NEW YORK -- His father and mother both being New Yorkers, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow almost certainly would have grown up a Yankees fan, even though Mexico City, where his parents ran a publishing business, was a long way from the Bronx.
“We used to watch Yankees games on TV there," Luhnow said Monday, “but my older brother Chris, when we were young, decided he was the only one allowed to be a Yankee fan, so he forced my younger brother and I to choose other teams."
Luhnow reluctantly picked the Dodgers, but it was in Yankee Stadium that his mother, Barbara, took him to see his first major league game. He must have been 5 or 6.
“Her mother was living here in Peter Cooper Village [the largest apartment complex in Manhattan] and we came to a doubleheader," he said. “In Game 1, Reggie Jackson hit a home run. That was for me one of the most thrilling moments of my life. My first major league game, Reggie Jackson hits a home run.
“I remember vividly being in Mexico City, the family was watching something else on the main TV in the living room, and I was in my room watching on a small TV when Reggie hit the three home runs [in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series]. I knew I was watching history, and after every one, I ran out to the living room and told my parents. The Yankees definitely played a big role in my childhood, for sure."
Luhnow smiled at the memory, then contemplated what it means for the young team of his creation, the Houston Astros -- who averaged better than 100 losses a season for the past four seasons before improbably winning a postseason spot this October -- to be playing here in Tuesday night’s wild-card game.
“It’s every kid’s dream growing up," he said, “either to play on the Yankees or against the Yankees in a playoff game. There’s no more fitting place for our team, I think, to begin what we hope will be many, many years of playoff journeys than coming in here and beating the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
“Our players understand the significance of what they’ve accomplished and how important this game is. I also think we’re so potentially young and naïve, we don’t realize how bright these lights are. They’re going to play loose, like they’ve been playing all year. I don’t think they’re going to hurt themselves the way someone is who is intimidated by the magnitude of the situation."
'From day one we're underdogs'
Astros reliever Pat Neshek is 35, but jokes that he had to grow a goatee to make himself look older. By his count, this is the seventh time he’ll be collecting a playoff share, with four different teams -- the Twins, Athletics, Cardinals and Astros.
“But this is probably the team with the most confidence," he said. “I don’t think it scares."
Neshek was with the Twins when the Yankees swept them in back-to-back postseason series in 2009 and 2010. “We sucked in those years in the playoffs," he said.
These Astros, he believes, are cut from a different cloth.
“We walked into spring training," he said, “and from day one we’re underdogs. People laughed at us when we said we’re going to play .500, and man, we just jelled so well. I’m excited for these guys. We’re loose, we’re going to have fun. And we’ve got our best going for us tomorrow."
That would be the bearded left-hander Dallas Keuchel, a 20-game winner and a leading candidate to win the American League Cy Young Award. Unbeaten at home this season (15-0, 1.46 ERA), Keuchel has faced the Yankees twice this season, once at home and once in the Bronx. In 16 innings, they have yet to score a run against him. They’re 9-for-56 (.161) against him, with one extra-base hit. Keuchel struck out 21 Yanks while walking just one.
That should be enough to get a man recognized around here, although Keuchel said that’s not the case.
“The autograph seekers definitely know who I am," he said about his forays in midtown Manhattan. “And that kind of gets tiring after a while. I mean, I prefer to go unnoticed. I don’t have the beard to be noticed. It’s just I can’t let it go right now. But Manhattan is so big, I’m just another Joe."
Put him on a mound, even on the three days’ rest with which he’ll be working Tuesday night, and he’s anything but another Joe. What sets him apart?
“It’s a cliché," said veteran infielder Jed Lowrie, “but I would say the ice water in his veins.
“He’s a competitor. He’ll come after guys. He’s got great movement and great command and a really good idea of what he wants to do. It’s been really fun to watch. I played with him in 2012, played against him the last two years with Oakland, and I always liked playing behind him and I always liked facing him, because I knew he would be a competitor and he was going to come after you. To see that evolve, him finding his way in the big leagues to what he’s done the last two years, is pretty awesome."
Neshek went even further.
“I played with [Adam] Wainwright last year," he said. “[Johan] Santana when he won the Cy Young. [Keuchel] is probably the most dominating pitcher I’ve ever played with."
The Yankee Stadium mystique
Lowrie was 24 the first time he played in Yankee Stadium as a rookie for Boston. It was his baptism into the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
“I remember facing Andy Pettitte and thinking to myself, ‘Holy crap, this is Yankee Stadium and I’m facing Andy Pettitte in a Red Sox uniform,'" he said. “I would say it was intimidating, but once you get over that you’re just playing the game. I think I struck out the first time against Pettitte [he did] and then I got a hit."
The next time he faced Pettitte in Yankee Stadium, two years later, he hit a three-run home run in his first at-bat.
Lowrie, now 31, signed a three-year deal as a free agent to return to a team that lost 107 games in 2012. He insists he knew it would be different this go-round.
“I wouldn’t have signed here if I didn’t think this team could be competitive," he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of talent in this room. That talent has the ability to play well on a big stage. The last couple of weeks, we had really intense games with a lot on the line, and a lot of guys learned from that."
Like Lowrie, Astros manager A.J. Hinch was 24 years old when he played his first game in Yankee Stadium, in 1998. He went 3-for-4 in a game started by David Cone. Five days earlier, in Oakland, he’d collected his first big league hit off Cone.
“A Yankee name," he said, “on my favorite ball. New York’s a big stage, especially for a guy from Oklahoma."
But not too big, he said, for the team he will be sending out against Masahiro Tanaka and the pinstripers Tuesday night.
“Our guys, and the personality on our club, is very, very consistent. Even in the low times, during some of these losing streaks at the beginning of [September], when a lot of people thought it was a nice Astros story but we were fading into the stress of September, we maintained our composure. We did a really good job of bouncing back."
No stage too big for Correa
The Yankees are led by 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez. The leader of the Astros, according to Neshek, is Carlos Correa, just turned 21, who is as close as you can come to a young A-Rod. Neshek has played with some great young players -- Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in Minnesota, Josh Donaldson in Oakland.
“Carlos is the best," Neshek said. “He says he doesn’t look up to A-Rod, but everything he does looks like a young A-Rod. He’s 21 now, and he’s going to get better.
“The thing about him nobody really talks about? He’s a good person. He’s not a troublemaker. He’s not out there staying out until all hours. He’s a good human being, and that’s a quality that’s going to set him apart.
“He’s kind of leading our team right now, as a 21-year-old. I really admire the way he’s handled everything. I’m 35. I probably have got five, six years left at most. He’s one that my kids are going to be like, ‘You played with him?’"
Luhnow has never forgotten Reggie Jackson’s home run in his first-ever big league game. It would not surprise him if Carlos Correa gives him another lasting memory of Yankee Stadium.
“I’m not sure I know anybody more mature, more genuine and more driven than Carlos Correa," he said. “I can say that because I met him before he became a professional baseball player, when he was working out with us. Fortunately being bilingual, I was able to communicate with his family and get some of the stories of his childhood and paint a whole picture of him prior to his selection.
“Watching him every step of the way from the day we drafted him until today, it’s incredible. There’s nothing that’s an act about how he approaches things. He has an ability at the age of 21 to slow the game down in a way it takes other players five or six years to get to that level."
A stage too big for Correa?
“I don’t think so," Luhnow said. “I think he rises to the occasion. I think the more important the situation is, the more he feels he was made for the situation."