When you're on the bottom, there's no place to go but up. The Astros climbed back into contention in a hurry but found the grade from there a lot steeper. When Dr. John McMullen sold the Astros to Drayton McLane, a grocery magnate from Temple, Texas, it was clear that someone had arrived that wanted to turn the team back into a winner. The Astrodome was refurbished yet again to appear more old-fashioned with manual scoreboards and dark green paint around the field. The Astros restyled their uniforms, dropping orange for gold in the color scheme. McLane brought back some heroes of seasons past and tried to win back some of the fans who fled during the previous years. Stung by free agent failures, McLane found it easier to develop stars than it was to sign them.
The National League expanded in 1993 for the first time in 24 years, placing teams in Denver, Colorado and Miami, Florida. The league realigned the next year to form three divisions and add a new round of playoffs to the postseason - one that proved a thorn in Houston's side later in the decade. From 1994, the Astros would reside in the National League Central Division with new rivals like St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh replacing the West Coast ballclubs in the minds of Houston fans.
The Astros and their home park had trouble making ends meet so they were thrilled for the Astrodome to be declared the site for the 1992 Republican National Convention. But it was a little less thrilling to find out how it would affect their ballclub. The Astros were told they could not use the Dome for four weeks so it could be prepared for the four-day convention. The schedule makers got busy and came up with a plan that sent the team from coast to coast, playing 26 straight road games and visiting eight cities. It was, to use a phrase of the times, the "Mother Of All Road Trips".
The good news, of
course, was that the Astros spent much of the season at home to compensate
for a month on the road. Art Howe tried to get his young lineup to gel
as a team but there were struggles, particularly with the pitching staff.
The front office wasn't afraid to bring in veterans off the scrap heap
so long as they didn't cost much.
Jones: Led team in wins and saves.
One such veteran was Pete Incaviglia, the sort of slugger one would picture having problems in the cavernous Astrodome. He batted .266 with eleven homers in a part-time role. His best day came on June 14th when he smashed two homers and tied the club record with seven RBIs during a 15-7 donnybrook with the Giants.
Another veteran was Doug Jones, one of the most unique pitchers in baseball history. While every other pitcher was judged on how fast his pitches flew, Jones took the road less traveled. Unable to make the majors with normal stuff, Doug developed a change-up pitch that was devastatingly slow! Hitters were tied in knots just waiting for his pitches to arrive at the plate. Their timing ruined, batters would flail into pop-ups and dribblers. The pitch was so slow that it made his "fastball" equally effective. The 35-year-old set a new club record with 36 saves while leading the team with eleven victories. He had a hand in more than half of the Houston wins that season.
Halfway through the campaign, the team limped along in fifth place. On June 28th, they were shook by a mild earthquake while in Los Angeles. They were nine games below .500. To a man, they hoped the temblor was not an omen of the big trip to come.
With the second-worst road record in the league, the Astros began their 1,337-mile odyssey in Atlanta on July 27th where they toppled the Braves, 5-1. Onward they ventured to Cincinnati, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Chicago before a 36-hour overnighter in Houston. Then it was back to the air for St. Louis and Philadelphia before they could put a home jersey back on. Players were given additional meal money and laundry money for the long journey.
The concentrated time spent on airplanes and buses helped to bring the club together. Their play improved, going 12-14 on the mammoth trip. On their first game back in the Dome, rookie Andujar Cedeno became the third Astro to hit for the cycle. They still lost to the Cardinals, 5-3, in 13 innings.
The rededicated unit put on a final spurt to reach the .500 mark at 81-81. It was fitting for Jones to finish the season on a positive note. The young Astros ended in fourth place but they had to feel good given how far they'd come.
Steve Finley led the club in average (.292), hits (177) and stolen bases (44). Craig Biggio, who converted from catcher to second baseman, swiped 38 bases and hit .277. Jeff Bagwell swatted 18 home runs and drove in a team-leading 96 runs. It is rare for any player to play all 162 games in a season but Finley, Biggio and Bagwell each did it in 1992. Given the grueling schedule, perhaps that feat was the most astounding one of all.
