Airing of the grievances: Houston, I have a problem.

When MLB.com was in its infancy back in the early 2000s, reporters and producers received an email from our higher-ups a couple of weeks before the start of Spring Training, giving us a list of old and worn-out cliches that we were NEVER to use in our copy or headlines.

Spring Has Sprung. Hope Springs Eternal. Baseball’s in Full Swing. And on and on.

I sent an email back, asking as politely as possible, “Can we add, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’ to that list?”

That was (at least) 11 years ago. I can’t recall if that line ever did appear on Astros.com or MLB.com, but even if it didn’t, it’s only a small victory. Because it shows up everywhere else.

It seems that whenever the Astros (and quite possibly the Rockets, Texans and other Houston sports teams) are in turmoil, and have, well, a problem, the headline writers spend all of four seconds coming up with something that properly illustrates the issues surrounding the team in trouble.

Houston, We Have a Problem.

Neat. Congratulations. Well done. Now, please stop.

I try to picture the process by which an editor chooses that particular headline. It’s late at night, he’s editing a story about the Astros sinking in the standings. He has his index finger pressed firmly against his chin. He’s looking up at the ceiling, deep in thought. And then it hits him. His eyes light up. Yes. Yes. Yes. He smiles. He types. He inwardly congratulates himself for coming up with the most clever play on words in the history of the English language.

Houston, he writes. We Have a Problem.

Hahahahahahahaha!

How has no one thought of this before? he wonders. It’s perfect. Four decades ago, the Apollo 13 space mission was aborted because of an exploding oxygen tank, and the astronauts inside sent a message back to the command center: “Houston, we have a problem.” And now, a Houston sports team stinks.

Using “Houston, We Have a Problem” solves two issues: It is a quick fix — a convenient headline to slap onto a story and call it a night. It also allows for the editor to have to spend no time actually coming up with something creative. Or timely.

The Astros are getting a lot of national attention lately, and I do not begrudge the writers from jumping on this story. It’s not easy to do what the Astros are pulling off, losing at such an alarming pace that although they were within a game of .500 as late as the end of May, they’re now on pace to surpass last year’s club record 106 losses. It’s mind-boggling. So I understand the need to follow along.

While the Astros are being shoved into the unfortunate national spotlight, this seems like as good a time as any to try to at least attempt to ceremoniously retire “Houston, we have a problem.” Heck, if the Rangers can launch an entire in-stadium campaign to kill the Wave, the least we can do in the Bayou City is wipe out a worn-out cliched phrase that should have gone away around the same time The Brady Bunch went off the air.

The phrase isn’t even accurate. The actual words uttered by the Apollo 13 crew were “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That is less dramatic, obviously, because it indicates there was a problem, but there isn’t one anymore. That wouldn’t work for headline purposes. Readers aren’t going to be nearly as interested if they think the problem that once existed has been solved.

So, “Houston, We Have a Problem” works better. And the Astros have complied over the years by giving the headline writers plenty of opportunities to use it. Consider:

2000 — The Astros, coming off three straight division titles, move into their gorgeous new downtown ballpark and spend the first half of the season on pace to lose 120 games.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2001 — Larry Dierker, in his fifth year of managing, watches his Astros get swept, again, in the Division Series. Rumors swirl that he will be fired. He is.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2004 — Roy Oswalt and Michael Barrett have a contentious relationship, which creates friction between the Astros and Cubs and adds a delicious subplot every time the two teams meet. Oswalt throws at Barrett during a game at Minute Maid Park, is ejected, and Jeff Bagwell gets mad at Oswalt for getting thrown out of a game during a time the Astros are making a push for the Wild Card. Bagwell’s never spoken out against a teammate, ever. Houston media is all over it. (No, not really.)

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2006 — Coming off a World Series appearance, the Astros cannot recapture the magic and are not in any kind of race, until the last week of the season when the Cardinals help out by putting together an eight-day nose dive.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2007 — the team is worse, and Phil Garner is fired.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2008 — hellooooo Hurricane Ike.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2009 — the oldest roster in baseball costs $100 million and finishes fifth.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

In short, we get it. Houston is the Space City. Astronauts live here. There are times when the Houston sports teams aren’t very good. “Houston, We Have a Problem” was once clever and apropos.

In 1972-ish.

Isn’t it time to move on?

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

15 Comments

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Tell me more about that Rangers trying to get rid of the wave thing.

thanks for saying what we all are thinking!

concur, Directrix. hadn’t thought about it.

nice

I love it!

Very well stated and an enjoyable read. Something you didn’t mention is that the phrase is popular probably because it’s also a movie catchphrase. So now we’re talking about ~15 years of stale overusage instead of 40, which by no means excuses it. Maybe I’m off base in thinking it has more to do with the movie than the actual event. But, as someone who grew up in Kansas, I can’t help but sympathize when all anyone knows about where you live is a catchphrase. Keep fighting the good fight and all that.

My only complaint is your own headline: you’re asking people to stop using a 90s cultural holdover while invoking a different 90s cultural holdover. The whole thing is terribly ironic…dontcha think?
(ohno i’ve become all that i hate i have to go

Yes, time to move on!

really this is all you have?

Yes, let’s send the phrase to it’s grave already!

Well stated Alyson! Don’t forget the play on words with this overused catchphrase too. Remember all the “Houston We Have a Pennant” headlines in 2005?

Like the next day when the Astros lost, the wrap up on the astros website read “Houston has a problem, and it’s name is Gallardo” or something to that effect.

How many times did I hear, “heart of a champion” during Olympic broadcasts? Too many!

Standing ovation. Any reporter who uses this as a headline or even within the article ought to be slapped.

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