Astros fans still bitter over NL switch

Astros fans say goodbye to the Cardinals in one of the final games of last season. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

When she was a teenager in the early 1960s, Mickey Marvins would go with her mother to Houston’s Colt Stadium to watch the Colt .45s.

“I think Wednesday night was Ladies’ Night,” she recalls. “We’d go sit out in the heat and humidity and mosquitoes and watch baseball.”

Marvins, 66, is an Astros fan to her core. She rooted for the Houston Buffaloes’ minor league team before the city’s National League expansion franchise was born in 1962, and remembers going to games at the brand-new Astrodome in 1965, when the team changed its name from the Colt .45s.

Nothing will ever stop her from cheering for her Astros.

Yet from the moment she learned Houston would become a member of the American League West this season, Marvins was steamed.

“Oh, very,” she says. “The term down here is ‘high pissed.’ ”

She, like so many other Astros fans, wanted nothing to do with the AL or its designated hitter or its style of play and the move away from traditional opponents such as the Cardinals and Cubs. They also didn’t like the fact the team will play late-night West Coast games in its division instead of NL Central games in the same time zone.

“Baseball is a sport of tradition and statistics and things like that, and we’ve been in the National League starting from Day 1,” she says. “Even being a minor league team (affiliate) for a National League team (the Cardinals). So yes, I get angry.

“I don’t like the designated hitter because it changes the strategy of the game.”

She and her nephew, Joel Davis, put together a group called Save Our Stros to fight the move and keep the team in the NL.

It was just one of many pockets of fan resistance that sprang in 2011, when the team was sold to Jim Crane and the realignment was announced to create two 15-team leagues with three five-team divisions in each.

A Facebook page called Keep the Houston Astros in the NL was quickly created, complete with an image of a headstone with “Killed by Greed” etched into the stone; a Houston Chronicle poll near the time of the announcement showed 76 percent of fans opposed to the move; a Houston attorney argued publicly that a switch from the National League violated the stadium lease agreement; a college professor started a push to boycott the Astros, its team sponsors and everything related to Crane; and bloggers, fans on message boards and letters to the editor slammed baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Crane for the switch to the AL.

Former Astros stars such as Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn and Bob Watson all spoke out against the move.

“I don’t know of anybody I know of, or even on the blogs, who was happy about the move,” Marvins says.

Yet now, with pitchers and catchers already sweating at spring training in Kissimmee, Fla., Marvins -- like many Astros fans -- is resigned to the move. She still doesn’t like it, but what can she do?

When the season opens March 31 at Minute Maid Park, the Astros’ AL debut against their new division rivals, the Texas Rangers, will be nationally televised. After a series with the Rangers, the Oakland A’s will come in.

Marvins will be there. She’s renewed her season tickets and says, “They haven’t chased me away yet.”

“I’m not totally excited,” she says. “Especially since we’re rebuilding and this is going to be another bad year. There’s no expectations, so if you’ve got no expectations, anything positive is good, I suppose.

“But I love baseball and I’ll go sit there and watch.”

• • •

Like Marvins, James Yasko says his anger about the Astros joining the AL West has evolved.

“I think it’s resignation,” he says of his own feelings and those of friends and visitors to his Astros County blog. “It was initially outrage. I think Astros fans have gone through the five stages of grief over the past year. I think we’re in acceptance now. We kind of go back and forth between anger and acceptance.”

To an outsider, the question for Astros fans might be, what’s the big deal? The American League has stars, history and franchises with every bit (or more) appeal than the Cardinals and Cubs.

To Yasko, 33, it’s a big deal for two reasons. First, he can’t stomach the DH and AL-style games. Second, the Astros lost 107 games in 2012 and 106 in 2011 and are at their low point -- meat for a predatory division and league.

“It feels like going from the NL Central to the AL West is like going from Conference USA to the SEC,” he says, ticking off the big-payroll Rangers and Angels and the talented A’s in the AL West, plus the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox and Tigers across the entire league.

“I felt like in the NL Central you might be able to sneak into the playoffs and go on a tear,” he adds. “That’s going to be a lot more difficult in the American League.”

But his primary beef is with AL baseball. To him, the games drag and the DH kills the game’s strategy.

“I’ve grown up following a National League team,” he says. “I like the 2-hour and 20-minute baseball games.”

Greg Thompson, 49, an Astros fan since age 7, puts his distaste for the AL and DH another way. The DH, he says, takes away the strategy and managerial moves that make National League baseball more interesting, in his view.

“It’s like watching checkers instead of chess,” he says. “When you remove the managerial strategy element of the game, really, it’s like bowling. OK, the next guy comes up. OK, he sits down. OK, next guy comes up. OK, he sits down.

