“rebuild” – verb: when people rebuild something such as an institution, a system, or an aspect of their lives, they take action to restore it to its previous condition.
From 2011 to 2013, the Houston Astros sat at the very bottom of the Major League Baseball pyramid. Posting a 162-324 record in that timeframe, the once-tough Astros tallied three consecutive last place finishes in a duration that also saw their attendance deteriorate.
They were insignificance and notoriety personified as a Major League Baseball team. It didn’t help the Astros, as a baseball team and as a simple image, to see the Texas Rangers succeed and nearly capture the World Series twice over those three years.
They were, perhaps, the most terribly-managed and least-talented team in all of major North American sports. However, the team, the front office led by Jeff Luhnow, and the city, did not give up. They just needed a rebuild.
Houston, Texas is the fourth-largest city in the United States, and at its current pace, might soon surpass Chicago for the spot at third-largest. If you visited Houston and the surrounding areas since the horrifying, tragic day of August 25th, 2017, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
On that day and since, Houston was and has been relegated to a status as a natural wasteland. Hurricane Harvey flooded the suburbs, plains, and anything else Houston calls their own, mostly decimating a city of wonderful culture and a downright beautiful mixture of people from all walks of life in its wake.
77 people from Houston, Rockport, Victoria, Corpus Christi, and anywhere in between or around, perished in the aftermath of Harvey. The Category 4 storm ripped through the gulf coast bay and the major city of Houston, destroying businesses, homes, cars, and devastatingly, human lives.
Harvey was, and still is to less fortunate Texans, a cataclysmic form of natural destruction. But, Houston and the entire Harris county area didn’t give up. They just need a rebuild.
In June of 2012, the immense struggles inside of Minute Maid Park became somewhat of an afterthought – just for a moment. In having a 56-win 2011, the Astros netted the first overall selection in 2012’s Draft, using the spot to take shortstop Carlos Correa, an 18-year-old from Puerto Rico. The Astros went “off the board,” to a degree, with this selection.
The consensus number one overall pick in 2012 was now-Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton. Buxton’s blistering speed and superb glove was marveled upon by scouts and MLB executives, adding to an outfield arm comparable to the best in the business. But, the Astros are not a team of traditional scouting, decision-making, and front office risks. They fully embrace analytics and advanced metrics to measure players, something that will pay off here, and later on in the rebuild.
As 2012 rolled on, the Astros were well on their way to another dreadful season. 55 wins, 107 losses, only one 3-win player by way of WAR (pitcher Lucas Harrell), and two managers splitting time in the Houston dugout. They were as dysfunctional as any team in pro sports, and their fanbase knew it. Total attendance for 2012 at Minute Maid Park was 1,607,733, an average of under 20,000 a game.
It’s an average that wouldn’t soon change. Single-game attendance cratered for weeknight games at 6,000 people per nine-inning match as the lowly Astros played out another strategic rebuilding year. Not to imply that the core Astros fans are all fair-weather fans, but Houston is historically a low-income city; the Astros were not in anybody’s budget if you’re seeing a team that can’t break 60 wins.
Budget concerns would become the makeup of all Houstonians in the future, in addition. In the wake of Harvey, many Houston natives succumb to the economic constraints of the current United States landscape – in other words, they can’t find the cash to rebuild their homes or move away from it all. It would be wrong to point fingers as a baseball writer and not a political pundit, but those in the White House and those in positions to make a difference failed them.
Houston residents can’t escape what has been given to them, or better yet, forced upon them as a city. Natural disasters can’t be prevented, and assistance is limited. It’s a truly and sincerely hopeless situation for many, even months after the impact.
In 2013, the Astros’ fortunes changed little; it was all apart of the plan to build from the ground up. They didn’t win not because they couldn’t win, but because they wanted to fail. The Astros went 51-111 – they have never won fewer games in a single-season in franchise history. For a sports team that had experience the lowest of lows, things somehow got lower.
The terrible season, however, was their last of the modern rebuild. To win just 51 games in a season where the two pennant winners each won 97 is abysmal, and worse when you factor in their place in the American League West standings. In their first season in the AL, Houston finished 45 games behind the Oakland Athletics for the division crown. Thankfully, it was over, but they still had a lot of work to do.
2014 saw more losing, but at the same time, far less losing. Jose Altuve, a superstar and once their top prospect at just 5’5″, netted 200 hits for the first time in his career, leading the American League in batting average (.341) and stolen bases (56). Altuve was showing the rest of baseball what the Astros were about to become; a scrappy, underappreciated team that plays with nothing to lose at all times. Houston finished 70-92, went through two more managers (Bo Porter and Tom Lawless), and played in very few meaningful games.
