This article was written by Maxwell Kates
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Space Age (Houston, 2014)
Few individuals saw more Astros history than Alan Ashby. An Astro for 20 of their first 50 seasons, he spent eleven on the Astrodome carpet, coordinating one of the more challenging pitching staffs of his time. After one year as their bullpen coach Ashby moved to the broadcast booth for another eight, culminating with Houston’s first trip to the World Series.
Few individuals saw more Astros history than Alan Ashby. An Astro for 20 of their first 50 seasons, he spent eleven on the Astrodome carpet, coordinating one of the more challenging pitching staffs of his time. After one year as their bullpen coach Ashby moved to the broadcast booth for another eight, culminating with Houston’s first trip to the World Series. Ashby, a Mormon, channeled his strong work ethic into a 17-year playing career, becoming a fan favorite in Cleveland, Toronto, and Houston.
Alan Dean Ashby was born July 8, 1951, in Long Beach, California. When he was six years old, developments in Brooklyn would shape his professional career as the Dodgers announced they were moving to California. Ashby spent his childhood listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett call radio play-by-play. The Dodgers moved into Chavez Ravine before two World Championships and the emergence of a pitching superstar:
“I was just a skinny kid who idolized Sandy Koufax. When I grew up in Los Angeles, I saw two of Koufax’s no-hitters.”[fn]Interview with Alan Ashby, September 29, 2007. [/fn] Indeed, he was eyewitness to Koufax’s perfect game against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium on September 9, 1965.[fn]Brian McTaggart, “Game to Remember: Alan Ashby” on The Official Site of the Houston Astros (July 5, 2012): par 5 [journal online]; available from http://houston.astros.mlb.com; accessed December 26, 2012.[/fn]
The natural left-handed hitter graduated from San Pedro High School in 1969, two years behind Garry Maddox.[fn]Astros 1979 Photo Album (Houston: Home Savings Association, 1979), 14.[/fn] As he told Toronto Star columnist Neil MacCarl, a quirk in the Dodgers’ batting order influenced the way he played: “[The Dodgers] had an infield of four switch hitters—Wes Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Maury Wills, and Junior Gilliam. I thought that’s what you had to do, so I would throw a ball against the garage door and take 10 swings right and then 10 swings left.”[fn]Neil MacCarl, “In the Beginning…” in Toronto Blue Jays Official 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book, Eric Zweig, ed. (Toronto: Dan Diamond and Associates Inc., 2001), 11.[/fn]
The Cleveland Indians selected the 6’2″ catcher in the third round of the June 1969 draft.[fn]Astros 1979 Photo Album, 14.[/fn] During his minor league offseasons, he attended classes at Harbor Junior College. Batting .226 with three home runs and 13 RBIs for Evansville and Oklahoma City of the American Association in 1973, he was recalled on July 3 to replace the injured Dave Duncan.[fn]Russell Schneider, “Ashby Comes on Indians Like Cavalry Charge” (The Sporting News: August 4, 1973), 18.[/fn] Ashby admitted that he was unfazed until he arrived at Municipal Stadium and “saw Al Kaline sitting across the room.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Tabbed to start the following day, he touched Detroit pitcher Mike Strahler for an RBI single on his first pitch.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The Indians won 5–2 and Ashby earned the praise of manager Ken Aspromonte. “I was especially impressed with his receiving,” Aspromonte said. “Maybe the biggest thing is that he showed confidence in [Milt] Wilcox by making him throw certain pitches at certain times, which made Milt better.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
After splitting 1974 between Cleveland and Oklahoma City, Ashby returned to the Indians in 1975. He batted below .200 until switching to a shorter, lighter bat in July. Immediately he went 25-for-83 and ultimately became the regular. As Ashby told Russ Schneider of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I get special satisfaction proving the team can win with me behind the plate. I’ve felt that all along.”[fn]Russell Schneider, “Ashby Eases Tribe’s Catching Woes” (The Sporting News: September 27, 1975), 10. [/fn]
Among the toughest judges in baseball, manager Frank Robinson described Ashby as “one of the nicest surprises of this season. You can see so much improvement in his [ability] since he has been playing.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] For his team-oriented positive attitude, the Indians awarded Ashby the 1976 Gordon Cobbledick Golden Tomahawk Award.[fn]Russell Schneider, “Ashby Swings Indians’ Tomahawk” (The Sporting News: May 8, 1976), 8.[/fn]
Though batting .224 with five home runs and 32 RBIs in 1975, Ashby’s average improved to .239 in 1976 as he shared catching duties with Ray Fosse. The expansion Toronto Blue Jays arranged to trade for Ashby in a three-player deal for pitcher Al Fitzmorris on November 5, 1976.[fn]Louis Cauz, Baseball’s Back in Town: From the Don to the Blue Jays, A History of Baseball in Toronto (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977), 191.[/fn]
As the regular season broke, the Blue Jays boasted three areas of surplus: snow, losses, and catchers. The morning of the opener on April 7, Exhibition Stadium was blanketed with a blizzard. After beating the Chicago White Sox 9–5, they recorded only 53 more wins against 107 losses. Ashby’s former Cleveland teammate Rick Cerone was named starting catcher in 1977. With Phil Roof as Cerone’s backup and Ernie Whitt in the minors, where did Ashby fit?
