Rocket to the Moon

A much changed Houston Astros wraps up the Cardinals home season

The National League Central was created during the most tumultuous time in the recent memory of our fair sport, with the collapse of the collective bargaining agreement and a threatened (and then realized) players' strike, followed by a threatened (and realized) owners' lockout, with strikebreakers and scabs and former cab drivers suiting up in heroes' costumes putting on a AAAA brand of baseball for largely disgruntled fans.

A World Series was taken away, which gave this strike a larger impact on the sport than World War II. And worse yet, the very sanctity of the Series as the hallowed ground, reachable by only the elite teams, took a major blow with the creation of these two extra divisions, and this "wildcard" playoff spot.

Consider that in 1993, a year before this upheaval, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games in the West but could not gain entry into the playoffs. They were beaten on the final day of the season by the hated Dodgers, knocking them one lousy game behind the mighty Braves (who, baseball geographers will note, played in the West at the time).

"All is right and just with the world, that such a team be foisted from glory by their most hated of rivals, who must surely have made pacts with the devil just to accomplish such a fiendish deed. Also, that young whippersnapper Bonds is a real horse's hind end, and it is my hope that he never achieve the glory he so desperately wishes for himself," cried purists of the game. "This new interim commissioner, this car salesman, would rob us of this Faustian drama? We should pat both teams on the back and pull aside the velvet rope to baseball heaven with two weeks of games yet to play on the calendar? Pish! Tosh!"

And so, amidst a cultural revolt, the Central was birthed in ‘94. The division which we claim to the last was created of teams from the East and West who were staving off mediocrity. Cincinnati could not repeat its miracle year, Pittsburgh had seen its dynasty crumble, and the Cubs were the Cubs and not much would ever change that. Another bottom-feeder from Milwaukee was later added to the roster from the American League, and so much the better.

Soon, with the return of honest to goodness major league ballplayers, and the scientific juicing of every aspect of the game – balls, bats, players, mascots, payrolls, you name it – two teams emerged to take command over the Central for nigh upon a decade.

The St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros, revolving around each other like dog stars, played keepaway with the division title in every season but one from 1996 to 2006. This new competitive playground was a great blessing for both teams and their fan bases, who not only saw the rising of tremendous homegrown stars – Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt and Lidge; Morris, Lankford, Ankiel, Pujols and Molina – they also saw a fascinating cold war brinksmanship between the two teams to bring in some of the league's most exciting players, each in the effort to topple the other. Mark McGwire. Randy Johnson. Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite.

And while the conventional wisdom is that Sosa and McGwire "saved" baseball with the 1999 season-long home run derby, St. Louis would not have played party to that scene without our rivalry with the Astros. Before he was acquired, the Cardinals had never fielded such a prodigious slugger. It wasn't in our character to bloat out the birds on the bat with a brutish American Leaguer, until we needed Big Mac to beat those Houstoners down.

So it is with a deep sense of loss, and even of shame, that both we and our rival should continue to orbit each other, even as we spiral out of relevance in the 2007 playoff race. Of course, we're still damn happy we haven't sunk quite to their level.

At least, not yet.

Winds of Change

For all of their similarities in talent acquisition and development during this ten-year run, there is one stark contrast between the Astros and the Cardinals. While Walt Jocketty, Tony La Russa, and Dave Duncan have been at the helm of our team for the duration of this run, the Astros have gone through five field managers, innumerable coaches, and two GMs in that same span, and now have a vacant seat upstairs, and an interim man – former bench coach Cecil Cooper – in the dugout.

The recently departed GM, Tim Purpura, came onto the job in 2005 and then took the team built by the outgoing Gerry Hunsicker and rode it all the way to the World Series stage, and then found himself out on the curb the very next year.

The performance was reminiscent of Barry Switzer's brief run as Dallas Cowboys head coach, but the comparisons are not altogether fair. Purpura, a young man by the old standards of baseball executives, was the director of player development for seven years before being handed the reins. Under his watch, the Astros brought up Berkman, Oswalt, Lidge, speedy centerfielder Willy Taveras, and the gifted shortstop Adam Everett, as well as the current crop of youngsters such as Hunter Pence and Luke Scott that carry the team's hopes for the future.

However, once promoted to the top job, the golden boy lost his touch. The Astros began the year in a funk, and this was even before a single game had been played. Whether acting in concert or against each other's better interests, owner Drayton McLane Jr and Purpura took a strategic departure from the team's past methods, which involved spending a lot of money and winning a lot of games.

To win these games, they relied on a fearsome triple-aced pitching staff of Clemens, Oswalt, and Pettite. Even though Clemens spent the first half of each season stuffed up a sleeve, waiting to be played (carrying the "ace" metaphor way too far), and even though the trio cost a whopping ton of cash, it was a good strategy and paid off with the team's first-ever World Series appearance in '05.

However, the money was not spent on pitching this year, thanks to a massive contract offer to slugging outfielder Carlos Lee. As a result, Clemens was loosed upon the free agent market without a serious offer (unless you count offering arbitration, which predictably was turned down), and like a faithful hound, Pettite soon followed. The trouble with this plan was that Houston then utterly failed to sign anyone of note to replace them. They dithered in the pitching free agent market, as they had done with hitters in previous years with Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent, and Richard Hidalgo.

The results of their toils were Woody Williams and a disastrous trade, giving up their top pitching prospect for Jason Jennings, a supposedly ground-ballhappy pitcher who inherited a bad case of the same disease that bit Jason Marquis last year, gopher-itis. Worse yet, Jennings soon joined the scrappy Brandon Backe in going under the knife, leaving this once-stout rotation suddenly shredded of useful arms.

As a result, the Astros swooned from 2nd in the league in runs allowed (4.08 ERA) to 12th (4.77 ERA). And this is with the surprising (and temporary) emergence of the unheralded Wandy Rodriguez, who at one stretch put together six consecutive quality starts at home, including a four-hitter against the Mets. Without this unexpected brilliance, this team could be truly godawful.

This sudden decline in pitching ability is only made worse by a threeyear run-scoring malaise that began with the end of Jeff Bagwell's productive career. Once an offense capable of scoring five runs a game, this unit – with only Lee, Berkman and Pence as its bats to be feared – now ranks among the worst in the league.

Rumors, Whispers

Ominously, speculation is rampant that the Cardinals could soon be traveling the same path.

Tony La Russa is all but out the door, so sayeth the mighty television god. Bring us the handsome Joe Girardi, say the people's emails, unless he won't come and then we will root, root, root! for Jose Oquendo!

Even more intrigue abounds: Walt Jocketty is looking to depart as well, to leave rather than be ousted in a palace coup by our own young director of player development, Jeff Luhnow. So speaketh the internet chorus.

Of course, these are mere words and not truths, no matter how many times they are repeated or by whom. But there is little doubt that the rampant repetition and our own team's poor performance in so many facets this season, potentially our worst by far of the La Russa era, have stoked the local fans' desires for change of any kind.

The tides have already swept over Houston, leaving behind occasional pearls among flotsam and wreckage for us to inspect. When the Cardinals next appear in Busch Stadium in 2008, will they have washed over us as well?

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