Houston took notice. Their attendance went up from the three below-60-win seasons, and the team saw more revenue than before. This prompted Sports Illustrated to print a cover, featuring Astros outfielder George Springer, that read “Your 2017 World Series Champs” in bold letters in mid-2014. The Astros’ grand experiment of tanking – and tanking hard at that – to gain the money, prospects, trade chips, and draft picks of the future was finally coming to fruition.
Houston, Texas is still in that mode, as sad as it is. The city is rebuilding, and it’s going to take some time, or, quite a bit of it. The city’s two large, federal water reservoirs have finally been completely emptied of floodwaters, food is being properly distributed through the city and the suburbs that follow, and five former United States presidents recently came together to raise money for the metro area’s relief fund.
H-E-B, the Texas-based grocery superstore, has donated millions of dollars of their own cash and provided truckloads of food, supplies, and everything in between to the victims of the storm. Even prisoners at nearby Rosharon, Texas’s units and beyond donated $50,000 to the American Red Cross for hurricane relief. Everyone came together and rallied around an idea, seemingly, of rebuilding together through the pain and misery of the storm.
The Houston Astros made the postseason for the first time since their 2005 World Series run in 2015, defeating the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card game by virtue of Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel’s brilliant start. Six innings of shutout baseball with seven Ks gave the Astros the victory, moving to face and eventually fall to the Kansas City Royals in five games.
The Astros left a lot on the table, but the disappointment wasn’t there, it felt like. We, as a state, or as the Astros fanbase, knew more was coming. Keuchel was only 27, Correa had just jumped onto the scene, Altuve had another 200-hit season, Collin McHugh won 19 games, and so on. There was some work to do, but the Houston Astros, as we knew them with Craig Biggio, Carlos Beltran, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Bagwell, and others, were more or less back.
2016 was a disappointing season, but one the Astros were accustomed to. The bright spot was, however, Jose Altuve. Altuve had been nominated as a finalist for the American League Most Valauble Player award, losing to Mike Trout in the voting process. The one-time super prospect who stuck his head down and dealt with a myriad of organizational dysfunction and change, Altuve was finally being recognized as the MLB mega-star he is.
Then, in 2017, the Astros had arguably their best season in franchise history. 101 wins, six AL All-Star selections, and the acquisition of veteran pitcher and former MVP Justin Verlander are of note, but you already know that. The Astros and all they accomplished this season are exemplified and magnified by what their city, behind and amongest them, went through.
Houston is still rebuilding, while the Astros, however, are not. Not only have the Astros given the city the blueprints for rebuilding as the citizens apply for and receive federal aid, but they have given them something to root for. The little guy (quite literally) every citizen of the metro area can pull for.
It’s not your typical underdog story. The Astros have won two postseason series against teams they were statistically and according to the bracket seeding, favored in a five or seven game set against. But, if you watched the Astros from 4-6 years ago, you would be dumbfounded by this team’s story and resiliency.
The city needs that right now. Not only do they deserve a story like this, or a team as talented and lovable as the Astros are, Houston needs a persevering superpower to hang their hat on. The Astros haven’t been that in a very long time; no Houston sports team really has been.
You have Altuve, Correa, and many others to gush over as the city regains its footing. The heart and talent Altuve shows every time he laces his cleats up is equal parts and evident. Correa’s all-around game reminds us of how genuinely unfair he is as an athlete – he has no business being as graceful and angelic as he is at shortstop.
In August, the Astros were forced to play three of their 82 home games away from home at Tropicana Park near Tampa, Florida due to the flooding affecting travel in Houston. After they returned to H’Town, many Astros players spent a very rare day off at a downtown Houston convention center, meeting with Harvey evacuees. Every game since the storm, they have donned a “Houston Strong” patch on the chest of their uniforms.
It’s reminiscent of the Boston Red Sox capturing the city’s spirit and besting the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series after the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. After 51 inches of rain dropped in Houston in just one of the few days where torrential downpours and winds left the city hopeless, the Astros have carried the same weight – not only the players, or the fanbase, but the city wants the Astros to win.
Houston has the Astros if not anything else, and for many of these people, they truly don’t have anything else. Houston is a scrappy, magnificently beauteous city with a heartwarming attitude and a lovable bunch of diverse cultures and peoples. Nothing like a team that fits that description to keep hopes, dreams, and the city itself, alive.
When the Astros begin the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, they might not win Game 1. They might not win the title, as they haven’t in their 55-year history. Houston, as a city, though, will win in a way where there is no loser.
Game 3 in Houston at Minute Maid Park might be the loudest baseball game ever. Let’s absorb it and appreciate all the city has been through as the Astros and their players look to put the finishing touches on an inspiring, goosebump-inducing postseason run.