The ’80s: big hair, parachute pants, Coneheads, Hatcher’s heroics and a no-hitter for the ages.
If I could make time travel happen and go back to one era of Astros baseball that I missed, it would be, without any hesitation or consternation, 1986.
There really is no other year that even comes close. The 1986 regular season started with low expectations (they were picked by no one to win the NL West) and ended with the single-greatest non-playoff moment in club history (Mike Scott’s division-clinching no-hitter). Better yet, the team was comprised of a cast of characters that gave Astros fans the best of both worlds — they were good ballplayers, and, off the field, they were highly entertaining.
In other words, they were a reporter’s dream.
Many of the players from the 1986 team are still in baseball in some capacity. Two surviving members of the exclusive Coneheads club are with the Phillies — Larry Andersen as a broadcaster, Charley Kerfeld as an assistant to the general manager. Other ’86 teammates are with the Astros — namely, broadcaster Jim Deshaies and special assistant to the GM Jose Cruz. Still more are peppered all through the big leagues — Phil Garner (Oakland A’s), Billy Hatcher (Reds), Nolan Ryan (Rangers), Alan Ashby (Blue Jays), and on and on.
The ’80s will be remembered for the exhilarating snapshot moments that made so many of the Astros teams from that decade permanently unforgettable to the Houston fanbase. They will also be remembered for heartbreaking moments that even to this day, many of the former Astros players still haven’t gotten over. And probably never will.
When the Astros closed down the Astrodome in 1999, we asked the beat writers who covered the team from decade to decade to submit their recollections. The 1980s were covered by my friend, the late, great Neil Hohlfeld. Here were his thoughts:
By Neil Hohlfeld
Two games. Two heart-stopping, gut-wrenching games out of the roughly 1,600 played during the 1980s remain lodged in the throats of Astros’ fans to this date.
The games were six years apart, but they almost seem to blend together. The end result is the main reason. The Astros lost both games in extra innings, preventing them from reaching the World Series in 1980 and 1986.
After winning their first division title in 1980, the Astros had a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of a decisive Game 5 with Nolan Ryan on the mound. They were six outs away from the World Series. Instead, the Phillies scored five runs in the eighth inning and eventually won 8-7 in 10 innings.
Six years later, the Astros and New York Mets played what many consider to be the best playoff series in baseball history. In Game 6, the Astros let a 3-0 lead slip away in the ninth inning and eventually lost 7-6 in 16 innings. True, the Astros would need to win Game 7, but they had Mike Scott ready to face the Mets, and that was like money in the bank in 1986.
The constant in both cases was the sight of left fielder Jose Cruz, the heart and soul of the Astros during the first part of the 1980s, slumped in the dugout after the games, his head buried in his hands. Astros fans knew the feeling.
Despite those post-season failures, the 1980s were mainly a decade of triumph for the Astros, who advanced to the playoffs three times (they were beaten by Los Angeles during the srike-shortened 1981 season) and contended for the NL West title into September and three other times.
Scott won the Cy Young Award in 1986 and won 20 games in 1989. First baseman Glenn Davis emerged as the Astros first power threat in more than a decade, hitting 142 home runs from 1985-89. Dave Smith saved 199 games from 1980-90 and remains the career leader in that category.
But the decade also was one of tumult. Midway through the 1980 season, J.R. Richard suffered a stroke that ended his career. Richard was the most dominating pitcher of his era, making power hitters look like Little League 10th-place hitters.
After the ’80 season, team owner John McMullen, in the first of a series of marketing boners, fired general manager Tal Smith, the architect of the Astros’ first-ever championship team. Nearly 20 years later, McMullen’s reason for axing Smith still makes no sense. “If you can’t get it done in five years, you won’t get it done in 10,” said McMullen.
In 1984, shortstop Dickie Thon, who had hit 20 home runs the previous season, was hit by a pitch in his left eye. Thon, a budding superstar, gamely came back and played in the majors five more years but he was never the same.
Later in the decade, the Astrodome took a hit from which it never recovered. In order to add 10,000 extra seats to prevent Oilers owner Bud Adams from moving to Jacksonville, Fla., the 474-foot exploding scoreboard that gave the Dome much of its character was dismantled. To make matters worse, the city eventually lost the Oilers anyway.
But the biggest loss of the 1980s came during the 1988 offseason. Nolan Ryan, the native son who had pitched with the Astros for nine seasons, was allowed to sign with the Texas Rangers as a free agent. McMullen wanted to cut Ryan’s salary, and Ryan knew he wasn’t wanted. The day after Ryan signed, McMullen rightly predicted it would be years before Astros fans would forgive and forget. They never have.
When Ryan joined the Astros as a free agent in 1980, he was the game’s first $1 million player. The addition of Ryan to a pitching staff that already had Richard and 20-game winning Joe Niekro made the Astros favorites to win the NL West.
They did win, but it took a one-game playoff victory over Los Angeles by Niekro for the Astros to advance to the playoffs. The Astros went to Los Angeles on the final weekend of the series with a three-game lead but lost three straight one-run games, forcing the playoff. That was the beginning of a week of baseball the likes of which Houston had never seen.
