clubs, a chance for the Texans to redeem the city’s honor.
Instead it was déjà vu all over again for Houston football fans, as they watched a strong lead crumble away. Houston teams are now responsible for two of the five biggest collapses in NFL playoff history. (Houston also played host to another infamous collapse, the Atlanta Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots in the 2017 Super Bowl in NRG Stadium. Coincidence? Not to Houston sports fans.)
The Astros news this week was even more heartbreaking. I’ve been following the team since my father took me to my first game at the Astrodome in 1990, when I was six. Dad and I watched game five of the 2005 National League Championship Series from the nosebleed seats at Minute Maid Park as the Astros found themselves one strike away from making their first-ever World Series—only to have that dream snuffed out by a towering home run from the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols. The Astros managed to win the next game in St. Louis, sending us to the World Series, but that Pujols homer was a psychological gut punch; nobody was terribly surprised when the White Sox swept us 4-0 to take the championship.
The next decade was one of the worst in Astros history. Fan favorites Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retired. Drayton McLane sold the team to an ownership group led by Jim Crane. The team had a losing record every year from 2009 through 2014, including three consecutive 100-plus-loss seasons. Then came the long-rumored turnaround. All those losing seasons had allowed analytics wizards in the team’s back office to build a monster through clever drafting and cultivating young talent.
The 2017 Astros season was magical. As in a fairy tale, our heroes slayed dragon after dragon. I had standing-room-only tickets for game seven of the American League Championship Series, where I watched my hometown team vanquish the mighty New York Yankees to win a trip to the World Series. When George Springer caught the final out, the stadium erupted, and strangers hugged each other beneath a shower of beer and popcorn. In the midst of the jubilation, I called my father. It was too loud to talk, so I just held up my phone to let him hear the noise.
You couldn’t have scripted a better sports story than the Astros winning their first World Series only weeks after the city was hit by the worst natural disaster in its history. For Houstonians who lost everything to Harvey, the Astros’ championship run provided a sense of civic pride, not to mention a distraction from mucking out flooded homes. Players volunteered in the community and wore “Houston Strong” patches on their jerseys; the team gave first responders free tickets to playoff games. They were the good guys.
Except, as we now know, they weren’t. Turns out that you can script a perfect sports story, if you’re willing to cheat—in this case, by employing advanced video technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs and communicate them to batters, giving them an illicit advantage. Other teams may also cheat, but the Astros did it flagrantly, continuing to electronically steal signs even after Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred issued a written warning to all teams about the practice back in September 2017. Manfred didn’t strip the Astros of their World Series title, but he didn’t have to. Now that championship will forever have an invisible asterisk next to it.
The Astros scandal reminds us that as bad as it feels to lose, it feels worse to win if it’s done the wrong way. Better that Houston sports teams retain their identities as lovable losers and scrappy upstarts than to risk repeating the David-into-Goliath transformation of the Luhnow/Hinch Astros. I can’t help thinking that Luhnow, Hinch, and their players never really understood this city. In Houston we may choke, but we don’t cheat.