ANAHEIM, Calif. – It was sometime in March, before the slog. Carlos Pena sat in a small locker room in Lakeland, Fla., the season coming, expectations lower than a tugged slider. The Houston Astros had been stripped down for market, then stripped further after they were sold, leaving them with little to defend themselves with in the American League. It didn't look good.
Pena turned up his expressive brown eyes and said, "I create my own reality."
It's June and the Astros have won 18 games, four of those in the past week. Nobody pitches worse, a frailty that can suck the soul from a ballclub. The Texas Rangers are long, long gone in the AL West. Back at home, fans almost certainly would like to believe in the plans of the new owner, new general manager and new field manager, and yet facts are facts. It's been more than three weeks since the Astros drew as many as 20,000 to Minute Maid Park. If the plan – to make the Astros consistently competitive and somewhat self-sustaining – is going to work, it may not include many of the young men currently wearing the uniform.
So, I wondered how Carlos Pena's reality was doing.
"You gotta be a little bit crazy," he offered. "You have to ignore what most humans pay attention to. So it's not normal."
Two months in, the Astros gamely ignore the hopelessness.
So do their T-shirts, which state, "I'm all in," or "Process," or "27 outs," or something about "The vision" and "The grind."
So does the gambling wheel, which travels with them, and whose flapper might clack to a stop at "Focus," or "Attitude," or "Astros win." There are two triangles displaying World Series trophies. Just Friday afternoon, bullpen coach Dennis Martinez gave the wheel a flick, watched eagerly, and when it stopped circling he read aloud, "Have fun! Hey, everybody, have fun!" Five hours later, Martinez's curiosity got the best of him, and he gave the wheel another turn. "Commitment!" he shouted.
The Astros lead the league in inspirational T-shirts and old-school gaming devices. The rest has been a little choppy. They are, however, riding their second three-game winning streak of the season. They've won eight of 15. And they happen to be the only thing standing between the Los Angeles Angels and a winning record, having beaten the Angels four times in seven games.
The focus lately has been on next week's draft, which the Astros will lead off again. At the top of the list: Oklahoma pitcher Jonathan Gray, Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant, North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran.
Still, the season trundles along. The plan ages. Meantime, somebody – a bunch of somebodies, actually – is required to go out and play the schedule. They're happy to do it. The fringe benefits are good, the pay is better. A few will survive it. But, on a given night, the future of the Astros is so far from the current Astros that one of those minor-league buses might not get you there in two days. Club management has weighed its long-term responsibility to the organization against its short-term responsibility to the league, and the choice was as simple as it was obvious. The Astros may be good one day, but for now they've been outscored by 92 runs – the worst differential in baseball.
But, then, anybody could point out the deficiencies.
"You sit there and look at our record, it's easy to get discouraged," Pena said. "So you try not to look at the board. Look at the standings, we're not doing well. But then, the actual question is, how does that reality service us? If it doesn't, you have to dismiss it."
They're on their own, too. The system makes it more difficult to rebuild, because of spending limitations in the draft and on the international market. Owner Jim Crane has not yet shown an affinity for free agents. Progress could be slow.
That leaves the reality of four months of baseball and many nights – if not all of them – in which they'll be in over their heads. It's a brutal reality in a clubhouse that, by all appearances, chooses to focus elsewhere. They pick a good T-shirt. They give the wheel a spin. They show up, they play, they show up tomorrow. It's been better lately, but it's fragile, because talent is thin and depth is thinner.
"If it affects you," said rookie manager Bo Porter, "then you need to look in the mirror and figure out what you're made of as a man."
He smiled. He's perfect for them, for this time, for this very reality. It's the only reality they have.
"I love baseball," he said. "I love these guys. I love the organization. A lot of times we get caught up in the wins and losses, the expectations, we forget this is a game we've played since we were 5 years old."
Maybe that's a cop out. But it's not his fault. Nobody in the clubhouse chose this course. They accepted the uniforms and all that came with them. Some will become quality big leaguers. Others already are. The rest will be casualties of the process, the journey from today's reality to tomorrow's.
Pena just happens to be in the middle of it, making the best of it, doing his part.
"Any great athlete, anyone who's been great in life, they step out of the perceived reality," he said. "That's when you achieve great things. This, it's the harsh reality of the game. We know that. We ignore the opinions. Maybe one day we'll get the last laugh."
Then he nodded his head and went back to the slog.
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