It’s mid-March in Florida, the temperature is perfect, and the sky is cloudless. Every few seconds that beautiful sky is obstructed by a baseball—a baseball flying from a Houston Astros’ player’s bat toward the fence. Houston is set to play the Red Sox later that day. Opening day is in less than a week, and spring training is coming to a close.
Just four and half months earlier, the Astros had shocked the baseball world by beating the Dodgers for their first World Series victory since the team’s inception in 1962. Houston had never really been a powerhouse and had even finished dead last in the majors in 2011, ’12, and ’13.
What caused such a big turnaround? Some good veterans, some strategic drafting and trading, some great coaching choices, and a little bit of luck.
But back to the present. The Astros are finishing up spring training and reflecting on last year’s victory as well as on the path forward. In the previous months, Astros staff members had been working on making sure that Houston would have a shot at going back-to-back. They had been focusing on ticket sales and facility prep. But mostly their attention had been on the people who can bring another World Series to the city: the players.
So, the key question: How did the Astros players prepare this spring? They kept it loose.
The Astros’ clubhouse is famously entertaining; players are doing all different things. According to Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick, those things span from “dancing to playing music to playing video games.” He revealed that outfielder George Springer is the one doing the dancing. Springer is also the team DJ. When asked which video games the Astros play, he mentioned NHL 18.
Marisnick described the chemistry as “the best I’ve ever seen in the clubhouse.”
Manager A.J. Hinch had similar musings: “The chemistry is the best I’ve ever seen. The players, the coaches, and the executives. The players genuinely like each other. They want to be at the ballpark together and they work together, which makes for a remarkable team.”
The Astros are the team to beat in 2018 and have only improved since last year with the addition of Gerrit Cole to the pitching staff. All of this could put pressure on them. But according to Marisnick, the Astros have ways of coping with that pressure: “We just have fun with it. A lot of teams come out after winning the World Series and get distracted by a lot of different things. We’re just trying to have fun and and stay on track.”
Hinch says that looking forward rather than back will be key to the Astros’ success. “We’re keeping our focus on 2018, not 2017. We went to the White House, we’re getting sized for rings, and going to have a big ceremony to present them. But when we show up to the ballpark every day, we’re talking about this season and how we need to improve and not celebrating all of last season.”
The Houston area was devastated when Hurricane Harvey hit last August. According to Hinch, the team’s playoff run became an escape for fans. Marisnick said the tragedy brought the team and the city closer. “The rebuilding process was eye-opening for all of us,” he said. “A lot of people had lost their homes and were looking at us for inspiration, and we were looking back at them for inspiration.”
All eyes are on the Astros to see if they can continue their recent success. They’ll have even more challengers for the AL pennant this year, with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox adding star power in the offseason. Will Houston come out on top? The path to the postseason starts today.
Photographs by (from top): Christian Petersen/Getty Images; Aidan Kohn-Murphy (2)