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STON -- The last time the Astros honored an all-time team, they were closing down a historic, but dated ballpark, enthusiastically anticipating moving into a brand new home and on their way to their third consecutive division title.
A lot has happened since that memorable 1999 season, yet interestingly, many of the players named to the All-Astrodome team that year also made the cut this time around, after a panel of experts honored the all-time 25-man roster in observance of the franchise's 50th anniversary.
Jeff Bagwell. Craig Biggio. J.R. Richard. Jose Cruz. Larry Dierker. Alan Ashby. And on and on. They were revered 13 years ago, and their legacies haven't tarnished since. It's quite possible that in 50 more years, many will still make the cut as all-time greats.
Legends weekend at Minute Maid Park, the final home weekend series of the season, honored the best of the best while recognizing everyone who contributed to the organization over the last 50 years. It didn't matter if they played for the Astros for one season or 15. All alumni of the Houston franchise were welcomed back, to help put the icing on the proverbial anniversary cake.
It was, as expected, just like old times.
"Baseball guys are funny," said Biggio, perhaps the most famous alum of them all. "Some guys I haven't seen in 14, 15 years. And then in 10 minutes, it was like you just saw them yesterday. It's a unique dynamic baseball players have. It's fraternity. The relationships -- that's just the way it is. It's nice to catch up."
The alumni gathered in the umpire's tunnel before marching out onto the field for a pregame ceremony, and even this brief interlude had the feel of a class reunion. A few hugs, several handshakes, and, in the case of 1980s stars Craig Reynolds and Cruz, a gigantic, impromptu bear hug (initiated by Cruz, of course).
That's the thing about baseball brotherhood. No matter how much time passes, when you meet again, it's as if you never left each other.
"It always feels like home when I come back here," said Mike Hampton, honored as one of the all-time pitchers for his contributions in the mid to late '90s. "It's been a great experience. I'm honored to make the all-time 25-man roster, but it's just fun to come here and see some of my past teammates. To come back here, see who lost the most hair, got the grayest hair, whose kids are taller than me now, it's a fun experience."
The former players lined up on the first- and third-base lines, while those who comprised the all-time 25-man roster emerged from the home dugout. The act of walking onto the field that close to game time felt eerily familiar to Ashby, the club's all-time catcher.
"It's one of those recollection moments where you kind of look around think, 'Yeah, I've done this before,'" he said. "You get the butterflies a little bit. It was a lot of fun, though."
Bagwell emerged from the dugout to stand with his arm around Jimmy Wynn, whose Astros home run record Bagwell broke in 1999. Then the former first baseman made his way down the alumni line on the third-base side, hugging every player he knows. (And Bagwell, a staple in the Astros' infield from 1991-2005, pretty much knows all of them.)
After the ceremony, Bagwell went even further off script and walked all the way out to right field to toss (with his left arm) his throwback jersey to a kid sitting in the stands.
Most of the group then made its way to the Astros' suite, where players and families enjoyed a dinner reception, watched the game and caught up on old times.
Shane Reynolds, arguably the Astros' most consistent pitcher in the '90s and a big reason why they won back-to-back-to-back division titles from 1997-99, sees similarities between the Astros teams he played on early in his career and the club today. In short: build now, reap the benefits later.
Count Reynolds as one of the believers.
"What happened in '94, '95, '96, and then what happened in '97, '98, I think it's going to happen here with the Astros," he said.
"Maybe two, three years. Fans have to stay loyal, but yeah, they'll have another winner here before long."