Astros time capsule: The roaring 1990s…Bagwell, Biggio and three division championships.

NL Central champs, 1997

The last segment of our look back at Astros history focuses on the fruitful 1990s, a decade that started with a massive rebuilding process and ended with three consecutive division titles. When the Astros closed down the Astrodome in 1999, the club was in a great place, with a team stocked with major talent and a brand new ballpark on the horizon that would draw three million fans in its first season.

The following article was written by my friend Carlton Thompson, the Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle through much of the ’90s. “C.T.” is a big wig at MLB.com these days, but back then, he had a front-row seat for an era which will go down in history as one of the most fruitful for the Astros.This article appeared in the commemorative edition of Astros Magazine during the final weekend of the ’99 season.

I found the last part of this article interesting, and it probably serves as a good lesson. Of the four players Thompson deemed as the very best of the future stars for the Astros, only one panned out long-term. Yet another reminder that you can never have too much talent in the farm system.

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By Carlton Thompson

The 1980s were good to the Astros, who won a pair of division titles and saw Mike Scott crowned as the only Cy Young Award winner in franchise history. But the harsh reality of an aging club dictated a rebuilding process that would require foresight, savvy, and most of all, patience.

It would mean saying goodbye to many of the players who made the 1980s so special — fixtures such as Scott, Alan Ashby, Glenn Davis, Jim Deshaies, Bill Doran, Billy Hatcher, Bob Knepper, Terry Puhl, Craig Reynolds and Dave Smith, to name a few.

At the same time, the 1990s ushered in a new generation of Astros — players such as Jeff Bagwell and Darryl Kile, who joined Ken Caminiti and Craig Biggio as the cornerstones of a massive rebuilding effort, which didn’t prove so daunting after all. By 1992, the Astros were a .500 club once again, and they closed out the decade with seven consecutive winning seasons, a feat that has only been matched by two other teams in all of Major League Baseball.

Jeff Bagwell, a long, long time ago

The condensed version makes the turnaround look much easier than it actually was. The decade began with a 75-86 record, which landed manager Art Howe’s team 16 games behind first-place Cincinnati in the old NL West. It marked the Astros’ worst winning percentage in 15 years and offered perhaps the most telling sign that it was time to revamp the club. The most significant move in this process — and one of the most important transactions in franchise history — was acquiring Bagwell from Boston in exchange for middle reliever Larry Andersen on Aug. 31, 1990.

Nothing on Bagwell’s minor league resume — he only hit six home runs in two years on the farm — suggested he would become the player he is today. But 10 years later, baseball observers recognize the move as a stroke of genius by former general manager Bill Wood.

The Astros matched a franchise record with 97 losses and they finished 29 games out of first place in 1991, but a star was born in Bagwell, who hit .294 with 15 homers and 82 RBI to become the first Rookie of the Year in franchise history.

During Spring Training, Bagwell had been shifted from third base to first base to create a spot on the roster for the player current Astros bench coach Matt Galante called “the best hitter in our camp.” Bagwell picked up the nuances of first base almost immediately and became one of the most talked about young players in the league.

“I went to Spring Training just wanting to play,” said Bagwell, who would become the only NL MVP in franchise history just three years later. “I didn’t know where or how, but I just wanted to make the team. Once I did, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get sent back to the minors. I wasn’t trying to win any awards or anything.”

Bagwell’s fine season and the continual improvement of Biggio and Caminiti notwithstanding, there still was plenty of work to be done before the Astros returned to respectability. The rebuilding process had far fewer ups than downs, but the club was willing to take its lumps.

By 1992, Biggio had made the shift from catcher to second base and became the first player in Major League history to make the All-Star team at both positions. The Astros’ record improved by 16 games, and they enjoyed their first non-losing season of the decade.

Craig Biggio, soon after converting to second base.

The biggest change of the decade came prior to the 1993 season when Drayton McLane Jr. purchased the club from John McMullen, who had owned the team since 1979. Under McLane’s aggressive leadership and strong commitment to excellence, the Astros have become one of the most consistently successful franchises in baseball.

Although the Astros’ record improved in 1993, there wasn’t much improvement in the standings, and McLane made changes at the two highest-level positions in the baseball operation. Assistant general manager Bob Watson replaced Wood, and first-time big league manager Terry Collins took over for Howe. To round out his new strategy team, McLane lured former general manager Tal Smith back into the organization as a consultant. Smith ultimately accepted a job as team president.

The Astros had three consecutive second-place finishes with Collins in the dugout, including the strike-shortened 1994 season, when they finished a half-game out of first place and were in the playoff picture until the final weekend of the season. But after a September collapse derailed the team’s hopes of reaching the postseason in 1996, McLane made the boldest of many bold moves as Astros owner, hiring former pitcher Larry Dierker from the broadcast booth to manage the team.

The move was greeted with great skepticism, but the results speak for themselves. Dierker has guided the Astros to the NL Central Division title in each of his three years, and he managed the team to a franchise-record 102 victories in 1998.

The mid-1990s saw the Astros make a blockbuster trade that sent Caminiti, Andujar Cedeno, Steve Finley, Roberto Petagine and Brian Williams to San Diego in exchange for Derek Bell, Doug Brocail, Pedro Martinez, Phil Plantier and Craig Shipley. Bell and Gutierrez became key ingredients in the Astros’ division championship season, as did homegrown products Shane Reynolds and Billy Wagner, as well as Mike Hampton, who was acquired in a 1993 trade with Seattle.

Drayton McLane, Jose Lima celebrate the 1998 NL Central clincher

Billy Wagner

But the finishing touches to the Astros’ current run of success were applied by the wizardry of general manager Gerry Hunsicker, who took the job on Nov. 10, 1995 after Watson made a lateral move to the Yankees. Hunsicker, baseball’s executive of the year in 1998, was the mastermind behind trades that brought Brad Ausmus, Jose Lima, Moises Alou, Carl Everett and Randy Johnson, among others, to Houston. Hunsicker’s biggest free-agent acquisition came this past offseason when he brought Caminiti back into the organization.

Playoff success has eluded the Astros, who have won just one postseason game in the last two years. But the fact they are perennial playoff contenders is a tribute to the foresight, savvy and patience they exhibited throughout the decade. With the nucleus of the team still in its prime and new stars — Scott Elarton, Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman, Daryle Ward, among others — on the horizon, the Astros can enter Enron Field in much better shape than the decade began.

As they say goodbye to the Astrodome after 35 great years, the focus is on maintaining instead of rebuilding, and the pieces are in place to make the next decade of Astros baseball every bit as memorable as the final decade of the millennium.

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3 Comments

The Photo at the top of this article is one of my all time favorites.

Man, besides the ugly uniforms…those were the days…

As a tear rolls down my cheek… Man, the late 90′s were great to the Astros. If only the Braves didn’t get an extra foot and a half outside the strike zone or Kevin Brown wasn’t untouchable for a month…they’d have a couple titles. Also, Alyson, it’s unfair to say Hidalgo didn’t pan out, after all he did get Drayton to pay him!

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