Astros' name connects with fans' pride in city
They are the Houston Astros. That's forever, OK? I'm guessing new Astros owner Jim Crane agrees with me on that one.
I'm also guessing he's thrilled by the response to his leaving open the possibility of a name change. At a time when attendance is down and the team is being rebuilt, he has found out how deeply people in Houston care about their baseball team.
In announcing a series of sweeping changes -- from lowering ticket prices to allowing fans to bring food and drink into Minute Maid Park -- Crane said there could be changes to team colors, uniforms and logo.
When someone asked if the name Astros could be changed, he said he was willing to consider it.
"We're going to study the information from the fans and from all sorts of marketing people," he said. "I'm not saying we're going to change. We haven't made a decision yet."
Let's say right up front: Crane is handling all of this brilliantly. He has been meeting with groups of fans over the past few months to hear what they like and don't like about the franchise.
When they told him they didn't like not being able to bring food and drink into the ballpark, he changed the rule. When he heard that tickets were too expensive, he lowered prices.
If an owner has just one chance to make a good first impression, Crane is making an excellent one.
Now, about that name change. Based on conversations with club officials, Crane is already finding out that changing it would tamper with something the good people of Houston hold near and dear to their hearts. They're not just the Astros. They're our Astros.
Crane has owned dozens of companies and hired thousands of employees and been successful in a way most of us can't begin to comprehend success. Still, owning a Major League Baseball team is a completely different kind of endeavor.
Fans see him not as an owner, but as a caretaker. That's because they believe they own the team. They second-guess the manager, debate the trades and evaluate the prospects. When the Astros are playing well, the mood of the entire city seems to brighten.
In places like Boston and New York and Philadelphia, they may look at a team like the Astros and not think much of its history or tradition. After all, the franchise was born a mere 50 years ago.
Another thing they may not understand is that Houston is a great baseball city. In a season in which the Astros lost 106 games, they still drew more than two million fans to Minute Maid Park.
That's a significant decline from the glory days, but it shows that interest in the team is still very, very high. In nine of the past 12 seasons, the Astros have drawn at least 2.5 million fans. They've drawn more than three million fans four times.
There are generations of fans who still have certain moments etched into their hearts. For instance, the Game 6 loss to the Mets in the 1986 National League Championship Series. Or the Albert Pujols home run in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.
There's nothing like those times when a professional sports team holds a city in the palm of its hand. That's how it has been for the Astros at times, especially in 2004 and '05, when they started slowly and sprinted to the finish line, clinching playoff berths on the final day of the season both times.
Tickets were in such demand at times that the club had to hire temporary help to answer the phones. And when the Astros won the NL pennant that night in St. Louis in 2005, fans rushed out of their homes to line up outside local sporting goods stores to get a T-shirt proclaiming "National League Champions."
No, the Astros don't have the history of the Tigers or Reds. But in 50 years, they've come to connect generations every bit as much as the Yankees or Red Sox or any other team.
To these people, the Astros are woven into the fabric of their lives. Countless Houstonians remember their first trip to the Astrodome -- still the best of all the domed stadiums.
They were the Colt .45s during the three seasons the Astrodome was being constructed. This will be their 48th season as the Astros.
It's a perfect name. It's unique, short, catchy -- brilliant. Its roots are in Houston's ties to the space program and all that implies. Houstonians take enormous pride that their city has been a world leader in energy, medicine and space exploration.
Even now, at a time when the Astrodome has been allowed to decay to the point where it is almost beyond repair, no local politician can bring himself to say, "Tear it down."
That's because it's symbolic of a time when Houston's greatness was defined by its spirit, by large dreams and large deeds. To millions, that first moment of seeing the Astrodome rising up shiny and magnificent will live forever.
It stands there still, a reminder of a special time, one of the things that make Houston special. That's how fans feel about the name Astros. It's not exactly whether they love it or not. It's part of who they are and evokes countless memories. It should not be tampered with.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.