The Astros have always looked up to the Yankees. They've finally supplanted them.
It's fascinating to see Houston as favorites, and one of the league's most hated teams, given a history of futility.
It’s fascinating to see the Astros considered favorites.
As Yankees slayers.
As a new “Evil Empire” of sorts.
That’s what it felt like, anyway, watching Houston carve up the Yankees in a skillful ALCS sweep.
Seemingly since the team’s creation, Houston has looked up to the Yankees, but until recent years the team has always fallen short.
It was a matter of tradition versus imitation. And tradition always seemed to win out.
The Houston franchise was originally named the Colt.45s, but ownership decided space was a more marketable theme than guns, so ahead of the 1965 season the Colts became the Astros to reflect the team’s lofty ambitions and the region’s role in space exploration. An astronaut training base, the Manned Spacecraft Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center, was located about thirty miles away.
The name change coincided with the opening of the team’s new domed stadium. The Astrodome roof resembled a kaleidoscope, with 4,596 Lucite skylights radiating out along twelve lamella roof wedges.
Mickey Mantle and the Yankees were invited to christen the stadium in 1965.
The stadium was heralded as a jewel when it opened, the eighth wonder of the world. But the glare from the skylights was too bright during day games, so workers coated the skylights with off-white paint — which reduced the glare but killed the stadium’s grass.
Enter Monsanto, the agrochemical company, which had created an artificial grass surface called ChemGrass. But given the building where it would be used, ChemGrass took on another name: AstroTurf. The surface changed the way sports were played. The Astrodome, with its AstroTurf, represented the future.
The turf, like the team that played upon it, was a close-enough facsimile during those early years—squint and it might look real, but upon closer inspection it didn’t quite match expectations.
Great players like Joe Morgan, Mike Cuellar and Rusty Staub were shipped away. For tried-and-true fans, this indoor brand of baseball wasn’t baseball the way it’s supposed to be played.
The team’s fortunes started to change in 1979 when John McMullen, formerly a Yankees limited partner, bought the Astros from the Ford Credit Company for $19 million.
McMullen wanted to make a splash. So he followed the Yankees’ impulse to spend — and he scooped up fireballer Nolan Ryan, a native of nearby Alvin, on a four-year, $4 million contract, then the richest free-agent deal in MLB history.
McMullen had negotiated the contract directly with Ryan’s agent, Dick Moss. Owners weren’t happy … other player agents weren’t either. The deal with Ryan forced the Astros to overhaul the team’s salary structure.
And it led to the firing of Tal Smith, the team’s popular GM.
With Ryan, the team finally got over the playoff hump, with postseason berths in 1980 and 1981, but both times falling short of the World Series — the Astros lost to Philadelphia in 1980 in heartbreaking fashion.
Even with the Ryan signing, McMullen hadn’t fully ingrained himself with local fans. He was an outsider from New York who wasn’t a visible presence at games. He wasn’t a rah-rah type of owner.
McMullen brought aboard some old Yankees connections like President/CEO Al Rosen, and Yogi Berra, the Yankees icon, as a coach. But the Yankees were the Yankees because of results — a couple of familiar faces alone wouldn’t change that.
McMullen opened his checkbook in the early years of his ownership and signed off on a new spring training facility in Kissimmee and Astrodome improvements.
But as the 1980s turned to the 1990s, McMullen began to grow impatient and miserly. The Astros weren’t winning, and the veterans were gone, and now the team was full of a bunch of no-name young players (who’d soon become stars).
Biggio. Bagwell. Caminiti. Luis Gonzalez.
At one point, McMullen considered scrapping some Astros’ minor league teams and development programs to save money … which would have been a body blow to a franchise trying to develop big league talent. GM Bill Wood and his assistant, Bob Watson, hopped a plane to New York to talk McMullen out of it, explaining the impact his plan would have on the team’s competitiveness.
“He was challenging,” Wood told me in an interview for my book about former Astros player Ken Caminiti. “He might call me six times a day to talk about various aspects (of the team). But for as much as he was hated in Houston, and he was hated in Houston, he got very little credit. Part of that was John’s fault because of his style. But by the same token, he would say, ‘F’ em,’ you know what I mean?”
The Astros, by turning to the youth movement, had a dynasty in the making. And the top pick in the draft.
But impatience and money again factored into Houston’s second-tier status.
With McMullen looking to unload the club and the team trying to streamline costs, the Astros chose to take Phil Nevin instead of high school shortstop Derek Jeter, and Jeter went on to become a centerpiece of the Yankees’ latest empire built on the strength of homegrown talent and sharp acquisitions.
For decades to come, Houston and New York would continue to be compared — one for piecing together a winner, the other for a missed opportunity.
Those late 1990s and early 2000s Yankees teams were tough. They beat you with pitching, hitting and defense.
They beat you with a deeper bench. And better coaching. They dialed it up whenever the moment was biggest. They withstood your best and outlasted you.
They seemed to be able to plug in anyone and get the job done. And when players left, there was typically someone else waiting in the wings.
Like John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera.
And Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada.
And Chuck Knoblauch and Alfonso Soriano.
And on and on and on.
Houston, meanwhile, never quite had enough pitching. Or their bats went cold at the wrong time.
The likes of Albert Pujols or Scott Posednik found ways to ruin their October dreams.
By the early 2010s, the Astros were back in the doldrums. Three 100-loss seasons in a row.
But this time, all the losing had a purpose. The team was rebuilding its farm system and acquiring or nurturing assets for the future.
Jose Altuve. George Springer. Dallas Keuchel. Marwin Gonzalez. Carlos Correa. Yordan Alvarez.
This time, they remained patient.
They spent when it was merited, and picked up key additions in trades like Justin Verlander, and when players like Correa and Springer were free agents, they had others waiting in the wings.
By continuing to replenish — with prospects like Jeremy Pena and Hunter Brown now starting to emerge — the Astros have reached six consecutive league championship series, a streak that only one team, the 1990s Braves, has surpassed.
Even the Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s didn’t accomplish that.
But those Yankees teams finished the job, winning three straight World Series and four out of five.
The Astros, meanwhile, won one World Series so far, 2017’s tarnished title. Which is why finishing the job this season is so important for Houston. This is about sending a message. About building something that lasts.
But that tarnished title, and the steady success, and an embarrassment of riches, have coalesced into a general dislike of the Astros. They’ve become one of the most hated teams, a team to root against.
Which is still kind of strange to grasp, given the team’s years of futility.
During recent seasons, the Astros have had the Yankees’ number in the playoffs.
Houston sent New York home in 2015, 2017, 2019 and now 2022.
The Astros have dialed up a number of clutch moments during that stretch, such as walk-off homers by Correa and Altuve. But it was something else entirely to see a team crush another team’s spirit quite like the Astros did to the Yankees in this ALCS.
Houston attacked, ant-like, dismantling their prey.
By Game 3, the outcome was predetermined. You could see it in the Yankees’ glum faces and slumped shoulders. You felt almost bad for the Yankees, the winningest team in baseball’s history.
It came down to tradition (the Astros’) versus imitation (the Yankees’). The pinstriped pretenders have fallen. The future is finally here. And it only took 60 years.