April 9, 1965. The first exhibition game played at the Astrodome. The New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle is at bat.
If you listen to sports talk radio, the baseball banter is all about the Houston Astros and their sign stealing cheating legacy.
On a recent WHAM Bob Matthews Show, Bob and guest Sal Maiorana referred to the Astros as the ASStros. No doubt the nickname will stick, but not as clever as the fan displaying a Houston Ast — erisks* sign at a spring training game — a commentary that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title should be marked with an * in the record books. Astros security made the fan take down the placard, inspiring the quip: the Astros are still stealing signs.
The New York Post ran a story about opposing fans bringing and bashing trash cans behind home plate and how stadium security might respond when the stagy gesture becomes as common as the tomahawk chop.
A little more seriously, will the Astros be brushed back and beanballed by opposing pitchers? If so, will MLB prosecute hard — beanballs can ruin careers — or look the other way at such vigilante justice?
The thing is I care, but not that much. I’ve realized I don’t care that much because I never cared about the Astros.
First, when I first began following baseball and building my card collection, the Astros were decidedly mediocre. Playing in the National League Western Division, from 1969 – 1973, the Astros were 405 – 396 with 1 second place finish, 3 fourth or tied for fourth finishes, and 1 fifth place finish.A more important reason for my indifference was that the Astros played indoors — at the Astrodome — and on plastic grass. When cutting my baseball teeth, I was indoctrinated into the belief that baseball should only be played outdoors, preferably in the day, and on real grass. I cheered as teams switched to natural grass, moved outdoors or to retractable-roofed stadiums.
Houston’s removal of its grass field — replaced by “AstroTurf” after the grass withered without enough natural light — originated a mania for artificial turf fields. In the 1970s — with the Astromdome as proof that baseball on ersatz grass was playable — new multi-purpose, “cookie-cutter” or “concrete donut” stadiums like St. Louis’s Busch Memorial Stadium, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, and the Seattle Kingdome, sprouted, all with synthetic grass. Kansas City’s baseball-only Kauffman Stadium also had artificial turf.
Today, only the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays play strictly indoors and on AstroTurf (or “field turf as the plastic stuff is now called), although artificial surfaces are coming back, last season at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, and this season at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field and the Miami Marlins’ Marlins Park.
Although my feelings for the Astros — generally a second rate franchise since 1962 — are basically fixed, in retrospect, I’ve realized artificial turf baseball offers some appealing elements and strategies. Turf places a premium on speed, especially outfield defensive speed. Especially in spacious parks, doubles, triples and inside-the-park home runs can be more important than over the fence clouts. Increased traction benefits base stealers and base runners. Speedsters like the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Omar Moreno took advantage of the faster turf by slap hitting singles and beating out infield hits. (By this reasoning, the Astros became less interesting when they moved to the natural surface of Enron, now Minute Maid, Field.)
Cincinnati Reds shortstop Dave Conception learned he could play deeper on turf by mastering the one hop throw to first base, more accurate and faster than on grass.
Considered on of the greatest infield plays in World Series history, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson’s stop-and-throw in game 1 against Cincinnati was only possible on Riverfront’s artificial surface. Compared to grass, the ball reached Robinson more quickly and the throw bounced more accurately to first base.
In 1980, the Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies played the greatest post-season series in baseball history — the last four of the five games all went extra innings — half indoors and all on turf. Then, the Phillies beat the Kansas Royals in an all turf World Series (the others were in 1970, 1985, 1987 and 1993).
Some Astros I liked. My favorite was César Cedeño from the Dominican Republic. Possessing a rare combination of power, blazing speed, and good defense, Cedeño throve on the artificial turf of the Astodome that Houston fans referred to as “Cesar’s Palace.”
Cedeño would later play well in the 1989 Senior Professional Baseball Association for the short-lived Gold Coast Suns. I own Cedeño’s Pacific Trading Card, 1989 # 62 card (bent corner, $0.10 value).I also liked J.R Richard who, in 1980, suffered a stroke and collapsed while playing a game of catch before an Astros game, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove a life-threatening blood clot in his neck. In 1981, Richard attempted a minor league comeback but failed because the stroke had slowed down his reaction time and weakened his depth perception. Two Astro players died young. In 1975, Don Wilson died of carbon monoxide poisoning when he apparently fell asleep or passed out in his garage with the car engine running. His son Donald “Alex” Alexander (aged 5) was also fatally asphyxiated when sleeping in a bedroom near the garage.
On October 10, 2004, former Astro Ken Caminiti died of a cocaine and heroin (speedball) drug overdose.
Cedeño was also involved in a tragic episode. During the 1973 offseason, back home in the Dominican Republic, Cedeño was involved in a domestic incident with his 19-year-old mistress. The two were drinking and playing with a gun, it went off, and the girl was killed. Cedeño eventually turned himself in and was charged with involuntary manslaughter, released after spending 20 days in jail. For all Cedeño’s promise, some felt he never recovered from the incident hovering over the rest of his career, one that fell short of super stardom.I also invested in two Craig Biggio (Hall of Fame) rookie cards, ®Fleer 1989 #353 and ®Topps 1989 # 49 (both approx. $5.00 value). SEE ALSO