The Astros Offend Your Carnal Sensibilities

The Astros have embodied the shift away from the athlete as warrior (via Cliff Cooper).

The Astros have embodied the shift away from the athlete as warrior (via Cliff Cooper).

Two years ago, novelist Stephen Amidon published a book on the history of sports—it’s quite a regal book, so perhaps I should just say sport—with a title that has an indication that sports history takes place in spiritual terrains as much as, or possibly more than, it does in the temporal: it’s called Something Like the Gods. The subtitle of the book, “A Cultural History of the Athlete From Achilles to LeBron,” indicates that this history runs deep into our human past indeed. Very deep.

The first intimately recorded sporting event in human history, Amidon reports, was a fiction, appearing in the iambic verse of Homer’s Iliad. During a break from war, Achilles’ soldiers competed in a series of taxing games in cathartic commemoration of a slain brother. This immediate proximity between sports and war is far from accidental. Amidon writes, “The only difference came in the fading seconds of the game. The athlete pulled his punches; the warrior followed through.”

Just as the rituals of today’s wars include space to posthumously commemorate its noblest victims, like America’s symbol-steeped Purple Heart medal, victory and defeat in sports do not directly translate into glory and dishonor, respectively. There always have been ways for a warrior and/or athlete to achieve—simultaneously, paradoxically—losing and glory. Says Amidon, “The only way a loser could be certain to command respect was to experience a kalos thanatos—a beautiful death. The Iliad is filled with examples of warriors dying nobly, thereby inoculating themselves against shame.” Winning has never truly been the only thing.

A few thousand years later, the intrinsic honor codes of competition crystalized in the form of the knight. Amidon describes their brutal tradition of “chivalric combat,” which almost entirely blurred the lines that usually separate sports, war, and legal justice:

…[T]wo knights would do battle with a variety of unblunted weapons until one was killed. The survivor would then be judged to have the law on his side. If one of the knights was in any way incapacitated during the course of the contest, this was deemed an admission of guilt. He was immediately executed.

While both of these examples of archaic sport are thoroughly European, this is the flavor of our sporting ancestry no matter who your specific ancestors were. Sports were birthed out of a need to cathartically release, through simulation, our species’ inborn tendency for carnage.

In 2014, death on the playing field is thoroughly and scrupulously avoided as far in advance as possible. But our codes of honor, chivalry and nobility remain as deep and unaffected as ever. Because we have baseball.

In theory, a baseball team’s only duty is to win baseball games. In reality, all baseball teams expend considerable energy advancing and defending their honor, and they do so via measures that tend to limit, ever-so-slightly, their opportunity to win the game at hand.

Plunking an opposing batter is a thing that serves no other purpose than to defend honor. The cost, in terms of expected win percentage, may be relatively small, but it’s still voluntarily conceding that same value that was bitterly scraped for in an earlier inning.

Leaving the dugout to brawl is another thing that brings no tangible advantage—brawling doesn’t intimidate the opponent, it’s really just a reflex—and also a brawl carries with it the crippling threat of suspension. Losing a player for a week is a steep price to pay when all it purchases is a temporary retention of honor.

Baseball has its deaths, too—figurative deaths, but about as hard to come back from as the real thing. With their documented ingestion of PEDs, Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi have committed more or less the same violation upon the nebulous “spirit of the game” as did Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. Only, the court of public opinion has deemed the latter pair guilty on all counts of dishonor, their sentence eternal banishment from the audience’s fond sentiments.

Just like Achilles’ troops, the baseball player, too, must pull his punches in the waning seconds. You just don’t steal a base if you’re up 10-3. The rule is so obvious you don’t even need to write it down.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

For the third straight season, corresponding precisely with the arrival of Jeff Luhnow to the front office, the Houston Astros have compelled me more than any other major league team. The Astros are a science experiment being conducted in public, in real time. A stunning conclusion has been hypothesized, but at this time that final result remains far from being realized or, of course, guaranteed.

In a totally objective version of the space-time continuum, the Astros’ layered and profound grand strategy—in this first stage, improving the state of its minor-league talent at the cost of major-league wins—is totally reasonable. But we’ll never have access to that wholly analytical dimension.

We’ll only ever always be in this universe, a universe where the public is not only well-versed in baseball’s honor codes: their collective voice always can be heard and felt. Actions do speak louder than words, especially if the action is a 0.0 television rating or two. The savviest of new metrics cannot overcome this natural law of the universe: a professional baseball team cannot exist without the support of its fans.

