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Astros look to end 44-year World Series drought

10/17/2005

To fans of the Chicago White Sox and other teams that think
they've had long, excruciating waits to get back to the World
Series, Houston Astros supporters have a message: At least you've
been there.
No franchise has been in the same city without ever reaching the
World Series -- much less, winning it! -- longer than the Colt
.45s-turned-Astros.
And loyal Houstonians have tearstained rainbow jerseys to remind
them of all the close calls.
Now in their 44th season, and ninth postseason, the Astros again
were on the verge of breaking through Monday night. Houston went
into Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis
Cardinals with a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
"I just think it would be electric for the city," said manager
Phil Garner, who played on the 1986 team that came
tantalizingly close to the World Series. "People are just so wound
up."
Their chances this time are pretty good, with Andy Pettitte
starting Game 5 at home, and Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens ready to
go if the series shifts back to St. Louis.
Yet lessons learned the hard way, primarily in 1980, '86 and
2004, have taught fans to believe it when they see it.
Here's a quick trip through the Astros' agonizing playoff
history:
• 1980, NLCS vs. Philadelphia.
After signing future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan,
the Astros overcame ace J.R. Richard's career-ending stroke to win
the NL West for the first time. Then Houston discovered how tense,
exciting and frustrating the playoffs can be.
Against a Phillies team featuring Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and
Steve Carlton, the series went a full five games, the last four
going to extra innings.
The Astros lost the opener, then won Game 2 with four runs in
the 10th and took the next game 1-0 in 11. Houston was within five
outs of winning each of the next two games, only to lose in the
10th both times.
Game 4 was particularly tough. In the fourth inning, pitcher
Vern Ruhle appeared to have started a triple play but it was
changed to a double play after about a long discussion between
umpires and the league president. In the sixth, Gary Woods was
called out on an appeal for having left third base too early on a
sacrifice fly, killing a bases-loaded rally against Carlton.
"But it was our first time in the playoffs, so people were
saying, 'You'll have more chances,"' team president Tal Smith, the
GM in 1980, recalled last October.
• 1986, NLCS vs. New York Mets.
This was a magical season in Houston, especially for Mike Scott.
Using his new split-fingered fastball, he threw a no-hitter to
clinch the division title and won the Cy Young Award. He opened the
playoffs by beating Dwight Gooden 1-0, then won 3-1 in Game 4.
The Mets dreaded facing him again in Game 7. They avoided it by
winning Games 3, 5 and 6 in their last at-bat.
Game 6 was a 16-inning thriller that ended with Kevin Bass
striking out with two men on base. New York won the others on a
ninth-inning homer by Lenny Dykstra and a 12th-inning single by
Gary Carter.
• 1997-99, 2001, NLDS disappointments.
Former Houston pitcher and broadcaster Larry Dierker took over
as manager in '97 and oversaw four division titles in five years.
But his teams went 2-12 in the playoffs, squandering the best years
of franchise icons Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
"The '98 team was probably the most disappointing," Biggio
said.
That year, Randy Johnson was acquired at the trade deadline and
Houston won a franchise-best 102 games. San Diego ousted the Astros
in four games, with Kevin Brown beating them 2-1 twice.
The Braves took them out in '97, '99 and '01.
• 2004, NLCS vs. St. Louis.
Despite signing Clemens and Pettitte and trading for Carlos
Beltran, the Astros struggled into the All-Star break, costing
manager Jimy Williams his job. Garner took over and guided Houston
to a 36-10 finish, including 18 straight home wins, to claim the
wild card on the last day of the season.
Led by Beltran, the Astros beat the Braves for their first-ever
playoff series win, then got to Game 7 of the NLCS. They were 10
outs from the World Series with Clemens pitching, only to be
disappointed again.
Asked during that NLCS what it would mean for Houston to finally
make the World Series, the team's First Fan -- former President
George Bush, often seen in the front row behind home plate -- said
something that still rings true a year later: "It would be great
for the city, great for the club and it would be great for all of
baseball."