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Slipping away, the season(s)

The season is slipping away.

There is the one sense, the Astros sense, in which a season full of mediocrity drives finally home, as the time for miracles (an Astros specialty in the last decade) ticks away. Sometimes even the math doesn’t allow for them (I’m not even going to check the math on the Astros chances. That seems like rechecking a losing lottery ticket, just to make sure I hadn’t misread it the first ten times). In that sense, I suppose the season has already slipped sloppily away. The Pennant threw a hook and now it’s dancing in the sunlight with the Cardinals and the rest of them.

In the second sense, the whole season is slipping away. The WHOLE season, encompassing the broad range of experiences, of games and stories and opportunities and long summer days and giddy spring days. Everything I wanted to do with this baseball season, I’ve either done or I haven’t done. The New Season’s Resolutions go into two piles: Did and Didn’t. As students go back to school and start fresh, the baseball season stales (is “stales” too negative? For Cards fans and Yankees fans, the season is ripening).

Even if I had achieved all of the season’s goals, the nearing end is still a melancholy eventuality, just like the end of anything novel, of anything that aches with possibility, that thrums with adventure and freshness. It’s not like getting to the end of a good book, because even a good book takes a little while to get into, to understand the rhythm of the narrative and the voices calling out. A baseball season is a firecracker from the start, from the first pitch of Spring Training so long ago. If the season is a book, it’s a familiar book that you’ve never read but that you can sense on some deep subconscious level that you will enjoy. And it’s a book that you know you’ll only read in the best time of the year.

Waxing melancholy isn’t much of a way to welcome the postseason, when all of the langor and the mellow of the season is canned like a sardine and lit on fire, when each pitch is as tense as a regular season game’s final pitch. Every pitch is a last pitch in the playoffs. I’m glad the Astros have been there before, that I know what it’s really like. It’s tough, then, to watch the playoffs vicariously. This weird book’s ending is not unexpected, but it lacks for a happy ending. Happy endings aren’t requisite, of course, for a book to be good but really, who doesn’t like a happy ending?

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Hunter Pence is an All-Star!

The new All-Star

The new All-Star

Not to gloat on homer-isms, but Hunter Pence’s selection to the All-Star team is a warming sight for an Astros fan mired in a mediocre season.

Since the retirements of Biggio and Bagwell, the Astros have searched for a player to join Lance Berkman as iconic members of the team. Carlos Lee is a great hitter, but often declines the opportunity to sprint down the first base line or impress in left field. Tejada is a fun player to watch, and brings great energy, but the steroid whispers and his altered state of age have deflated most of the potential for unconditional love from the fan base.

Which leaves us with Hunter Pence to play the Robin to Berkman’s laid-back Batman. Pence throws like a goofball, and swings like a goofball, and he looks like Beaker from the Muppet Show. But I’ll be damned if he’s not a player, who complements Tejada’s veteran confidence with child-like enthusiasm and brio.

Beaker

Beaker

Look at Hunter Pence’s stats, and they don’t cry out St. Louis, Ho! He’s hitting above .300, which is grand, but he’s on pace essentially to hit 20 home runs and 66 RBI. Not particularly atmospheric…. And Miguel Tejada has made the team, as well–the result of a remarkable .325 average, and his 84 RBI pace–so one can’t claim that Pence is an asterisk, a result of the Every Team Represented clause. Nor was he voted in by an ignorant fan base, but by the players. I can only surmise that the style of the man’s play has measured positively in the eyes of the managers, coaches and players who round out the reserves. Berkman himself (a crowded first base position) and Adam Dunn didn’t make the team.

I’m enjoying the fan’s sense of parental pride with the Pence selection. The same style that makes him remarkable made him improbable. He was only called up in 2007 when he would no longer be denied by the veteran-friendly Astros management, satisfying the desires of the fan base, who sensed a few months before his capacity for success. And now, having upped his on-base skills and his power–as we hoped he would–he’s on the up-and-up, and let’s hope his team follows.

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When an icon rolls through town: thoughts on Randy Johnson

It was a stunning trade, and he does have Star Power

It was a 'stunning trade,' and he does have 'Star Power'

Last night, Randy Johnson got his 300th major league W. I’ll only skirt around a conversation on the relative silliness of the Win stat, made all the more prominent as RJ watched his Giants reliever teammates try not to give up two runs before the Giants gave up another run even if they eventually went on to win the game, &tc. &tc. Point is, Johnson has pitched remarkably well for a remarkable number of years, and if the Win stat shows anything, it’s how frequently a starting pitcher gives his team an opportunity to win, that his dominance extended over so many innings with such consistency that it took his hitter-teammates a little less to wrap up the ballgame.

The MLB Network spent a good hour going over the dips and swerves of The Big Unit’s career, including a Nolan Ryan training video that all but gave the Ryan Express (and some bio-mechanics dude) credit for the 6’10 lefty’s Hall of Fame creds. They flashed a lot of video, jumping from early Randy Johnson to late, with flickering ballcaps changing from Expos to Giants to Dbacks to Yankees to Mariners. And I was able to take a small bit of glee from one of the hats that showed up in the cavalcade: those beautiful 1998 navy blue and gold-starred Astros hats, perched on the head of the Big Unit for one shining half of a year.

’98 would be a good year for the Astros team-wise. With stars like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Moises Alou–along with lesser knowns like the meteoric Jose Lima, Billy Wagner, Carl Everett and the majestically mustachioed Derek Bell–it was just one of those years where the stars would align for a pretty good run.

Team aside, though, the real spark of that season came with Randy Johnson. He was an American Leaguer, so what I knew of him was mostly second-hand, via highlights and national media coverage. I had not, for example, watched him pitch a whole game or considered with any depth his arsenal or technique. What I found when I went to see him play in the Astrodome was an improbably tall and rangy dude, so imposing that the peak of his cap seemed to brush the cieling of the Dome. Pushing the high 90s on the radar gun, and breaking his slider (which I just learned is called Mr. Snappy) that dove across the plate, when he pitched a game it was an event–you could see from the nosebleeds why his pitches were effective, how dominant he was.

He went 10-1 in Houston, with a 1.28 ERA. In 84+ innings, he struck out 116 batters. In the playoffs, where I watched him pitch while wedged into the high-high seats behind home plate with 55,000 other awestruck Astro fans, he hit an RBI single up the middle, which was something like watching a 200-foot crane fling a bowling ball over Buffalo Bayou.

If a star baseball player is one whose presence elevates a fan’s awareness of the game and expands the parameters of what seems possible, then Randy Johnson is a star baseball player. That he’s done it for so long is unthinkable.

In the final pitches of the game last night, there was a camera shot that captured RJ and his son. As the son, brace-faced and mop-headed, struggled to contain his excitement, the Big Unit continued to scowl out onto the field. In a postgame interview, he mentioned that it was nice to get the win, but that there was a lot more work ahead. On nights like those, it bears looking behind a little, too.

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