Now, television ratings were never a concern for last year’s Chicago White Sox, a team that only managed 63 wins, a barely perceptible improvement over the Astros’ tally of 51 victories. The grumblings of Hawk Harrelson stream into so many Chicago-area homes unabated. There is a perspective in which last year’s White Sox season actually was worse than Houston’s: for the hefty price of 111 losses, the Astros at least purchased elite prospect talent and time for that talent to develop. The White Sox suffered, it appears, without getting anything in return.

While the left side of baseball’s analytic brain appraises the 2013 White Sox with variations of “Idiots!” this game has seduced us all by appealing, first and foremost, to our right hemispheres. The White Sox have not inspired editorials calling for sweeping reforms to the structures of the game. The White Sox are not the embodiment of any particular philosophy; the Astros can be, if you want them to be, the type of cartoonish, pocket-protected villain that was terribly inevitable once baseball teams started getting built with spreadsheets instead of sun-wrinkled scouting reports.

I propose that the White Sox have remained in our good favors—or, at the very least, we are entirely neutral towards them—because their method of team building at least included the possibility of a kalos thanatos. To be sure, plenty of their 10-3 losses were entirely devoid of any sense of nobility. But by making what was perceived as an honest effort to win each game 10-3, the White Sox stood to lose nobly when they ended up on the wrong side of an 8-7 final.

An 8-7 Astros loss felt—and it probably still feels this way, in the early dawn light of this new season in which not much has changed—like an accident, a string of singles from so many .220 hitters mistakenly clustered together. There is no nobility in nearing or achieving victory by mistake. A kalos thanatos must, among other things, totally crush your heart.

Of course when I say “White Sox” and “Astros,” I’m definitely not referring to the 25 men who carry those nicknames on their uniforms onto the field. The only parts of the “White Sox” and “Astros” that have any autonomy are the front offices. The players who actually stand underneath the Astros ballcap are incidental, if not sympathetic, figures. Perhaps they still belong in the protective incubation of the minor leagues by the time they’re first fed to the major league wolves.

The duties of a front office are so nuanced by now that they don’t just assemble a roster, but they inevitably declare a philosophical worldview via so many transactions. This is where the Astros poignantly represent a trend that may well be something truly new under the sun, something unseen since even the times of Achilles: the nobility of the athletes is gained and lost by the actions of their bosses, by spectators with decision-making power who never approach the actual field of play.

This is probably the thing that irks the good baseball-watching public about the Astros, this subtle but profound shift away from the athlete as warrior, this shift away from our ancestral heritage, our inbred impulses. It scares us, and because change is almost always so doggone scary.

But I say, embrace this change. I say embrace it because any movement that sports makes away from its early legacy of death and near-death is not only safer for its participants but helps inch us towards a community of sports that is built upon an innocent and child-like attraction to play.

The Houston Astros are not here to defend their honor. They are here to play—and, eventually, win—the game.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.
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Marc Schneider
9 years ago

This legacy is, to a large extent, why we have big-time college athletics in the US-and nowhere else. The idea-initially perpetuated at the elite colleges-was that sports taught character building skills necessary for elites to use in combat and/or running the society. Douglas MacArthur specifically noted how the lessons learned on the field would be applied to combat.

Fandom, itself, seems to be partly a legacy of this. In ancient days, you had single-warrior combat where each warrior would represent an entire society. Today, you have sports teams where local fans equate their success with the health of the city/country. In some cases, the success of the team is supposed to be representative of the community’s higher qualities-witness the equating of the Red Sox winning the World Series with the resiliency of Boston after the attack. Or Mike Piazza hitting a home run to win the game just days after 9/11. But, aside from that, when “we” (the team)wins the game, it’s similar to when “we” (the country) wins a war.

9 years ago

Interesting article, but this “experiment” of losing badly has been done before and can be studied as fellow examples. I would offer the Braves with Bobby Cox as GM from 1985 to 1990, as one good example of this alternate universe. Dombrowski has been the author of such alternative universes at Montreal, Florida, and Detroit, selling off a lot to institute the losing, before building up a playoff contender. The Rays have also followed such a route with their decade long string of losing horribly. Lastly, I would offer up the Nationals, who, to me, clearly drove their losing to pick up the two premier prospects of the generation, Strasburg and Harper. They also picked up Rendon in the wake of those losing seasons, as an additional prize.

In each of these cases, I think it can be argued that the teams lost on purpose (how else can you explain why the Braves management would allow Cox, the GM presiding over all that losing, to become the manager, right when the team was ready to compete), whereas teams like the Royals and the Pirates, who were bad for many years unending but just couldn’t get out of that rut, did not lose with purpose. And that’s my theory about how to optimally rebuild in the MLB, I call it the Phoenix Rebuilding strategy, where you basically burn down the existing structure, selling off any player of worth, be a terrible team for a number of years to build up a collection of Top 5 draft picks, until you find the right key players to build on top of the ashes of the former team.

