Let me preface this column by reiterating that my love for baseball and Astros fandom can be traced back to around my middle school days in the mid-2000s.
One of the men donning those ghastly brick red jerseys they wore back then, Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, to this day remains my all-time favorite Astro. I played the way I did – hustling out every grounder, catching every pop fly with two hands – not necessarily because coaches drilled the practice into my skull, but because I saw its practical application in action. Jeff Bagwell is still the greatest Astro in the franchise’s 58-year history, though second baseman Jose Altuve may knock on the door in about a decade.
Watching that duo made up much of my childhood fandom. But with all due respect to the two faces of the franchise and what they accomplished, this is the most fun crop of Astros to watch in franchise history. No longer do I follow the team solely for their win/loss record. The men behind the uniforms are entertainingly eclectic, and the most joyful group I’ve ever seen.
It’s not even close, and won’t likely ever be topped, at least during my lifetime, and we need to enjoy it while it lasts. I say that not just because of the winning, which has seen them become just the eighth team in MLB history to win 100 or more games in three straight seasons and make two World Series appearances in those three years.
No, what makes this current crop of Astros what I believe to be the most beloved – and interesting – group in the franchise’s history is the simultaneous collection of both talent and personality, melded together for a concoction so perfectly suited for this city and for baseball as a whole. It sits in such stark contrast to the era of baseball I grew up watching in middle school, yet I can’t get enough.
Personalities ranging from All-Star and current MVP candidate Alex Bregman’s brash cockiness to new outfielder Michael Brantley’s perpetual curmudgeonly scowl, from George Springer moonlighting as DJ Funky Fresh to Jose Altuve’s workmanlike hitting clinics that eventually give way to a smile lighting up a room, the temperaments around the team are endless.
You’ve even got outfielder Josh Reddick’s WWE obsession leading to championship belts for the player of the game last season as well as Bregman and first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s Euro step celebration following each win.
What’s more, the players’ personalities rub off on each other, and bonds the players. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crop of players this close for any team in my life, and that’s 100 percent because of their efforts to make themselves accessible.
Always seemingly the ticked off elder statesman at the beginning, the personality of Brantley – who the team has given the moniker “Uncle Mike” – has gradually begun to shine through. From his stoicism has burst forth the occasional smirk, and even a smile from time to time, though the occurrence has been rarer than a Gerrit Cole loss for much of the season.
There’s even an anecdote of how he trolled fellow outfielder Jake Marisnick with a season-long prank, constantly swiping the hats he’d wear to the ballpark and convincing Marisnick they’d been lost before playfully returning them all to him in a box at the end of the season. The reason? Payback for a Marisnick stunt during Spring Training, specifics of which are in the wind.
“I don’t remember what you did,” Brantley said in an article on The Athletic. “But here’s your hats back.”
Go back a few more years, and you’d remember another anecdote that has been circulated. When Gurriel first came to the United States in 2016 after playing 15 seasons overseas, he was reserved, unsure of how he fit in with the clubhouse and sticking to the Spanish-speaking players in the locker room.
As the story goes, none other than Bregman was one of the first to come over and greet him – and speaking to him in Spanish. Bregman first took Spanish lessons during prep school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and became more fluent during his time with the U.S. 16-and-under and 18-and-under national teams. From that moment, the two have become inseparable, morphing into a duo frankly deserving of their own reality show.
On the surface, they couldn’t be more different – one a cocky rising superstar from New Mexico, the other a seasoned veteran of nearly two decades playing baseball between Cuba, Mexico and the United States. But dig beneath the surface, and there’s a common thread – their love of baseball and the city of Houston. Well, that and playfully insulting the other on each other’s Instagram or Snapchat stories in Spanish.
I could go on, but this space wouldn’t be nearly enough to recount the countless examples of such stories. And that’s not even touching on their on-field shenanigans, which includes everything from bat flipping homers into oblivion to Brantley and Springer’s tire-changing celebration after the other homers.
That’s what makes this team different, and what endears them to the fans of this city. They’re playing a kid’s game for millions of dollars, and having a blast doing it. But the era I grew up watching, that Biggio and Bagwell played in, never would have seen such “antics” despite the same underlying concept. The name of the game then was more gruffness than rambunctious behavior, the game’s atmosphere more business-like than encouraging personalities to shine.
I would never say that any era shows the “right” way to play – to each their own. I’ve never really ascribed to that, and I still loved watching those early 2000s Astros teams. In their purest form, sports are entertainment, however we choose to enjoy them.
So regardless of the result of this World Series, sit back and enjoy the ride, on and off the field.