Watching 2017 World Series hero Charlie Morton toe the rubber against his former comrades last week, I simultaneously scrolled through my Twitter feed.
In the process, I found a sentiment that, while not uncommon, has always struck me as peculiar. It extends beyond social media and is one I especially wrestle with following a Spring Break trip.
Last month, I crossed off a bucket list item – Astros spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. From ease of player access to catching some rays, I would recommend the experience to any fan — or anyone who takes the stance that a player should automatically be out of sight and out of mind once he no longer dons your team’s jersey.
Over the years, a pervading thought is that the team will always be here, players will not. Whatever cogs come and go, the train will roll on. Which is true. But once a player leaves, it’s suddenly taboo or silly as fans to follow their journey or root for their success. Why is that?
You will never hear me say I’m completely fine if a former player keys a victory against the Astros, nor will you see me root for a loss out of sentimentality. But baseball, more than any major sport, is one in which a singular player’s success – like a star quarterback in football or playmaker in basketball – usually does not dictate team success. After all, look at Mike Trout with the Angels.
So why not root for those former players like Morton, who now pitches for the Tampa Bay Rays, or new Minnesota Twin Marwin Gonzalez, to play well but still be on the losing end of a line score when they face off against the Astros, then follow them as they leave? They’ve endeared themselves to Houstonians beyond baseball card numbers – so why is that frowned upon?
Call me soft, overly sentimental, whatever. But all of us know someone with a life-of-the-party personality like George Springer, who bounced around like a human pogo stick to whatever music blared through FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. We all know pranksters like Jake Marisnick, who could be seen and heard cracking jokes around the cage while strolling through the complex.
When I see this, or see Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman and Josh James taking breathers to sign autographs for children, ordinarily larger-than-life figures instantly become relatable human beings who are easy to root for. Granted, there’s more talent in their pinky than many humans possess in their entire bodies, but I digress.
As a result, I can’t fathom not supporting these guys no matter where baseball’s journey takes them – even if it’s opposite Houston. It’s impossible for me to not grow attached when I see them for who they are outside the white lines, in a laid-back spring training setting or otherwise. I always want my team in the win column. But that doesn’t mean being completely callous and forgetting that players are people, too.
I’ve always tried to invest in players beyond the field, and my spring training experience ensured I will do so forever. It’s a trip I’ll never forget.
The Astros were simply beat up when they lost to the Boston Red Sox in five games in last year’s ALCS. Jose Altuve was on one leg, Carlos Correa battled a bad back. Bregman fought through elbow and arm soreness, Lance McCullers pitched through a torn UCL that later required Tommy John surgery. But as they prepare to open their home slate this weekend, I don’t see a more well-rounded team in baseball when healthy.
On the offensive side, Correa was back healthy this spring, and the bat speed looked like 2017 as it whipped through the zone. Altuve is back to hitting anything in the vicinity of home plate with authority to all fields. Fresh off his $100 million extension, Bregman is primed for another big season. Offseason addition Michael Brantley was as advertised, spraying line drives all over the park with ease and living up to his “Dr. Smooth” moniker, garnered from his fluid swing. Heralded outfield prospect Yordan Alvarez (the team’s No. 3 prospect) and infield prospect Nick Tanielu opened some eyes with strong spring performances as well, so watch for them during the 2019 season.
Things were interesting on the pitching side. After losing Morton, McCullers and Dallas Keuchel (about 500 innings of work in 2018), there were holes to fill. So, Collin McHugh slid back into the rotation after spending 2018 in the bullpen and hasn’t missed a beat. Offseason addition Wade Miley had a strong spring, and Brad Peacock beat out two competitors to win the fifth spot in the starting rotation.
However, the rotation and bullpen might look different later this season than it does now. Watch for top prospects Forrest Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin to make an impact sooner rather than later.
It’s time to #TakeItBack, Houston.