This is the strategy that teams must do if they wish to get out of what I call the mediocre limbo, which is a result of the fact that in the MLB draft, the key core players you can build off of generally are relatively easier to find in the first five picks of the draft than it is after.

As a long time Giants fan, I wondered why the Giants were so mediocre for so many years, and after I did a study of the draft and found out that the odds of finding a good player goes from bad to worse to once in a blue moon – people have a really bad idea of the worth of a first round draft – the odds of finding a good player when you are in the middle is exponentially harder than if you were one of the five worst teams in the majors, and this was especially so once the draft was changed to ranked W/L record instead of alternating AL/NL and then ranked. And the Giants were in that middle forever until they got really bad and was able to draft Will Clark and Matt Williams, both of whom became core players for playoff competitive Giants.

This is a strategy that can work if your player development staff has the scouting gravitas to ID good players and draft them, and more importantly, identify relatively soon that you got the real deal, because even when you draft Top 5, more than half of them don’t turn out to be that good, maybe useful but not the core team leader you look for when drafting up there. Or worse, you bomb, like Matt Bush.

It is yet to be seen whether the Astros under Luhnow has the scouting staff that can ID good players. I also feel that any rebuilding has to be focused on the pitching side, given how a good pitching rotation and staff can dominate a playoff series (and BP’s study of the playoffs showed that it’s pitching and fielding defense that gets teams deep into the playoffs), and that could hurt them in the long run competitively if that is not taken care of. I didn’t realize until now that Luhnow only has had two drafts under his belt, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that he has selected a number of pitchers in the first few rounds of the draft and has a couple of pitchers in the Top 100 list for BP, Appel and Foltynewicz, plus McCullers is doing very well, two of them his draft picks. That’s a nice start, I was wrong to criticize him previously, he’s only been in control of the Astros since the 2012 season.

Paul G.
9 years ago

So the Astros strategy is reminiscent of that of Hiero II of Syracuse, who ordered his untrustworthy mercenaries to battle against the loathsome Mamertine threat, abandoning their worthless hides to be slaughtered, after which he withdrew to Syracuse where he trained a superior and stout army from the local citizenry, eventually retaking the field to crush his old foe decisively. Of course, this victory directly led to the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage and all that ensued. Taking this analogy back round again, the historical record would indicate that Houston’s unusual rebuilding strategy will eventually lead to the Yankees defeating the Dodgers in the World Series for three straight years, the last one a lopsided sweep so shameful that Dodgers Stadium will be razed to the ground as a warning to others.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Or regurgitate it. Whichever.

More seriously – a low standard I know – the Astros’s strategy here is a bit unusual. This may be because it was not feasible in the past. Today we have free agency, guaranteed television contracts, and a draft that benefits the losers, so Houston is capable of buying time. In days of yore a team that did not attract fans had little revenue available, which meant little currency to compete for the services of promising amateurs compared to more successful rivals, which meant they would dwell the cellar indefinitely, excepting outrageous fortune or a deep pocketed champion. See the St. Louis Browns for greater understanding and abject horror. Then again, when a war as great as those between the descendants of Aeneas and Dido or, dare I say it, the great conflict at Ilium, came about, the lowly Browns did finally wear the crown of victory. And then were perplexed by their own success and planted the face, but these are the Browns. The jester must know his place!

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Teams have done this before. The Philadelphia A’s under their long-time owner/manager Connie Mack often ripped apart winning teams, trading off his stars for young players. He burned down and rebuilt at least a couple of times before he just couldn’t do it anymore. But yeah, it was much tougher back then, like playing with fire, and eventually you just lose. Charlie O. Finley continued that under his regime, and that’s the real reason for Beane’s early success, was the losing by the GM before him gifting him with Chavez and Zito, among others.

9 years ago

Hawk is more offensive than anything the Astros could ever do.

David P Stokes
9 years ago

Oh, please. As obsessivegiantscompulsive points out, what the Astros are doing is hardly anything new. Plenty of teams have stripped down the club and accepted a string of losing seasons in order to rebuild–though his examples mix in some instances that appear to have been simply attempts to minimize expenses rather than to actually rebuild. Actually, from a fan’s perspective, that’s the real problem; sometimes it’s hard from the outside to distinguish between a legitimate attempt to rebuild a team’s talent base by starting over and just deliberately fielding a young, inexperienced team out of cheapness.

9 years ago
Reply to  David P Stokes

Yes, some were examples of being cheap than rebuilding, but the actions are not truly distinguishable in actions, to my eyes, and similar enough that they can be used as examples, I believe.

