Loving the Doldrums

Every team has to have one; it’s one of the rules. When the rosters are set for the Major League All-Star game every July, gathering the top players from both the American and National Leagues, each of the thirty teams is guaranteed at least one representative. It doesn’t matter if that particular player is truly deserving of the “all-star” classification; often the inclusion of these token players results in other, more qualified players being left at home. This year, my hometown team sent one of those ignonimous token players to the assembly of baseball’s finest, because as a team, the Astros are so breathtakingly terrible that no player really qualifies on his own merit. It’s only by the grace of a despised affirmative action-esque rule that I’ll have any rooting interest in the game.

This is not to say that Hunter Pence (the token player) is not a talented baseball player, or that the game could bore me simply based on the personnel involved. It’s just that this dubious honor is unfamiliar and unpleasant for me as a fan (I do wear that label, even in these famine years). I obsess over roster moves and draft picks, and I follow minor league box scores and scouting reports, yet the team’s record of success is completely inverse to my interest in its minutiae. I’m not used to being a fan of that lousy team with the one little representative at the All-Star Game.

Every sports team, professional and amateur alike, goes through peaks and valleys of success and failure, and what my Astros are going through is not unique or even unusual. Even in my childhood memory, I recall the last doldrums of the franchise in the late 80s and early 90s, but those losses and frustrations washed off as easily as grass-stained knees and grubby hands. In adulthood, in the time when you’re supposed to outgrow such things in a fit of sudden maturity, I find myself defending my fandom not only to denizens of other cities, but even to my own neighbors. That’s what happens when you love the worst team in the league. As former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti once said, ”It’s designed to break your heart,” and it’s doing just that to mine right now.

I became a baseball fan in the first place because of the game itself. Sure, I was the kid in right field picking flowers and talking to my glove, but I loved the game. The smell of the grass and dirt, the feel of a wooden bat when you make solid contact with a pitch, and the abundant supply of bubble gum all drew me in. Following the professional game came later, but just as fiercely. When I went to my first professional game in the cavernous Astrodome, sitting in rainbow colored seats deep, deep in the outfield, I was instantly transfixed. Pro basketball and college football have subsequently made overtures for my heart, but my one true love hasn’t wavered.

Yet in a season like this one, I feel something like a waver, disguised as a cry for perspective. Those fatal words: “It’s just a game.” That’s how it starts, how you regress from fan to follower to occasional stat collector. But the truth of the matter is that it’s more than a game. Not in the way that florid broadcasters and poetic sportswriters mean when they try to elevate sports into some special American pantheon, but in a way that’s more humble and literal.  

My wife and I love Houston. It’s a grubby, sprawling monster of a modern metropolis, the case in point for poor urban planning and incessant traffic, but it’s our city. We both grew up here, yet we have fallen more in love with it as we’ve gotten closer to the city center, close enough to feel the rhythms of the very real community at its core.

The Astros are just as much a part of this city as NASA, oil companies, and mosquitoes.  Even in football-crazy Texas, the baseball team has held a special place here. Maybe it’s that baseball is more familiar to our Latin American neighbors than the game that calls itself “football” but has helmets and pads; maybe it’s that we went through a drought in the 90s without a professional football team. Who knows. Even the way that we love our team embraces the ugliness; go to a game at Minute Maid Park, and you’ll see nearly as many of the hideous 80s rainbow-striped jerseys on fans’ backs as you will the current brick red.

There’s a certain romance to losing causes and loving the unlovable. Heck, there’s something distinctly biblical about it. A proper theologian would point out that the truest expression of such love comes where no merit is seen, and none is expected in return. But I’m a baseball fan; I do want to see the team on the upswing again, just as I want to feel the city unite around them again. When the team played its way into the World Series in 2005, the entire city lived and breathed with each playoff twist, before finally reaching the peak and falling just short. 

I want to seek the peace and prosperity of our city, and I want to see the fortunes of our local nine rise as well. But I have no influence on the latter. That said, my hope for the Astros can remind me of my hope for Houston. There’s evidence that we’ll be a better team around 2013, when an albatross of an expensive outfielder has moved on and promising younger players have risen through the developmental ranks to repopulate the roster. In the meantime, I can encourage others to stay the course and continue to support the team. After all, it’s one thing to bemoan the lousy state of the team: it’s another altogether to start rooting for the Rangers.

It’s easiest to see this phenomenon with kids. There’s nothing particularly cool about liking a bad team. A preteen boy would rather wear his sister’s Dora the Explorer pajamas to school than have to defend his loyalty to an unsuccessful team with one marginal star player; it’s easier to just slap on a Yankees hat and be done with it. But to the extent that I can instill my love of the hometown team in others — because it's the hometown team — by remaining loyal, I'm planting the seeds of a larger civic identity and pride.

Hunter Pence and a young fan.Some of those seeds are already there, ready to be nurtured. Our first week in our current neighborhood, I drove past two boys playing baseball in an open lot on our street. Just the two of them. One pitcher, one hitter. The game at its most elemental. That pitcher had to take care of a lot of real estate behind him.  They were using a tennis ball instead of a baseball, which makes little backyard games like that into home run derbies, the rubber ball transforming ordinary players into epic sluggers. As the batter sliced a line drive a few feet from my front bumper, I saw his shirt. Astros on the front, Pence on the back. An All-Star after all. Hope remains. The game abides. I waved and gave a thumbs up. The batter took a mock swing for the fences.

Rob Hays lives in Houston on purpose. He still wears Levi's and seersucker, occasionally at the same time. His wife is far more talented than she lets on, and they sit together on their front porch as often as possible.

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