By Eli Winter
HOUSTON, Texas – The Houston Astros celebrate their 50th year in the major leagues this season.
This should be a reason for celebration, but it looks to be the Major League Baseball team’s most pathetic exhibition yet.
Though you may think exhibition a bit unusual word choice given that this is not a circus but a baseball team. Yet the way the Astros played in 2011, you'd expect players to be shot out of a cannon, one by one, during the seventh inning stretch, liquidating an unfortunately crummy baseball team of its lackluster payroll and making the team an even easier sale for former owner Drayton McLane.
The Astros played depressed, their necks unable to hold up their heads so they could glance out at the audience awestruck at how a top-tier league could hold a team that managed to win barely 34 percent of its games.
If this team played in England, it would be playing in the Football League Championship, also known as the NPower League. "The NPower League?" you ask, barely interested. "Sounds like a cheesy infomercial."
Even to the British, though, the Astros look worse. Even the team’s normally peppy announcers and part-time comedians – set-up man Bill Brown and punch line deliverer Jim Deshaies – couldn’t keep the jokes flying and the games fun. While always great announcers, they could hardly feign hope this season.
Under the ownership of Jim Crane, the Astros have managed to win over a few fans with plans to allow food and drink to be brought into the exceptionally beautiful Minute Maid Park and by avoiding, thank God, a name change.
Still, it’s easy to imagine Crane asking an audience, "Who's ready to ROCK?" and finding a cluster of people meekly stare at their shoes, wondering how they got coaxed into coming to see a balding middle aged man get down on his knees and beg for fans to keep coming.
Granted, there were a few brightish spots for the Astros.
J.D. Martinez looked like a promising rookie, joining the Astros late in season and bringing with him an unusually powerful bat. Jose Altuve, coming aboard at the same time, looked equally good, managing to squeak out an inside the park home run and make, for once, Astros fans jump up to their feet with glee. The best part of all is that Brian Bogusevic's grand slam, bottom of the ninth, come-back-to-win-it home run got nominated for... A GIBBY Award. Gee, I'd feel more proud if these actually got more exposure.
While the Astros are not expected to shine in the regular season, spring training this year hasn't been so bad after all for them. They won four of their first six games – and racked up a lot of runs in two of those wins. However, they also got clobbered by the Braes and Nationals.
So Astros fans may be forced to wait and see how their team will do this 2012 season.
However, one new team is coming to the Greater Houston area that could play even worse than the Astros – yes, really, it is possible. Stop staring at the computer monitor in disbelief.
While the Atlantic League's new team, the Sugar Land Skeeters (Sugar Land is outside of Houston), looks to bring independent baseball a good expansion team for once, history repeats itself, getting more annoying each time. Simply put, expansion teams are consistently terrible their first few years. Nothing will change that, no extenuating factor will disapprove, no outlier will be seen.
The Astros, despite their pathetic previous season, have great things ahead of them. Even if, as the Pittsburgh Pirates showed, it takes 40 or so years for something to happen, it will.
While the Astros wait for the chance to play well enough to win even half their games, there will be some comfort in knowing that for at least a year or so, there will be always one team worse: the Skeeters.