Tuesday, October 8, 2013

July 29- Houston Astros

The 1994 Major League Baseball season was an odd year for more than just the players’ strike that took effect on August 12th. Several teams like the Montreal Expos had dug themselves out of the cellar and were on their way to potentially winning their first World Series title in the franchise’s history. Tony Gwynn was batting .394, becoming the first person since Ted Williams in 1941 to potentially hit for .400 or better in a season. Matt Williams was rapidly approaching the 62 home run mark for the San Francisco Giants as he already had a league-leading 43 on the season at the time. But most important, 11 teams introduced, changed or added new pieces to their uniforms/caps which were already boosting merchandise sales. Those teams were: the Giants (jersey), Oakland Athletics (hats/jerseys), Chicago Cubs (hat), Texas Rangers (hats/uniforms), Detroit Tigers (hat), Seattle Mariners (hats/uniforms), Milwaukee Brewers (hats/uniforms), Philadelphia Phillies (hat), Cleveland Indians (jersey), Toronto Blue Jays (jersey) and the Houston Astros (above- hats/uniforms). So, for the season to come to just an abrupt end was especially peculiar as there really wasn’t any kind of a warning sign, besides players wanting more money, to see it coming. And without a doubt one of the biggest companies potentially affecting by the strike was New Era.

The strike left a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of the fans and sales for anything took a bit of a dive. Hat culture was seemingly in its prime, but clearly not as much as it is in today’s times. Back then if you wore a cap it was no doubt a baseball cap, and the important thing to remember about baseball caps is that if you were wearing a fitted one, it was a New Era cap. New Era had won the MLB manufacturing contract prior to the 1993 season, making them the only company to design, produce and sell every Major League cap. So, when 1994 came around and eight new teams introduced new caps, things got a little bit crazy when the business of baseball came to a standstill. That’s not to say that people didn’t still buy caps, but the sheer volume wasn’t as high as it could have been. It’s funny to look back on all of it now because, as a cap collector, I know how hard it is to find a lot of the caps that were introduced that season. Of the eight teams listed above I have been able to track down and buy seven of them (including this one obviously), the only one that still remains a challenge is the alternate Phillies cap that I mentioned in a previous post from March 28th.

Anyway, I’ve strayed slightly off topic. The Astros, besides the Brewers, had the most dramatic change of all. Rather than change maybe just the hat or something about the logo like a lot of teams do, they overhauled everything. They went from this…

To this.

And, unlike most teams, it proved to be a little bit of a game changer when it came to the success of the team.

At the end of the 1993 season then-Astros owner John McMullen sold the team to Drayton McLane, Jr. after McMullen’s attempts to move the team to Washington, D.C. were shot down by the other National League owners. McMullen was no impressed with low attendances even after the Astrodome had been completely renovated for the benefit of the Houston Oilers whom they shared the facility with. In McLane’s case, the timing couldn’t have been any better as Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were on the verge of having breakout careers. Coinciding with the change in ownership, the team switched uniforms and team colors after the 1993 season in order to go for a new, more serious image. The team's trademark rainbow uniforms were retired, and the team's colors changed to midnight blue and metallic gold. The "Astros" font on the team logo was changed to a more aggressive one, and the team's traditional star logo was changed to a stylized, "flying" star with an open left end. It marked the first time since the team's inception that orange was not part of the team's colors. Despite general agreement that the rainbow uniforms, which most identified with the team, had become tired (and looked too much like a minor league team according to the new owners), the new uniforms and caps were never especially popular with many Astros fans. This cap in particular was the least popular of the three that were brought out, but this one was worn for the most games as it served as the game cap from 1994-1999.

The Astros faired pretty well under this cap including three straight National League Central Division titles under Larry Dierker after the team fired then-manager Terry Collins following the 1996 season when the team went 82-80, his only winning season. Dierker’s second season (1998) was met with the team’s best regular season record of 102-60, the only time the team has ever hit triple digits in wins; however, Dierker and the Astros never made it beyond the first round of the playoffs during his tenure.

