Saturday, October 6, 2012

We Are Your Astros?

The news Thursday night that Astros radio broadcasters Dave Raymond and Brett Dolan were not going to be brought back next season has set off a firestorm of reaction with fans. While on the surface it may have seemed like the type of overreaction often seen fueled by the immediacy of Twitter, the reality is that Astros fans have a legitimate reason to react this strongly.

While most of the reaction I saw regarding Dave and Brett was supportive of the duo, there was a handful who didn't see this as a great loss. Some of this stems from the fact that the antics of Milo Hamilton kept the pair from truly establishing an identity and legitimacy of their own. Even still, if you look outside of Houston you'll find that the former duo, and Raymond in particular, was very well thought of in the industry. While the radio broadcast team as a whole ranked in the bottom third of a poll conducted by FanGraphs, it was clear that Hamilton was considered to be a drag on their quality. Head over there and you'll see lines like "the quality of the broadcast has improved dramatically with less Milo Hamilton," "the road broadcasts are solid," and "many of the sentiments regarding Dave Raymond are reminiscent of those regarding Astros television broadcaster Jim Deshaies, who is decidedly excellent."

In addition to being well thought of as broadcasters, they had established a strong relationship with the team's fans. They freely interacted with many fans on Twitter, sharing interesting tidbits about the team that you won't find anywhere else as well as joking around and sharing laughs with many. They often made themselves available before games to meet and take pictures with fans, further strengthening the fans' connection to the team.

But I'll be honest here; the replacement of the team's radio team doesn't really make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. This post isn't meant to lift Dave and Brett up as martyrs. I think if you asked even the most outraged fans they would tell you this was simply the straw that broke the camel's back. Astros fans have had to put up with a lot of really crappy stuff recently.

In addition to Dave Raymond and Brett Dolan, many of the faces and voices of the club have disappeared this season. Fans also have dealt with the loss of the ever interactive Sr. Director of Social Media, Alyson Footer, when she left to take a national position with Alyson worked tirelessly to connect the fans with the players and provide a behind the scenes look at the club. Also going away is Zach Levine, who essentially covered the team single-handedly (also, left-handedly) for the Chronicle this season. Levine had grown from the stats oriented lefty to a well-rounded, humorous writer who was also not shy to talk to fans. It's unusual for a beat writer to be so well liked by fans and hearing that Z was leaving was another blow to the fans connection to the team. I should also point out that, as of the time of this post, it is still unknown if the very popular and nationally recognized TV broadcast team of Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown will be returning next year, as well as sideline (dugout?) reporter Greg Lucas. It is speculated that JD will be back, but Brownie is said to be contemplating retirement. Greg Lucas is still in limbo as well.

The biggest blow to Astros fans is the imminent switch from the National League to the American League. It's a slap in the face to a team with over 50 years of history in the league. The Astros are the winningest NL expansion team by a comfortable margin and have long standing rivalries that are now meaningless. The team was held hostage as Bud Selig and the owners took their sweet time supposedly "vetting" Jim Crane. What many believe now is that Crane was basically coerced into negotiating away the Astros NL history in exchange for being approved as the new owner.

Fans have also had to deal with the repercussions of going through a scorched earth rebuild. Years of neglect had dried up the talent pipeline for the organization to the point that the Astros have essentially had to start completely over, reminiscent of our start as an expansion club. This has resulted in back to back seasons of record breaking losses for the club. What few marketable players the fans could root for were traded off in order to shore up the foundation of the talent pipeline. While more mature fans recognize that this had to be done, it doesn't make it any easier to root for the major league product that was left behind.

Astros fans now have to put up with being laughed at on a regular basis. Fans of rival teams laugh. Small children laugh. National media laugh. Hotel doormen laugh. Random people walking down the street in other cities laugh. Did I mention that even small children laugh? Every single one of those instances actually happened this season. And fans have no response. What are they to say? "Oh yeah, you just wait until 2015!"

While we're talking about getting laughed at, let's talk about what happened to the social media and marketing group after Footer left. The first rumbling that that wheels might fall off was when Astros players started tweeting links to buy game tickets. Fans don't follow players because they want to get sold stuff. There was also the time that Jed Lowrie batted cleanup. Except he really didn't. Or the time they congratulated JD Martinez for a homerun that Fernando Martinez hit. While JD was on the disabled list. Or the time they invited fans to lunch with Joe Niekro. Who's been dead for almost six years. (Screen shots taken from this post over at Tales From the Juice Box and this post at The Crawfish Boxes)

Through all of this change one thing is becoming clear. Jim Crane has set out to completely clear out any and all remnants of Drayton McLane's legacy and replace it with his own. That's why there's been so much turnover in the front office. That's why there's been so much turnover on the media side. That's why the uniforms are getting changed. That's why there are changes in the stadium (like the hideous new advertisement tower in left field). And that's why there are rumors that he had already decided on a name change before being hit with so much backlash. In the beginning they made a show out of using focus groups and surveys of season ticket holders, but even that has been thrown out the window lately. None of the season ticket holders we've had a chance to speak to have heard or seen anything at any point over the past year regarding the tv and radio broadcasters, for example. Those decisions were made without any consideration of the fans.

In my opinion, Jim Crane is treating this team like a selfish child with a new toy. He has shown no respect for the proud history of the team he has taken custody of, the city to which the team belongs, and the fans who have invested so much into the support of the team.

The last two years have been very hard on Astros fans, Jim. Don't play chicken with the few the team has left.

*Note: Following a series of tweets I posted following the news that Dave Raymond and Brett Dolan were not being brought back, Astros VP of Marketing, Kathleen Clark, invited my to discuss my thoughts with her via email. Clark was to respond to my thoughts by Friday evening but as of Saturday evening no response has been given.

*Update: Clark and I will be working out a time to discuss the "fan perspective" tomorrow.