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As losses pile up, Astros try to stay positive, build for the future

Photo: /AP

It's been a difficult season for Carlos Pena (center) and the Astros, but the team is trying to stay positive amidst all the losing.

Carlos Pena is not a loser. He has hit 280 home runs in the major leagues, put up a career OPS-plus of 120 and finished in the top 10 of the American League Most Valuable Player voting twice. If he were your brother or your neighbor or a guy you knew in middle school, you would be in awe of his professional life. But here he is, at age 35, looking like he might finish his career the way he started it. As a loser.

In 2003, Pena played first base for the Detroit Tigers. They finished 43-119, the worst record since the 1962 Mets.

Now Pena plays for the Houston Astros, who were supposed to be bad and turned out to be worse. The Astros have some of the finest baseball players in the world -- they are, after all, Major Leaguers -- but in the context of the rest of the finest baseball players in the world, they suck. They are 11-30 as of this writing. They are on pace to finish 42-120.

The Astros are probably not bad enough to threaten the 2003 Tigers or 1962 Mets, who famously lost 120. Being that bad is almost an art. The 2003 Tigers had as many six-game losing streaks as two-game winning streaks. Ponder that one for a moment.

Pena remembers. At the end of that 2003 season, he stood in the clubhouse and said he wished somebody, anybody, would say something nice about his team. It was desperate and sad, but it also says something endearing about Pena.

Maybe the best line in the best baseball movie, Bull Durham," is when Annie Savoy says of Nuke Laloosh: "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness." Pena is cursed with self-awareness. His talent was always obvious, but his brain was his enemy. It led him into some mind-boggling slumps. He overthought everything. The losing drained him; no matter how much money you make, or how famous you are, trying and failing every day starts to define you. He says he has learned.

"I don't complicate things too much," he says now. "We're trying to win today. That's all that matters. The past does not define you. Don't look too far into the future. Just win today's ballgame."

Shortly after he told me that, the Astros went out and lost that day's ballgame.

Like most really awful baseball teams, the Astros are a bad combination of comedy and errors. A couple weeks ago against the Angels, rookie manager Bo Porter sent a relief pitcher in, then pulled him before he made a pitch, which is illegal. (The umpires' crew chief that day, Fieldin Culbreth, allowed it, and was subsequently suspended two games .) In this series against the Tigers, they have had a hell of a time saying these three words: "I got it!" I don't know what the problem is -- maybe it sounds like "Why get it?" -- but every popup must make the trainer nervous. The team president has resigned, and now there is a controversy over the team canceling the annual Astros wives' gala for charity.

Goofy stuff happens with winning teams, too. But in sports, all news passes through the filter of winning and losing. People won't remember Porter apologizing for putting the umps in a bad spot, or that when second baseman Jose Altuve's grandmother died, Porter insisted that Altuve take some time off.

"I was so adamant to him to go home," Porter said. "He said 'No, I think I'm just gonna stay here.' And I told him, I said, 'No. You're going home. Because even if you were to stay here, you mind, your heart, your soul will be back there with your family.'"

Porter just has to survive the year without losing his clubhouse. He has to show his players he cares, and that he knows how to manage a game. The losses will come no matter what Porter does.

In the Astros' second game of the season, Yu Darvish was one out away from throwing a perfect game against them. That started a six-game losing streak. They have since had two five-game losing streaks and a six-game losing streak which they snapped on Wednesday. Justin Verlander held them hitless until the seventh inning. The question is not whether these Astros get no-hit this season, but how many times.

Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds report, which relies on a highly mathematical formula involving numbers and data and things and stuff, gives the Astros a 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs. Yes, of course we all KNOW they aren't going to make the playoffs. But it is mid-May and they are already eliminated by math, if not mathematically eliminated.

I recognize that not everybody agrees with me on this, but I think really awful baseball teams have a certain appeal. Bad football teams are simply deflating. Bad hockey teams are usually pretty boring. Bad basketball teams are generally unwatchable, though bad young basketball teams can be intriguing, because sometimes you can see the seeds of a contender.

But there is a romance to lousy baseball. Part of the game's charm is that it is so slow, and has no clock, so it seems endless. And lousy baseball just enhances that charm, perversely. If baseball makes us feel young again, the Astros are the kids in Little League who always strike out.

Besides, this is all part of a big plan. Astros owner Jim Crane has focused on building the farm system, with the idea that he will add free agents when the prospects are ready. I don't know if this will work. I don't even know if Crane will really spend the money eventually.

I do know that the 2003 Tigers had the same plan. And in 2006, they made the World Series. They have contended most years since then, thanks to smart moves by general manager Dave Dombrowski and serious spending by owner Mike Ilitch.

Current Astros radio announcer Steve Sparks was a reliever on those 2003 Tigers. He says that, "I realized when Dave came in that he had a very specific plan on how to turn it around." But he also knew he wouldn't last long enough to see it.

"I remember walking in every day saying, 'That's my job,'" Sparks said. "You had to remind yourself you're getting paid, and respect authority, and not gripe about it."

That summer, the Tigers released Sparks. The Oakland A's picked him up and clinched the AL West with four games left in the season. His teammates were getting ready for the playoffs. But Sparks wasn't done. He kept checking scoreboards to see if the Tigers could avoid their 120th loss. (Improbably, they won five of their last six to finish 43-119.)

"I just didn't want that on the Tigers," Sparks said, and I suspect he will be pulling for the Astros this year for the same reason. Losing is one thing, but 120 losses would brand these guys as losers for life. Carlos Pena is not a loser. I hope history doesn't view him as one.

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