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Houston, We Have Liftoff
Tom Verducci
August 10, 1998
The arrival of Randy Johnson sent the expectations of the Astros and their fans skyrocketing
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August 10, 1998

Houston, We Have Liftoff

The arrival of Randy Johnson sent the expectations of the Astros and their fans skyrocketing

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Postseason Blues
The Astros may not have won a playoff series in their 35-year history, but they aren't alone in their ineptitude. Here are the major league teams that have the longest droughts without a series victory.

TEAM

DROUGHT

LAST SERIES WIN

Cubs

89 years

1908

White Sox

80

1917

Angels

36

Astros

35

Rangers

25

Pirates

18

1979

Expos

16

1981

Brewers

15

1982

Tigers

13

1984

Padres

13

1984

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

If it's possible to be completely stumped by a Rorschach test, the Houston Astros are just the shapeless, colorless blot to do it. Upon learning last Friday night that he had been traded to Houston, Randy Johnson had the usual reaction when the Astros come to mind. "Nothing," Johnson said. "I really don't know much about the team, and I don't know much about Houston."

Welcome to the club. The Astros have camouflaged themselves as a small-to middle-market franchise, even though Houston is the fourth-biggest city in the U.S. Of course, most of its citizens think horsehide is something to be branded, ridden or roped, not batted or thrown. The Astros have never drawn as many as 2.3 million fans in their 35-year history.

Then again, it's tough to get stoked about an organization that has won as many postseason series as the Arizona Diamondbacks (chart, page 37). When you talk about important chapters in Astros history, 11 usually comes to mind. "This team has a long history of financial problems," says general manager Gerry Hunsicker, "and a lot of people over the years have developed a kind of boring Triple A mentality."

But in the final seconds before the 1998 major league trading deadline passed at midnight EDT, Houston finally put itself on the baseball map. When Hunsicker called Nancy Crofts, the National League executive director of player records, to report that the Astros had traded three minor leaguers to the Seattle Mariners to get Johnson, Crofts said, "Gerry, I'm looking at my clock right now, and it says 12 o'clock. If you'd called one minute later, I don't know if I could have allowed it."

By winning out over marquee clubs like the Cleveland Indians, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, Houston shocked most everyone in baseball, including the man who pulled the trigger. Hunsicker made the deal from his house, after leaving his office at 8:30 p.m. convinced that his team was out of the running. "I wasn't quite in my pajamas," he says.

When the spotlight finally found the Astros, this is what Johnson and the rest of America suddenly discovered: Houston leads the National League in runs ("Is that right?" Johnson asked) and boasts a hellacious pitching staff that can shut down anyone. The Astros made the Johnson deal not to hold off the second-place Chicago Cubs, whom they led by 4½ games in the National League Central after Sunday's games, but to—hold on to your 10-gallon hat, pardner—bring the World Series to Texas for the first time. All that for a payroll of $40 million makes Houston the best dollar-for-dollar team in baseball.

"I think those were gulps you heard around midnight Friday from Atlanta, San Diego and Chicago," says Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. "Picking up Johnson has to make Houston the favorite. In a [seven-game] series, you are going to have to face Randy at least twice, which means you may have to win four games against pitchers like [Mike] Hampton and [Shane] Reynolds. Those guys could be Number 1 starters on a lot of other teams."

Houstonians noticed too. They lit up the Astros' switchboard last Saturday, snapping up partial season tickets (Houston had 29 home games left) and asking when Johnson would pitch in the Astrodome. Local television stations fanned the city for man-on-the-street stories. And while Larry Dierker, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott have excelled on the mound for the Astros, the best lefthanded pitcher in club history, Bob Knepper, was 93-100 with Houston. (The K isn't pronounced in either his name or his pitching.) The Astros, 6-13 in postseason games, have never gotten a playoff win from a lefthanded starter. "The Big Unit can do in Houston what Mark McGwire did in St. Louis," Hampton says. "There's going to be lots of excitement."

Johnson left even his new teammates in awe on Sunday, his first day in an Astros uniform, however ill-fitting it was. "The last time I wore pants like this, I was in Little League," said the 6'10" Johnson, glancing down at his well-above-the-ankles hem.

"Maybe they'll have to sew two pairs of pants together," a trainer said.

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