The Astros' loss on Tuesday marked the third consecutive year the team has lost 100 games in a season. It also came on the five year anniversary of conclusion of one of the most chaotic weeks in franchise history, one which eventually helped lead the Astros to its current state.
Hurricane Ike, in addition to the destruction it wreaked on the Houston area and Gulf Coast in 2008, also helped eliminate the Astros from their last best shot at reaching the postseason, and effectively started the process of tearing apart and rebuilding the franchise.
It was already supposed to be a transition year for the Astros in 2008. For the first time in two decades, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell weren’t on the roster. But the Astros' model of building around veteran franchise cornerstones continued as the team relied on Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman instead. For the first half of the season, though, success was hard to find, and by July 27 the Astros were nine games under .500, in last place in the National League Central and in ninth place in the National League wildcard race.
But like almost every season since 2004, the Astros began to make a playoff push in the second half of the season. Bolstered by trade deadline moves that added left-hander Randy Wolf and right-handed reliever LaTroy Hawkins, the Astros began to make a move.
Despite losing Carlos Lee on Aug. 9, the night after he reached 100 RBIs for the season after getting hit on the hand by a Bronson Arroyo pitch, the Astros went 33-11 over the next seven weeks. From Aug. 27 to Sept. 11 the team was even hotter, winning 14 of 15 games. At the end of that stretch the Astros found themselves just three games back in the wildcard race, with a crucial four-game series with the NL Central-leading Cubs scheduled to be played at Minute Maid Park from Sept. 12-15.
But there was literally a storm brewing. In the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Ike was making a beeline for the Texas coast and seemed to have Galveston and Houston in its cross-hairs.
“By the time we got to the Pirates we were rolling, and we started paying attention to (the hurricane),” Astros radio broadcaster Dave Raymond said. “But I had no idea what to expect, it was my first hurricane. I didn’t know what we were getting into.”
“Astros officials did a good job of letting us know what was going on. Our traveling secretary Barry Waters was keeping us up to date,” former Astros infielder, and current Astros broadcaster Geoff Blum said. “I knew it was a possibility of hitting was there so we actually had time to get our families out of Houston just in case. So, I know at least for the handful of California guys who were on that team that had families there, we sent them home just to get them out of harm’s way just in case.”
As the storm grew closer, contingency plans were being made regarding the Cubs series. With the hurricane bearing down on the Texas coast, the Cubs refused to travel to Houston. If the games were to be played it wasn’t going to be in Houston. The question became: where?
It was an answer that wouldn’t be made before Ike made landfall.
‘The place we saw when we went to sleep was not the place we woke up in’
Hurricane Ike hit in the overnight hours of Sept. 12 and 13, hitting Galveston and traveling over Houston, leaving a wake of destruction that many Astros players and staff, most of which had never experienced a hurricane before, weren’t prepared for.
“That was part of our thinking when we were looking for a house, we were that far off the coast, that much safer. Little did we know that Ike would literally come up 45 and in my back yard,” Raymond said. “I remember waking up to devastation all around, debris everywhere.”
“It was the first one I was ever in,” former Astros pitcher and current Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail said. “Been through a couple of tropical storms. That was simple. This was evil. I had never seen wind like that.”
Blum was hunkered down with fellow California players Mark Loretta, Dave Newhan and Brad Ausmus at Ausmus’ house.
“I remember Brad waking up and running downstairs because the windows are shaking, and I think one of them downstairs either the window popped out or the glass actually broke out and he was down there trying to clean up that mess and secure that window,” Blum said. “By the time we woke up, man, the place we saw when we went to sleep was not the same place we woke up in. It was eerily reminiscent of something that was in the Wizard of Oz.”
In the aftermath of the storm, the devastation wreaked havoc on the infrastructure of the city. There was widespread flooding and debris in the roadways, power was down to most of the Houston area and phone communication, both cellular and landlines, was spotty at best.
It was with this background that a decision about where the Astros and Cubs would play their series was made.