“All spring…there were rumors that I was going to be traded to the Angels for Ron Jackson. The Blue Jays kind of went about that entire spring that I wasn’t going to be a part of the team.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn] Would Ashby commute to Anaheim Stadium from his Mission Viejo home? Trade talks never materialized; one week after catching Bill Singer in the opener, Cerone broke his thumb. Sidelined until August, his 1977 season was limited to 100 at-bats.[fn]Neil MacCarl, “Ashby Remains with Jays Despite Trade Talk” (The Sporting News: December 31, 1977), 55.[/fn]
Ashby emerged as the regular, becoming the first Blue Jay to play 100 games.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Though an injury to his right hand in June limited his offense to a disappointing .210 with 2 home runs and 29 RBIs, he developed a reputation among “the most accurate throwing catchers in the league.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He threw out 48 percent of would-be baserunners in 1977.[fn]Astros 1979 Photo Album, 14.[/fn] Platooning with Cerone in 1978, Ashby batted .261 with nine home runs.[fn]Neil MacCarl, “Jays Swap Ashby, Obtain Lemongello” (The Sporting News: December 9, 1978), 41.[/fn] After two years of conjecture, the Blue Jays decided to trade one of their catchers. On November 27, 1978, Ashby was dealt to the Houston Astros for pitcher Mark Lemongello, outfielder Joe Cannon, and infielder Pedro Hernandez.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
At the time, the Astros’ successes were modest. Attendance exceeded two million only in 1965 with fans more interested in the Astrodome than the product on the field. Star players Rusty Staub, Jerry Grote, John Mayberry, and especially Joe Morgan were traded before their prime. Others like Larry Dierker and Jimmy Wynn remained. However, in a division dominated by the Reds and the Dodgers, only in 1972 did the Astros finish higher than third. They were more famous for plastic grass, exploding scoreboards, and Ball Four. Their rainbow uniforms were a “pupil gouging horror” which “smacked of chain motel bedspread or 747 jumbo jet upholstery.”[fn]Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 112[/fn] To Red Smith, the Astros were “a turkey ever since the novelty wore off the Astrodome.”[fn]Bob Elliott, Canada’s World Champions: Blue Jays Trivia Quiz Book (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993), 137–9. [/fn] By the mid-1970s, the Astros had no owner to speak of; trustees assigned the club to Ford and General Electric, creditors of Roy Hofheinz when he filed for bankruptcy. In the midst of a 64–97 deluge in 1975 following the death of pitcher Don Wilson, the Astros lured general manager Tal Smith away from the Yankees.
“I had been with [Houston] from Day One and I had been involved…with the construction of the Astrodome,” remembers Smith, who left the Astros in 1973 to join his mentor Gabe Paul in New York. “The only place I would have left the Yankees was to return to Houston. Here was a unique opportunity to run a franchise completely.”[fn]Interview with Tal Smith, January 8, 2014.[/fn] Despite finishing last, the Astros featured a talented lineup with Enos Cabell, Ken Forsch, and J.R. Richard. Cesar Cedeño was winning Gold Gloves in center field while in left, Jose Cruz was emerging as “one of the top players in the league.”[fn]Correspondence with Bill Brown, January 5, 2014.[/fn] The Astros claimed pitcher Joe Niekro whose knuckleball made him a superstar. Promoting Joe Sambito from the minors in 1976 and Terry Puhl in 1977, the Astros augmented their roster with deals for Joaquin Andujar, Denny Walling, and Jeffrey Leonard. After two years of modest progress, the Astros regressed in 1978.
“Over that time frame,” recalled Tal Smith, “I traded Bob Watson, Cliff Johnson, Doug Rader, and Roger Metzger. We had to rebuild the club. We had two weaknesses, one at short and one behind the plate.”[fn]Smith Interview, January 8, 2014.[/fn] Houston hurlers in 1978 faced six different catchers for a 3.63 ERA, fifth worst in the league. For his catcher, Smith looked to Pat Gillick, his erstwhile farm director now working as the Blue Jays’ general manager. With Ashby and Houston native Craig Reynolds added to the starting lineup, the Astros in 1979 enjoyed one of their best starts in franchise history.
