How the Houston Astros went from great to legendary and won their first World Series

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – In the bottom of the first inning on Aug. 31, manager A.J. Hinch was ejected from the Houston Astros’ game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He had real work to do.

Back he went to the clubhouse, to his office, to work the phones. Hinch understood people. What made them tick, what spoke to them, what motivated them. It distinguished him during his tenure managing the Astros, and now it was going to make or break his season. He called his boss, Jeff Luhnow, the general manager of the Astros and architect of a superlative baseball team but one with a distinct flaw: It needed more pitching. And there was Justin Verlander, ready to be had, if only the Astros would get him.

Hinch, a glass or two of wine deep, pushed and prodded and urged and implored and did everything but beg, and Luhnow, ever steady, impassive as usual, said he would if he could make the right deal. And as that started to come together – as the Astros resigned themselves to giving up pitching prospect Franklin Perez, for whom they had spent 10 days negotiating a deal when he was an amateur in Venezuela – Hinch wasn’t the only one calling Luhnow.

Owner Jim Crane, who made his billions in shipping logistics, was looking to secure his most precious delivery yet. The Detroit Tigers wanted the Astros to take on more of Verlander’s salary than they were willing. Crane did not blanch. “Let’s go,” he told Luhnow. “Let’s get the deal done.”

The Astros celebrate with the trophy after their World Series triumph over the Dodgers in Game 7. (AP)

At 11:59 p.m. ET on Aug. 31, the Houston Astros acquired Justin Verlander. And at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, barely two months after the deal, after the damage Hurricane Harvey had levied on the psyches and belongings of the city, after 18 postseason games and myriad memories made throughout and an acknowledgment that maybe they did know what they were doing when people inside the game laughed at them – after all that, the Houston Astros won the World Series for the first time in their 56-year history.

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They beat the Boston Red Sox, and then they beat the New York Yankees, and Wednesday, in Game 7 of a World Series ready to carve itself a spot in the pantheon of championship matchups, they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. Never was the Astros’ 5-1 victory particularly close. Their kids scored runs. Their veterans chipped in. Their blend of players, of talents, of cultures personified an organization that tries to blind itself to any biases. There is no formula. There is just a truth worth seeking.

“People talk about analytics. It’s not about analytics,” Luhnow said. “It’s about using all the information – quality information – that you can get your hands on and making decisions with that quality information that helps you gain an edge over the other 29 teams. It’s not about hiring 20 Ph.D.’s and having them crunch numbers. It’s medical. It’s psychological. It’s physiological. Yes, there’s an analytical component, but it’s every element of human nature and math and science you can imagine.”

When the Verlander trade went through, it proved Luhnow’s fealty to that ethos. For years, he had acquired a reputation among his peers as intransigent when it came to dealing away young players. Only the Astros players wanted this, especially after they heard Verlander was considering reaching out two weeks before the deadline, just to speak with some peers and get a sense of whether he would want to go to Houston. Hinch got kicked out of the game to explicitly advocate for it. A number of people within the organization were on the yay side, too. And even if the analytics did like Verlander and see places where he could improve, that typically wouldn’t be enough for Luhnow.

Five years into his job, he understood: The process isn’t always the right play. Because though it had gotten the Astros to the cusp of where they needed to be, Justin Verlander could. More than a great pitcher, he was the proxy for the Astros’ evolution, where the needs of all – owner, front office, manager – found themselves in balance. Verlander meant more than any numbers he put up.

“We were already a great team,” Astros starter Dallas Keuchel said. “We wanted to be legendary.”

***

The legend starts with $15,000. When an undersized kid went to a tryout with the Astros in Venezuela as a teenager, he was cut. He came back the next day, weaseled his way into another tryout, impressed enough people and was given a pittance to sign. He came stateside and hit, and he hit some more, and he made it to the big leagues, and he won a batting title, and another, and another. And then on Wednesday, when Corey Seager rolled a weak groundball to him at second base, he flipped it to first, and the Houston Astros were champions.

