We interrupt this analytically, data focused blog to attempt a little tug at the heart strings. After all, Ruths.ai is a Houston proud company, and we all went through Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent Astros World Series run that brought the city together. While this article might not delve into analytics, its subject–the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros–certainly serves as a model for how an analytically focused enterprise should run.
This article first appeared Friday, November 17 at Astros County, written by myself, our resident Astros fanatic.
The Astro Way
In 1986, I was six and Billy Doran was my favorite player. At least that’s how I remember things today when I wear my vintage Billy Doran jersey with rainbow stripes on the shoulders to every big game. But, history, and especially memory, has a way of pulling tricks on us. With only a little introspection, I know that Glenn Davis was my favorite that year because he hit two homers in a game garnering me two souvenirs after of a bet with my dad. With only a little basic math, I realize I was actually seven years old for the season, even if I was six at the start of the calendar year.
My memory also says I went to 32 games that year and at one time knew the Astros exact record in games I attended.
I remember my mom speeding home after baseball practice during Mike Scott’s no-hitter, listening breathlessly on the radio only for the final out to occur a block from our house.
I remember my stepdad teasing me about the “Lastros” even as he instilled in me the love for the sport and the team.
That team was my first baseball love: Billy D, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Cheo, Billy Hatcher, Garner/Walling at the hot corner, the Craig Reynolds/Dickie Thon platoon at short, Kevin Bass, the “coneheads” in the bullpen, Glenn Davis’s moustache, and on and on. I even loved Frank DiPino.
But, Billy D was my favorite in years moving forward because he played second base like I did, and he set the example how the game should be played. And, as six became my lucky jersey number, six years old became my age for that season as far as my memory was concerned. Because I wanted it to be. That used to be my favorite season in Astros history, the year I became a die hard and the Astros played in what used to be the greatest game ever played, even if it was a loss.
Why does any of this matter? Because the heartbeat of Billy D still lives in this team, embodying what the Astros mean to my memory and what still thumps in the veins of our current beloved team. Our memories, as vivid as they seem now, might someday play tricks on us regarding what play happened in what inning of what game this season, but nothing can ever deny the fact that we are World Series Champions.
So, how does Billy D’s heartbeat still beat in today’s team?
Billy Doran was of course a cog on the ‘86 team, not a star, but a glue guy. He then overlapped with Biggio as the ‘86 team dismantled in the late 80s. Biggio has cited several times that Doran was one of the team members to pass on the torch of the Astro Way: play hard, run out ground balls, get dirty. That’s baseball.
One of Doran’s teammates, another ‘86 legend Cheo Cruz once gave Biggio the rookie indoctrination:
“Hey, boy; get me a cup of coffee.”
Craig didn’t miss a beat.
“I’m a player but I’d be happy to get you a cup of coffee if I could sit down and listen to you, Mr. Cruz.”
Thus, the lessons in the Astro Way were born.
In his Hall of Fame speech, Biggio said, “I was around guys like Nolan Ryan, Billy Doran, Buddy Bell, Terry Puhl. Being around these guys taught me how to respect the game and play the game the right way, day in and day out. It was always about the team.”
When Biggio made the position switch from catcher to second base, Doran, then a member of the Reds, made Biggio meet him in Houston so that Doran could teach him “how to play the position the right way.”
No Astros fan of the last 25 years needs a recap of how Biggio and his warrior-in-arms Jeff Bagwell established the Astro Way in the clubhouse over the next decade. Cammy, Finley and Gonzo, Ausmus, Derek Bell, Billy Spiers, John Cangelosi, Alou, later Berkman, even Ensberg, Everett, Bruntlett, and Jeff Kent’s moustache bringing Glenn Davis back full circle. Pitchers like Hampton, Reynolds, Oswalt, Wagner, Lima Time, Wade Miller, Backe. Every player that came through that clubhouse, rookies or veterans, as disparate as their personalities might be, had to walk on the field in the image of Biggio and Bagwell, in the image of the Astro Way.
And then, after the first World Series disappointment, that Astro Way faded to a dying ember. The team was old and had given its best shot, and I lamented that the ties to the team of my youth were dwindling.
For a time, I put all my hope in Hunter Pence to carry the torch, one last player who overlapped Biggio and seemed to embody my Astros. Alas, even he couldn’t outlast the disrepair brought on by the previous regime, and I thought the connection was forever severed.