On April 7, one night after catching J.R. Richard’s Opening Day victory over Atlanta, Ashby called a no-hitter by Ken Forsch.[fn]Mike Ryan and Bill Shannon, eds, 1982 Official Astros Yearbook (New York: Harry M. Stevens Inc., 1982), 15.[/fn] By July 1, the Astros and their 50–31 record sat atop the National League West, a commanding 8.5 game lead over Cincinnati.[fn]www.retrosheet.org[/fn] Bill Brown was a broadcaster for the Reds at that time:
“The Reds had retooled after winning consecutive World Series crowns in 1975 and 1976. They traded Tony Perez after 1976, but they still retained some of the key components of the Big Red Machine era.” Brown described the emerging rivalry as “intense” with “solid fundamentals based on strong pitching and supportive defensive play.”[fn]Correspondence with Bill Brown, January 5, 2014.[/fn]
The Astros led the league in complete games and shutouts while their ERA of 3.20 was second only to the Montreal Expos.[fn]www.baseball-reference.com[/fn] Many pitchers credited their newfound success to their rapport with Alan Ashby. To quote Virdon, “After last season, we had to find a catcher if we were to make any headway, and Alan has done an outstanding job.”[fn]Harry Shattuck, “Reynolds and Ashby Fuel Orbiting Astros,” (The Sporting News: August 11, 1979), 30.[/fn] Ashby also won the endorsement of their broadcaster who spent 13 years harnessing Houston catchers from the mound:
“Alan Ashby brought stability to the catcher position during his years with the Astros,” recalled Larry Dierker. “Although he was not a great hitter, he was better than any other catcher the Astros ever had. He was also adept at calling the game, which gave the young pitchers a lot of confidence.”[fn]Dierker Interview, January 8, 2014.[/fn]
Ashby did not have the easiest catching assignment. Unfamiliar with the National League, every fourth day he faced the flaming 98 mile an hour fastball and suicide slider of 6’8″ James Rodney Richard:
“J.R. Richard might have been the most fear-provoking guy I ever caught. When he was on the mound, hitters were scared to death. [Righthanders] wanted no part of the action. He was wild enough that you had no idea where it was going to go and hard enough that even if he threw right over [the plate], you expected to have a tough time.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn] Richard in 1979 won 18 with a 2.71 ERA while fanning 313 hitters. Within the twentieth century, only Sandy Koufax had previously eclipsed 300 strikes in two consecutive National League seasons.[fn]Two nineteenth century pitchers managed the feat: Amos Rusie in 1890–92 and Hoss Radbourn 1883-84. Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Tom Sabellico. The Black Aces: Baseball’s Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners, (Farmingdale, NY: Black Aces LLC, 2006), 381.[/fn]
Then Ashby had to face Joe Niekro’s knuckleball every fourth day:
“To me, there was nothing quite like catching Joe Niekro. My broken fingers come from the knuckleball and it practically ruined my catching ability. For some reason, I lost the ability to handle him with one hand. I became very two-handed and it infiltrated the rest of my game defensively for years to follow and that knuckleball just destroyed me.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn] Niekro tied his brother Phil with 21 wins and earned the title of Astros’ MVP.[fn]Andrew Goodman, publisher, Houston Astros 1980 National League Championship Series Program (New York: Professional Sports Publications Inc., 1980), 64[/fn] Ashby, meanwhile, was virtually flawless defensively. As for his batting average—.202 in 1979—he deflected criticism with humor, “I’m convinced there is a lot more hitting ability inside me. Maybe it’s hiding.”[fn]Shattuck (August 11, 1979), 30.[/fn]
True to Tom Seaver’s midseason prediction, inexperience caused the Astros to “fall like a lead balloon” as the Reds surpassed them in September for the division title.[fn]Sean Mooney, prod, A Silver Odyssey: 25 Years of Houston Astros Baseball [VHS], (East Rutherford, NJ: Phoenix Communication Group Inc., 1986).[/fn] Despite missing most of September after breaking a finger catching Niekro, Ashby was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.[fn]Harry Shattuck, “Big Challenge for Ashby” (The Sporting News: February 23, 1980), 34; and Goodman, 43.[/fn]
Ashby credited the manager for overseeing the rapid development of the team: “Bill Virdon might have been my favorite manager…Frankly I enjoyed playing for those kinds of guys because I felt I was always going to try my best. There’s no place for [horseplay] in Major League Baseball and a manager shouldn’t tolerate it. Bill Virdon would take guys…if you weren’t going in his estimation 100 percent, he would take you out right then. You’re done. He’d take you out and bring in another guy. I found that very respect-worthy and I like a manager who demands everything at all times because I think everybody on your ballclub ought to be playing that way.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn]
Off the field, shipping tycoon John McMullen and others purchased the Astros from Roy Hofheinz’s creditors. After a near-miss in 1979, McMullen granted Tal Smith authority to build a champion in 1980. Smith signed J.R. Richard to a lucrative extension before enticing Joe Morgan to return to Houston as a free agent.
