Houston Astros owner Jim Crane started out as a little guy. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan.)
Carlos Correa stood at the center of everything Puerto Rico did in the World Baseball Classic.
The Astros' supersized expectations have Jeff Luhnow experiencing life differently.
Carlos Correa is hard on baseballs — and himself.
Carlos Correa, Tilman Fertitta
Carlos Correa pulls on a backpack, one strap on each shoulder, runs a hand through his yellow frosted tips hair, and heads for the clubhouse doors. Visions of dominance are no doubt still dancing in his head, but this is the first time all night that Correa looks like a 22-year-old kid.
The illusion doesn’t last long.
As soon as Correa’s two steps outside the heavy doors to the Houston Astros’ inner sanctum, Clay Walker is pulling him into a Selfie shot. Yes, that Clay Walker — the country music artist who’s become unofficial official go-to national anthem singer for Houston’s professionals sports franchises. Walker is famous, but he’s not Carlos Correa crossover famous. Of course, he wants a picture with the New Man of Houston sports.
For all the Man of the Moment buzz around Houston Rockets star James Harden, as long as Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are playing, Harden has no chance of ever being the face of the NBA. In contrast, there is already a clear path open for Correa to possibly become the new face of Major League Baseball. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant may want to take another look in their rear-view mirror and notice that younger blur. Carlos Correa is closer than he appears.
Correa matches Harper’s customary Opening Day home run in the Astros’ 3-0 season opening win over the Seattle Mariners. Actually, he betters it. For Correa, hits his out of Minute Maid Park. No, really. That’s what happens to a Felix Hernandez fastball that is sent back, screaming high into the air at an 111 MPH exit velocity. It turns into a no doubt 449-foot home run that Minute Maid’s cozy dimensions literally cannot hold.
And Day One of Carlos Correa’s Redemption Tour hums right along, just as Correa himself imagined. Yes, that’s right, Redemption Tour. While others such as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow take offense at the notion that Correa had anything close to a down year in 2016, it only matters what Correa himself thinks. And The New Man minces no words.
“We didn’t make the playoffs,” Correa tells PaperCity. “And I didn’t perform to my expectations. It was a terrible season.”
Yes, Correa considers a 20 home run, 96 RBI, 6.0 Wins Above Replacement 2016 “terrible.” He’s as hard on himself as he is on baseballs. That may be the best indicator yet of future greatness. Correa knocks in two of the Astros’ three runs on this 2017 Opening Night, makes a few standout plays at shortstop behind a revitalized Dallas Keuchel and still is clearly annoyed by a line out in the first inning that could have been a run-scoring hit.
“I hit that pretty well,” Correa says.
This guy expects to get a hit every time in a sport where the failure rate for even the greats of the greats hovers close to 70 percent. “I have extremely high expectations for myself,” Correa says. “My expectations are so high that I’m not even sure I’ll ever completely reach them. But I’m never going to stop pushing myself to make them happen.”
“We didn’t make the playoffs. And I didn’t perform to my expectations. It was a terrible season.”
After day one of 162, a 364-RBI pace will have to do. Before the opener, Correa’s agent Greg Genske speed walks through the tunnels of the ballpark, trying to make sure that Correa’s parents are set up with everything they need. Genske is dressed in dad jeans and a simple blue polo. Carlos Correa doesn’t need pretense. He just needs people who try and match his hustle.
Mom and dad will leave happy. Correa’s now homered on two straight Opening Days. That’s still three behind Harper’s five straight Opening Day home run streak, but Harper is two years older and three MLB seasons ahead of the Astros’ own franchise changer.
The Astros’ Hype Train
These Astros are national darlings. ESPN Magazine pegs them as having the fourth best chance of winning the World Series this year. Sports Illustrated ranks them the fifth-best team in baseball. That is a lot of checks that a still ace-less pitching staff (one vintage Keuchel start does not guarantee anything) must cash. Barring a trade for a true elite strikeout dominant No. 1 starter, the Astros need a potentially dominant lineup to carry them — and crush any thought of a repeat stumble.
“There was a lot of hype last year too,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch reminds in the dugout beforehand. “Then, we started 7-17.”
George Springer, the “older” emerging star who tends to get lost in the avalanche of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa love, starts things with a jolt on this night. Third pitch of King Felix’s night and Springer’s sending it screaming over the left field wall. Good Guys 1, Doubts 0.
Not that any regular season exploits will satisfy Astros owner Jim Crane, a businessman who is used to winning big in almost everything he sets his mind on. “Our expectation is to make the playoffs and to make a run from there,” Crane says.
The owner dismisses any idea that Luhnow, the GM behind baseball’s version of The Process, or anyone else has outperformed expectations yet. “When we exceed expectations is when we win the World Series,” Crane says. “I’m not giving Jeff or anyone else a pass before then.”
I know a certain shortstop who no doubt agrees with Crane. The 41,678 fans (many of them decked out in orange and seemingly half of them already having visited the park’s new Torchy’s Tacos) who pack Minute Maid for openers may already be madly in love with Correa. Clay Walker’s not the only one ready to fawn.
But Carlos Correa is only getting started. That is a vow to himself. A star run in the World Baseball Classic got Correa rolling weeks before the regular season even began. “It helped me a lot,” he says. “It gave me a lot of high-intensity at bats.”
Correa’s not about to dial it back now. Not with his version of terrible still haunting him.