Drayton McLane wanted to make a statement about his commitment to building a winning team. Knowing that pitching was the club's greatest weakness, he reached into the free agent market and lured two well-known starting pitchers to sign with Houston. Doug Drabek was a former Cy Young Award winner and the ace of the Pittsburgh staff. He had pitched before at the University of Houston. Lefty Greg Swindell was a star at the University of Texas before earning honors in Cleveland and Cincinnati. It didn't work as planned. Drabek suffered through a 9-18 campaign while Swindell fared only slightly better at 12-13. It was the rest of the rotation that picked up the slack.
Mark Portugal had one of the best seasons ever by an Astro pitcher, winning 18 games and losing four. Pete Harnisch tossed a pair of one-hit gems during the campaign, including a shutout on September 17th where the only San Diego hit was a controversial bunt play. He won 16 games, four by shutout.
Darryl Kile racked up 15 wins, none more dramatic than on September 8th when he tossed a no-hitter for a 7-1 triumph over the Mets. It was the ninth no-hit performance in franchise history. Earlier in the year, Kile blanked St. Louis, 6-0, while belting a home run and a double.
It added up to an 85-77 record and a third place finish in the Western Division. The addition of two expansion teams, the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, seemed to water down the pitching around the league as offenses had a banner year.
Seven Astros reached double figures in home runs, led by Craig Biggio with 21 and Jeff Bagwell with 20. Bagwell also led the team with a .320 average and 88 RBIs. Luis Gonzalez turned in a .300 season while banging 15 long balls and leading the club with 20 steals.
The biggest improvement came from shortstop Andujar Cedeno. He raised his average 110 points to .283 and belted eleven home runs. Kevin Bass returned to hit .284 in a reserve role.
Art Howe proved he could rebuild a team almost entirely in five years and have them play as well as when he first arrived. But, surprisingly, this was not enough. After the season he was fired and replaced with Terry Collins, a coach from the Pittsburgh organization. McLane also fired General Manager Bill Wood, who had held the job since 1987, and promoted former player Bob Watson. It was a special moment for Watson who became the first African-American to hold such a position in major league history. That it was also someone who starred for the ballclub implied the Astros would try to stick to their roots. With labor unrest on the horizon, Watson's task would not be an easy one.
There were two stories that dominated the season and they would be intertwined. The Major League Baseball Players Association and the baseball owners finally took their feud too far. It was bad enough that games were missed in 1972, 1981 and 1987. But the two sides shut out baseball fans for the final two months of the 1994 campaign as well as the entire postseason. To some fans, who had watched the sport they loved deteriorate into a grudge match between squabbling millionaires, it was the final straw. Many swore they'd never return to the ballpark. Who knows how many have made good on their threat.
it doubly frustrating for Houston fans was that Jeff Bagwell had four months
that were better than any six-month season a Houston player had ever had.
Bagwell made Houston's record book obsolete in a single season - and he
never got to finish it. Jeff became the first Astro to win the Most Valuable
Player award and the strike may have helped.
Bagwell: MVP season cut short.
Bagwell finished the year with a .368 average, destroying the club record of Rusty Staub (.333 in 1967). He slammed 39 home runs, smashing the club record of Jim Wynn (37 in 1967), and drove in a league-leading 118 runs, eclipsing the club record of Bob Watson (110 in 1977). Keep in mind that Jeff accomplished these single-season records without benefit of the final seven weeks. Bagwell led the National League in runs (104), slugging average (.750), extra base hits (73) and total bases (300).
The players strike began on August 11th but Bagwell's season ended a few days earlier when he was hit by a pitch and broke his left hand. It would not have recovered in time to play again had the season continued. The final weeks might have allowed someone like Barry Bonds or Matt Williams of the Giants, Mike Piazza of the Dodgers, Larry Walker of the Expos or Fred McGriff of the Braves to overtake his numbers and claim the honor. We'll never know.
The campaign began with a new manager, a new closer and a new look. Gone was the color orange from the Houston wardrobe. Gone was the letter "H" from the caps while the star had been redesigned to look, as one writer put it, like Ken Caminiti diving to his left. The new skipper was Terry Collins who tried to push his players more than Art Howe had done, with mixed results. The new closer was Mitch Williams, a lefty who had done well for the Phillies in winning the league title but fell flat in the World Series, prompting his trade for Doug Jones.