“Major League Baseball’s responsibility was to get the games played, look out for the safety of the players and the fans and find a place where the games wouldn’t be cancelled.” former Astros general manager Ed Wade said via telephone last week.
“Arlington was still iffy with the weather. St. Louis was a possibility but I don’t remember what was going on there,” Astros broadcaster Bill Brown said. “Round Rock was a possibility, because I don’t think they were getting near the rain that we were, but I don’t think they wanted to take a major league series to a minor league park.”
Eventually word came down that two of the four games of the Cubs series would be played as home games for the Astros in Milwaukee starting the night of Sept. 14, the day after the hurricane hit Houston.
“It was determined by MLB that the games would be played as Astros home games in Milwaukee,” Wade said. “It wasn’t a case of negotiation, it was a case of we’re playing in Milwaukee.”
For the Astros, the timing and location of the games couldn’t have been worse. From a baseball standpoint, Milwaukee was the team that the Astros were chasing in the wildcard race and its location -- Miller Park is 90 miles north of Wrigley Field -- ensured that there would be plenty of Cubs fans for the Astros ‘home’ games.
“That’s why we complained so hard early on when Bud Selig and some of the phone calls from MLB were saying that we were going to have to go up to Milwaukee and try to battle our way out of a hurricane and get to go play these games,” Blum said.
Word of the decision to play didn’t filter out to the team quickly, but it was met with universal disdain.
Blum and Newhan left their cars at Minute Maid Park before going to Ausmus’ house to ride out the storm. They were driven back to the park the night of the Sept. 13 so they could go home and pack for the trip.
“There was no power (at Blum’s condo) whatsoever,” Blum said. “It was about 150 degrees inside the house and it was the middle of the night when I was trying to pack. Trying to see everything, trying to do that and get through the debris. I got a flat tire, had to change that in the middle of the night before we got back. Newhan got a flat tire. Again, it was just madness.”
“I remember late that night with candles on and no A/C, we had a little wind-up radio at the house that we cranked up,” Raymond said. “We turned on KTRH and happened to catch a sports update where they said the Astros were going to Milwaukee to face the Cubs tomorrow. I thought ‘holy s---.’”
Word didn’t reach everyone that night. Brocail was without cell reception since the storm and went for a walk in an effort to catch a signal and to see if there were any messages on his phone.
“I finally got one (message) and the phone rang and it was (former Astros assistant GM) David Gottfried telling me ‘hey, we’re fixing to leave and you need to get here,’” Brocail said. “It took me about an hour and 40 minutes (to get to Minute Maid Park). The first route that I went didn’t work because there were power lines down, I retraced all the way back to highway 6. I ended up going through, I don’t even know the names of the streets but working my way towards Pearland.”
The buses were scheduled to leave Minute Maid park early the morning of the first game against the Cubs. Because of the difficulties in getting to the park and waiting for everyone to arrive, the team didn’t leave until nearly 11 that morning.
The Astros' buses arrived at Bush Intercontinental Airport to an eerie scene.
“We pulled up at the terminal and one security agent opened the door and we came into the airport,” Raymond said. “There were no humans in there. No planes at the airport, they had all been evacuated. Continental flew a plane in from Newark to pick us up and fly to Milwaukee.”
“It was out of the twilight zone for us," Blum said. "Knowing that things were shut down, they weren’t allowing normal life to proceed, yet they somehow created a window for our plane to come in and pick us up, get the right personnel in there to check us in and get us on a plane and we taxied out to the runway all by ourselves.”
For those that left people behind, the reality of the situation was just starting to sink in.
“All I was focused on was getting on the plane,” Raymond said. “It wasn’t until I got on the plane and we took off, I looked down and thought ‘What are we doing?’ I just left my wife and three young boys alone with no power.”
‘My God, if everybody’s been up as long as I have, we’re dead.’
“It was the first plane ride I’ve been on that it was completely blacked out,” Brocail said. “Everybody was asleep. Everybody was dog-tired.”