And then came the 5’ 6” comet out of the stars, another second baseman who embodied everything Biggio and Billy D before him represented. A comet that against all odds has a chance to surpass everything Biggio did in the same way that Biggio surpassed Doran. While at the same time embodying everything right about the Astro Way. Altuve might not have overlapped Biggio’s playing days, but it’s clear to everyone that he plays the game in a similar vein. “Perhaps the one thing that endears Altuve to Biggio more than anything else is his hustle. They’re cut from the same cloth. They both rush down the line no matter how hard the ball was hit, no matter if it was March or September.”
Biggio and Bagwell’s continued presence in the organization helped bridge the gap. And, then the return of Carlos Beltran gave us a physical passing of the torch. Beltran lockered next to Biggio during his brief stay in 2004. About Biggio, Beltran wrote: “The way he played hard every single day — and I mean super hard. I remember thinking: This guy’s an animal. This is unreal. Where does he get all that energy? More importantly, though, I was like, That’s the example I want to follow right there.”
When Beltran rejoined the Astros, he told AJ Hinch, “Put my locker next to young guys who I can help. Get me around the kids … the players who I can have an impact on. In spring training, during drills, whenever you can. Give me the opportunity to help all the young players get better.” No Astros player or fan doubts that he did so.
After an especially huge postseason homerun (memory clouds which one, there were so many), Altuve sounded apologetic at the thought that he had showed the pitcher up, saying he was just really excited and meant no harm. For me, the sentiment immediately resonated with a recent interview I had just heard in which Sean Casey told a story about Bagwell admonishing him for pointing into the stands after a homerun.
The Sean Casey story, from an Astros opponent, was told in jest. The game has changed. Bat flips and antics now prevail, even on the Astros. There is no judgment here on that front. But, Altuve’s concern in such a big moment displayed to me the humility intertwined in the Astro Way that has been on such graceful display during the World Series run. Have you heard this Charlie Morton interview, for goodness sakes?
This team played with such a relentless focus on being good teammates that at times it felt like they were stealing quotes from Biggio and Bagwell’s careers.
This game is damn hard. This postseason left an indelible mark on me on how damn hard it is to win the World Series. Biggio, Billy D before him, and this World Series Championship squad understand that in such a graceful way.
Play hard, run out ground balls, get dirty. That’s baseball.
So, at least in my mind, the Astros of my youth just won a World Series Championship, albeit through their spiritual descendants. The six year old still left in me can’t stop crying. The 38 year old that I am can’t either.
After the seventh inning of Game 7, watching with my wife and mom from the viewing party at Minute Maid Park, everyone stood and cheered in cacophonous nervousness, except for me. I sat in my seat with my head in my hands, mentally ticking off all of the players who had meant so much to me through the years. All of the family and friends who had shared those teams and players with me. Six more outs for them. C’mon, Charlie! Let’s make a memory.
Why such an emphasis on memory? Baseball is memory. And the memories we build. Sometimes they’re hazy, sometimes they’re factual, sometimes they need a nudge from a storyteller. But, they are all true deep down in the soul.
Baseball is handed down. As it was from my step dad, mom, and dad. The memories are shared. I will never forget charging up the stairs with my brother, high fiving every stranger in sight during game five. Or rolling on the floor laughing with my wife after game two.
My family was fortunate enough to spend this season back in Houston, moving back to work at Ruths.ai just in time after an 18 year Odyssey outside the state. I attended 30+ games before the playoffs even began just like my 6 year old self did once upon a time. My 2 year old daughter went to 21 games and stayed for the whole game every time. She went 11 and 9–1 and 0 in the playoffs.
And, 31 years from now, I’ll still regale her with memories from this season. How she would wake up and her first words would be, “Daddy, Astros game, I go.” How she had Orbit at her birthday party and asked to see the video hundreds of times: “Daddy, I see O’bit!” How she would greet people with a “Go Astros!” instead of “Hi.” Maybe she won’t remember anything except through the prism of our memories.
But, as the torch was passed from Billy D to Bidge to ‘Tuve, the memories of the Astro Way and our first World Series Championship will be passed down to her. It took my story 38 years to end in triumph. It took hers two, and now a new legacy begins.
Here’s to hoping she’s a spoiled brat and has about five of them by the time she can remember anything different.
Jason is a Junior Data Scientist at Ruths.ai with a Master’s degree in Predictive Analytics and Data Science from Northwestern University. He has experience with a multitude of machine learning techniques such as Random Forest, Neural Nets, and Hidden Markov Models. With a previous Master’s in Creative Writing, Jason is a fervent believer in the Oxford comma.