The season ended when the Astros couldn’t close out the Phillies in either Game 4, which they led 2-0 in the eighth inning but lost 5-3 in 10 innings, or Game 5. The bullpen of Smith, Joe Sambito and Frank LaCorte, the best in baseball that season, allowed eight hits and four runs in the last two games of the year.
The next season, the Astros got off to a miserable start, losing 12 of their first 15 games. By Memorial Day, they were 10 games behind the Dodgers. The season was interrupted by a players’ srike in early June. When play resumed on Aug. 10, teams started fresh in the second half of the season.
This time, the Astros’ pitching took over. They won the second half of the truncated seasons. Ryan, who led the league with a 1.69 ERA, pitching the fifth no-hitter of his career on Sept. 26. In a best-of-five playoff series against the Dodgers, the Astros won the first two games in Houston but were swept in Los Angeles, another playoff disappointment.
Over the next four seasons, there were no October heartbreaks as the Astros settled into a stretch of mediocrity. In August, 1982, McMullen fired manager Bill Virdon, the franchise leader in wins, and replaced him with long-time lieutenant Bob Lillis. The Astros were so bereft of power in ’82 that Phil Garner, hardly a power threat, was their cleanup man much of the season. Garner led the club with 13 homers and 83 RBIs.
In 1983, the Astros lost their first nine games and were never a factor in the division despite finishing 85-77. Thon hit 20 homers, and Cruz hit a career-best .318 and challenged for the batting crown before falling to third. In April, Ryan surpassed Walter Johnson as the all-time strikeout leader.
For the fourth straight year, the Astros were slow out of the blocks in 1984. They lost six of their first seven games and were eight games out of first place by the end of April. It took a nine-game winning streak in August to get the Astros over .500, but they were never a factor in the race. Cruz led the club with 95 RBS, but their lack of power was so telling that he also was the team leader with a scant 12 home runs.
By 1985, it was clear the Astros needed a change in direction. After sniffing around the NL West first division for the first three months of the season, they dropped 15 of 18 games in July and finished a distant third. The lackluster team drew only 1.1 million fans, a drop of nearly 1.1 million from 1980.
General manager Al Rosen resigned in September, and new GM Dick Wagner let go Lillis at the end of the season. Wagner, an astute baseball man, wanted a team built around pitching, speed and defense. He hired Hal Lanier, who had learned that style of baseball under Whitey Herzog at St. Louis.
There was little to indicate something magical was about to happen when the 1986 season started. Lanier’s aggressive approach took hold, and the pitching was never better. Scott, Ryan, Bob Knepper, Jim Deshaies and mid-season acquisiton Danny Darwin formed a rotation that was second to none. The bullpen of Smith, rookie sensation Charley Kerfeld, Aurelio Lopez and Larry Andersen had depth and grit.
Davis emerged as a true power hitter in his first full season in the majors with 31 homers and 101 RBIs, while switch-hitter Kevin Bass hit .311. Second baseman Bill Doran’s all-out style of play exemplified the new hustle of the Astros. One national publication predicted the Astros would lose 100 games. Instead, they went 96-66 and won the West by 10 games.
Scott delivered a devastating one-two punch against San Francisco on Sept. 25. He pitched a no-hitter as the Astros clinched the division title, the only time in baseball history that has occurred.
But the season ended with the 16-inning playoff loss to the Mets. In that game, Billy Hatcher hit what likely is the most memoriable home run in Astrodome history. After the Mets went ahead 4-3 in the top of the 14th, Hatcher led off the bottom of the inning with a home run that hit off the foul pole down the left-field line. The Mets scored three runs in the 16th, but the Astros closed to within 7-6 and had the winning run on base when Bass struck out to end the game and the season.
Though the Astros contended for the division title in two of the next three seasons, they never got back to the playoffs the rest of the decade. Ryan had a bizarre season in 1987, leading the league with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts but going 8-16 due to a lack of run support. The Astros drew 1.9 million fans, the third-highest total in baseball.
By 1988, Lanier’s gung-ho style was starting to rub players the wrong way. The Astros were in the race until mid-August, but they went 20-30 in the final 50 games of the season. Lanier was fired on the final day, replaced by former Astros infielder Art Howe.
With Ryan gone and Howe an untested manager, the Astros didn’t figure to be much of a factor in 1989. However, they won 10 straight road games early in the season, had a 10-game win streak in May and were two games out of first place in late August. Once again, the Astros had no finishing kick, going 17-21 after Aug. 20. Scott won 20 games, and rookie catcher Craig Biggio hit 13 homers and stole 21 bases.
By the end of the 1980s, the Astros were looking to rebuild. Twice during the decade they rode pitching and defense to division titles. The 1980 and ’86 teams gave Houston baseball fans memories that have lived on through the years.
But the disappointment of twice coming so close to making the World Series but falling just short remain as the defining moments of the decade.
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