On a mild spring night in 1965, nestled in cots on a screened-in back porch in South Texas, my brother and I started listening on the radio to Houston Astros baseball games. I was 14 and he was 13.
Last week, with both of us at retirement age, the Astros finally won the World Series.
“I guess I can die now,” I told my brother minutes after Jose Altuve scooped up the final groundball of the series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Baseball is a cruel game, and it has been harder on other fans. A friend who is a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan finally got satisfaction when the Cubs won the series last year for the first time in his life. I won’t tell you how old he is, but here’s a hint: He is a veteran of World War II. Worse, he’s a Democrat.
Still, my brother and I had our hearts broken often enough. That spring night was the opening series in the Astrodome, the self-proclaimed Eighth Wonder of the World. The Astros were playing the New York Yankees, and Mickey Mantle hit baseball’s first indoor home run.
Something clicked. When the regular season opened we were still listening. In May, we talked our parents into a trip to Houston to see the team in person. Astros third baseman Bob Aspromonte bounced a single off the third-base foul line to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 10th inning.
We were hooked, in deep, the way only baseball can set hooks. For years, we listened to the Astros practically every day on KNAL, 1410 AM, plus the occasional game on TV. We grew up in the country, among huisache and coral snakes, and those games somehow opened a window to a broader world: those windblown afternoons at Wrigley Field, those cold late nights in Candlestick Park.
We learned a little about the world and a lot about losing. The Astros had some good players – Joe Morgan was a rookie the year we started listening – but they had few good teams. Houston started playing major league baseball in 1962 and didn’t have a winning season until 1972. Yet our loyalty was unwavering, even after it became clear that the Astrodome symbolized what was going wrong with baseball, not what was going right.
We had plenty of moments to remember. We fell asleep listening to the Astros play the Mets late in a scoreless game in 1968. A couple of hours later, we woke up, and the game was still on. The Astros eventually won, 1-0, in 24 innings.
One late night in San Francisco, Willie Mays apparently decided the game had gone on long enough. He fouled off pitch after pitch until he got just the one he wanted. Game over.
My brother eventually became a pretty good player. I umpired for a few seasons and discovered Earnshaw Cook’s “Percentage Baseball,” a precursor to the sabermetrics movement that inspired “Money Ball” and changed the way the game is played.
In 1980, visiting friends in Houston, my wife and I took the afternoon off to see Nolan Ryan pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ryan hit half of his career home run total of two that day, and the game lasted 17 innings.
My wife, no fan at the time, kept saying we needed to leave because our friends were expecting us. I said something like this: “Look, our friends will eventually forgive us, but I will never forgive myself if we leave this game.”
As it happened, the Astros went into the final series of that season with a two-game lead over the Dodgers, needing to win only one of three to make the playoffs against the Philadelphia Phillies. After the Astros lost the first two games, a sports-writing friend called from Vermont.
“This is the suicide hotline,” he began. “We had a message saying to give you a call.”
The Astros won that third game, and I still remember the six-column Los Angeles Times headline: “Astros win first prize: two days in Philadelphia.” Underneath, in smaller type: “Dodgers win second prize: winter in LA.”
The Astros lost that series against the Phillies, with the final four games all going into extra innings. The following season, baseball players went on strike, canceling 713 games. I was disgusted, and fell away from the game for a while.
I did suffer through every pitch of the 2005 World Series, in which the Astros were swept by the Chicago White Sox, but never really caught the bug again until 2013, when the Astros suffered through their third-straight 100-loss season. Something about that awful but promising team rekindled the fire. My wife eventually caught the bug, too, and we have endured, and delighted in, the slow rise to excellence.
How does it feel? Eh, not so different.
“I thought I would be more excited,” my wife said after Houston finished off the Dodgers.
That’s baseball. Moments of exaltation are bookended by seasons of despair. The score always resets to zero.
But if the joys are fleeting, the appeal is endless. My brother and I are old enough to remember when the World Series was played in daylight, and Americans adjusted their work schedules to watch the games. Now, the opposite is true. Some people call that progress.