However, I think fans can tell when an owner is being cheap, as when Charlie O. Finley was selling off everyone and tearing down or Lurie in Montreal and Florida, which is probably why Dombrowski looked for his next owner being willing to spend spend spend to win. Still, those actions, for the most part, is very similar to purposeful rebuilding, as I believe was done in Atlanta and Washington.

Comradde PhysioProffe
9 years ago

Luhnow and the ownership have been very explicit that the plan is to build, not just to shed salaries. And their actions support that claim, such as spending a lot of money on front office staff who possess various sorts of expertise germane to identifying and drafting the best possible prospects.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

There was a recent article in The Atlantic that suggested that tearing a team down to eventually win is not a productive strategy; that teams that are mediocre are more likely to become good than teams that are terrible. The specific reference was to the NBA-specifically teams like the 76ers-which is clearly different than baseball. But it was an interesting take.

The problem with the Astros strategy, to me, is that it looks good on paper but it might not work. It essentially assumes that enough of the prospects will become good at roughly the same time. That may or may not be a good assumption because so much depends on player development. The Royals, for example, have been collecting talent for years, but many of their top prospects have not really developed as expected and the same is true of the Mariners.

In the meantime, though, the Astros are still charging major league prices to watch what is essentially a minor league team. And, doing it in a publicly-funded (as they all are I guess) stadium. That’s what rubs me the wrong way. It’s one thing if the owner is paying the price for losing to build the team-it’s another if the public is doing so.

9 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

I think in basketball, it is much different than for the other sports because one player can be the lever towards multiple championships, whether Kareem, Magic, Bird, Isaiah, Jordan, Shaq, Tim Duncan, LeBron, though obviously you still need some good supporting players. Though I think most of those were among the top picks in their respective drafts. Though I guess I don’t know how this point references the finding that mediocre teams can become good.

I guess my point is that it is easier to win in the NBA with one key player, and in the NBA, teams often trade away that key player because of the byzantine trade rules that govern whether a trade can be made. That is, you still need to have some talent on your mediocre team so that you can engineer that trade for the key player, whereas a dead team has no trade bait when the opportunity to strike is upon them. Like when Jason Kidd was available, the Warriors was so bad that they didn’t have the ammo to do the trade, whereas Phoenix was.

In football, while a QB is key, I don’t think any team can regularly win unless it has the defense to go with the offense, as Air Coryell found out. And in baseball, I think that pitching and fielding is more of a key to winning.

The problem in baseball is that mediocre teams are stuck with mediocre draft picks, in the 11-20 range, where it is pretty tough to find a player who is eventually good. Unlike picks 1-5, where the odds is roughly twice as good (but still very tough) to find a good player. Even #1 picks are not a slam dunk to be good in baseball, whereas it seems most #1’s in basketball (except those chosen by the Warriors :^) eventually are pretty good players.

The problem with any rebuilding plan is the execution, I totally agree. Not everyone succeeds. That’s why I made the point about whether Luhnow has the scouts who are savvy enough to ID the talent. As the Pirates and Royals showed (even Rays for a while), you still need to have some clue as to what is talent to take advantage of the high picks you get.

But that’s true of any team, whether rebuilding or playoff competitive or mediocre. The Giants for years could not get out of their mediocre ghetto, from the early 1970’s to the late 1980’s, until they lose big time and they got high draft picks and hit homers with each, selecting Clark and Williams. They did it again later by selecting Lincecum, Bumgarner, Posey. But if you look at the odds of finding a good player (I’ve only studied the MLB draft though in detail), the odds are exponentially better for the Top 5 picks vs. the middle picks, then exponentially worse again for the picks that the playoff competitive teams (21-30) get, so in terms of efficiency and speed to rebuild, it is much better to tear down and be a bottom dweller to get the great picks, than to stay in the middle and muddle along, you need the talent to get back to the playoffs. Losing ensures you greater access.

But to your point, it does not ensure success. And that’s what we want anyway, as fans, don’t we? If a team could ensure success by following a certain path, then where is the competitiveness come from? Plus, each team would know this path, and how can every team have success? There has to be some sort of challenge to achieving success.

And I get your point about fairness to the fans. You don’t want to fund losing, but at some point, each team will have to rebuild and the fans will need to fund it by attending and whatnot. So you have to put your faith somewhere. In the Astro’s case, at least Luhnow had pretty good success with the Cards, probably the only team to avoid long-term rebuilds in a generation, before getting the reins of the Astros. And it’s a new owner who put up his money to buy the team, not a loser like Loria in Miami who had multiple examples in his past of burning down the team and rebuilding in both Montreal and Miami. I would rather have a guy with success like Luhnow tear down and rebuild and risk success, than hire a professional GM who probably will keep the team mediocre for long time (like what happened with the Giants) but not get too bad (or too good).