Welcome to this, the fifth installment of the Ironic Jersey Omnibus. Our tour of personal expression through the medium of polyester and hand-stitching, last seen in the majestic purple of the Colorado Rockies, wanders southeast toward the sunny climate of Houston, Texas.
The Astros, both as a social construct and as a jersey, contain some idiosyncrasies that must be touched upon before we move on to the body of our work. Few teams have hurled themselves so eagerly into the aesthetic void as the former Colt .45s, adorning themselves with stars, rainbows, comets, guns, and numbers on pants. The exuberance the reader must feel at such a dizzying choice of fashion is understandable. It’s with a heavy heart, only somewhat feigned, that I ask you to throw the entire wardrobe out.
Today, there is no room for Eddie Mathews. We must turn away from Nellie Fox, Joe Niekro and even JR Richard. It is not time for Joe Morgan. Not even the muted, tolerable averageness of Terry Puhl can dampen the orange hue of better times. No, today we speak of a franchise that is severly wounded. We can’t ignore it, or wink at it. To wear an Astros jersey is to don the funeral garb.
During these dark times, there are really only three ways to wear an Astros jersey. The first is through sincerity, in total mourning for their ballclub. Such touching and honest displays of loyalty need not be discussed here.
The alternatives are to struggle vainly against the dying of the light, to mock the heavens and the ownership that has forsaken them, or to offer one’s self up in the holy resignation of Kierkegaard, caring for the soul and waiting for divine judgment. Think of this edition of the Omnibus, then, as your spiritual guide as we delve into the darkness of Astrodom and, hopefully, emerge from the other side as wiser, more sophisticated, and better-dressed fans.
STAGE 1: ANGER
1992 Kenny Lofton / 1997 Bobby Abreu
The nineties were Houston’s gilded age; though the winning didn’t really begin until 1993, the foundation for the dynasty (such as it was) was already in place. Thus the sting of giving away two near-Hall of Famers for nothing (Lofton for Ed Taubensee, Abreu to the expansion draft) was dulled at the time by ready replacements in Steve Finley and Moises Alou. Now, these jerseys have become symbols for the largess of the team’s Jazz Age, when flappers were partying, littering and mowing down pedestrians in their giant convertibles. Wearing a Lofton or an Abreu (or even, to a lesser extent, a Schilling) is nothing more than classist rage against the invisible hand.
1989 Eric Anthony
I devoted a few words to the former Rated Rookie already, but I want to stress how psychological an event Eric Anthony was. The Astrodome was the Coors and Petco of its time, a beloved “wonder of the world” that infuriated any attempts at roster construction. Throughout the seventies and eighties, the Houston Astros saw their own stadium as an enemy that pulled home runs to earth and scared away free agents; only Glenn Davis could defeat its wrath, and at too high a price. That’s why Anthony and his prodigious, uncontrollable power stroke were so alluring, and ultimately so disappointing. Eric Anthony is the depiction of the timeless struggle of man versus nature, in which nature wins.
STAGE 2: DEPRESSION
2000 Richard Hidalgo
Perhaps the most depressing thing about Richard Hidalgo is not that one glorious season, where he hit .314/.391/.636 and played an able center field, looking for all the world like a star. It’s that his career 23.7 WAR still ranks as the twelfth-highest among hitters in franchise history. He was never quite terrible enough to snuff the hopes of his fans, nor be replaced. Instead, he festered.
2008 Kazuo Matsui
Kazuo Matsui arrived in Houston to an impossible situation: replacing a legend in Craig Biggio while attempting to atone for his own sins. Matsui was a bust for the Mets, and proved to be one again for the Astros, mostly out of expectations rather than a lack of effort. It’s hard to look back at Matsui with ill will, as he fought through his bizarre injuries; instead, he becomes a symbol for the uninspiring veteran free agent signing that became increasingly common in the Ed Wade era. His release, coming after a game in the middle of May, was as quiet as the team’s own descent into mediocrity.
STAGE 3: ACCEPTANCE
2000 Jose Lima
Losing is bad for the soul, unless the soul in question happened to be Jose Lima’s. The pitcher’s exuberance was unfettered by losing streaks or back to back home runs. The struggles were plentiful, especially the 2000 season that saw an overworked Lima lose 16 games with a 6.12 FIP before eventually being given to the Tigers. But to utter or hear the phrase “Lima Time” is to filter out all the misery and evoke only the joy and the enthusiasm of baseball.
If being an Astros fan is to mourn, Jose Lima is its New Orleans equivalent, sweeping through the streets with rollicking big band in tow.
1983 Luis Pujols
Okay, I lied about the rainbows. Having graduated through the stages of grief, we now arrive at said rainbow’s end: a joyous celebration of everything miserable in baseball. Pujols, a no-field no-hit catcher in the early eighties, is by far the worst Astro to ever don the jersey, sporting a -5.2 WAR. It’s a happy coincidence that he also happens to bear the name of one of Houston’s greatest nemeses, and one they now follow into the American League West.
It may be too soon for hope for the city of Houston, but there’s no reason to wallow in misery. Losing is something that happens to every franchise, and some of them with a great deal more regularity than for the Astros. Once a fan travels through the underworld and emerges stronger, he or she can proudly and ironically wear the orange stripes that are their reward.
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