That Time Kate Upton Helped Houston Get Over Harvey
Liftoff! The Tank, the Storm, and the Astros’ Improbable Ascent to Baseball Immortality
by Brian T. Smith
Chicago: Triumph Books, 2018.
256 pp. $25.95 cloth.
Narrative accounts that seek to trace a team’s championship season are arranged as a kind of structural fait accompli, in a teleological framework: the events of the season, no matter how contingent and coincidental, are recorded as being in the cards all along. In recent memory, perhaps no team’s championship season embodies this impulse more than the 2017 Houston Astros. Liftoff! The Tank, the Storm, and the Astros’ Improbable Ascent to Baseball Immortality, by Houston Chronicle sports writer Brian T. Smith, stages a faithful telling of the 2017 Astros’ fulfillment of their championship destiny—from the continued advancement and swift development of the team’s homegrown stars, to the team’s supportive response to the devastating results of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston area, to the playoff-push signing of ace pitcher Justin Verlander, to the dispatching of the game’s bluest blue-bloods in the playoffs. Done “[t]heir way. Defying convention, enduring criticism, and then proving just how right they were,” as Smith avows, the Astros’ season of winning would naturally reveal itself.
Before Smith can get to the winning, however, he is obliged to cover the losing. And there was a profuse amount of losing—a biblical flood of losing. If the new model in professional sports is to adopt long and hard losing in one period in an effort to create a chance of winning in another (a version of the Puritan Jeremiad for the billion-dollar professional sports industry), the Astros were the vanguard of such a model. As the first decade of the 2000s came to a close, so did a decade-long era of consistent success by the Astros. With the Killer Bs (Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Lance Berkman) no longer around, the Astros, haltingly and then resolutely, became frontrunners in futility. From 2011 to 2013, the period that embodies the Astros’ zealous approach to losing, the team won 162 games and lost 324.
Amidst the torrents of losing, the Astros, as Smith handily conveys, began to plot a course for sunnier times. On December 7, 2011, the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow as their new general manager. Luhnow, who helped the St. Louis Cardinals to three World Series appearances and two wins, was on the frontline of the sabermetrics revolution in baseball as the Cardinals’ vice president of scouting and player development. Applying his degrees in economics, engineering, and business management to the baseball diamond, Luhnow, as Smith recounts, stressed the Astros’ need for a process-driven system of asset acquisition and development in an effort to outsmart what he referred to as a “zero-sum game.” Three years later the Astros matched up their data-driven GM with a like-minded manager: the cerebral and ever-calm A.J. Hinch (as both a comedic aside and an emblem of the Astros’ ineptitude during their downtrodden decade, Smith relates the story of Hinch’s predecessor, the first-time manager Bo Porter, placing inspirational quotes of his own creation on the clubhouse walls, “despite…[having] yet to win a single big-league game”). The Astros also began to make franchise-defining player personnel decisions during this time: Jose Altuve was signed to a four-year contract extension in 2013; Carlos Correa was drafted in 2012; George Springer in 2014; Alex Bregman in 2015. If the Astros’ method was to be trusted, protracted losing was about to beget protracted winning.
While 2017 was a year that the Astros were expected to be competitive, the season began with talk of a remnant from the team’s lost decade: a June 2014 Sports Illustrated cover-story that predicted, in the midst of chronic losing, a World Series championship for the Astros in 2017. Sitting with an American league-best record of 60-29 at the All-Star break, Astros fans had every reason to believe that the 2014 SI cover was more fate than curse. Six weeks later the rain began. When it finally stopped, it would prove to be the worst mainland flooding in the recorded history of the United States. On the road at the time, the team, clearly reeling with worry for family and their adopted hometown, vowed to play their “part in the healing” of the city. Pledging to “[do] everything we can to help those” who “suffered tremendous loss,” as Smith recounts Luhnow saying at the time, the Astros committed themselves to the accomplishment of two goals for the remainder of the 2017 season: to “win a world championship and lift up a city that needed them more than ever.” The Astros returned to their home field on September 2, sweeping the Mets in the first-ever double-header at Minute Maid Park.
Tucked evenly between Harvey’s departure from Houston and the Astros return to Minute Maid, in Detroit, Michigan, supermodel Kate Upton helped talk her now-husband through the decision to sign with the Astros mere seconds before the midnight September 1 deadline. After winning his first Astros start on September 5, Justin Verlander proceeded to win his next four, including the division-clinching game on September 17. More importantly, he would win four games for the Astros in the playoffs—as the Astros “became the first team to ever beat the storied Boston Red Sox and the legendary New York Yankees in the same playoffs,” with Verlander pitching two wins against each team—while being named the championship series MVP.
Despite less success in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers—Verlander threw five dominant innings in a tough game 2 no-decision, in a game that would earn the Astros their first World Series game victory, and battled through six innings in a game six loss—in his two months with the team Verlander’s determination and leadership had more than worn off on his teammates. The Astros’ winning performance in the World Series, the drama and action of which is admirably staged by Smith, would instead belong to timely hitting from the likes of Springer, Altuve, and Bregman, and spirited pitching performances from some of team’s lesser-known names—Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton. In the seven-game series, Springer, the Series MVP, had eleven hits, five home runs, and seven runs batted in; Altuve hit a dazzling game-tying home run in game 5 that eventually allowed Alex Bregman to win the game for the Astros with a walk-off single in the bottom of the tenth inning; Peacock came out of the bullpen in game three and shut down the Dodgers for the final few innings, and Morton, on three days rest, closed out the final four innings of championship-clinching game seven. And on the night of November 1 in Los Angeles, California, in an act of triumph for a proud organization and a sign of hope for a beleaguered city, for the first time in their fifty-six year history, the Astros hoisted the World Series trophy.
If this year’s American league championship series thumping at the hands of the Boston Red Sox reminded Houston Astros fans of anything, it’s that the baseball gods are fickle beings and that World Series championships are never as tidily written in the stars as the stories that follow them are wont to make them out to be. In the case of Liftoff!, perhaps the circumscription of Smith’s narrative trajectory is made more understandable given the circumstances surrounding the 2017 Astros. A masterful accounting of the team’s recent history and championship-winning year, Liftoff! is an exceedingly responsive and lively book. Attuned throughout to the desires of ardent Astros fans, Smith sets up his narrative voice to recede into the background as the voices of the Astros are brought in to narrate events experientially and contemporaneous to the action, a decision that imbues the book with engaging atmosphere and energy.
James Wright is Houston regional editor for Texas Books in Review. He teaches composition and literature at Houston Community College.