It could be a year or two before the national conversation latches on to this, but first-year manager Bo Porter is having a cultural impact on the Houston Astros that didn’t exist in the last two historically bad seasons that saw 100-plus loss records.
The Astros haven’t finished a season less than 11 games behind the division leader since 2006, a year after representing the National League in the World Series where the Astros were swept by the Chicago White Sox in a forgettable championship round.
Houston finished 11 games back in the NL Central in ’05, but still managed to claim a Wild Card berth into the playoffs that season, which led to the only World Series appearance in franchise history. It’s been downhill from there. The Astros have averaged 71 wins a season since ’06, and the past two seasons were embarrassing, with 106 and 107 losses to round out their NL tenure.
This season, the Astros are going to be the last American League squad to record 30 wins. Rather than being intolerant of all that losing, fans in Houston have grown immune to housing a terrible baseball team in a town that normally carries its pride on its sleeve.
Former manager Brad Mills had the team on cruise control once the organization began gutting the roster. Mills saw Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and a bunch of dead weight leave the squad during a three-season stretch.
He knew what time it was. The Astros weren’t about to contend any time soon. Losing had become the reality, and his days were numbered as the “super nice guy” figurehead on the team.
Insert Bo Porter, and it’s a completely different aesthetic. Part of that credit goes to a new ownership and managerial crew for seeing something in Porter that was lacking in key leadership positions on the ballclub.
Porter was the high-energy, loudmouth third-base coach for the young, rising Washington Nationals last season. He’s bounced around a bit, landing his first manager gig with a rebuilding Astros team that’s better equipped to compete in Class AAA.
Yet, this guy makes absolutely no excuses and refuses to concede that he’s managing an awful baseball squad. The Houston Chronicle’s Brian T. Smith wrote this, following a 4-3 win against an equally bad Cubs team Saturday:
It’s a 29-47 club that regularly finds ways to nearly lose games and too often does. But since May 15, the Astros are 19-17 and an aggressive, upbeat team that’s too young and too naïve to give in discovers ways to win.
“It comes down to break points,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “We’ve talked about it since the beginning of spring training. In order to play these types of close games, you have to play good baseball.
“What I love about our ballclub is, even though we make some mistakes, they don’t hang their head. They keep battling, they keep fighting, and we find a way to either get ourselves back in the game or make it a ballgame every night.”
No excuses, but no delusion, either.
It’s a young team with a first-year manager. Ask the baseball community and they’ll tell you Bo Porter doesn’t know a few basic rules of the game.
Recall that May 9 matchup against the Angels when he got away with an illegal pitching change. Porter swapped relievers without the first one ever throwing a pitch. Homie smooth-talked the umpires (who apparently didn’t know the rules, either) into allowing such an obvious violation. It had the baseball world buzzing for a minute.
Maybe his was a misinterpretation of the rule, or maybe he played the refs like suckers in that particular moment. Either way, Porter fought on that lie.
Not to confuse Porter with someone who isn’t interested in having his team play the right way. He ripped into the guys after a lackluster 7-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals earlier this month by letting them know that losing the game is one thing, but playing the right way was an absolute requirement.
Porter’s level of intensity is unmatched by what’s been seen in Houston the last few years.
“I think it starts with Bo – the tone he sets every day,” first baseman Brett Wallace said after Houston beat the Rangers in the season opener. “He’s got that energy and an aggressiveness about him. He’s really instilled that in us. Every day, whether we had drills or we had a game, we were attacking it and being aggressive. I think you can already see it in Game 1 today.”
It’s going to be a while before the Astros nudge their ways into the national conversation. Hell, only 40 percent of local cable subscribers can watch the team due to the bizarre contract dispute between Comcast and cable providers. Most of the city couldn’t really watch James Harden’s first season as a Rocket without hitting up a bar or catching them on those rare national broadcasts.
Even the mold-infested Astrodome, the team’s 20th century home, is getting more local attention than the Astros. With the city winning the 2017 Super Bowl bid, everyone’s trying to figure out what to do with the eighth wonder of the world – besides turning it into parking space.
The Texans have been the most successful team in the city the last couple of years, and it’s a football town, first and foremost. So, it bears mentioning that Porter brings that football mentality to the diamond while challenging his squad to fight tooth-and-nail no matter how overmatched they are. Yet he’s still open to all the team’s nerd data provided by the front office, because he’s just new-school enough to understand that it matters.
Laugh at the Astros while you can. It won’t always be this way, and – trust – Bo knows.