WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros logo outside the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches really is something to see, all the way from Haverhill Rd. The closer you get the bigger it gets, the white "H" right there in front of the huge orange star. Underneath the "H" is the following message, white against orange: "2017 World Champions." It would have been a simple matter to put "2018" down there, too. There was room.
"We were doing more than hoping last year at this time," an usher named Steve, in a pale blue polo shirt, was saying on Thursday morning. "We were sure when they left here last spring they were going to do it again."
Manager AJ Hinch said the other day how unusual it was, after his team had won more games than any Astros team in history, to be asked what in the world went wrong. The exact quote was this:
"When you set a franchise record for wins and people ask you, 'What happened?' at the end of the year, that's a unique question."
Hinch reminded me of Joe Torre after the Yankees, in the shadow of 9/11, had lost the 2001 World Series to the D-backs. I was with Torre at a party a few months later, and he was talking about all the people who had been offering him condolences because Luis Gonzalez somehow blooped a Mariano Rivera pitch over a drawn-in Derek Jeter in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7. Torre talked about three unforgettable games his team won at the old Yankee Stadium and how for a few hours on those nights, baseball and the Yankees did whatever they could, uptown, to lift the city, even though all of them knew what had happened downtown.
"Just because we lost the last game," Joe said that night, "doesn't mean we didn't win something."
The Astros had lifted the city of Houston in 2017 after a terrible hurricane tried to drown a great American city. No one would compare that natural disaster with 9/11, of course. But the '17 Astros, whose championship is honored outside their Spring Training ballpark, did remind us how sometimes a team and a season can make their fans feel as if they are all in it together.
Last year the Astros were going to do it again. They did win 103 games during the regular season, and even though the Boston Red Sox won more (108), the Astros came into the postseason feeling as if they were going to be the first team to win two straight World Series since Torre's Yankees won three from 1998-2000 and thought for sure they were going to make it four until the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 in 2001.
Then the Astros swept the Indians in the American League Division Series. Then they won Game 1 of the AL Championship Series from the Red Sox at Fenway Park. It meant they just had to get three more wins to make it back to the World Series, with three of those games being played at Minute Maid Park. The 2018 Astros never won another game, and ended up surrendering 27 runs over the next four contests. A lot happened over the last three games of their season, at home. There was a fan interference call -- Mookie Betts reaching over the wall and into the fans trying to catch a ball that José Altuve had hit -- that went Boston's way. There was an amazing play in left field by Andrew Benintendi, one of the great game-ending catches October has ever seen, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in Game 4.
If Benintendi doesn't make that diving catch, on a ball hit by Alex Bregman, the Astros likely win that game, the ALCS is even and maybe it is a different game the next night if Justin Verlander and Houston aren't facing elimination. But Benintendi laid out and made that catch. The Red Sox were ahead three games to one. The Astros were out of business 24 hours later. And in a slight state of shock.
They are still one of the three best teams in baseball, along with the Red Sox and the Yankees. They are still one of the best teams even with Charlie Morton gone to the Rays and Lance McCullers Jr. hurt and Dallas Keuchel still out there in the ether as a free agent. Marwin Gonzalez, a wonderful player, is another unsigned free agent. A year ago at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Hinch told me that he had very few decisions to make, that in his mind his roster was pretty much set. A lot has changed over the past 12 months. A lot happened.
Mostly the Red Sox happened. The Red Sox are what went wrong. With everything that happened in that series between the Sox and the Astros, with the umpires and Benintendi and everything else, Houston probably wonders how everything would have turned out if Altuve hadn't essentially played that series on one good leg.
Altuve is healthy again. Carlos Correa is healthy again. Bregman became a star last season. George Springer had become one the previous October. The Astros haven't done much this offseason. Nor have the Red Sox. The Yankees have done plenty. All of these teams were among the best in the game last year and will be again this year. But it wasn't so long ago that we thought Houston might turn into the baseball equivalent of the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Maybe they still can.
The Yankees come into this season thinking they have unfinished business. So do the Astros, who have a sign they'd like to repaint.