Thursday, June 11, 2009
The biggest trade in the history of the Houston Astros
Former Astros pitcher Randy Johnson picked up the 300th win of his career last week in Washington. He is now the 24th pitcher in history to reach the 300 club. I think he should go down as the best pitcher of his era. He was certainly the most dominant. The things he accomplished in his career, especially in the last 10 years are truly remarkable. He won the NL Cy Young award his first 4 seasons in Arizona. In 5 of his first 6 seasons in Arizona he pitched more than 240 innings, and never had an ERA over 2.65.
After winning game 6 in the 2001 World Series, he came back the next night and threw an inning in a third to keep the Diamondbacks within a run of the Yankees late in that game, which they eventually won. He was the winning pitcher in games 6 and 7 of that World Series. He also threw a shutout in game 2.
I will always remember him for the 2-month stint he had in 1998 as an Astro. C.C. Sabathia was dominant with the Brewers last season, but Johnson was better. He made 11 starts, went 10-1 with an ERA of 1.28. He threw 4 shutouts, and struck out 116 batters in 84 1/3 innings. July 31, 1998 was quite possibly the most extraordinary day in the history of the Houston Astros. The Mariners were bad, Johnson was not having a good season, he was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, and it looked like Seattle was going to trade him. The Yankees and Indians were the 2 best teams in the American League, and it looked like if he was going to get traded it would be to one of those 2 teams. The Astros, who were a good team was said to be involved in talks, but nobody thought it was serious. I remember watching Baseball Tonight that Friday night of the deadline, and the Mariners were playing at home against the Yankees, and that was going to be the Sunday night game. To make things even better, Johnson said he was going to pitch Sunday regardless of whom he was playing for. How perfect for ESPN. They have Yankees/Mariners, and Randy Johnson could pitch against the Mariners, that is called a ratings hit.
On Baseball Tonight every few minutes they kept showing shots of Johnson sitting in a chair right next to the exit of the Mariners dugout, so everyone is waiting to see if he actually gets up because that means that he got traded. Finally right after the deadline passes, they show Lou Pinella walking up to Johnson, whispering something in his ear, and then Johnson gets up and walks towards the clubhouse. When word came down that he was getting traded to the Astros, there was a sense of shock, not only to me, but also to the rest of the baseball world. The Astros were on their way to make the playoffs for the second straight year, but they were pretty much ignored. It really was a trade that shook up baseball. The Yankees and Indians were had two of the biggest payrolls in baseball, and for the Astros to swoop in and get Johnson was stunning. First the first time since I had become a fan (1991) the Astros were a team that was being talked about on a national level, that was certainly evident as Randy Johnson was on the cover of Sports Illustrated just a few days later. It was the first time an Astro had ever been on the SI cover.
The trade also did wonders for the Astros locally, and I believe that is started Houston’s transition to a baseball town. Houston had no football team, and the Rockets were unable to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 6 years, Clyde Drexler retired, and the rest of the team was either bad or old. They had a golden opportunity to transform the city, and they took it. In the 5 years in between the Oilers exit and the Texans arrival, The Astros went to the playoffs 4 times. 2000, the only year in that span they missed the playoffs they opened a new stadium. In 1998 the Astros beat the average MLB attendance by 57,000 fans. That was because of the excitement Johnson brought to the team. It was the first time they had been above the big league average since 1981. They haven’t been below the MLB average in any season since.
Even though the Astros flopped in the 1998 postseason, and Johnson signed with the Diamondbacks that offseason, the Johnson trade was the most important move the Astros ever made in the Biggio/Bagwell era. It put that team on the map. It showed the club was serious about winning. It made guys want to play for the Astros because they knew that the organization would make the bold move when given the opportunity. The Astros don’t have the success of the Clemens years without the Johnson trade. The Astros are also the #1 team in Houston, and they have Randy Johnson to thank for it.