McMullen also signed the plum of the market, a 32-year-old Texan after a disappointing 16–14 campaign with the Angels. As described by biographer Kenny Hand, “McMullen didn’t know an RBI from a UFO when he bought the Astros in 1979, but he knew enough to know he wanted Nolan Ryan. At any price.”[fn]Kenny Hand, Bill Shaikin, et al, Nolan Ryan: The Authorized Pictorial History (Ft. Worth: The Summit Group, 1991), 87.[/fn] The price commanded was the wealthiest baseball contract to that time. At $4.5 million over four years, it was slightly below half the Astros’ gross revenues in 1979.[fn]Hand (Nolan Ryan), 87.[/fn] Ashby was familiar with Ryan’s fastball; he quoted Cleveland teammate Oscar Gamble that “a good night is 0-for-4 and don’t get hit in the head.”[fn]Shaikin, 64.[/fn] When he considered additional bruises from catching Richard, Niekro, and now Ryan, Ashby quipped that “maybe I should’ve brought that up before I signed my contract.”[fn]Shattuck, (February 23, 1980), 34.[/fn] True to his work ethic, Ashby was already catching Ryan in Astrodome practices before spring training began.
Ashby coordinated starting pitchers to a 67–53 record as he batted .256 with 19 doubles.[fn]www.retrosheet.org[/fn] In the bullpen, Sambito and rookie Dave Smith combined for 27 saves. Even in football-mad Houston, “Luv Ya, Orange” had supplanted the “blue” slogan of the NFL Oilers.[fn]Harry Shattuck, “Astros Proud of an ‘Almost’ Year” (The Sporting News: October 25, 1980), 27.[/fn] A season-ending sweep by the Dodgers forced a one-game playoff, which the Astros won, 7–1. After leading the league with 93 wins, 929 strikeouts, and an ERA of 3.10, the Astros were finally playoff bound. Meanwhile, the Astros shattered their attendance record set in 1965. As Larry Dierker remembered, “Season ticket sales skyrocketed [and] daily walk-up attendance also flourished because the team was once again in the race and this time they won it.”[fn]Dierker Interview, January 8, 2014.[/fn]
“We believed all year that we could win it all this year,” recalled Ashby. “The first words out of Bill Virdon’s mouth were ‘We’ve got the best team in the National League. Now let’s go get it.’”[fn]Shattuck, (October 25, 1980), 27.[/fn] The Astros faced the Philadelphia Phillies in one of the most evenly matched National League Championship Series ever played. Four games required extra innings and after three, the Astros led two games to one. Despite leading after seven innings in both the fourth and fifth games, the Astros lost both matches and the series to the Phillies. Del Unser’s statement that “we shined…because the Astros pushed us harder than anyone” was hardly comforting to the Astros and their fans.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
In some respects, the Astros were defeated by their own disabled list. After posting a 10–4 record with a 1.90 ERA and starting the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, J.R. Richard was crippled by a stroke in July, never to pitch in the majors again. Meanwhile, Cesar Cedeño suffered a gruesome ankle injury rounding first base in game three, ending his season and shortening his career. To Ashby, Cedeño’s reputation as baseball’s heir apparent to Willie Mays had been justified. “Cesar Cedeño was initially the most talented player I had been around…You talk about five tool guys—and five tool can get really overtalked—but he had all the tools. He had them all and he was truly amazing.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007. [/fn]
Ashby, meanwhile, missed several postseason games while nursing a broken rib. He remarked that although “both teams deserved to play in the World Series…only one can make it and that’s the Phillies.”[fn]Shattuck (October 25, 1980), 27.[/fn] Ashby added that “our team’s character is like the character of our fans. We showed America something about Houston…that’s sincerely how I feel tonight.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] To paraphrase a Larry Dierker lyric, it made a fellow proud to be an Astro.[fn]Jim Bouton, Ball Four: The Final Pitch (North Egremont, MA: Bulldog Press, 2000), 338.[/fn]
