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Friday, July 23, 2004

INsite: The Pregame Tailgate (August 2004) 

(note: The August INsite hits stands July 30)

The Pregame Tailgate
by Andrew Fox

If John Steinbeck were alive today and a Houston Astros fan, then he would most certainly label 2004 as the “summer of his discontent.” As it is, Steinbeck is dead, kind of like the hype in H-Town.

Most critics agree that he was overrated anyway. Again, kind of like the hype in H-Town.

The most uplifting offseason in team history has turned into a Shakespearean tragedy for the Astros. The team that many thought would win 100 games has piled up loss after loss, blatantly embracing its home city’s penchant for disappointment.

As of press time, the ‘Stros sit 14 games behind division-leading St. Louis and six games out of the Wild card spot. If I felt like resorting to cliches, this is the point where I’d drop in a Rick Renner-esque “Houston, we have a problem.”

Dr. Marvin Olasky, conservative pundit and UT journalism professor extraordinaire, used to stress in his “Critical Thinking for Journalists” class that good writers avoid cliches. He also used to stress in his “Sports Feature Writing” class that sports break your heart. In my time as a quasi-writer and as a sports fan, I’ve learned that he is right on both accounts.

I’m not going to launch into a spiel about how long I’ve cheered for the Astros. Anyone that’s read this column more than once has a good idea of that already. But suffice to say that I don’t remember a season as frustrating as Houston’s in 2004.

Something happened to me tonight, though, while blogging (more on blogging next month) about a rare Astros win streak. Houston swept a two-game series from Arizona, and I decided to use that as a preface for previewing the next few weeks of the schedule.

Something dawned on me. The Astros, as poorly as they’ve played since May, still have a chance. Granted it’s a small chance – the equivalent of Mack Brown exiting the Cotton Bowl each October without having to apologize to Texas fans – but a chance nonetheless.

For the rest of July and most of August, Houston embarks on a tour of the NL’s most notable doormats. With a little luck, Houston could climb their way back to respectability. Keep in mind that’s respectability relative to the .500 All Star break Astros, not the preseason NL favorites Astros. If they don’t, well then we still have Texas football to extend our discontent into the fall.

I suppose that’s another team that has made a habit of killing hype. Yet training camp opens in just a few weeks, and for the first time in months, I find myself starting to feel a football buzz.

The rumblings from around the Forty Acres suggest that we can expect good things from the Horns this season. Sure, we hear that every year from the Mack Brown spin machine, we can all hope that the good news pans out, right? Now I’m not sure if the overload of burnt orange optimism means that Vince Young has learned to throw a spiral, but who really needs to throw when he can tuck the ball and gallop 40 yards?

I’ll miss seeing Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas streak across Joe Jamail Field this year, but at the same time I’m excited to see what the young crop of WR’s can do. Tony Jeffrey’s veteran presence should help rookies like Eric Enard, Limas Sweed and Jordan Shipley adapt to big-time college football.

The potent ground assault of Young and tailback Cedric Benson also means that the receivers won’t face the pressure of carrying an offense. Benson, I hear, has worked like a beast during the summer. If he hits the ground running (pun intended) in September the way he did during the last half of 2003, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see him top 1,500 yards.

Then there’s the defense. Sure, Bob Stoops’ Sooner offense smoked Texas last October like a turkey leg on the State Fair’s midway, but new defensive coaches Greg Robinson and Dick Toomey should add a degree of nastiness that the team has lacked in recent years.

As I write this, my mind has already begun to drift to that first weekend. Sure, North Texas will be the first of many home snoozers, but few things on God’s burnt orange Earth rival the greatness of the pregame tailgate (again, pun intended). Barbecue pits loaded with meat, overflowing kegs and girls in short shorts, wearing those spaghetti-strap Texas tops and cowboy hats – when you have all of that, who needs football?


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