Once again the Houston Astros fell short of their quest to be World Series champions, losing 7-0 to the Atlanta Braves, marking the second time in 5 years that the Astros couldn’t clinch the crown. On the analytical side, there are many reasons I can point to why the Astros came up short.
To begin with, they just ran short in terms of pitching. On top of losing their ace, Lance McCullers, to an injury in the ALCS, they had to start Luis Garcia on short rest. Beyond Garcia’s lack of rest, the bullpen, exhausted by their overuse in Game 5 of the series, lacked the arm vitality needed to keep a potent Atlanta lineup in check, as they wracked up three homers at Minute Maid Park, sending the Astros and their fans into a sort of stupor.
The elephant in the room was the Astros impotent hitting. In Game 6, with everything on the line, the Astros managed a paltry 6 hits, all singles, and left runners in scoring position 3 times. This was the second time the Astros were shut out, suffering a similar fate in their 2-0 defeat to Atlanta in Game 3. And it wasn’t just Games 3 and 6. Throughout the series, the Astros managed just two home runs, both by Altuve. Conjuring the long ball was a huge part of their success story during the regular season, where they went yard 221 times. Whatever spark was needed, it simply wasn’t there.
There is, of course, the old baseball maxim that “good pitching beats good hitting.” While this is overwhelmingly true, I’m not sure it applies in this case at least not fully. To begin with, although the Braves certainly had good pitching, they were not the leaders in their league. More importantly, the Astros led Major League Baseball in most offensive categories, including scoring runs. So, something less quantifiable was at play.
What the Astros were missing was swagger, something commentator and ex-Red Sox great David Ortiz pointed out in Game 5. More specifically, the Astros lacked a joie de vivre, a joyfulness in playing the game that animates and motivates players to perform at their best.
To understand this, you have put their current struggles in the context of the 2017 season, which saw the once-lowly Astros rise from the bottom of their division to win their first World Series against the most dominant team in baseball at the time, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
During the 2017 season, the Astros were engaged in a sign-stealing scheme that later turned into a scandal that rocked MLB to its foundation. Even though sign-stealing has always been a part of the game, and other teams were also caught engaging in sign-stealing schemes, the Astros’ use of a camera to capture and relay pitch selection signs to batters crossed whatever implied moral line there was separating the “okay” from the “not okay.”
In what had to be a pervading sense of humiliation, Astros’ players were forced to apologize to their fans, the Astros skipper, A.J. Hinch, and Jeff Luhnow, the team’s general manager, were suspended and then fired in wake of the scandal, with Hinch ultimately accepting the role of manager of the Detriot Tigers. Moreover, the Astros forfeited their first- and second-round draft picks for the next two years and were fined $5 million, the maximum allowed under MLB’s constitution.
One other thing, however, also stood out about the 2017 season: the Astros’ love for playing the game, as evidenced by their celebratory antics, such as the elaborate high-five interactions between players like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa.
The Astros’ fans played their part, too. Reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey, which left large portions of Houston underwater and scores of people without electricity, the Astros came through, psychologically and spiritually lifting up the city in one of its darkest moments, who in turn uplifted the Astros with their adoration.
And it wasn’t just Houstonians or even Texans that supported the Astros. A fervor swept across the land, and the Astros became the darling of not only the national media but more importantly, of MLB fans in general. Suddenly, New Yorkers and Floridians, Oregonians and Coloradans were adorned with Astros’ caps, t-shirts, and uniform tops, as the nation embraced the Orange Crush and believed in the fairy tale of the underdog, of David slaying Goliath in face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Then, in 2019, shortly before entering the World Series, the Astros met with a group of umpires, MLB officials, and the brain trusts of the Nationals to discuss guidelines for the series, including notably, the prohibition of electronics to steal signs. Operating under this cloud of suspicion, the Astros came within a few innings of winning another World Series, only to fall to the Nationals in the last few innings of Game 7.