Williams' nickname was "Wild Thing" and it was deserved. His fastball flew all around the plate while he dramatically fell off the mound with every pitch. He had a penchant for walking opponents and then getting out of his own jams. Williams arrived to cheers on Opening Day and left to a chorus of boos as he gave up two runs in the 12th inning against Montreal. Then Caminiti bailed him out with a game-winning double for a 6-5 comeback. Frustrated at his poor showing, Williams retired after 25 games.
This provided an opportunity for John Hudek. A 27-year-old career farmhand, Hudek did so well as a closer that he was named to the All-Star team along with Bagwell, Caminiti, infielder Craig Biggio and pitcher Doug Drabek. He saved 16 games with a fine 2.97 ERA but proved to be a one-year wonder.
Drabek led the team with 12 victories during the abbreviated season, posting a 2.84 ERA. The other big-name pitcher, Greg Swindell, struggled to an 8-9 season.
Biggio was no slouch either. He led the league in doubles (44) and steals (39), a combination than would earn him more notoriety in later years. Craig batted .318. Kevin Bass delivered a solid .310 average as a reserve while Sid Bream, given the thankless job of backing up Bagwell at first, had a superb year hitting .344 in mostly pinch-hit duties.
But Bagwell was the show all season. Jeff launched two homers to help beat the Braves, 7-6, on June 12th. He banged two homers in one inning and three for the game during a June 24th, 16-4 mauling of Los Angeles. The Astros overcame an 11-0 deficit on July 19th, scoring eleven of their own in the sixth inning to stun the Cardinals, 15-12. Bagwell had his 29th homer in that one. On August 6th, Jeff broke Wynn and Watson's marks on the same night during a 12-4 thrashing of the Giants. It was a five-RBI performance.
The Astros battled neck-and-neck with the Cincinnati Reds for the lead in the new Central Division. For the first time, a team could make the playoffs without winning the division, going as the "wild card" team with the best record among non-divisional winners. At the time the strike was called, Houston had played one more game than Cincinnati. The Astros finished at 66-49, one loss more than the Reds. They were 2-1/2 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card standings.
All of this failed to matter after the strike ended the season. There would be no playoffs. It left the Astros and their fans with a terrible case of "what if" to ponder.
It took just two years for Drayton McLane to feel the financial pinch. The lengthy strike had left him with a team payroll he felt was too high. The solution was a 12-player deal with the San Diego Padres, sending away Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Andujar Cedeno and three others. The key players in return were outfielders Derek Bell and Phil Plantier. Infielders Craig Shipley and Ricky Gutierrez were thrown in as well as pitcher Doug Brocail. This mid-winter deal happened even though the strike was far from settled. The trade was arranged with the help of Tal Smith, back with the organization after a 14-year absence. Tal's son, Randy, was running the Padres before moving on to Detroit. Gerry Hunsicker was officially General Manager after Bob Watson left to work for the New York Yankees. Although Bell was hyped as someone who could provide lineup help for Jeff Bagwell, the deal was a thinly-disguised salary dump
The prospect of replacement players finally brought the strikers back just as the season was about to begin. A three-week delay to allow for conditioning shrunk the campaign to 144 games. Getting a ticket to the ol' ballgame was never easier. Attendance nosedived throughout the majors.
At least in Houston, the hitters got into shape faster than the pitchers. The Astros had the best batting average of any team in the league that wasn't based in Colorado. The pitchers were fifth in team ERA, despite a sickly 4.06 average. Doug Drabek, Greg Swindell and Shane Reynolds shared the team lead with ten wins apiece while Todd Jones took over the closer role with fifteen saves.
Eight Astros hit .290 or higher. Five stole 20 or more bases. Craig Biggio led the team in homers (21), steals (33) and doubles (30) while batting .302. He also swatted a home run in the All-Star Game. Bell led the club with a .334 average while Bagwell paced the Astros with 87 RBIs. Once again, Bagwell's left hand was broken, this time by a pitch from ex-teammate Brian Williams who was dealt to San Diego in the mega-trade. Bagwell's injury sent the Astros into a tailspin.
Ailments plagued the squad all season and forced some other trades. Luis Gonzalez and Scott Servais were dealt to Chicago for an ineffective Rick Wilkins. Plantier broke his hand and was traded back to San Diego. Disgruntled top draft choice Phil Nevin was shipped to Detroit for veteran reliever Mike Henneman.
