Back in March, I laid out the reasons why Houston—and Houston alone—was the most cursed, doomed, saddest, and tortured sports city in America. I painstakingly chronicled the litany of terrible breaks, epic choke jobs, and valiant failures we’ve endured along the road to this unenviable title.
Among my bullet points? Since our baseball franchise’s inception more than fifty years ago, only one Astros team has ever made the World Series. Neither the Oilers nor the Texans have made it to a Super Bowl. And even when we did make it to the mountaintop of a major-league sport—as with the Rockets, with their back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995—conventional wisdom among national sports fans has it now that our moment in the sun was undeserved. Had Michael Jordan not been
maybe possibly suspended for gambling off fulfilling his lifelong dream of playing minor league baseball, this moronic line of thinking goes, the Rockets would have just been another in the series of speedbumps en route to His Airness’s inhuman streak of perfection. (This in spite of the fact the Vernon Maxwell had MJ’s number and the small matter of MJ having actually played much of the 1994-95 season, and his Bulls having lost to the same Orlando Magic squad the Rockets swept in the Finals. And yet there remains an asterisk behind those two titles to this day, everywhere north of Conroe and west of Katy.)
I laid all of that out there in March. Then along comes the New York Times’s Upshot blog to tell us Houston’s cursed sports history ranks us no better than eleventh in the nation.
Eleventh behind Atlanta, where the Falcons have made the Super Bowl and the Braves have won a World Series.
Eleventh behind Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the Vikings were perennial Super Bowl participants and the Twins have won multiple World Series since the late eighties.
Eleventh behind Buffalo and San Diego, both of which are glorified minor league towns and have at least participated in Super Bowls (and one of which victimized Houston in a sports defeat of Stalingrad-like scale).
Eleventh behind a bunch of cities that have either never lost their beloved NFL team at all, or got to replace it with one of the same name and wearing the same uniforms as the one they lost. (Looking at you, Cleveland.) Or had to suffer the indignity of seeing their baseball team shunted off into the, ugh, American League.
And eleventh behind Phoenix (World Series title, Super Bowl appearance); Oakland (where the Raiders and A’s were dominant in not-too-distant memory and the Warriors are currently in the NBA finals after eliminating the Rockets); and Kansas City (home of the reigning American League champs and a seventies Super Bowl champ).
Here is their rationale, such as it is:
We’ve come up with a few metrics to measure sports pain. One is the combined number of seasons since a city’s last championship, across the four major sports. Cleveland is now up to an incredible 147 title-less seasons since the Browns’ 1964 N.F.L. championship. Another measure is the percentage of seasons over the last 50 years that have ended with a title. For reference, 10 percent of Boston’s team seasons since 1965 have ended with a title. Most of the 13 cities on this list here don’t clear 2 percent. We also tell you how many close calls — which we define as unsuccessful appearances in a sport’s final four — a city has had. Sorry, Philadelphia.
Sorry, Philadelphia, home of the 2008 World Series-winning Phillies? And the 1980 World Series-winning Phillies who knocked the Astros out in yet another thrilling but heartbreaking Houston sports defeat? And where the Eagles have landed in two Super Bowls to the Oiler / Texans zero and the Sixers won an unasterisked NBA title with Rockets escapee Moses Malone? Sorry?!? Wow. Okay.
Also, this blog picked a “toughest loss” for each city on its list. It’s choice for Houston? The 1986 NLCS. Um, no, that was indeed a bitter pill, but one that pales in comparison to the events of January 3, 1993.
At any rate, this survey accepts hockey as a “Big 4” sport, which is a dubious prospect at best once one ventures south of Philly and St Louis. And evidently Houston was a city of world-beating hockey champions back when Gerald Ford was knocking over lamps in the White House and Helen Reddy topped the pop charts:
You’re obviously forgetting the Houston Aeros’ back-to-back World Hockey Association titles in 1974 and 1975, both sweeps, over the Chicago Cougars and the Quebec Nordiques. Because the W.H.A. merged with the N.H.L. in 1979, we’re counting the seven W.H.A. seasons here.
Yes, we obviously are forgetting that, since the WHL was a minor league. Their star was Gordie Howe, a legend of the game to be sure, but he was then fast approaching 50 years of age. It’s A Wonderful Life hit the silver screen not on the year Howe was born, but on the year he made his NHL debut (1946).
He was already a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame by that point, and was playing for Houston with two of his sons. Which is a nice story, but not indicative of the WHL being top-flight competition.
When the WHA merged with the NHL, Houston was not awarded a franchise, and Houston did not then—nor has ever had—a top-level professional hockey team. (I saw the Aeros play in 1977, and they lost to the Soviet Red Army team 10-1. They were not an elite hockey team, trust me.) And though the sport is not a natural fit here in the swampy subtropics, it seems to fit in with the curse that we don’t have a hockey team here given that inferior Sun Belt burgs like Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Tampa, Miami, and Dallas have them.
If there is a fourth major sport here, it’s soccer, and when I last touched on this subject, I was roasted alive by Dynamo fans for not mentioning their two MLS Cup titles back in 2006 and 2007. The NYT blog ignored it as well, but took pains to explain why: “We realize some fans would argue for including Major League Soccer, but it has attracted substantially less fan interest by most measures than baseball, basketball, football or hockey.”
Look, I love the beautiful game. I lived in the UK and elsewhere overseas for a few years in my mid-twenties and went to a few matches in person. I devour the World Cup, and am avidly and eagerly up to date on the downfall of Sepp Blatter. And I was genuinely happy for the Dynamo to win their league.
But for the same reason I am not wowed by the Aeros’ seventies-era dominance, I am less than awed by the Dynamo’s mid-2000s run. Especially at that time, Major League Soccer was not a “major league” in anyone’s mind but the PR department of the league office.
According a recent ranking of national soccer leagues, MLS today ranks twelfth in the world against other national leagues. I take that to mean that the MLS champs would lose handily to teams such as Liverpool, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munchen, and even the Portuguese club Porto. And that’s with MLS at an all-time high in strength and prestige. When the Dynamo won in 2006 and 2007, league strength was exponentially lower. (As late as 2010, years after the Dynamo’s run, it was ranked 24th, behind England’s second-tier league and the top leagues of such powerhouse soccer nations as Honduras, Australia, and freaking North Korea.)
Taking those cups was nice for Houston, as it was when the now-defunct Comets won all those championships, and Rice won the College World Series, but the Dynamo’s was not a world title, just as it wasn’t when the Aeros won back before the Bee Gees were household names. Where would those Dynamo teams have finished in the EPL of ten years ago? The Bundesliga? Serie A? Liga MX? Are you really gonna tell me they would have taken down Man U or Barcelona ten years ago? Aren’t they more like the Houston Oilers, who dominated the AFL in its infancy against inferior competition while playing on the same glorified high school field, but would have been crushed like a grape had they lined up against the Cleveland Browns of that same early-sixties era? (Speaking of Cleveland, that’s one city I respect almost as much as my own when it comes to losing, but even as I type this they could be on the brink of breaking their 51-year championship drought.)
There are lots of lists of saddest, most tortured, and most miserable sports cities out there. Houston makes all of them, but never tops them. As we said it back in March, even when it comes to losing, Houston can’t win.
(Photos: AP Images.)