Now that Astros have won World Series again, what’s their place in history?
HOUSTON — The human memory is a funny thing. We can never seem to remember the name of that dude from work. But hey, at least there’s one thing America will never forget …
The 2017 Houston Astros.
(Cue the trash can percussion section!)
Ah, but then, at 10:17 p.m. Saturday, in this euphoric slice of the Central Time Zone, making sense of the Astros suddenly got a lot more complicated.
One last Nick Castellanos popup hung in the Houston sky, as a stadium full of cellphone videographers and 42,958 jubilant Houstonians followed every inch of its flight. Because they knew that once it came down, into the waiting glove of right fielder Kyle Tucker, the party was on.
The Houston Astros — the post-trash-can 2022 edition — just won the World Series. And, well, now what?
You can think whatever you want to think. You can judge them however you want to judge them. You can boo them and loathe them and call them stuff that will never make it into a script of “Teletubbies.” But here’s the deal with the 2017-22 Astros now that they’ve sealed World Series championship No. 2:
They’ve moved into a space where you’ll find only the greatest baseball teams of modern times. I hate to break that to you, but it’s true. And if you’re one of those people who don’t want to visit that place, guess what? They don’t give all the algorithms in Texas what you think.
They’re now officially in the modern-dynasty conversation. And once that confetti starts filling up the sky, the last people who feel a need to explain themselves are usually those people who just won it all.
“Do I think we’re a dynasty? It’s not for us to say or for me to say,” Lance McCullers Jr. said after the 4-1 Game 6 win over the Phillies that closed out this World Series. “I just think that we’ve proven that we’re an extremely dominant force in this era of baseball.”
In this era, absolutely. Maybe in any era. But if it’s not for them to say, why don’t we do that work for them. Why don’t we look at exactly how dominant they’ve been over the past six seasons. Somebody has to do it. I’m always happy to volunteer.
But here’s a yellow flashing light for all you Astros haters. You’re not going to like what you’re about to read. It’s not going to fit your convenient little narratives. Hey, sorry! These are the facts.
Six years of ridiculous dominance
The facts are about to come roaring at you. Here’s what I’d like you to do as you read them. Set aside what happened in 2017 for just a few moments. I’ll get back to it. I promise.
This isn’t a place where we’ll ever pretend that 2017 didn’t exist. It’s part of their story. It doesn’t go away.
But it’s also part of all the winning and all the dominance. So I’m not going to pretend that the dominance portion of their story didn’t happen, either. On that note, let’s start with the Astros’ record over these last six seasons. It’s quite a sight.
Win percentage: .622
Games over .500: 215
Run differential: +1,167
World Series won: 2
World Series appearances: 4
ALCS appearances: 6
Whew. OK then. Let’s digest this, piece by piece.
Two titles and a .622 win pct.? That’s greatness
I spent hours Saturday afternoon looking into every team in history that did what these Astros have now done — win multiple World Series and have a winning percentage that good over six seasons. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon, right? (Don’t answer that!)
Before we get to them, it might be more impressive to mention some of the teams that aren’t on the list.
• The Yankees of 1996-2003? Not on it.
• The Big Red Machine? Nope. Not on it.
Sooo … do we have your attention yet? To find the last team to do what the 2017-22 Astros have done, you have to go back more than six decades.
The last team with multiple titles and a .622 win percentage or better over any six-year span? How about the Mantle/Berra/Ford Yankees … of 1953-58. Unreal.
After that, you run into all sorts of Yankees behemoths of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. So let’s not bother even listing them. But here come all the non-Yankees teams in history to do that — all four of them!
Stan Musial’s 1941-46 Cardinals — 3 titles, .655*
Jimmie Foxx’s 1927-32 A’s — 2 titles, .650*
Home Run Baker’s 1909-14 A’s — 3 titles, .640
The Tinker/Evers/Chance 1905-10 Cubs — 3 titles, .678*
(*-overlapping spans from other years not included)
So that … is … it. For the entire World Series era. No other teams from the division-play era (1969-present). No other teams from the expansion era (1961-present). Only two other non-Yankees from the live-ball era (1920-present). Plus two more from the dead-ball era.
