06.04.13 | Don Elfant
In honor of next weeks Made in Texas Film Series screening of RESURRECTION: THE J.R. RICHARD STORY on Wednesday, June 12th, we knew AFF Screenplay Competition reader and Houston Astros afficionado Don Elfant would have something to say on the matter. Below he chronicles how J.R. Richard’s story is a perfect metaphor for Houston’s major league baseball team. For more information on RESURRECTION: THE J.R. RICHARD STORY, click here.
My Life as an Astros Fan — A Tragedy
When one thinks of the Houston Astros (it happens!) the moments that typically stand out are tragedies. And I’m not talking about their infamous rainbow uniforms. The sad tale of J.R. Richard is the perfect metaphor for the Astros – full of potential, on the verge of greatness, then bitter disappointment. My personal memory bank for the ‘Stros includes heartbreak, humiliation, maiming, even murder. And J.R.
James Rodney Richard was drafted the year I was born, and by 1980 he was the premier pitcher in the National League. Shortly after starting the All-Star Game, J.R. complained of a “dead arm.” Considered a malingerer by many in the organization, his complaints were ignored. Well, he showed them… by having a major stroke and never pitching in the majors again.
Five Outs Away…
That turned out to be the year the Astros made the playoffs for the first time in team history. With Nolan Ryan on the hill, we were five outs away from going to the World Series, only to lose an epic series to the Phillies. Would J.R. have made the difference? It’s the kind of question Astros fans regularly ask themselves.
What if we hadn’t traded Joe Morgan? What if Jeff Bagwell stayed healthy? What if Dickie Thon hadn’t been beaned in the eye? Thon was an emerging superstar in 1984. He was a slick-fielding shortstop who hit for average and power. And he was a great guy, a fan favorite. So, naturally, he was hit in the head with a fastball and was never the same again.
That Was Tragic, But Nobody Died
The same can’t be said with respect to my childhood hero – Cesar Cedeno. A phenom with a rare combination of power and speed, Cedeno was favorably compared to a young Willie Mays. In the 70’s, the Astros had a promotion called the “Astros Buddies Club.” Cedeno, being my favorite player, was my “buddy.” Among other things, that meant I got to go on the field and meet him. It was the highlight of my young life.
That was years before I found out that Cedeno had killed his girlfriend in the Dominican Republic. The details were always hazy, but somehow his gun went off, and she ended up dead. He was charged with voluntary manslaughter and ultimately was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was fined $100.
By now you’re probably getting the impression that the Astros are cursed or, at least, not blessed. But there have been some good times. However, being an Astros fan means that even the glorious victories are wrapped in inevitable defeat.
Take Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series. It was the subject of a book called, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Guess who lost. My brother and I were there for all 16 nerve-racking, soul-crushing innings. We left the game numb, knowing we were a part of history – the part in which the Astros steal defeat from the jaws of victory.
My Defection (or How I Learned to Love the Rangers)
You may wonder if I’m a glutton for punishment. After the 1988 season I asked myself the same question. My latest hero was Nolan Ryan, a living legend who threw his record fifth no-hitter for the Astros in 1981. In ’87 he was still going strong, leading the league in ERA and strikeouts. But his record for the hapless Astros was 8-16. A year later the owner, John McMullen, offered Ryan an ultimatum – take a big pay cut or hit the road. He hit the road.
I could take no more. I guess my loyalty to Ryan was greater than my loyalty to the Astros. In the following years I watched as Ryan threw two more no-hitters (and entered the Hall of Fame) as a Texas Ranger. I boycotted the Astros until McMullen sold the team in 1993. For four blissful, if empty, years I experienced no catastrophes.
The Big Show!
In 2004, after 42 years of trying, the Astros finally won a playoff series. The next year they were one strike away from going to their first World Series. I was on the phone with my brother for the final inning. Earlier in the year we lost our Dad, who taught us both how to be baseball fans in general and Astros fans in particular. We watched as the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols hit a ball that some people swear is still flying.
That crushing defeat felt familiar. It is more than a footnote that the ‘Stros won the next game and did make it to their first World Series (only to be swept by the White Sox). But for whatever reason, that Pujols homer is more a part of my fragile sports psyche than the next game’s more important win.
And the Hits Keep Coming…
Since then the Astros have settled nicely into their role as the worst team in baseball. But the ultimate indignation came, not on the field, but from the front office. After 51 years in the National League, the Astros were forced this year to move to the American League. It’s as if Major League Baseball figured the Astros didn’t have any real tradition anyway. But we do. And it’s rich. It just happens to be tragic.
As for me, I’m still a fan. What would be the point of quitting now? I’ve already walked through the valley of darkness. I’ll just continue to wait for that mountaintop view. I can’t imagine not being there when the Astros finally win it all. Will it make up for all the years of anguish? Sadly, I think it will.