Art Howe spent most of his playing career with the Astros, then began his managerial career In Houston. His ties to the city are strong enough that the Pittsburgh native still lives in the Houston area.
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Howe was an infielder on the Astros' first postseason teams in 1980 and '81, and as a fan he has enjoyed watching the Astros reach the World Series this year. He reflected on his Astros postseason career in this week's Q&A:
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MLB.com: A special excitement for the Astros in the World Series.
Howe: You bet. There is a strong fan base here, and when the team gets into October, there is a buzz around town. This year, though, I think it is even stronger. The success of the Astros is a feel-good moment for a community that went through some tough times a month or so ago. It is something people can rally around.
MLB.com: You were a part of those first two Astros postseason teams. Those memories don't fade, do they?
Howe: It's so exciting to be one of the few teams playing, and you know that if you are playing in October, you had a heck of a season. The reward is an opportunity to fulfill a dream, and that is to win a World Series. I never fulfilled that dream, but I was in the postseason eight times: four as a player, three as a manager and one as a coach. It is like you are walking on air. You know baseball fans all over are watching you play.
MLB.com: If the Astros win their first World Series championship this year, will you feel any of the excitement?
Howe: Sure. Houston is where I spent seven of my 11 years in the big leagues as a player, it's where I established my career, and it is where I began my managerial career. We never made the postseason [when I manged the Astros], but I like to feel we put together a good young nucleus that was a part of the Astros' initial success, players like [Craig] Biggio, [Jeff] Bagwell, [Ken] Caminiti.
MLB.com: Let's talk about 1980. You had to play a tiebreaker game to clinch the National League West over the Dodgers and advance to the postseason, right?
Howe: Yeah. We finished the regular season at the Dodgers, and they swept us in three games. There weren't many runs scored in those games. They were all decided by one run. So, we had to play Game 163 to decide the division champion [on] the Monday after Game 162. The Dodgers had the edge in the season series, so we played at Dodger Stadium. We took care of business in that game. We had played too well and had too good of a club to let it get away from us. It was a big day for Joe Niekro, too. He went the distance, gave up an unearned run and won No. 20. The Dodgers had Dave Goltz, they had signed him to a big-time free-agent contract before the season.
Video: HOU@LAD: Niekro's gem gives Astros the NL West
MLB.com: You had a pretty good game, too -- a home run and four RBIs.
Howe: It meant a lot to all of us. We were not just teammates. We felt it was time.
MLB.com: In the NL Championship Series, things didn't get any easier.
Howe: Four of the five games went extra innings. We're up, 1-0, in the sixth inning of the first game, and in the bottom of the sixth, [Greg] Luzinski hits a two-run home run. That was the blowout.
MLB.com: That fifth game had to be tough, not only because it was winner-take-all, but you are leading, 5-2, at the end of seven and end up losing, 8-7, in 10 innings.
Howe: We had Nolan Ryan on the mound. His record was 100-5 or 100-6 or something unreal when he had a lead after the seventh inning. This game, though, five pitches into the eighth, they loaded the bases. 10 pitches into the inning, they have a run in, bases loaded, nobody out. [Larry] Bowa, first-pitch single, [Bob] Boone, second-pitch single to the pitcher. My old roomie, Greg Gross, drops a perfect bunt down the third-base line, and they have the bases loaded.
MLB.com: Hold it, Boone singled to the pitcher?
Howe: Yeah. He hits a chopper back up the middle. We're cheating for a double play. He didn't hit it sharp at all. It was a jam shot, one hopper to Nolan's right. If he leaves it alone, you can see on the film that Craig Reynolds is right there at [second base] and he's going to catch it, step on the bag, throw to first for the double play, and we've got two outs with nobody on. But Nolan reached out and tipped the ball, and it rolled into no man's land behind the mound. We wind up tying it up in the bottom of the eighth, and then lost it in the 10th.
MLB.com: Sounds like it was an exciting series.
Howe: Like I said, Greg Gross had been my roommate [in Houston] before he went to the Phillies. They won the World Series. Greg called me during the World Series, and he says, "Artie, I waited my whole life to get to the World Series, and it is kind of a letdown." I asked him what he meant. He said, "Because our series was so exciting. Every pitch meant everything."
MLB.com: Then, in 1981, you beat the Dodgers in the first two games of the NL Division Series, but can't finish the job.
Howe: That was devastating, because we thought we were going to get to the promised land. We had great pitching, but we lost J.R. Richard [in] 1980. If we had J.R. in our rotation those two years, I'd be wearing two rings, guaranteed.
MLB.com: What hit me was you went to Dodger Stadium for the final three games and scored a total of just two runs.
Howe: They just shut us down. That's what those Dodgers teams were known for. They had a set lineup and great pitching, and that was back when they had Fernando [Valenzuela]. Funny thing is, the year before, Game 163, he was available to start against us, but Tommy [Lasorda] went with Goltz. Thank goodness he did, because we knocked him around. Fernando had some up in 1980, and he was nasty. Those were special times.
MLB.com: As special as this year?
Howe: They are in position to do something this year we couldn't get done. This year could be even more special for the organization and the fans.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.