Houston Astros, 1979May 20, 2011
In the beginning, the Astrodome was a wonder, the epitome of the burgeoning feeling—since dissipated—that humankind, now exploring the stars, was on the brink of mastering the universe. The stadium was also a marvel in itself, a wholly contained world, climate-controlled, the dominion of the gods finally wrested into human hands. The players who called it home didn’t at first add much to the wonder, though things started to change with the introduction of the blazing rainbow-colored uniforms in the mid-1970s. A sign that the Astrodome and the Astros were approaching equal terms as symbols of wonder came in the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (more on this cinematic artifact in a bit), when the quest-like awe the film’s titular little leaguers hold throughout for the mere idea of the Astrodome is equaled in intensity and enthusiasm by their reaction to the entrance into the action of some members of the Astros.
In real life, the Astros were still a couple years away at the time of the film from escaping their mostly unbroken history of mediocrity, but in 1979 they finally burst into full rainbow bloom by entirely embracing—by loving—their home. It’s not an accident that the team photo shown in this 1979 card is the most relaxed-looking team photo I’ve ever seen. The Astros are lounging around outside the Astrodome like brothers and cousins at a family reunion. Though the photo was likely taken in 1978, it telegraphs the fate of the team in 1979, when they would begin a three-year span as one of the elite teams in the National League by completely merging their identity with that of their home. The Astros and the Astrodome became one.
The late Astros of 1979–1981 are one of my favorite teams in baseball history, a rainbow cyclone of slap-hitting, power-pitching, and speed. The equation never worked very well on the road, where the Astros compiled decidedly mediocre records during this golden age of 37–44, 38–44, and (in the strike-shortened 1981 season) 30–29, but in the Astrodome they dominated like a John McGraw deadball-era fever dream, going 52–29, 55–26, and 31–20. No one on the team could hit for power, but virtually everyone could fly, and so a walk became a walk and a steal, a double became a triple, and the winning run on third became a rainbow torpedo blazing for home as the batter squared for the suicide squeeze.
So when I look at this 1979 team card I see a team that loves its home. When I typed that sentence in a Word document, a squiggly line appeared under the word “loves” and the suggested correction—apparently connected by the ham-fisted artificial intelligence of the automatic spell-check to the word “team”—was “loses.” But then again, that correction would make for a true sentence, too, eventually, as the Astros moved out of the Astrodome, losing their home. They still have a ballpark where they play their home games, some structure that used to be named for one corporation and is now named for another, but how can it compare to the Astrodome, which was in name and in spirit an extension of the team? Or was the team an extension of the Astrodome? Really, the borders between the Astros and the Astrodome were like the borders between colors in a rainbow, and any attempt to detach one side of the border from the other would make the rainbow dissolve into something meaningless, gray.
Some other news:
My book on The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (part of Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series) will be out on June 7.
Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to do some reading and drinking as part of some events planned by the publisher of the paperback version of Cardboard Gods. The Naperville Sun has an article on the first stop of the “Free Beer Tour”; for info on the other stops, please see my book events page.
Back in my old home state, Dan Bolles has a nice article in Seven Days on me and the writing of Cardboard Gods.