Jeff Luhnow feels the difference everywhere, but it strangely really hits home in Starbucks. The Houston Astros general manager grew accustomed to gliding in and out of his favorite coffee haunts with little trouble. He was just another middle-aged guy in a nice suit in the wave of thousands of middle-aged guys in suits in Houston. Then, Club Astro, Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel started shaking up the baseball’s established power order, and everything changed.
Now, Luhnow needs to wear more than shades.
“I used to go to Starbucks to get coffee in the morning and no one ever said anything,” Luhnow says. “Now, when I go get coffee, people are always coming up to me, telling me how they just got season tickets or about how excited they are.”
When the 49-year-old general manager of the baseball team — a man who has none of George Springer’s hops or Correa’s bat speed — is getting stopped on coffee runs, you know a city is getting a little baseball crazed. There’s no doubt the Astros are the most promising professional sports franchise in Houston by a mile these days.
The Rockets are a certified, self-destructing mess that general manager Daryl Morey is desperately trying to implode. The Houston Texans are caught in a quarterback limbo of their otherwise excellent coach’s own making. Maybe it’s partly because I have a baseball-playing son who is the perfect age to fall in love with a team, but last year’s Astros summer may be the most memorable ballpark summer I’ve ever had.
Whenever one showed up at Minute Maid Park, you had a good chance of seeing something special happen. From a Jose Altuve walkoff, to a Carlos Correa two home-run game, to a Mike Fiers’ no-hitter, the hits just seemed to keep coming.
That all serves as the backdrop to the Astros loading up their trucks and headed off to spring training, a rite of impending spring in many places that feels rather ridiculous in Houston on a 80-degree February Friday. But while the need to dream of warm weather is beyond moot here, the weight of those expectations is not.
For the first time since Jim Crane bought the Astros, in 2011, and a run of historic losing and farm-system building began, the team faces real pressure to win. “When I talk about contending, I do really mean contending for a championship,” Luhnow said at the Astros’ annual media luncheon Friday. “Not just contending for a wild-card spot.”
With young stars galore — and more hot-commodity talent in the minors, including Alex Bregman and Francis Martes — Luhnow clearly likes his club’s hand.
“I wouldn’t trade our situation for anybody else’s in baseball,” Luhnow says.
Luhnow compares the Astros’ situation to the 2010 Cardinals, a team he helped build as a front-office executive. The Cardinals would win one World Series, make another, and advance to two more League Championship Series in the next four years. It’s a lofty vision — one that has crushed some talented teams in the past.
“You’re not going to get a sense of arrogance or overconfidence coming out of our clubhouse,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch insists.
Great or bad, long playoff run or meltdown, Luhnow is sure to hear about it while getting coffee. There’s no hiding now.