And the 2022 Astros. Wow.
Four World Series in six years
Now here’s another list I’ve been following throughout this whole postseason. It’s the short list of teams that made it to four World Series in six years and won multiple titles.
Once again, there are way too many Yankees juggernauts to list — this time including the late-’90s Yankees and the Yankees of 1976-81. But here come the non-Yankees teams. There aren’t many, but some of them will look familiar.
Brooks Robinson’s 1966-71 Orioles — 4 World Series, 2 titles
Walker Cooper’s 1942-46 Cardinals — 4 World Series, 3 titles
Frankie Frisch’s 1921-24 Giants — 4 World Series (in a row), 2 titles
Stuffy McInnis’ 1910-15 A’s — 4 World Series, 3 titles
Wildfire Schulte’s 1906-10 Cubs — 4 World Series, 2 titles
So once again, that’s one other non-Yankees team from the expansion era, a total of three other teams from the live-ball era, and the usual two suspects from the dead-ball era. This is rarefied company.
Lost one World Series, got back and won the next
It was just last November, in their very own ballpark, that the 2021 Astros had to sit uncomfortably in the home dugout and watch the Braves climb that same podium in the outfield where they got to revel in the lovefest Saturday night. A year later, it was their turn. And that, too, is something you don’t see much — not in the expansion era, with so many more teams than, say, the 1934-35 Tigers had to fend off.
So here’s every team in the expansion era that lost a World Series one year but returned and won the next one. Yet again, it won’t take long to recite this roll call:
Eric Hosmer’s 2014-15 Royals
Dave Stewart’s 1988-89 A’s
Reggie Jackson’s 1976-77 Yankees
Jim Palmer’s 1969-70 Orioles
Roger Maris’ 1960-61 Yankees
So that’s one other team from the last three decades, then basically one each from the 1980s, ’70s and ’60s, plus that 1960-61 Yankees team that spanned the expansion and pre-expansion era. Pretty storied group.
Six straight trips to the LCS
You might have read elsewhere that the Astros’ six consecutive trips to the League Championship Series was not a record, because the Braves of the ’90s got there eight times in a row. Yeah, that’s true, technically. But …
The Braves got to three of those NLCS in the pre-Wild Card era, when the playoffs still started with the LCS. But for the past 28 seasons, the playoffs have had at least three rounds — the Division Series for the first 17, then a Wild Card Game or Wild Card Series for the last 11.
So in this era, you had to earn your way there. OK, how many other teams in that era kept on barging into the LCS every October for at least six years in succession? You know the answer. It’s none.
And here’s the important part about these Astros. It’s not the same group. It’s not the same team. The manager (A.J. Hinch) lost his job. The front-office architect (Jeff Luhnow) lost his job. George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole — they all work elsewhere now. Only five players remain from the 2017 Trash Brothers: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, Justin Verlander and McCullers.
The heroes of this Saturday’s game, and of this remarkable 11-2 blitz through the postseason, were men who had nothing to do with the 2017 team: the human launch pad that was Air Yordan Alvarez, World Series MVP Jeremy Peña, spectacular starters Framber Valdez and Cristian (No-Hit) Javier, and every member of a bullpen that just set a postseason record by ripping off an incredible 0.83 ERA. So …
What do we make of them now, huh?
If 2017 hadn’t turned into the scandal that rocked baseball, this would be so easy. But it’s the Astros. So it’s never easy. And because they make it complicated, we can’t rely on the usual data and the usual suspects to assess them.
On that note, let me introduce the great Bob Costas. His sense of history — and sense of decency — is very much appreciated at times like this.
BOB COSTAS: “You know, there obviously are still people who get off on calling them cheaters and diminishing their achievements. But to me, at this point, it’s like saying that (Tom) Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are all because of Deflategate or taping a Rams practice before the first Super Bowl.