On of the problems that has come up with writing these posts is not having enough material or even cramming too much material into one post. I’ve been doing my best to find a balance and if there is clearly one post that I have written that could have been a lot more it has to be my post on the Astros from January 19th. With one cap I wrote about three of the most notable players in the team’s history and I honestly feel like I didn’t do it justice. I could have gone with different players, possibly even written about Biggio and Bagwell with this cap, but that was my mistake. I didn’t really know that my blog would evolve into something so big so quickly, so I apologize to you, the readers and especially the Astros fans who don’t get a lot of credit anyway. So, without further ado, I think my marking selection for this cap is more than worthy.

#12/20/’98- It’s funny how certainly numbers follow a player throughout their career and no one knows more about this than Ricky Gutierrez. A native of Miami, Florida, Gutierrez was the 28th overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles back in 1988 out of American Senior High School in Hialeah. For five years he worked his way through the Orioles’ minor league system and was even traded to the San Diego Padres as a Player to be Named Later in 1992. On April 13, 1993 Gutierrez made his Major League debut batting .251 with 110 hits, 76 runs scored, five triples, five home runs and 26 RBI which were good enough for an 11th place finish for the NL Rookie of the Year. Even though baseball had been shut down Gutierrez still found himself getting traded to the Astros in a blockbuster 11-player deal which also sent Derek Bell and Craig Shipley to Houston while the Padres received Steve Finley and future NL MVP Ken Caminiti as the centerpieces. For five years Gutierrez would play in Houston, the longest stint of his career, while wearing the #12. His stats weren’t really that impressive: .266 average, seven home runs, 13 triples and 132 RBI, but it’s the two moments in 1998 (’98) that involve the number 20 that are most identified with his career.

May 6, 1998- Gutierrez was batting in the seven-hole when the Astros were playing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Rookie sensation Kerry Wood took the mound for the Cubs, making his fifth start of his Major League career. Wood had gotten the first five outs by the way of the strikeout and got the last out of the second inning on a flyball to centerfield by Dave Clark. When Gutierrez came up to bat to lead off the third inning Wood worked the count in his favor getting Gutierrez to a 1-2 count after four pitches. On the fifth pitch, a fastball down the pike, Gutierrez smacked a hotshot grounder in between Kevin Orie (third base) and Jeff Blauser (shortstop) for the first hit of the game for the Astros. That early into the game very few had any comprehension of what was about to happen, not even my friend and Oakland Athletics 2013 MLB Fan Cave Top-30 representative, who happened to be at the game. Wood would go on to strikeout 15 more Astros while only allowing one more base-runner for throughout the rest of the game, a hit by pitch to Biggio. 20 times the Astros had fallen victim to the K, tying the regulation game record set by Roger Clemens twice in 1986 and 1996 while with the Boston Red Sox. Gutierrez was the only person able to slap wood on any of Wood’s pitches and could have easily have been victim number six.

June 28, 1998- The Astros were on the road in Cleveland at Jacobs Field, squaring off against the Indians in the second year of Interleague. Gutierrez squared off against pitcher Bartolo Colon to open the top of the eighth inning. Colon's first two pitches were strikes, but over the next 17, Gutierrez took three balls and hit 14 fouls. With the 20th pitch of the at bat, Gutierrez struck out. This single match up accounted for 18% of the pitches that Colon threw in the game and it went down as the modern-day MLB record for seeing the most pitches (20) in a single at-bat.

The most interesting thing about Gutierrez’s career is that it improved significantly after the 1998 season as he joined both teams which helped make him a trivia answer for years to come. He signed with Cubs after the 1999 season and played in 125 and 147 games respectively in his two years there, batting .284 with 21 home runs and 122 RBI. He played two years with the Indians in 2002 and 2003, but got hurt throughout his second year despite hitting .275 in his first year. In 2004 the Indians sent Gutierrez to the New York Mets as part of a conditional deal, was later released to be picked up be the Cubs who then dealt him to the Boston Red Sox. This would turn out to be Gutierrez’s final season in the Majors, but at least it came with a World Series ring at the end.

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