It is so hard to win a World Series. That is not to say that every World Series victory is the result of arduous, backbreaking labor for an inspiring breakthrough over impossible odds; sometimes, they're fluky historical aberrations. (The 1990 Reds, the 2003 Marlins, the 2006 Cardinals.) But even those odd ducks prove the larger point: Even if your team is fantastic, even if you're in the middle of a run of dominant teams that your fans will never forget, even if your franchise is having its golden era, sometimes, the stars just don't quite align for you. Sometimes you just never win that World Series.
We never quite remember the terrific baseball teams that never won a World Series the way we should. Those 1990s Cleveland Indians teams. Those 2000s Oakland A's. You can even make an argument for the current-day Texas Rangers, who have won the third-most games this decade and have come as close as a team can possibly come to winning the World Series without actually doing so. (The Dodgers, and maybe even the Nationals, might belong in this category as well.) But for me, the truly great team that never receives its due as an all-time great because it never quite grabbed that ring was the run of Houston Astros teams from roughly 1997 to 2005.
Over those nine seasons, the Astros reached the playoffs six times, more than any National League team and behind only the Red Sox and the Yankees (who, astoundingly, made the playoffs all nine years). They played in nine playoff series. And at times they looked like the most terrifying baseball team you'd ever seen.
Here is a rough list of the amazing baseball players who played for Houston Astros during that stretch:
- Bobby Abreu
- Moises Alou
- Derek Bell
- Carlos Beltran
- Lance Berkman
- Craig Biggio
- Ken Caminiti
- Vinny Castilla
- Roger Clemens
- Carl Everett
- John Franco
- Luis Gonzalez
- Dwight Gooden
- Richard Hidalgo
- Randy Johnson
- Jeff Kent
- Darryl Kile
- Brad Lidge
- Jose Lima
- Roy Oswalt
- Andy Pettitte
- Billy Wagner
That's some firepower right there. But none of them were better than Jeff Bagwell.
On Wednesday, as we all know, voters elected Bagwell, along with Tim Raines and Pudge Rodriguez, into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Raines, because of his long wait to get in, and Rodriguez, because he was a bit of a surprise first-ballot Hall of Famer, took up many of the headlines, but it was Bagwell who received the most votes, in his seventh turn on the ballot. And even his getting in was seen, in many eyes, less interesting in itself than how it may officially open the door for players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to ultimately get in.
But Bagwell deserves more than that. Ted Berg at USA Today wrote a smart piece pointing out just how fantastic a player Bagwell was and how insane it is that it took him this long to get in. He is 22nd all time in OPS. Until Wednesday, Bagwell had the highest career WAR of any position player not in the Hall of Fame and not named Barry Bonds. And he not only never tested positive for PEDs, he was never even mentioned in any of the documents or had his name leaked for having failed a test. I personally think even if he had been, he still should have been voted into the Hall of Fame, but even if you don't think that, there still never seemed to be a good reason to keep him out of the Hall. Bagwell had to wait seven years to get in simply because he is big. That's it.
Because no one could deny Bagwell as a player. He deserved so much more. And more to the point: Those Astros teams deserved more than that. Those teams were terrifying. Biggio was the popular babyface of the team, but the Astros were scruffier and grungier than Biggio and were all the better for it. Biggio was obviously terrific -- and not "big" enough to have to wait seven years to get in the Hall of Fame -- but Bagwell was the true face of that team. When you close your eyes and think of Minute Maid Park, you think of Bagwell launching one of those moonshots off one of those weird train tracks they have up there. Home runs there have a way of looking like they are being shot into space and will never return, and no one hit more of those than Bagwell.
And Bagwell was of course the rock of all those teams. Look at all those players above. Some (Clemens, Pettitte) came in at the end of their career. Some (Johnson, Beltran) just popped by briefly. Some (Oswalt, Berkman, who somehow was 23 years old once) began their career in Bagwell's prime. But it was Bagwell, not Biggio, whom the team was built around. Bagwell was in the lineup every day (he played 156 games or more 10 times), he drove in a ton of runs and, even more so, he scored a ton of runs (he led the NL in runs three times). He even stole 30 bases twice. The Astros had that run of success with all different sorts of players. But they really had it because of Bagwell.
Bagwell darn near got that title too. The best of all those teams came at the end of the his career, in 2004, the one that had a lineup featuring Bagwell, Kent, Beltran and Biggio, along with Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte in the rotation. That 2004 NL Championship Series between the Astros and the Cardinals remains the greatest series no one watched; it was on f/x (a channel few had at the time) while the rest of the country was transfixed what was happening in that Red Sox-Yankees American League Championship Series. My colleague Alyson Footer wrote a marvelous oral history of that series for Sports On Earth a couple of years ago; both teams deserved to win that series. The Astros finally broke through to the World Series the next season, but the White Sox (an underrated champion to this day) got hot at the right time and swept them out. Bagwell was injured most of that season and barely played in the playoffs and the Series. He retired that offseason.
And once Bagwell was gone, so was that Astros boomlet. They wouldn't make the playoffs again for another decade, with all those old stars long gone. Those Astros never got the ring they deserved. But having Bagwell in the Hall of Fame, along with Biggio (and maybe someday Beltran, Clemens and even Pettitte), assures that they won't be forgotten. They might never have gotten the right bounces and fluke breaks to grab that elusive title. They were still some of the best teams I ever saw. If they can't live on in World Series history, they can at least live on in Cooperstown.