Why I don’t care that much about the Houston Ass — terisks*

Why I don’t care that much about the Houston Ass — terisks*

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.

(l-r, circular) Topps® and Milton Bradley Board Game® cards, Houston Astros 1969 – 1973. 1969: Denis Menke, Tommy Helms (MB) ,Doug Rader (MB); 1970: Fred Gladding,Rookie Stars, John Mayberry, Bob Watkins, Harry Walker; 1971: Astros team card, Ron Cook, Rich Chiles; 1972: Fred Gladding, Norm Miller, Doug Rader, Tommy Helms, George Culver,, Jimmy Wynn, Jim Ray, Dave Roberts, Jim York, Tom Griffin; 1973: Tommy Helms, Roger Metzger, Cecil Upshaw; Doug Rader, Bob Watson, Astros team card [From David Kramer’s collection]

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.

(above l-r) The first exhibition game played in what would later be named the Astrodome. April 9, 1965, Houston Christens Dome. The New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle waits on pitch from the Astro’s Turk Farrell. In 1965 the Houston Colt .45s were renamed the Astros. Later in the game, Mantle would take Farrell deep for the first HR in Astrodome history; 6th inning Mantle waits on pitch from Farrell. (Pecan Park Eagle.com); (below) From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park, photos David Kramer.

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.

“Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles made some unbelievable plays at the hot corner in the 1970 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds!” (youtube.com)

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).

Topps® 1981. From David Kramer’s collection.

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).

1989-90 Topps® Senior League — #69 – Cesar Cedeno – Gold Coast Suns– Price: $0.99 (Tradingcarddb.com)

César Cedeño. Topps®, ®Donruss and Pacific Trading Cards, Inc. Includes Cedeño’s  Topps®1971 rookie card. [From David Kramer’s collection] See HOW TO SURVIVE THE 1971 TOPPS CESAR CEDENO ROOKIE CARD

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.

J. R. Richard. Topps® (1972 – 81) and Kellogg’s® 3-D Super Stars (1980). [From David Kramer’s collection]

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.

(above) Ken Caminiti rookie cards, 1988 ®Topps,®Donruss and ®Fleer; (below, l-r) Don Wilson 1971 and 1974 Topps® [From David Kramer’s collection]

I also invested in two Craig Biggio (Hall of Fame) rookie cards, ®Fleer 1989 #353 and ®Topps 1989 # 49 (both approx. $5.00 value).

(l-r) Craig Biggio. ®Fleer 1989 #353 and ®Topps 1989 # 49. [From David Kramer’s collection]


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About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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