“I really buy into the idea that if you’ve got pitchers and pinch hitters and that type of thing -- it’s more than just the double switch, that’s what people like to gravitate toward -- there’s a lot more to it (strategy in the NL).

“You want to remove the pitcher in the fifth inning or hold him till the sixth inning? There’s a whole lot more implications to the designated hitter as is.”

Thompson, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, started his Crane-cott blog in the hopes of delivering a message to the new Astros owner that a move to the AL is unacceptable.

Thompson and others contend Crane had a choice, and should have listened to Astros fans, stood up to Selig and kept the team in the NL. (They also argue that moving Selig’s former team, the Brewers, back to the AL would have made more sense.)

Thompson has been so disgusted by the Astros’ move to the AL that he’s turned away from baseball for the first time in his life.

Last year, he said, was the first that he never watched even a half-inning of Astros games on TV, listened to them on radio or went to a game. He tried picking another team to follow -- he selected the Washington Nationals -- but soon lost interest. It wasn’t the same.

He’s not sure how long he can stay away from baseball, but admits his fervor for the Astros has waned. It’s a first for a guy who grew up in West Virginia in a Cincinnati Reds family, but picked the Astros as his favorite team because he liked Joe Morgan’s baseball card.

To Thompson, MLB’s decision to move Houston to the AL is even more painful than the day in November 1971 that the Astros traded Morgan to the Reds.

Thompson still doesn’t buy the idea that in the long run, this will be a good move, and he cites posts from fans on his blog that mirror his displeasure.

One fan last April said that because the Astros are switching leagues, he’ll switch teams. “In this era of free agency among players, Bud Selig, (former owner Drayton McLane) and Jim Crane have forced me as a fan into free agency,” he wrote.

Posted another: “I have rooted for the ’Stros for 45 years, but I’m done. . . . The AL sucks, mostly due to the DH. Pitchers must hit and fat slob over-the-hill ‘sluggers’ should not still be getting $10 million if they can’t play defense.”

For more than 90 years, Thompson says, Houston has been associated with the NL, either through the Astros or minor league affiliates before 1962. Long histories against teams such as the Cardinals, Cubs and Reds shouldn’t just be discarded.

“There’s such a winsomeness about it, these games with St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati are now replaced by Seattle, Oakland and the Angels, and that’s just real strange,” he says. “A real strange feeling to that. I still think we lose more than what we gain.”

• • •

The Astros do potentially gain a few things.

First, it’s a chance to build a rivalry with the Rangers, which so far has been limited to interleague play.

Second, new teams and stars will visit Minute Maid -- the AL West’s Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez and Yoenis Cespedes, for instance. Plus, the franchise with the worst attendance in the NL in 2012 will get the drawing power of the Yankees and Red Sox.

In short, the team for 2013 has new ownership, new front-office leadership, a new manager, new uniforms (that include elements of the franchise’s early years), new TV and radio broadcast teams (without longtime voices Jim Deshaies and Milo Hamilton) and a roster that’s been remade in the past year in trades for prospects.

As the team has moved closer to the start of play in the AL, Astros president and CEO George Postolos has seen attitudes change.

“I have a moving picture,” he says. “It’s changed over time. When the announcement was made that it was a mandatory move that was going to be required by baseball, there was a strong reaction in Houston from fans, season-ticket holders, from some people within the organization.

“That has evolved. . . . The intensity of the resistance or lack of comfort with the change is not what it was when the announcement was first made. It’s dissipated quite a bit.”

Postolos says the team constantly does surveys and holds focus groups, and he’s seen much of fan ire replaced by interest in the games against the Rangers and seeing new teams and players.

Many of the questions and comments he hears now have shifted away from disappointment about joining the AL to concerns about building the farm system and becoming competitive again. In addition, the team has gotten positive feedback for its new uniforms and logo, both of which were made with fan input, Postolos says.

He sees 2013 as a year of change and says most fans he talks with now accept that this was a move the Astros were forced to make.

“We just played 51 seasons in the National League and we’re excited about the future, moving forward,” he says. “We have big goals and so it’s a new beginning. I think we’re an organization that’s ready for a fresh start.”

Indeed, the team has had four consecutive losing seasons and is far removed from its lone World Series appearance in 2005 and the previous winning seasons of the Killer B’s.

Still, it’s going to take a long time for Astros fans such as Yasko to get used to the new reality.

“I still go to ESPN or Baseball Reference and, even after a year of knowing they’re moving to the American League, I still look on the National League side and get confused for a second,” he says. “Why aren’t they in the NL Central?”