'Ready for another one?': Defending World Series champion Astros ready to build on dynasty

·6 min read

HOUSTON – Budweiser Clydesdales are prancing onto the field, with Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and his wife, Whitney, sitting prominently atop the carriage, clutching two World Series trophies.

The horses stop in front of home plate, the Cranes step down, Astros manager Dusty Baker walks out to greet them, slowly steps to the mic, and bellows, “Houston! Are you ready for another one?’’

The sellout crowd of 43,032 at Minute Maid Park roars even louder, with fans stomping their feet, screaming until their lungs burn, celebrating as each member of the entire team is introduced.

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The public address announcer then instructs the crowd to look above the left-field wall. The black covering slowly is removed, revealing the 2022 World Series banner, right below their 2017 championship flag.

The stadium only went quiet when the game ended, the Astros losing 3-2 to the Chicago White Sox, their first season-opening loss in 11 years.

“It was great, I mean a great atmosphere,’’ Astros All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman said. “These fans are unbelievable. They’ve been behind every step of the way.’’

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Astros'  Jose Abreu ignites the fans before the game against the White Sox.
Astros' Jose Abreu ignites the fans before the game against the White Sox.

The Astros used to hang flags honoring their division and wild card berths too, but when you’ve been to the American League Championship Series six consecutive times, winning four pennants and two World Series titles, why bother celebrating the little things in life?

It’s almost unimaginable that this is the same team that used to celebrate when they avoided losing 100 games in a season, dropping 324 games in a three-year span in 2011-2013, and now are making championship ring ceremonies an annual event.

“I’m getting old, I don’t remember that,’’ Crane said, laughing, trying to forget those embarrassing 100-loss seasons. “When we came in, the players on the roster weren’t playing well. There were contracts that needed to be addressed. The team was losing a lot of money. There was no way out.

“We set a plan in place to place it, and it worked. We’ve learned how to do things to help sustain that. …We’ve got the resources to do the things we need to do to win.

“But no, I didn’t dream that we’d be sitting here today, and saying, 'Hey, if we can get into the AL Championship game seven years in a row.'’’

You know life is good when anything less than an appearance in the ALCS is considered a failure.

They have built a powerful, majestic dynasty in Houston, the greatest run by an American League team since the New York Yankees in 1996-2001.

“I think with the work ethic we put in this room, we showed it’s definitely possible,’’ says Bregman, who has been to the ALCS every year since his first full season. “Every year we set our sights on winning a lot of baseball games, staying together as a unit, and we’ve done a really good job of that.

“We’re definitely having a lot of fun.’’

Sure, you can chastise the Astros for their 2017 sign stealing scandal, one of several teams who were illegally using electronic equipment, but the lone team that had a whistle blower exposing their scheme.

Yet, no one in the baseball world can deny their sustained greatness.

This is a team that has played 86 postseason games since 2016, the most by any team in baseball, and nearly twice as many games as the New York Yankees (44).

“We always talk about how hard it is to win a division,’’ says new GM Dana Brown. “It’s just such a grind. And when you’re in the playoffs, you’re talking about guys pitching so many more innings, playing so many more games. It’s a lot of wear and tear. You’ve got to make sure you have the depth.

“This is something that hasn’t happened in quite a while.’’

The good folks in Houston certainly are soaking up the prosperity, lining up around Minute Maid Park for days buying World Series merchandise, and spending more money on the Astros’ commemorative gold-numbered uniforms last week than some teams sold the entire season.

They have sold out their entire four-game game series this weekend against the White Sox, and are projected to sell more than three million tickets for the first time since 2006.

The love affair between the Astros and their fans is so intense that although the Men’s NCAA Final Four tournament is in town, you wouldn’t even know it. Tickets have plummeted to $35, with one NCAA official simply handing them out for free this week.

Tickets for Thursday night’s season opener?

The average ticket price was $188.

My God, even actor Mark Wahlberg, born and raised in Boston, and a diehard Red Sox fan, ditched his hometown team to simply yell, “Play Ball,’’ into the mic.

“I’m trying to convert him into being an Astros fan,’’ Bregman says. “Believe me, I’m working on it.’’

The bandwagon in Houston is overflowing, with players saying they can no longer go out in public without being mobbed, while Astros manager Dusty Baker is more popular than Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

“It’s almost embarrassing when I go out to change pitchers,’’ Baker says of the thunderous ovations. “I’m serious.’’

Oh, how life has changed, Astros catcher Martin Maldonado says, becoming almost a folk hero in these parts, despite his .191 career batting average and .628 OPS with the Astros.

“I used to be able to go out, and no one would know who I was,’’ Maldonado says. “But now? No way."

Who would ever have imagined that right here, deep in the heart of Texas, Houston has morphed from a football town into one of the greatest baseball meccas in the country?

“I don’t know if people outside the city of Houston really understand what has taken place here,’’ says Astros third-base coach Gary Pettis, their longest-tenured coach. “These fans were with this team when they had the down years, all those years of losing 100 games in a row, and to see what’s happened to this franchise, man, is it special.

“And everybody that comes here, they take pride in trying to make sure this doesn’t go away.’’

One day, the winning will eventually stop.

One day, maybe they won’t even make the playoffs.


“Hopefully that day is a long, long ways away,’’ Maldonado says. “We love playing together. We love to play in front of these fans. We love to win.

“And we can’t wait to do it all over again this year."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros, defending World Series champions, ready to build on dynasty