The Astros revamped their roster for 1981, replacing Richard and Forsch in the starting rotation with Don Sutton and Bob Knepper, and eventually substituting Phil Garner for Joe Morgan at second base. The season, punctuated by a midseason strike, provided an opportunity for eight teams to reach the playoffs in a split-season format. With the Dodgers already clinching a playoff spot, the chase for the second-half title provided the highlight of Ashby’s season when Nolan Ryan faced Los Angeles at home. Having called 135 of Ryan’s starts and witnessing 874 strikeouts, both records for Big Tex catchers, Ashby felt history was possible with each passing start by the Express.[fn]McTaggart par 11.[/fn] “He had great stuff every time he went out there. What I remember a lot about catching Nolan is coming back to the bench after the innings and my teammates would always ask ‘Is he going to throw one today?’”[fn]McTaggart par 12.[/fn]
On September 26, Ryan threw one, fanning 11 Dodgers as the contest was broadcast on NBC’s Game of the Week. “I caught [Ryan’s] fifth no-hitter, the record breaker,” said Ashby. “At the time, it was phenomenal to me…to have caught Nolan Ryan’s record breaking fifth no-hitter over [Sandy Koufax], my hero, was too much to believe.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn] Ashby contributed to the cause by driving in two of the Astros’ five runs.[fn]McTaggart par 7.[/fn] He recalls Dusty Baker ending the game by rolling a hanging curveball for a ground ball to Art Howe at 3rd base: “…I thought he was going to crush it.”[fn]McTaggart par 10.[/fn]
The score was deadlocked at one in the ninth inning of the Division Series opener. As Craig Reynolds walked to the plate, Ashby remembers saying, “Get on base and I’ll drive you home.”[fn]Bill Brown and Mike Acosta, Houston Astros Deep in the Heart: Blazing a Trail from Expansion to the World Series (Houston: Bright Sky Press, 2013), 94.[/fn] His prediction was nothing short of accurate. With two out and a runner on, Ashby provided the fireworks with a walkoff home run against Dave Stewart.[fn]Ryan, 63.[/fn] “I’m not a home run hitter, but from about the time I swung and saw it in the air, I knew it was going to creep out. I was jumping for joy in the batter’s box before the crowd even realized what had happened.”[fn]“Game 1 Notes: 1981 National League Divisional Series,” Dallas Morning News (October 7, 1981):par 2 [journal online]; available from www.astrosdaily.com; accessed December 28, 2012.[/fn]
Awestruck by the blast, Dave Smith observed that “if this…was not a Dome, it would have wound up in Galveston.”[fn]Kenny Hand, “Playoffs Past” in Houston Astros 1986 National League Championship Series Official Souvenir Scorebook, Rob Matwick, exec. ed, (Houston: Houston Sports Association Inc., 1986), 27.[/fn] The Astros won the second game, but the Dodgers swept the next three in a best-of-five series on their way to a World Series championship.
Ashby adjusted to hitting in the National League. He improved to .256 with three home runs in 1980 and .271 with four home runs in 1981. Then in 1982, as he hit .257 with 12 home runs and 49 RBIs, Ashby accomplished an unprecedented feat. He became the first Astro to homer from both sides of the plate in one game, touching John Montefusco and Chris Welsh in a 7–3 victory over the Padres on September 27.[fn]www.retrosheet.org
[/fn] As Expos manager Jim Fanning once remarked, however, players often exceeded their statistical mean in their free agent season.[fn]Interview with Jim Fanning, April 14, 2002.[/fn]
Emerging as a National League dynasty was no longer within the Astros’ budget. As recently as 1979, the Astros had the lowest payroll in the senior circuit.[fn]Trey Wilkinson, “Back Where He Belongs” in Celebrating Thirty Years of Astrodome History: Houston Astros Official 1995 Scorebook Magazine, Rob Matwick, Tyler Barnes, and Trey Wilkinson, eds., (Houston: Houston Astros Baseball Club, 1995), 23.[/fn] Three years later, it was the second highest.[fn]Harry Shattuck, “Astros’ Ashby Pitch is $1 Million Short”(The Sporting News: November 1, 1982), 47.[/fn] To show for it were two failed World Series attempts followed by a disappointing fifth-place finish (77–85). Neither Tal Smith nor Bill Virdon remained in the organization by 1982; under general manager Al Rosen, the Astros became more conservative in contract negotiations. The first free agent to test their newfound austerity was Alan Ashby.