“I think you can disapprove of those things without attributing too much to them. There’s too much excellence there. There’s too much evidence there. And the same thing is true of the Astros — maybe not to the same level as the Patriots, but it’s the same idea. There’s a stain there, and we’re not washing it away. But it doesn’t explain all of it. In fact, it doesn’t even explain most of it.”
So no, the Astros don’t get to erase 2017. They don’t get excused for 2017. What happened then is part of their story. But when it’s five years later and you’ve won again, then that second World Series — this World Series — dramatically changes the way we should be framing their story.
COSTAS: “They needed to win outside the shadow of 2017.”
This, he said, “legitimizes” the Astros, because “it’s very hard to deny just how good they were, period. Trash cans doesn’t account for getting to the LCS six seasons in a row.”
No, but even in a world where trash cans never enter the baseball conversation, winning a second title is an important threshold to cross. Now, Costas said, we can separate these Astros from the Braves of the ’90s, who “only” won the World Series once, and the Dodgers of the last decade, who have “only” won once. There’s a term for teams like that — and it isn’t “greatness.”
COSTAS: “I would say excellence. Sustained excellence — whereas greatness we associate with something else. The Dodgers and Braves have achieved excellence but perhaps not greatness.”
So by winning a second World Series, do the Astros now have a claim to greatness? We agreed they do.
COSTAS: “There will always be skeptics because of ’17. But they have now been a truly excellent team for a sustained period of time. I think fair-minded people already have put this in its proper context and proper proportion. So by winning again, especially with Dusty Baker as one of the faces of it, and five years removed from 2017, I think most people will have a fair sense of it.”
But by “most people,” he obviously doesn’t mean “all people.” And in places not known as “Texas,” I don’t even know if “most people” works. I think we should all concur that this team is never going to be showered with love in the other 49 states. So now let’s ask the men who did this …
What the Astros think has changed
I asked Jim Crane about 2017 on Saturday night. I don’t think he’d mind my saying it’s not his very favorite topic in life, particularly on evenings when fireworks are popping and Champagne is flowing in his clubhouse. But the owner of the Astros at least owned up to 2017.
I asked him what he thinks this second championship means to the five players left from 2017 — Altuve, Bregman, Gurriel, Verlander and McCullers.
JIM CRANE: “Well, there’s a whole storyline behind all that, that probably never will air at any particular time. But listen, those guys were in the middle of it. They did something wrong. We said we saw it, and we paid the fine. We paid the penalty. We lost the draft picks. That was a severe penalty. And there was nothing we could do. We just had to move on. And I fired the two guys (Hinch and Luhnow) that I thought were responsible for not stopping it.”
But then, Crane dropped just a hint of what he meant by that “whole storyline.” See if you catch his drift.
CRANE: “And you know, could you say there were (only) two guys that took steroids (back in that day) — and just one team that stole signs? I don’t know. That’s your decision.”
Is it clear, from that swerve in the conversation, that if it was the Astros’ decision, they’d be pretty sure they were not the only team using technology to steal signs? I think it is. At any rate, they’re definitely a lot more sure than everyone who boos them.
So since he obviously believes the abuse they’ve taken isn’t particularly fair, I asked the owner how difficult it was for his team to keep taking that abuse and keep winning.
CRANE: “Listen, I got here in a U-Haul. So I’ve been through a lot. So I just kept my head down and kept working. That’s all you can do. It was difficult at times. It was upsetting to everybody. We got beat up over it, and rightfully so. So it’s just hard work. We kind of worked our way through it, and kept our head down, and I told the guys, ‘This could be with us for a while. The only way we can fix it is, we’ve got to beat everybody.”
So now that they’ve beaten everybody, does he think this fixes it? He flashed a wry grin.
