Beyond the Boxscore
It's late on a Monday night in a season in which the Houston Astros are giving new meaning to "endless" but George Postolos cannot sit down. The Astros president is up out of his second row regular seat — no Diamond Club, at least not on this night— cheering for the worst team in baseball as it tries to come back against the Washington Nationals, the best young team in baseball.
Postolos does it in the eighth when the Astros fail to score the tying run and in the ninth when they do. He's high fiving fans and family.
Well all the while, the loudest Astros fan of 2012 screams over and over at Bryce Harper, "That's a clown question, bro. That's a clown swing, bro. That's a clown . . ."
You get the idea.
The Nationals' 19-year-old Major Leaguer earned himself a special place in baseball lore with his, "That's a clown question, bro" retort to a reporter. The surprise is that an honest-to-goodness Astros fan put in the effort to clown him.
I thought of this scene from a recent homestand more than once over this last week — as the Astros finally fired Brad Mills and two of his coaches in a near-midnight Saturday night massacre, as a 50-year-old Roger Clemens drew the type of headlines the Astros can only dream of for an unaffiliated minor league baseball team that will have "Elvis Themed Fireworks" the night before Clemens pitches and The Human Fireball (yes, a man who sets himself on fire) on The Rocket's night. It's just one scene from a run of seemingly indistinguishable losses for the Astros (they number 84 strong now after Tuesday night's 7-0 strikeout fest in St. Louis).
Every win matters to Crane, Postolos and Luhnow. These three desperately want the Astros to avoid setting any type of record for losses.
But it's a scene that shows just how much life there still is in Houston's ballpark.
By all rights, Minute Maid Park should be deader than a nightclub on Christmas day. The attendance figures are dismal, last in the National League and ahead of only three teams overall — Cleveland, Oakland and those forever underappreciated Tampa Bay Rays. And there's no easier franchise in team sports to make fun of right now.
Astros jokes are the low-hanging fruit of forced SportsCenter banter.
Yet, somehow there is still passion in Minute Maid.
That's what stuck me from that scene from that Nats game in the dead of summer. As low as the Astros go, as pathetically as they flail — and it'd be hard to look more pathetic than they have in their last game under Mills and their first two games under very-interim manager Tony DeFrancesco (try getting outscored 27-5) — there is a larger core of diehards than you'd think, still somehow into the action even though the Astros' actions won't matter for several years on the Major League level.
Sure, Postolos has to cheer for the team. But there's faux cheering for public consumption and there's real passion.
Postolos wasn't playing for any TV cameras the night I happened to spy him in his second-row perch. He didn't know I was there. He still came across as desperately wanting the Astros to beat the best team in the National League even though few outside the ballpark would have noticed a win (one the Astros predictably didn't get).
"I love watching the games — it's still the best part of my job," Postolos told me recently when I relayed the story of that night. "There's just something about baseball.
"The ballpark is my son's favorite place to be in the world. We've gone to games together across the country for years."
You don't fake that type of passion. And there's no doubt that the Astros' three-headed leadership group of owner Jim Crane, Postolos and general manager Jeff Luhnow have that. Knock their methods all you want — it's probably the smart thing to do with that record. But there's no doubt a true passion for baseball beats behind every one of their decisions.
I talked to Postolos the night before the start of the fateful Diamondbacks series that killed Mills for good. And the team president was raving — and still obviously slightly excitement buzzed — over a pair of walk-off wins over the Milwaukee Brewers the weekend before. These wins didn't mean anything in the big picture.
Astros jokes are the low-hanging fruit of forced SportsCenter banter. Yet, somehow there is still passion in Minute Maid.
But Postolos, the baseball watcher, still couldn't help himself. And make no mistake, it's now clear those meaningless wins bought Mills another week.
Every win matters to Crane, Postolos and Luhnow. These three desperately want the Astros to avoid setting any type of record for losses. They're grinding in a search for Ws even as everyone else has seemingly turned their attention to the Texans or, however momentarily, to a circus in Sugar Land.
This W search is not going to stop Luhnow from jettisoning Major Leaguers to pump more young talent into the farm system. He's not a whack job. He knows what must come first.
But even as Luhnow does what must be done for the minors, he pleads and schemes of ways to somehow get more wins on the Major League level. That's why you fire Brad Mills in mid August.
That's why DeFrancesco found himself holding a team meeting before his second game as interim manager.
"We want to move forward and win as many games as we can the rest of this year," Luhnow said while explaining cutting off Mills.
Who says that about a team that's more than 40 games under .500? Who could possibly mean it?
The three baseball nuts making the decisions for the Astros, that's who.
Postolos and his 17-year-old son Lucas are not the only ones into baseball, no matter the odds, at Minute Maid. You still see sons and fathers, fathers and daughters, moms and sons, grandmas and grandsons all over the ballpark.
More than that, I notice it in the guy who hands me an order of fajita tacos. You've never seen a vendor more determined to make sure customers leave the stand happy with their tacos — and smiling. He'll asks you questions about the game, about your kids, and mostly about what could make your tacos better. And he talks about his margarita making the way Anvil's Bobby Heugel talks about cocktails — only with much less pretense.
Any idea that Houston is a dead or dying baseball town is overblown. The crowds are smaller, but the passion remains.
I'm still struck by the pride the regular workers show at Minute Maid.
Postolos is one thing. He's a highly-compensated seasoned executive with a lot at stake. But the hourly workers at Minute Maid don't seem deadened by working in what many perceive to be baseball's version of a funeral home either.
A bad day in baseball is still highly relative.
Any idea that Houston is a dead or dying baseball town is overblown. The crowds are smaller, but the passion remains. Crane feels it every time he's out and about, every time he checks his email. Parking prices may have dropped near the park (if you're paying more than $5 to park by Minute Maid, you're being played for a sucker) and prime tickets may be available from brokers for well below face value, but opinions on bringing the Astros back are stronger than ever.
"Our fans aren't shy about giving us feedback," the owner laughs.
"We have great baseball fans in Houston," Postolos says. "That hasn't changed."
As soon as the Astros get decent again, they'll be the hottest tickets of summer again. Postolos' extra elbow room (the exec and his son could stretch to Victoria without hitting another fan some nights now) will not last forever.
If anyone should understand the need to feed the passion, it's three guys who live for baseball, three guys sweating out every W with a team that only has 39 of them on Aug. 22.
The Astros may be a punch line, but there no clowns at the top.
Editor's note: This is the first in a multiple-part series on the state of baseball in Houston. Up next: The funny side of being a team in "transition."