“We want to sign him,” remarked John McMullen. “He’s a fine person and player [and] we’ll make every effort to keep him in the organization.”[fn]Shattuck (November 1, 1982), 47.[/fn] Where Ashby and McMullen disagreed, however, were the length and terms of the proposed contract. Catchers throughout baseball paid careful attention to the eight-year, $16 million contract Gary Carter signed with the Expos in 1982. While Ashby was not asking for parity with Carter, his request for a five-year $3.5 million contract was double the Astros’ budgeted amount. Furthermore, McMullen was averse to approving any deals exceeding three years. When trade negotiations with the Pirates for Tony Pena failed, the Astros compromised on job security, signing Ashby to a four-year, $1.7 million contract.[fn]www.retrosheet.org[/fn]
Ashby was catching in Queens on May 2, 1983, when Mets infielder Hubie Brooks became Nolan Ryan’s 3,510th strikeout victim, breaking Walter Johnson’s lifetime record. Two years later, on October 5, 1985, he was the catalyst in a 9–3 victory over San Diego as he victimized Ed Wojna with his first National League grand slam.[fn]Chris Ello, “Ashby Pulls Astros to Within One Game of Padres,” Los Angeles Times (October 6, 1985): par 1; [journal online]; available from articles.latimes.com; accessed January 1, 2013.[/fn]
“You’re always striving for something,” surmised Ashby.[fn]Ello par 12.[/fn] Years of catching a difficult staff took a toll on Ashby’s fielding. Having sustained multiple finger fractures catching Niekro‘s “butterfly on steroids,” Ashby began to rely increasingly on young Mark Bailey to assist behind the plate.
In 1986, the Astros hired Hal Lanier as their new manager. A disciple of Whitey Herzog, Lanier led the Astros to 13 wins in their first 19 games and didn’t relinquish the divisional lead after July 19. They were led by young players Glenn Davis, Billy Hatcher, and Kevin Bass, but the Astros’ key to their division was Mike Scott and his split finger fastball:
“For a small window,” Ashby told David Laurila, “Mike was really, really good…he was low-to-mid 90s and he learned how to create some movement.”[fn]David Laurila, “Q&A: Alan Ashby, Catching the Best of an Era” on Fangraphs (December 3, 2012); par 34; [journal online]; available from www.fangraphs.com; accessed December 26, 2012.[/fn] Ashby caught Scott’s September 25 no-hitter against the Giants for the third of his career. Better yet, it clinched the division for the Astros:
“I had bigger days offensively…but the no-hitters from Nolan and Scott were big.”[fn]McTaggart par 8.[/fn] Late in the game, a conference on the mound demonstrated Ashby’s ability to coach and motivate pitchers in pressure situations. Approaching Scott, he assured him that “we’re gonna win this and we’re gonna win the pennant. But let’s not get crazy and throw a 2–0 fastball right down the middle.”[fn]Brown, 106–7.[/fn]
Larry Dierker remembers 1986 as the best Astros team Ashby played on: “The 1980 and ‘81 teams were based on pitching speed and defense (sic), the perfect combination for the Astrodome. The ’86 team was even better because [of] balance between hitting and pitching and…between left- and right-handed hitters and pitchers.”[fn]Dierker Interview, January 8, 2014.[/fn]
Ashby was integral to Scott’s two playoff victories over the New York Mets. Scott fanned 14 Mets in the first game while Ashby’s two-run homer won Game Four at Shea Stadium.[fn]Mooney, A Silver Odyssey: 25 Years of Houston Astros Baseball.[/fn] Ashby caught all 16 innings of the infamous Game Six, a 7–6 Mets victory which ended the Astros’ season.
“We played our hearts out,” Ashby told the Associated Press. “We played the best we could and got the support we needed [but] the Mets still beat us. They beat us in their last at-bat and that’s something we’ve been doing all season.”[fn]“NL Championship Series: New York vs. Houston-Astros Disappointed at Outcome but Have Some Sweet Memories,” Los Angeles Times (October 16, 1986): par 14; available from articles.latimes.com; accessed January 1, 2013.[/fn] Two decades later, Ashby took pride that “if you look at the teams that beat us—the Phillies, the Dodgers, the Mets—all of them went on to win the World Series. We got beaten by the best every time.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn]
After signing a two-year contract extension, Ashby reached his offensive zenith in 1987. He hit .317 with 19 RBIs through May 26.[fn]Neal Hohlfeld, “Ashby is a Regular Guy” (The Sporting News: June 8, 1987), 22.[/fn] At 36, he set career marks, hitting .288 with 14 home runs and 63 RBIs in 125 games. Meanwhile, he led National League catchers with a .993 fielding percentage.[fn]Lee Pfeifer, ed, A Season to Remember: Astros 99 Yearbook (Santa Monica, CA: CWC Sports, 1999), 64.[/fn] His acumen at the plate earned the admiration of new Astros broadcaster Bill Brown: “Ashby, frequently batting seventh, provided an all-important bottom-of-the-order complement to [Glenn] Davis and was able to drive in key runners from the middle of the lineup who were on base when he batted.”[fn]Hohlfeld (June 8, 1987), 22.[/fn]
Meanwhile Ashby attributed his offensive zenith to “playing every day,” adding that “I enjoy getting another chance to show I can still play.”[fn]Neal Hohlfeld, “September Opening Day” (The Sporting News: September 12, 1988), 16.[/fn] Ashby played exceptionally again in early 1988 but was sidelined for two months with a dislocated vertebra on June 25.[fn]Correspondence with Bill Brown, January 5, 2014.[/fn] The Astros recalled catching prospect Craig Biggio from Tuscon while Ashby’s extended contract was about to expire.