As they had the year before, the Astros fought the Reds for first place in the Central Division. They also contended with Chicago. Houston spanked the Cubs, 19-6, on June 25th to set a team record for runs in one game. The Astros were in a strong position to either win the division or become the "wild card" playoff team. Then, after Bagwell's injury, the club went on a club-record eleven-game losing streak. Catcher Tony Eusebio broke the skid on August 29th with a homer in the 13th inning to upend Atlanta, 11-9.
The season wound down to the final weekend in Chicago. The Astros, Cubs and Rockies were still in the hunt for the "wild card" spot. On September 28th, the Astros blew five leads in a 12-11 loss. Chicago pitcher Randy Myers was attacked on the mound by a "fan" but it was Houston fans who should have been upset. The Astros and Cubs knocked each other out of the playoffs while the folks in Colorado celebrated.
Houston ended with a 76-49 record but nothing to show for it. The late-season collapse had players griping about Terry Collins' aggressive style. In two years under Collins, the Astros had yet to play a full 162-game season but they already felt the whip was being cracked too often.
The 1990s would see the Astros bring up from the minors a steady stream of outfield candidates with high expectations. There was Eric Anthony, who could hit the ball far, just not frequently. He was traded to Seattle after the 1993 season for pitcher Mike Hampton. There was Kenny Lofton who got the "cup of coffee" in 1991 before being dealt to Cleveland. In 1994, it was James Mouton whom the crowd serenaded with "Moo" as they had done for Jose "Cruuuuuz" for many years. He stayed for four years but saw his playing time diminish each season.
The latest "can't-miss" kid was Brian Hunter who looked like a clone of Gerald Young. He was lanky, thin and blazingly quick. He was called up in June of the 1995 season and hit .302 with 24 stolen bases.
In his first full season as an Astro, Hunter led the club with 35 steals while batting .276. But Brian walked just 17 times while striking out on 92 occasions. He infuriated Terry Collins with defensive and baserunning mistakes. A rib injury complicated matters but pitchers were starting to find the holes in his swing. How many times had the front office wished they hadn't traded Lofton?
At least they could console themselves with the theft of Jeff Bagwell. That 1990 deal continued to pay big dividends as Jeff, now sporting a thickly-padded batting glove over his fragile left hand, paced the ballclub with 31 homers, 120 RBIs and a .312 average. His 48 doubles led the league.
Derek Bell's average fell to .263 but he protected Bagwell in the batting order to the tune of 17 home runs, 113 RBIs, 40 doubles and 29 steals. Sean Berry, acquired before the season from Montreal, took over at third base and swatted 17 long balls, drove in 95 runs and batted .281. Along with Craig Biggio, the heart of Houston's lineup had a consonant in common. They were dubbed "The Killer B's".
While the "B's" buzzed the basepaths, the pitching staff underwent more changes. 22 hurlers took the mound for Houston during the course of the season. Shane Reynolds, perhaps the least heralded of Houston's arms, quietly led the club with 16 victories. Darryl Kile bounced back from a 4-12 season to win a dozen. Hampton emerged as a starter and claimed ten wins. As for Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell, they finished the year with losing records and left town, seemingly as human reminders to Drayton McLane about big-name free agents. It's a lesson that has stuck with him ever since.
Another lefthander that saw action was Billy Wagner, a hard-throwing reliever who could light the third digit on those radar guns. He came up in mid-season and won two games while saving nine. He fanned 67 batters in 52 innings.
The Astros finished with an 82-80 mark but landed in second behind St. Louis while Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley led San Diego to a division crown. Terry Collins was sacrificed on the altar of dashed pennant hopes.
After the season, Hunter was sent to Detroit in another mega-trade. Shortstop Orlando Miller and pitchers Doug Brocail and Todd Jones went with him. Detroit gave up catcher Brad Ausmus, who would immediately straighten up the mess behind home plate. A throw-in to the deal was an excitable Dominican pitcher named Jose Lima. The Astros wouldn't need Hunter in the lineup. They had an outfielder named Bob Abreu to take his place. The scouts said he couldn't miss.