Once the team arrived in Milwaukee, some went straight to the ballpark and some went to the hotel to drop off luggage before going to Miller Park.
Brown caught a cab to the stadium with Wolf, who got the start for the Astros.
“I said ‘how did your day go,’” Brown recalled. “He said ‘I was in this condo building that I live in and we didn’t have any power. So I was on about the 14th floor and I had to carry all my bags down the stairs and it was dark in the stairwell and I had to have a flashlight to show the way.’ So I asked him what time he got up in the morning and he said sometime around 6. So he tells this story and I’m thinking this is our starting pitcher.”
The Cubs, meanwhile, had been in Chicago for two days and had a well-rested Carlos Zambrano, who held a career 2.53 ERA against the Astros at that point, scheduled to start.
“The travel, the stress of what was going on back in Houston, the way everything was set up with the days off,” Blum said. “Zambrano was going to be 100 percent, a couple of extra days off, go pitch in a familiar ballpark with 95-100 percent their fans in the stands.”
The game unfolded predictably. Wolf didn’t make it out of the third inning, giving up all five of the Cubs runs that day. Meanwhile, zeros were piling up next to the Astros name on the scoreboard.
“For the first three innings (fans at the game) were pretty sympathetic and they were understanding of the situation and how rare this actually was,” Blum said. “As soon as you get to the fifth and sixth inning, you look up at the scoreboard and you see zeroes across the board for the Houston Astros and Zambrano is continuing to pitch. Well it turned in a hurry and they started cheering their brains out for him.”
“Then you realize come the sixth inning that he’s going to get this,” Brocail said. “ He’s going to get this because we’re here and there was nothing we could do. There was no fight in us.”
Zambrano went on to no-hit the Astros, giving up just one walk to Michael Bourn and hitting Hunter Pence.
“We were still shell-shocked. We couldn’t believe we were in Milwaukee,” Blum said. “You try to be professional about things and you understand you’re being asked to go and complete a season for the integrity of the season. And for whatever reason it was out of our control and it was not, let’s find a different schedule that would accommodate both teams, as opposed to this one really accommodated the Chicago Cubs in every way as far as travel, as far as location. So we were still shell-shocked the next day. I’m sure a bunch of guys who went had families back in Houston, went to bed trying to get in contact with their family if they could, and trying to figure things out.”
“We talked about this days later, the Astros got no-hit,” Brocail said. Everybody else would have gotten no-hit. I’d never seen so many guys not talk. It was just like, ‘Oh well. OK, now let’s get some sleep.’ Then we showed up the next day and everybody looked like we just got off the plane the day before.”
Ted Lilly took the mound for the Cubs the next afternoon and it was nearly a repeat of what happened against Zambrano 24 hours earlier.
“Zambrano had good stuff and pitched well against us,” Raymond said. “The next night was more frustrating because it was Ted Lilly and he had a no-hitter into the seventh with that big slow curve.”
Mark Loretta managed a single in the seventh inning off Lilly for the Astros only hit of the night.
The Astros traveled to Florida after the two games against the Cubs. The Astros, still shell-shocked from the events, failed to regroup in Miami and got swept by the Marlins. By the end of those five games, the Astros were five games out of the wildcard race with nine games left to play.
“It was bonecrushing. We were playing good baseball,” Blum said about the week after Hurricane Ike. “And then you have a situation like that and you’re going to look back and say that hurricane situation that MLB put us into may have led to the demise of that season.”
For the Astros, the lingering effects of the week Ike missed are still felt years later. Having come so close and miss the playoffs under such unusual circumstances, the Astros kept going with their strategy of signing veterans as it was just beginning to restock a minor league system nearly devoid of talent that would make it to the major leagues.
The team slipped to fifth place in the National League Central in 2009. It wasn’t until midway through the 2010 season that the team began to tear down the major league roster to rebuild the team through prospects.
That process is still underway for the Astros and their fans, who are still waiting on their next September with meaningful baseball games.