Said Ashby, “I thought a lot about my future when I was injured and I don’t want anyone to get the idea that my career is finished.”[fn]Hohlfeld (September 12, 1988), 16.[/fn] The Pirates proposed a trade for outfielder Glenn Wilson in May 1989. As the father of six young children and a 10-and-5 man, Ashby rejected the deal.[fn]“Astros’ Ashby Turns Down Deal to Pittsburgh,” Los Angeles Times (May 8, 1989): par 3; [journal online]; available from articles.latimes.com; accessed January 1, 2013. [/fn] Preparing to board a flight to Chicago on May 10, Ashby learned that he was placed on irrevocable waivers.[fn]Neal Hohlfeld, “Waivers Surprise Ashby” (The Sporting News: May 22, 1989), 14.[/fn] He was batting only .164 with no home runs and three RBIs.
“It was very devastating to me,” he told Neal Hohlfeld at the time. “Frankly, I don’t know if I want to play for another team.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Ashby realized that rejecting the Pittsburgh trade had been a bad career move but stated that “family is my primary concern.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He retired with 183 doubles, 13 triples, 90 home runs and 513 RBIs in 1,370 games over 17 seasons, hitting .245.
As Astros’ rebuilding phase continued early into the 1990s, Ashby began his second career with a television studio in Houston.[fn]Milo Hamilton, Dan Schlossberg, and Bob Ibach. Making Airwaves: 60 Years at Milo’s Microphone (Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing LLC, 2006), 119.[/fn] He returned to professional baseball in 1994 to manage the Rio Grande Valley Whitewings of the independent Texas-Louisiana League. Based in nearby Harlingen, the Whitewings finished in third place (40–48) in the West Division in 1994 and third place (53–46) in 1995.[fn]Lloyd Johnson, Lloyd and Miles Wolff. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed (Durham, NC: Baseball America Inc., 1997) 624, 633.[/fn] He managed again in 1996, piloting the Astros’ Florida State League affiliate at Kissimmee to a fifth place (60–75) finish in the East Division.[fn]Johnson, 633.[/fn]
The Astros had completed their rebuilding process under new owner Drayton McLane. After Tal Smith returned to the front office, “Houston’s Brand of Baseball” reached into its history to harness its present. With Vern Ruhle, Jose Cruz, and Bill Virdon hired as coaches in 1997, manager Larry Dierker named Ashby as his bullpen coach. One year later, he joined Milo Hamilton in the broadcast booth.
Hamilton wrote in his autobiography that he “…tried to get Ashby in the booth even before that,” adding that he “thought he had all the tools it took to be a great broadcaster.”[fn]Hamilton, 120.[/fn] The Astros’ modest 84 wins were sufficient to capture the Central Division title in 1997. Winning 102 games in 1998, they were poised to challenge the Atlanta Braves as the flagship team in the National League.
Ashby considered the 1998 club to be “the best…in Astros history. It featured the original Killer B’s—Bagwell, Biggio, and Derek Bell—plus Moises Alou and a pitching staff anchored by Randy Johnson, Jose Lima, and Billy Wagner.”[fn]Hamilton, 126.[/fn] Johnson and his 10–1 record were especially dominant after he was acquired from Seattle on July 31 to bolster a rotation anchored by Shane Reynolds and Mike Hampton. Ashby achieved personal milestones in 1999 as he was named the Astros’ All-Time Catcher in 1999 and elected to the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. Having abandoned the Astro-dome for Minute Maid Park, the Astros in 2001 clinched their fourth title in five years. However, after failing to advance past the Divisional Series, Dierker was relieved of his managerial duties.