Jose Altuve was the first player to hold the World Series trophy.

The legend continues in Connecticut. They tell stories of the kid, stories of his family making him who he is. Of his grandfather, who came to the United States as a 17-year-old, grew up to spend decades advocating on behalf of teachers and later went to South Africa to help with the election of Nelson Mandela. They see that same kind of leadership in him, and for him to be the first person in the 113-year history of the World Series to hit a home run in four consecutive games? Now they’ve just got more stories to tell.

George Springer won the 2017 World Series MVP award.

The legend endures because of a workout. “Best I’ll ever see,” said a scout, and he has seen plenty. The kid was 17 years old, lanky and gangly, still growing into adulthood. He still could play. The bat speed and the glove and the arm tickled everyone in attendance. Just as much as all of those – maybe more – was his attitude. He didn’t walk; he strutted. He didn’t talk; he conversed. He didn’t play; he played.

Carlos Correa whipped out a jewelry box, took a knee and proposed to his girlfriend, Daniella Rodriguez, right after the Astros won their championship. He was going to get a ring, so might as well give one away, too.

They are the foundation upon which these Astros are built. Altuve and Springer were brought into the organization by the previous regime, the fruit of whose labor withered underneath the Astros’ plan to stop winning. They were one of the original tankers, losing so they can win, which is easier said than done, even though this now makes consecutive champions who have embraced the strategy.

There comes a point at which the losing no longer suffices, though, and when the process becomes a tad malleable. The notion of veteran players helping teams has been a favorite punching bag of the analytical community. Hinch believed after a disappointing 2016 that his clubhouse needed bigger voices, even if Springer and Correa and Alex Bregman have the respect of their peers.

It’s for the moments like in July, when the Astros had lost 11 of 14 games and pitcher Collin McHugh expressed concern to one veteran. He has been a catcher in the major leagues since he was 21, and he is 33 now, and he looked at McHugh, with all the sincerity in the world, and said: “Dude, we’re 10 games up.” And if he wasn’t worried, McHugh wouldn’t be, either.

Brian McCann won his first World Series on Wednesday.

Nobody used to want to come to Houston, and now the franchise has players fighting to join. During the winter, one veteran was convinced he was signing with the Astros. The next day, they signed a player at the same position. He was miffed, but then he couldn’t argue much, because every player wants this guy in their clubhouse. He has played Major League Baseball for 20 years. He is a humanitarian. He’s headed to Puerto Rico in a week to assist in the cleanup of his home country.

The Astros’ Carlos Correa celebrates after Game 7 of the World Series. (AP)

Carlos Beltran won his first World Series on Wednesday.

More than anyone, he came to Houston of his own volition. He could’ve said no. He could’ve stayed where it was comfortable, where he was beloved, where he figured he was going to retire. Only the draw of winning, of what these Astros could achieve, convinced him to swipe his signature across the paper and consecrate his trade to Houston.

Justin Verlander won his first World Series on Wednesday.

“Are you just so excited?” his mom, Kathy, asked.

“It’s not real yet,” Kate Upton, Verlander’s supermodel fiancée, chimed in.

It wasn’t. Not for Verlander and Beltran and McCann. Not for Correa and Springer and Altuve. Not for Charlie Morton, the starting pitcher who threw the final four innings in relief and earned the Game 7 victory. And not for Lance McCullers and Brad Peacock and Francisco Liriano and Chris Devenski, who combined to throw five shutout innings. And not for Bregman, who scored the Astros’ second run of the first inning, or Marwin Gonzalez, who scored on Springer’s home run in the second that staked the Astros to a 5-0 advantage, or the other dozen men on the roster.

“This game is about players,” Hinch said. “The players are what makes it all go around. And as their manager, my job is to get the most out of them. My job is to push them when they need to be pushed, to hug them when they need to be hugged, to believe in them always, and set a culture where they’ll believe in themselves and they’ll prioritize winning.”

