HOUSTON COLT 45S
Since their inception in 1962, the Houston Astros have had a difficult time establishing an identity in the National League, mostly due to their lack of superstar names and a dearth of postseason success — waiting 43 seasons to make it to the World Series where they were swept by the Chicago White Sox. It took them 18 years just to make it to October baseball, and it took them seven trips to the postseason before they finally won a series.
The Astros were born during the National League's first expansion since the modern 10-team, two-league structure was established in 1901 (the Mets were the other team). A conglomeration of Houston businessmen headed by Judge Roy Hofheinz won the franchise and originally named the team the Colt .45's.
The Colt .45's first loaded up against the Chicago Cubs on April 10, 1962, and shot them down 11-2 behind Bobby Schantz. Houston spent its first three seasons playing second-division baseball with manager Harry Craft at Colt Stadium, a new open-air park where fans had to endure the constantly oppressive Texas heat and swarms of mosquitoes.
Two games of note did take place at Colts Stadium — a no-hitter won by Houston hurler Don Nottebart on May 17, 1963, and on April 23, 1964, Houston pitcher Ken Johnson became the first Major League pitcher to lose a complete game no-hitter; two errors, one by Johnson himself, cost him a 1-0 decision to Cincinnati.
In 1965, the team and its fans escaped the mid-summer Texas misery by moving into a new structure originally called the Harris County Domed Stadium, but soon dubbed the Astrodome. The team changed its name in a nod-of-the-head to its new stadium and the burgeoning NASA space center nearby. The Astros inaugurated indoor Major League Baseball with a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on April 12, 1965 (although trivia experts like to point out that the Yankees played the Astros in an exhibition game to open the Dome a few days earlier and Mickey Mantle hit the first home run there).
Four years later the Astros did something they had never done before — finishing at .500. In the 1970's they began to show improvement, finishing as high as second place in 1978. During this time the Astros featured players such as Jimmy "The Toy Cannon" Wynn, a young Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson. Their pitching talent included Mike Cuellar, Don Wilson, Larry Dierker, Dave Giusti and Nolan Ryan.
Although his record was only 11-10 with 200 strikeouts, Ryan joined the team in time to celebrate Houston's first division championship in 1980. Joe Niekro led the staff with 20 wins and the offense was anchored by Cedeno's .309 average, Jose Cruz's .302 average and 91 runs batted in, and the return of veteran Morgan, who had been traded away to help fuel the Big Red Machine in the mid-1970s. The Astros lost their first postseason series, a habit they would find hard to break.
The Astros took one of the two half-season championships during the strike-marred 1981 campaign, but would not see the postseason again until its 1986 team blew away National League West competition by 10 games. First baseman Glenn Davis had 101 runs batted in (no one else had more than 79) and the pitching again carried the day with Cy Young Award winner Mike Scott (18-10, 306 strikeouts and 2.22 ERA) leading the starters and Dave Smith leading the bullpen with 33 saves.
The Astros lost a legendary six game National League Championship Series to the Mets, with the last game in Houston one of the great games of all time. The Mets scored three in the ninth to tie the game 3-3, each team scored in the 14th inning, the Mets got three in the top of the 16th and the Astros scored two in the bottom of the inning before their frantic rally came up short.
The arrival of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio started a new era for the Astros in the 1990's and brought contender status virtually every year. Bagwell set new standards for Houston sluggers, even while he played in the spacious Astrodome. He had 39 home runs and 116 runs batted in when the strike ended the 1994 season (Houston was ? game out of first). He became the National League's third-ever unanimous Most Valuable Player Award choice.
Houston missed the wild card by one game in 1995 and faded in September of 1996, though Bagwell carried his weight with 31 homers and 120 RBI.
With new manager Larry Dierker at the helm, the Astros won three consecutive National League Central titles in 1997-99, with Bagwell becoming the team's first 30-30 man in 1997 (41 home runs and 31 stolen bases) and Biggio getting 50 doubles and 50 stolen bases the next season.
Houston moved into Enron Field (Minute Maid Park as of 2002), a new, and more hitter-friendly ballpark in 2000, drawing three million fans despite missing a postseason berth. They came back to win the Central Division on the last day of the 2001 season, with Bagwell smashing 30 home runs, driving in 100 and scoring 100 for the sixth consecutive season. However, like every other postseason, the Astros could not get out of the first round of the playoffs, leading to the resignation of manager Dierker.
Houston made the playoffs again in 2004, sparked by the acquisition of Roger Clemens, who rescinded his retirement decision so he could pitch for his home town team. Having also signed Andy Pettitte from the Yankees, the Astros rode their veteran pitching to a wild card berth, and this time they finally grabbed a postseason brass ring, defeating the Atlanta Braves in the first round, only to lose to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series in seven games.
They continued to hammer away at producing postseason success, and earned their first World Series berth in 2005. The veteran crew hurdled the Atlanta Braves, then tasted sweet revenge against the Cardinals, only to face the Cinderella story Chicago White Sox in the Series who erased 88 years of frustration with a four game sweep.
The retirements of Bagwell in 2005 and Biggio in 2007, and the midseason trades of Lance Berkman to the Yankees and Roy Oswalt to the Phillies in 2010, signaled a changing of the guard for the Astros as they struggled to play .500 ball as the decade ended.