Throughout the 2019 series, as well as they played, there didn’t seem to be the same magic, the same feeling of electricity in the air. To be fair, a second championship is never as potent or magical as the first. Yet, the Astros, despite the fact that they won 107 games during the regular season, a franchise record, just seemed to have lost some of their energy, the energy that would have pushed them over the finish line into first instead of second place. And just like that, the Astors started to fall from grace, slipping from the national consciousness like a political candidate who almost won, but didn’t, or couldn’t.
Writing for Culture Map, the journalist Fred Faour, framed it eloquently: “Unlike 2017, outside of Houston, no one liked the 2019 Astros team. Everyone was rooting for the Nationals. They became the lovable first-timers. The thought of Max Scherzer finally getting to hoist a trophy. The annoying Baby Shark. A pesky, gritty lineup. When the capital of political corruption becomes more popular than you, it’s time to embrace your inner villain. The Astros became the bad guys.”
In the end, though, the bad-guy persona wasn’t enough. On paper, the Astros had talent galore, but gone was the joy, the joie de vivre, the magic that infused the 2017 season with elation and a dream-like essence. When ex-Astro pitcher Mike Fiers spilled the proverbial beans about the Astros sign-stealing scheme to the publication The Athletic, things quickly unwound, and fans began to question what had actually happened in 2017. The final blow, however, came shortly after the 2019 Worlds Series when the definitive proof came out from the commissioner’s report that the Astros had been caught, red-handed.
From that point on, the Astros lost all of their remaining joy, and then their efforts became nothing more than a series of desperate attempts to re-establish their legitimacy in the face of their perceived crimes. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with cardboard cutouts replacing actual fans, the Astros once again stumbled, coming within one game of making it to the World Series as they were knocked out of contention by the Tampa Bay Rays, who went on to be bested by the Dodgers, surely a hollow victory in a strange, abbreviated season.
The 2021 season had more ups and downs than the 2019 season, with the Astros struggling to hold on to first place as the Seattle Mariners nipped at their heels. But all the while, it looked as though it was more of a dutiful charge than a zest for the game. Yes, the players celebrated each others’ successes and they smiled when they won games. But all the while, it just seemed there was something missing. It was subtle but palpable. Most telling was Alex Bregman. Gone were the dugout hijinks he was famous for. The steering-wheel lurch and the sideways head glance gave way to a business-like demeanor and by comparison to days gone by, he rarely smiled.
The magical innocence of a boy playing the game he loved more than anything simply faded away. Commentators talked about his mechanics being off, his stance needing adjustment. Perhaps so, but I consider these secondary to the seemingly dark aura that surrounded him.
Much like Bregman, The Astros as a team were no longer playing for the sheer love of the sport and thrill of competition, but instead with the mission of vindication, with the aim of proving they were not villains, that they could be trusted once again. It was a bid for legitimacy they kept chasing but were unable to catch.
In the end, it wasn’t enough, and what little magic there was, faded. None of this diminishes what the Astros’ achieved. To be sure, three World Series appearances in half a decade is one for the record books, rivaling the likes of the Yankees. But much like the Yankees, who continually prove you can’t buy a championship, we can learn something from the downfall of the Astros. A cynical person might even say that the Astros can’t win the big one without cheating. While I can’t prove that notion wrong, that’s not the takeaway for me.
For me, it’s not enough to play to win; you have to play with love in your heart as if manifesting your deepest dreams depends on the joy you bring to bear in the moments that define the game. You have to play like you did when you were a child when just the chance to play baseball was a form of magic that suspended time, when holding a ball in your hand was like cradling the entire universe, pressed tightly in a glove, held dearly against your heart.
The writer Tee Morris puts it this way: “Dreams of eternal glory for the men who ran to the outfield, who took their respective bases, and prepared for battle against those who would dare enter their hallowed realm. Dreams for the kids in the stands, all wanting to don a uniform, kiss their mom’s goodbye, and wield their bats as enchanted weapons destined to knock the cover off the ball.”
Next season, let us hope the Astros can rediscover their joy and love, their innocence and unbridled enthusiasm that characterized their dream season of 2017. To win, you must play with joy, because when you do, the joy is infectious. It builds momentum and inspires in a way that desperation never can. And though it can never guarantee a win, you are most assuredly guaranteed to lose without it. Go Astros!
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