H-Town Diary

A Houston Sports Fan Learns to Love Again

After the World Series, Houston sports fans have multiple real, honest-to-goodness reasons to hope.

By Jeff Balke December 29, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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The parade celebrating the Rockets' 1995 championship

It’s unclear which tactic broke him: the constant drone of “KEEEEEIIIITTTTHHHH!!!!” or the steady stream of expletive-laced insults. Either way, after hours of grilling on our part, Keith Hernandez himself finally looked our way … and shook his head in disbelief. It was a small victory, yes. But it was ours all the same.

Today I can still see the moment in my memory, still taste the $1 Dome dogs. It was the summer of 1987, I’d just graduated high school, and the New York Mets were in town for a four-game series against the Astros. The hometown team was having a dismal 76-86 season that included Billy Hatcher’s corked-bat scandal. But that didn’t stop me from attending all four games, where I sat in the $5 left-field bleacher seats. There was always something magical about the Astrodome’s bleachers. It felt like the real fans sat there. You had to squint to see the batter, and ignore the odd smells (urine, maybe?) wafting by.

During game four, though, my friends and I managed to score a few empty seats along the first-base line, mere feet from the player manning it, the better to lob our verbal missiles. Today he’s an analyst covering Major League Baseball for Fox, but 30 years ago, Hernandez was a hated Houston rival. The previous season, in ’86, the Astros had managed a thrilling, division-clinching victory over the San Francisco Giants after a no-hitter from pitcher Mike Scott, only to lose the National League Championship to these same bastard Mets—including old Hernandez. They’d gone on to win the World Series while we nursed our wounds.

So when he turned to look over at our ragtag band of idiots, we were elated. Never mind it being the best moment of the game; it was probably the best moment of the entire season. Yes, our standards were depressingly low. But you have to remember: We’d lived through season after season—baseball, basketball and football—that raised our hopes and then dashed them, leaving us a tangled mess of emotion and frustration. Having been burned, and burned again, we tried with all our might to keep our expectations as close to zero as possible. And like all Houston sports fans, we’d learned to eke out our victories wherever we could.

The list of intertwined thrill-of-victory-agony-of-defeat moments in Houston sports history is sadly—weirdly—long, far too long to comprehensively document here. But there are certainly some brutal standouts.

In 1993, the Oilers went on an 11-game winning streak, only to end the season in the first game of the playoffs, with a loss to Buffalo—this, after we’d been up by 32 points in the third quarter. Theirs became the biggest come-from-behind win in NFL history, a feat so remarkable it has its own Wikipedia page; today the game is known simply as “The Comeback.” Another painful blow came courtesy of the 2008 Rockets, who won 22 straight games before losing All-Star center Yao Ming to injury and meekly bowing out in the first round of the playoffs. Sitting with our heads in our collective hands, Houston sports fans once again asked: How can we expect anything more than this?

Yes, there were notable exceptions to our losing rule. But with all due respect to the titles won by the Rockets in 1994 and ’95, some in the sport—and some fans—still view them as less than legitimate. Why? Because Michael Jordan spent the 1994 season playing baseball, and the next one trying to get back into basketball shape. Had he been at full strength, they say, the Bulls and Jordan would have cruised right past the Rockets. Right or wrong, the perceived asterisk next to those championships only served to further deepen our depressingly low self-esteem.

All of which explains why for decades, the default for Houston sports fans was this: There would be more pain than gain, and anything we could do to prop ourselves up was acceptable, including taunting guys like Hernandez.

Then, 2017 happened.

Houston fans watched bewildered as the Astros spent most of the season with the best or second-best record in Major League Baseball. They had more All-Stars than any other team, and their best player, José Altuve, was the presumptive American League MVP. Outside of the city, the Astros were regarded as frontrunners, their success expected. But locally, it was another story.

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We never thought we'd live to see it: an Astros World Series victory.

Image: Marco Torres

Those of us who’d spent our lives watching Houston sports hedged our bets. We covered our eyes, even left the room at critical moments. We wore the same jerseys and sat in the same spot for every game, bowing to our superstitions and doubts. Never, ever did we let our guard down; never, ever did we expect to win it all.

It wasn’t until the final out in the final inning of the seventh game of the World Series that we all, at last, breathed a massive sigh of relief. Almost as strange as winning was knowing that much of the world was cheering with us, on our side after witnessing the horrors we’d so recently endured, when Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston. For the first time, Houston wasn’t an underdog or, worse, a laughingstock.

And so, this championship ranks as the city’s most important, not because it did happen but because of how it happened. Unlike the Rockets’ wins in the ’90s, there is no asterisk to this title, no debate. The Astros dismantled three of the most storied franchises in baseball—the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the L.A. Dodgers—capping it all off with one of the most memorable championship series in MLB history.

It’s hard to explain the burden the Astros’ World Series victory has lifted off lifelong Houston sports fans. It may not have eliminated our pessimism entirely, but let’s say that, for now, it’s been greatly reduced. More importantly, maybe future generations won’t have the chip on their shoulder that we carried for so long.

The truth is, even outside of our World Series win, things have improved a lot for Houston in recent years. As of this writing, the Rockets are arguably the best team in basketball, led by perennial MVP candidate James Harden, and the Texans seem to have finally found their quarterback of the future in Deshaun Watson, despite the injury that ended his season. For once in our lives, Houston sports fans have multiple real, honest-to-goodness reasons to hope.

Sure, our cynicism could return if we see those hopes dashed repeatedly and end up going decades without getting close again. We don’t have cabinets full of trophies like New York or Los Angeles. But it’s hard to imagine a kid today finding his greatest joy in taunting a rival the way we did 30 years ago. Houston sports fans don’t need those kinds of victories anymore.

We have a real one.

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