As I drove up the winding lane toward the fortress-like manor, the cries of the inmates slowly rose from a murmur to a crescendo of wails and lamentations.
Part of me wanted to check myself in. After all, I suffered too. Suffered from the false hope. Suffered from missed moments. Suffered from the taste of success. A taste that now felt bitter upon my tongue.
I grabbed my overnight bag from the back of the car. Surely, this stay wouldn’t be long. After all, I just needed to get my head right. With so much positive energy during the season, a quick night, a few sessions, that’s all I would need.
I rang the bell at the front desk, and was greeted by the caretaker. “Welcome to the Bill Spiers Wing of the Home for Astroholics,” he said. “Checking in?”
He looked familiar, a friendly face from the halcyon days of playoff wins and World Series appearances. “Hey, aren’t you ..?”
“I’m not a slick-fielding shortstop any more,” he said. “Just a guy here to coach you through your, um, minor issues.”
He took my bag, handed it off to a Jason Lane lookalike — surely that wasn’t the real Jason Lane — and guided me to a room in the back. “Why don’t we get you started,” he said. “This has been a busy week for us, so we’d like to start your therapy right away.”
A circle of chairs filled the room, and all the chairs save one was occupied by a crazy-eyed individual wearing an Astros jersey from days gone by. One older lady with an Mike Hampton jersey and a twitch in her eye was talking as I grabbed the last chair.
“… if Sipp just would have missed the ball, the spin wouldn’t have … well, wouldn’t have made him miss.”
“Missed like Villerror going after a routine ball,” another patient taunted.
“Bite your tongue,” the lady screamed, pulling out an Evan Gattis bobblehead and shaking it furiously at the man. “Sipp made the ball spin. That’s why Carlos missed it. That’s why!”
A bespectacled man in a “Moneyball” T-shirt with a slide rule hanging out of his pants pocket held up his hand before the other patient could speak. “The spin of the ball could have led to the error,” he said. “We can’t place all the blame on Correa.”
“See?” the woman implored. “See!”
But the man in the horn-rimmed glasses — obviously the leader of the group — raised his hand again. “But maybe Correa should have picked up the change in the spin.”
“Lies!” she screamed. “Lies!”
The man in the “Moneyball” shirt raised his hand again. “Stay calm, lady. We can’t get better unless we face some truths.” Then he turned to me. “Everyone, we have a new guest. And what do we say to new guests?”
And older gentleman jumped from his seat and yelled, “Great Lima’s Ghost! We were six stinking outs from the next round. Six stinking outs, and they start parading station to station on us.”
“Sit down, Opie,” Moneyball chides. “That’s not what we say.”
The old man takes his seat, but mumbles, “It’s not ‘Opie’ you math nerd.”
But a stern look quiets him. He looks around the rest of the crowd, and in unison they say, “It’s a process. Hashtag, In Luhnow We Trust.”
Opie whispered to another woman in the group. “What in the name of Bobby Heck is a hash tag?”
“What’s your name?” Moneyball asked me.
I told them all my name, and that I was a frequent contributor at Chipalatta. Nods around the circle told me I was among friends. “And I guess I just need to get a little closure, you know,” I said. “Make a little sense of what happened. I mean …”
“Six outs,” Opie said.
“Six outs,” the crowd murmured.
A fidgety fellow in a Roger Clemens shirt cleared his throat. “Just missed. And after we did so well all season.”
“Here we go,” the older lady said.
The Clemens fan continued, “Yep, we rose all the way from the ashes of the last few seasons only to be smashed back down,” he said. “In Luhnow we trust. What a crock. This team was built to strike out, and strike out they did. This team was built to live and die on the long ball, and when push came to shove, they didn’t have the pop.”
Moneyball said, “I’m pretty sure Jeff will make some changes for next year. Fix some of those holes.”
“And who will pull off these genius trades,” Clemens fan asked. “Mr. ‘I Like Pitch Framers?'”
“Look,” Moneyball said, “I’m not saying mistakes weren’t made, but sometimes our numbers do get things right. Collin McHugh’s curveball. Keuchel’s ground balls. Altuve’s aggressiveness.”
Another patient chimed in. “Ten years,” he said. “Ten years of floundering and falling flat on our faces.”
“But that ended this year,” I said. “We weren’t even supposed to be in the playoffs and we win in Yankee Stadium. We push the Royals to the brink. Maybe next year we take that next step.”
“And maybe,” a gentleman with a raggedy old rainbow jersey said, “this is the start of long run of near misses and seasons of regret. We may not be the Cubs …”
Half the group made signs to ward off the evil spirits, others hissed at the mere mention of that hexed team.
“We may not be the Cubs,” he said again, “but we’ve got more than fifty seasons of not winning it all. So it’s hard to have that faith in our future. It’s hard not to go a little crazy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “At least when the team was losing, we knew there was nowhere to go but up. But after this year, the team could go up. It could go down. We just don’t know.”
We all fell silent. That was the problem with winning a little but not all the way. You just never knew what was coming next.
“Well, I know,” said Opie. “Our minor leagues are stocked. Nothing but winners, and a champion each year since Luhnow took over. Eventually that talent, that winning attitude will rise to Houston.”
Suddenly everyone was speaking at once.
“Not if he trades it all away for magic pitch framing beans.”
“Or if he never promotes the kids that can help.”
“But he’s got a real skill for finding those gems like Sipp and Harris.”
“What we need is a flamethrower in the bullpen.”
“Lidge threw flames, and Pujols knocked them out of the park.”
Moneyball leaned over to me, “It’s going to be a long winter,” he said. “So I hope you’re planning to stay awhile.”
“Maybe a day isn’t long enough,” I said. “I mean, we’ve got to talk it out. Who do we keep? Who do we fast-track for next spring? Is Appel going to be ready? What will our rotation look like? If Rasmus bolts, do we just stick with Tucker and Marisnick beside CarGo and Springer? Or do we look for another one-year rental?”
“And do you really want to trust third and first to farmhands? I mean, those guys played well, but not everyone will be a Correa when they come up,” Moneyball said. “The odds are against it. But we just don’t know.”
I looked at Moneyball and asked, “Wait, aren’t you the facilitator here? You know, like our therapist?”
He gave a maniacal laugh. “Just because I’m running the asylum doesn’t mean I don’t live here too.”
“We’re all Astros fans,” Opie said. “We all need a little help.”