***

Legendary. This wasn’t entirely that. Game 2 qualified, and so did Game 5, and the other four had been pretty good, too. Game 7, by all means, could’ve been, probably should’ve been, but the Astros so thoroughly pilloried Los Angeles over 3½ hours that they’d vampired the drama out of a series laden with it relatively early in the night.

They couldn’t hit Clayton Kershaw in the middle innings. That didn’t matter, because Yu Darvish had started the game and left behind an oil slick and a Zippo in the form of a 5-0 deficit before Kershaw even got in. Hinch yanked McCullers after he hit a World Series record fourth batter in one start. He mixed and matched, and never did the Dodgers’ bats awaken from their somnambulism. In front of 54,124, the Astros celebrated. They went nuts on the tiny visitors’ clubhouse, spraying champagne, throwing beer and, in the case of deposed closer Ken Giles, wearing a T-shirt that read, “ZERO F**KS GIVEN,” only without the asterisks.

They were blasting “California Love,” the theme song for Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, whom they twice had beaten, and when the hook got around to the good part, Bregman yelled: “In the cityyyyy, of L.A.!”

They’ll remember the city of L.A. because it’s where all of this – the three 106-loss-plus seasons, the people laughing at them for using exit velocity and spin rate and swing-plane analysis and the other tricks of the trade in which they specialized – came together in a cigar-smoke-filled, wet celebration. The Astros’ strength wasn’t physical, measured in pecs, abs, pipes, guns. Theirs is a story of unity, of a shared goal realized. They were celebrating themselves. They were celebrating each other. They were celebrating Houston.

The Astros’ George Springer (4) celebrates after his two-run home run against the Dodgers on Wednesday night. (AP)

“This,” Springer said, “is for the city.”

The city, remember, didn’t embrace these Astros. Nobody watched them on TV. They barely drew a few thousand people to home games some nights. Tanking isn’t easy. It takes sincere devotion. “We took some risks along the way,” Luhnow said. “We did some unconventional things. We took criticism. But we had thick skins. There were no guarantees we’d do this.”

This is win. Win for the parts of Houston that were underwater and the other parts that were spared but still understand the pain of their friends and family. Win for Puerto Rico, the homeland of Beltran and Correa and bench coach Alex Cora, who’s off to manage the Red Sox. Win for themselves. Win for each other. Win for the process, because the process won for them.

The Verlander trade is so vital to the story of the 2017 World Series champions not because of what he did in the World Series. Verlander didn’t log a decision. The Astros won the first game he started and lost the second. He was good, plenty good, but not great like he was when he won the American League Championship Series MVP award. It’s more than individual numbers, like it always is with the Astros.

There are so many different components to consider, ones that make a trade like this all the less likely when it comes to the Astros. And yet Hinch understood his role in the organization enough to take one of his ejections – the Astros give him two a year where they’ll help with his fine, figuring a little attitude now and again can help free up a manager from his burdens – and spend it so he could be an advocate. And Crane understood his place as the money man and not some meddlesome owner.

Then there’s Luhnow, who amid the celebration Wednesday looked nothing like his typically bespectacled, suited self. He was wearing shorts and shower shoes. A baseball cap covered his soaking hair.

“It was a difficult trade for us,” Luhnow said. “We were giving up a lot of talent and taking on payroll. There were times throughout that process I didn’t think it was going to happen. I was comfortable with it not happening.”

That’s how close it was. That’s the difference between the Houston Astros being 2017 World Series champions and them not.

“But,” Luhnow said, “I sure am happy it happened.”

All around him, corks popped and booze pooled on the carpet and the Astros changed so they could hit the after-party and start the celebration that will continue with a parade on Friday and all winter long and forever. Fifty-six years, it took. Fifty-six years of baseball that wasn’t good enough because of the owner or GM or manager or players. Fifty-six years, nearly twice as long as the Dodgers’ championship drought, which to Angelenos feels like an eternity.

Fifty-six years to put together a team this great and watch it become legendary.

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