José Altuve will never have his statue outside of Minute Maid Park. The diminutive Venezuelan second baseman just finished one of the finest seasons ever produced by a Houston Astro, collecting 225 hits, stealing 56 bases, and hitting .341, good enough to win the American League batting title. If he maintains his current pace, Altuve will join the 3,000 hit club somewhere around his 40th birthday, about two years earlier than Astros legend Craig Biggio, the only Houston player to ever accomplish the feat. Biggio does have his statue in front of Minute Maid, all oversized shirt and boyish enthusiasm, eternally turning a 6-4-3 double play.
It’s not José Altuve’s fault. He’s the best player the Astros have produced in a generation, one of the few bright spots in the gloom that has hung over Crawford Street for the last several seasons. He should be the toast of the town. He should be doing commercials with that H-E-B guy. He should be dreaming of the day he joins Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, immortalized in bronze out in front of the stadium. It’s just not going to happen, none of it, not because José Altuve doesn’t deserve our collective adulation or the chance to hilariously keep Scott McClelland out of his house party or the privilege of seeing all five feet five inches of himself, pedestaled on the stadium concourse for all eternity. It’s not going to happen because we just don’t care about the Astros anymore. The team has lost us.
This has never been a baseball town, not like Boston, or Chicago, or St. Louis, where the Cardinals are as important to civic identity as the Mississippi River, or toasted ravioli, or that great big arch. This is Football Country, of course, and occasionally Basketball Country. That doesn’t mean we dislike baseball. Houston made folk heroes of Charlie Kerfeld and the gloriously rotund (and dearly lamented) Aurelio López, “El Buitre de Tecamachalco” (“The Vulture of Tecamachalco”) back home in Puebla, but plain old "Señor Smoke” to us. Baseball in Houston has always been like strawberry ice cream, or Greek food: not our first choice, but when we have it, we like it just fine. It’s not foreign and off-putting, like, say, toasted ravioli or enormous pointless arches.
Baseball is popular enough in Houston that a group of investors built a stadium out near the old Imperial plant, put together a team of guys who’d washed out of the majors, in a league that is not recognized by Organized Baseball, threw in cameo appearances by a noted local steroid imbiber and Tracy McGrady, called themselves The Sugar Land Skeeters, which is an altogether unfortunate name, and they appear to be making money hand over fist. Constellation Park is fun: the place is almost always packed; the quality of play is close enough to big league standards that the typical 9-year-old, ginned up on hot dogs and cotton candy, isn’t going to notice a difference, and parking is free. While the Skeeters brain trust was quietly building a pleasant, family-friendly ballpark out on Highway 6, the Astros were dissolving into something resembling Romania at the end of the Ceau?escu years, the ancien regime’s hurried footsteps echoing through empty corridors as they took everything they could grab, the New Order standing uncomfortably in front of the reporters, assuring them that they were Good Guys, that the war profiteer stuff was just nonsense.
It’s hard to root for a team of nobodies, especially if you’re thinking they might be owned by a war profiteer. It’s harder to root for a team that feels like a swindle. Drayton McLane fired the greatest general manager in club history, committed the team to some outrageous long-term salaries for players that aren’t even around anymore, stripped the farm system for parts, and ensured that a significant number of Houstonians will not be able to watch Astros games on TV anytime soon. Then he loaded an 18-wheeler with bags of cash and headed up the road to Temple, where he no doubt spends Sundays after church sipping sweet tea at Luby’s, and regaling the locals with stories of his harrowing life in that pit of iniquity down on Buffalo Bayou. To top it off, we ended up in the baseball equivalent of foster care, ripped from our National League home, with our carefully cultivated half-century of biases, grudges, and scores to settle, and plopped into the American League, with its lumpen strategy and interminable game times. I’ve lived most of my life hating the Dodgers and the Cardinals and the Cubs and the Braves, just because they exist. Now I’m supposed to work up those malevolent feelings for the Seattle Mariners? Life’s too short, man. A visit to the Friendly Mausoleum on Crawford Street is a reminder that nothing’s the way it used to be. It’s worse, and it will be a long time before it gets better.
Astros games, while nowhere near the fiscal irresponsibility that is going to see the Texans, are still pricey. According to the 2014 edition of The Fan Cost Index, which gauges how much a family of four will spend on a visit to the ballpark, a trip to Minute Maid – four tickets, two beers, four sodas, four hot dogs and a couple of caps – will set you back $224.33. The Constellation Park experience will run you $147.50, and that’s assuming you go Full Skeeter and opt for a pair of the top-of-the-line fitted caps, “like the players wear!” For a lot of families, the choice between making the long slog downtown to watch a club in the throes of another 90-loss season, and saving 75 bucks by heading 10 minutes down the road to watch a bunch of guys you kind of remember, playing something called the South Maryland Blue Crabs, is a no-brainer.
Maybe it will change. The New Order has been rebuilding the farm system, and the initial returns are very encouraging. The team has emerged from its coal, brick, and sand nightmare, and is once more ensconced in navy and orange, as Nature and Judge Hofheinz intended. We have a Freddie Patek–sized sparkplug of a second baseman who just won a batting title. Maybe we’ll start caring again. Maybe the soft allure of watching aging dudes with “Skeeters” written across their chests will start to wane. Maybe we’ll all become Astros fans again, and want more statues of our heroes.
For José Altuve’s sake, I hope so.