The first thing a Houstonian will notice about Fenway Park is how quiet it is. I'm not talking about the crowd: The Fenway Faithful are just as obstreperous and loutish as you've heard they are.
The ballpark itself is quiet.
There are no hunting horns and desperate pleas to "get loud." Nobody needs to be told to get out of their seat when the count is 3-and-2 and there are two outs. Red Sox fans do it instinctively, which, for somebody who spent his formative years in the Astrodome, is just shocking.
In the three years I have lived in Boston (after spending most of my life in Houston), I've learned that baseball on Yawkey Way is almost literally a life-and-death concern. A common joke when the Sox are in a slump suggests that there's a traffic jam on the Tobin Bridge because of all the Sox fans who are trying to jump off.
Baseball in Houston? Yeah ... not so much.
The 9-19 Astros have already managed to reel off two eight-game losing streaks this season — and it's the first week of May. Brad Mills' team lost for the ninth time in 10 games last night, Lance Berkman is asking to be traded (in the nicest way possible), Carlos Lee is hitting .202 (with one home run and nine RBI in 27 games) and looking ahead to retirement ... and nobody cares.
This pitiful state has hardly created a blip in Houston — let along an outcry.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the Red Sox are 15-14 and the skies in Boston are pitch black on even sunny days. The once-beloved Big Papi (slugger David Ortiz) is all but being driven out of town — even though he's hit four times as many home runs as Carlos Lee so far and Josh Beckett (widely considered one of the top pitchers in baseball) is under fire for a slow start.
And back to the yawns of the few Astros fans who actually attend games ...
It hasn't always been that way, of course. In 1986, during the Astros' single most exciting season, baseball fever hit Space City like an orange, yellow, and blue plague. Elementary school classes sent letters to pitcher Mike Scott reassuring him that they, at least, didn't believe that he scuffed his pitches.
Foley's and Mervyn's stores were fighting to keep Jetsons T-shirts, Charlie Kerfeld's favorite, on the racks, and Jose Cruz could have been elected mayor. The Houston Police Department even joined the Astros' 40-man roster one late night when they hauled in a clutch of eventual World Champion Mets after a drunken bar brawl that the cops may have actually instigated.
The magical year of 2005, when the Astros made their sole World Series appearance, inspired its own enthusiasms. Biggio, Oswalt, and Clemens could do no wrong, and Brad Lidge, who snatched defeat out of the clutches of victory during Game 2 of the World Series, couldn't show his face south of Conroe without hearing a round of boos.
But since then? Houston could care less about its squad. Test yourself. How many games has Wandy Rodriguez lost this season?
In Boston, they can tell you how long Adrian Beltre went without a home run (24 games ). They can tell you what Josh Beckett's favorite put-out pitch is. (The Spring High School alumnus has a wicked curveball.) And they can certainly tell you how much the team had to pay just to get the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Even in the fallow times, back when Tim Wakefield was the ace, the Sox could count on a stadium full of people telling the Yankees that they suck.
What's wrong with Houston?
It just isn't a Major League town. Houston's fickle relationship with its professional sports teams is hardly news to the fan who remembers when Bud Adams finally ended the city's love-hate relationship with the Oilers in the favor of "hate," but the Astros when they're mediocre can't muster half the support that the Texans got back when they're terrible.
Can it be that a slow game like baseball can't hold the attention of a city that's accustomed to topping 80 while cruising down 290?
Surely not. Houston's high schools host matchups that could rival those in baseball breeding grounds like Santo Domingo and suburban California. Rice University is a perennial contender at the College World Series. Could it be that the fault rests with the Astros themselves?
The team does a terrible job of marketing its icons. The Sox have Ted Williams, Cy Young, Carlton Fisk, and Luis Tiant. The Astros have Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
The Houston franchise has featured two of the game's all-time great pitchers ever — Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens — and Mr. No Hitter and The Rocket aren't associated with Houston at all in the minds of most fans. Ryan went so far as to enter the Hall of Fame wearing a Texas Rangers uniform. No Bostonian in his right mind would ever forget a slight like that.
Craig Biggio is an outside contender for the Hall of Fame, but can you really imagine anybody else in an Astros uniform in Cooperstown?
Minute Maid Park is nice — once you forget the bitter memories of Enron — but it's no Fenway. And Drayton McLane is no John Henry, as this last offseason proves.
Perhaps the day will come when the Astros are no longer run like a discount shoe factory and things like winning percentage, tradition, and prestige will join the bottom line among the concerns of the front office.
Until then, Astros games are going to be just another line item on an oil executive's expense report and a place to take the kids, instead of a reason to be proud to live in Houston.
Yes, no one cares. Why are you surprised?