CRANE: “I don’t think it’s ever fixed. And people are always writing stories. You guys write a lot of stories. You’re going to write some of what I just said. So I don’t know. You can’t undo history. So you just try to put your best foot forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Sounds like a fine plan. But his players have other plans. And those plans seem to have more to do with winning a bunch more of these than answering questions about cheating scandals. Here is Bregman’s answer to a question about whether this team needed this second title to prove how good it was.
BREGMAN: “Well, I don’t like using the term ‘dynasty.’ But we’ve got a lot of guys that are going to be returning. So I think the window (to win more) is still open.”
And here’s McCullers’ response, when asked if he and the holdovers from 2017 ever talked about the need to win a second time to validate everything else they’ve done.
McCULLERS: “We don’t. We haven’t ever really talked about it. But when you’re giving those hugs after you win another one — and I’m talking about guys like Altuve and Bregman and Yuli and JV, you feel a little bit of just like, you know, we earned our place with this one.”
And he’s right, you know. They’ve absolutely earned that place. Want to attribute everything that went down in 2017 to the trash cans? Cool. But how do you explain all these other years?
Let’s start in 2018. Did you know the Astros have the best record in the American League over the past five seasons? And the past four? And the past three? And the past two? And the past one? That’s 100 percent true. Feel free to look it up sometime.
But not now, because we need to turn our sights to the middle of the most emotional dugout group hug of 2022, to the ultimate feel-good story in this saga. It belongs to a great man named Dusty Baker. So I asked him Saturday night if he felt as though it was meant to be that he wound up in this place at this time in all of their lives.
DUSTY BAKER: “I felt that when the scandal was exposed and then I was hired here, oh, yeah, I felt it was meant to be. I felt that the Lord worked through Jim Crane, because I don’t think I was probably first on his list to be hired here. But some of the guys that I had played with and his former players on his advisory staff indeed told him that I was probably the best guy for the job. Yeah, I definitely thought it was meant to be. Big time. So I welcomed it.”
So how cathartic was this win, he was asked — not just for him but for the franchise that brought him here?
BAKER: “Well, yeah. I think that’s what drove this team. That’s what motivated them. The boos and the jeers that we got all over the country, it bothered these guys, but it also motivated them at the same time. And it wasn’t an us-against-the-world thing. It was more of a come-together-even-closer type thing.
“And what happened before, it doesn’t ever pass over completely. But we have turned the page. And hopefully, we’ll continue this run because that’s the thing. When I talk to (general manager) James Click, and especially when I talk to Jim, he expects to win. He doesn’t want to go from first to worst in a two- or three-year period. He wants this feeling, and I like this feeling a lot.
“When I was a kid, I hated the Celtics because they won too much. They beat the Lakers all the time. And I didn’t like the Yankees because they won too much. They beat the Dodgers all the time. But then, when I got to be a player and a manager, I was yearning to be just like the Celtics and the Yankees. They were beating the (great) teams. You know, it never gets old.”
Is it possible to feel happy for him and still never warm up to Altuve or Bregman or whatever other members of this group want to make you scream your lungs out? I think it is. I know it is. I’ve seen it for three seasons. My eardrums still hurt from the stuff being screamed at all those other Astros a few days ago in Philadelphia.
But I started this opus by saying it was complicated. It deserves to be complicated. It doesn’t matter how much they spin 2017. It doesn’t matter how much they drop hints that everyone else was doing it.
It happened. It’ll get talked about forever. And they’ll never escape it. They’ll never stop being The Team America Loves to Hate. But that’s OK, too. Why don’t we all just make a pact. Feel free to boo them and root for every team that plays them. But please, please, please — also look at the facts.
I’ve given you a lot of them. They tell a story that needs to be told. This is a special team, filled with great players, run by one of the smartest front offices in any sport and managed by a human being as beloved as any who has ever managed any team. So let’s feel all of those things. I honestly think that would be 100 percent cool with the Houston Astros themselves.
“We’re the team America loves to hate,” McCullers said. “But we are Houston’s most loved.”
(Top photo: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)
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