“The reason we got eliminated in the first round every time is that we got out-pitched,” said Dierker of his postseason opponents, adding that “Maddux and Glavine didn’t get in the Hall of Fame by accident.”[fn]Dierker Interview, January 8, 2014.[/fn]
Houston returned to the playoffs in 2004 under Phil Garner. Keeping their late 1990s lineup virtually intact, the Astros, in Ashby’s estimation, credited the midseason acquisition of Carlos Beltrán from Kansas City as the difference in the playoffs: “With the Astros in the postseason I have never seen a talent just take over and dominate the game. He can fly, he can do everything defensively, he can hit home runs, he can hit for average, although he hasn’t hit for average as much in his career as he should have, but the guy is a phenomenal talent.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn] The Astros finally defeated the Braves in the Division Series but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
The 2005 Astros overcame Beltrán’s free agent departure and an abysmal 15–30 start to win the Wild Card with a record of 89–73. After beating the Braves and Cardinals in the postseason, the Astros were going to their first World Series.
The “October Classic” proved anticlimactic. “I called four World Series losers with the Astros to the White Sox. Those ended up being the last games I called for the Astros.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Praised throughout baseball for his nonpartisan constructive criticism, Ashby’s on-air candor was more than owner McLane could tolerate; his contract was not renewed for 2006.[fn]Bruce Dowbiggin, “Alan Ashby Delivers on Radio and TV,” Globe and Mail (May 18, 2011): par 4; [journal online]. available from www.theglobeandmail.com; accessed December 12, 2012.[/fn] Ashby later remarked that “apparently, I took the blame for the Astros losing the World Series.”[fn]Ashby Interview, September 29, 2007.[/fn]
Ashby returned to the broadcast booth in 2007 with the Blue Jays. Sportswriter Bruce Dowbiggin praised his style for “[getting] his points across without turning it into a battle of personalities.”[fn]Dowbiggin par 3.[/fn] Ashby could also “[work] his way through the minutiae of play-by-play and commercial breaks” and was equally effective on television as on radio.[fn]Dowbiggin par 4.[/fn]
Alan Ashby and his wife Kathryn live in Cypress, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Although he never played in a World Series or an All-Star Game, Ashby participated in many key events in the Astros’ first half-century. He coordinated a challenging pitching staff featuring J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Mike Scott. As a broadcaster, he earned his reputation as an analytic baseball mind. The 2005 World Series games were, in fact, not the last four Ashby called for the Astros. Early in 2013, he resigned from the Blue Jays to return to Houston, working for new owner Jim Crane.
Lifelong Astros fan Mark Wernick lauded the broadcasting move: “I’m delighted to learn he is returning to work again for the new ownership of the Astros. This constitutes the new ownership’s first significant move that people here will likely support.”[fn]Correspondence with Mark Wernick, January 7, 2013.[/fn] After the 2013 season, broadcast partner Bill Brown assessed Ashby’s style of commentary as “insightful…from the perspective of a former catcher who is involved in the selection of pitches and all other aspects, adding analysis on defensive positioning, offensive strategy and all other elements of the game.”[fn]Correspondence with Bill Brown, January 5, 2014.[/fn]
With the team’s transfer to the American League, history will determine which key moments Ashby shall witness in the second half century of the Houston Astros.
MAXWELL KATES is a chartered accountant in Toronto. While Director of Marketing for SABR’s Hanlan’s Point Chapter, he helped organize several events to promote baseball research. One of these, a 2007 group interview of then-Blue Jays broadcaster Alan Ashby, served as the basis for this article.
Alan Ashby, Kathryn Ashby, Jim Bouton, Matt Brejak, Bruce Brenner, Kevin Briand, Bill Brown, Wanda Chirnside, Francine Cole, Rick Cole, Lloyd Davis, Larry Dierker, Bob Dorrill, Harry Einbinder, Dan Epstein, Jim Fanning, Bill Gibson, Gwyneth Gibson, Bob Hulsey, Nanda Lwin, Jason Magder, Clay Marston, Jeffrey Miller, Ted Nelkin, Michael Pascoe, Darlene Petrescue, Ephraim Petrescue, Phil Petrescue, William Petrescue, John Robertson, Brendan Rodgers, Marianne Rodgers, Susan Ross, David Sahker, Harvey Sahker, Joe Sambito, Dan Schlossberg, Hartley Sigal, Tal Smith, Mike Suddick, Allen Tait, Chris Tait, Andy Topolie, Fred Toulch, Julius Toulch (1918-2009), Richard Voldimer, Jim Vykol, Perry Waisglass, Norm Watt, Mark Wernick, Don Wouters, David York, Eric Zweig.