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For the third consecutive year, the Astros entered a new season having lost their best starting pitcher. In the previous years, Darryl Kile and Randy Johnson were lost to free agency and continued to pitch well.

But could the Astros comeback again after trading away 22-game winner Mike Hampton?

The controversial trade took place on December 23rd, just days after Carl Everett was handed over to the Boston Red Sox for a minor-league shortstop in what was widely viewed as a cost-cutting move. Hampton, perhaps considering the deal as a sign of management's lack of commitment, announced that he would file for free agency after the 2000 season. Seeking to cut future losses, the team promptly shipped Hampton and Derek Bell to the Mets for youngsters Octavio Dotel and Roger Cedeno.

The financial maneuverings seemed inconsistent with the financial realities of the club. The team was moving into a new park, Enron Field, and expected a big spike in attendance and revenues for 2000. Enron was a baseball fan's dream. A technological marvel, the stadium featured a retractable roof and the largest scoreboard in the league. It was built into the old Union Station in downtown Houston, and subsequently the geometries of the park were unorthodox. A 20-foot tall wall in left field was patterned after the "Green Monster" in Fenway, and stood just 315 feet away from home plate. In contrast, center field expanded out to 436 feet, ending with a 30-degree upward slope known as "Tal's Hill" -- a throwback to Old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. A flagpole stood in deep center, identical to Tiger Stadium. And finally, a mock train was mounted on tracks behind the left field seats, ready to put on a 15-second show whenever an Astro hit a home run. And perhaps most unusually, the ballpark was finished on-time and under budget.

Along with the change in scenery came a change in wardrobe, as the team made another change in uniforms. Out went the "blue and gold" colors introduced in 1994, and in came the "brick and sand". With four different versions of the uniform and a dozen or so combinations of cap and jersey, there was always something new needed in order for fans to stay in fashion.

By the time the Astros opened the park to great fanfare with a pre-season victory over the Yankees, many fans may have forgotten that the team was defending its NL Central Championship. The Astros started their season on the road, taking two of three from Pittsburgh before returning to Houston for their official home opener against the Phillies. Dotel received the first-pitch honors at Enron, lasted seven innings, but took the loss in a 4-1 defeat. Although Craig Biggio picked up the first Enron hit, it was Phillie Scott Rolen who hit the first Enron home run, a 7th-inning shot to left field. Richard Hidalgo responded with a 408-foot blast to center field in the bottom of the inning.

After dropping two of three to the Phils, the Cardinals arrived in Houston and set the tone for the entire season. Led by late-spring acquisition Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals pounded the Astros and won two high-scoring contests. At one point, Edmonds reached base safely in 12 consecutive plate appearances. Enron Field was quickly christened "Home Run Field" and "Ten Run Field", and comparisons to Coors Field in Denver would follow the team throughout 2000.

Jose Lima, a 21-game-winner in 1999, soon convinced himself that he could not pitch effectively in Enron and finished with 16 losses to go along with an incredible 6.65 ERA. Apparently, he had home run nightmares away from Houston as well -- his ERA in road games was 6.32. The entire staff struggled in the new park, with the team ERA finishing the season at an all-time worst of 5.42 -- a full run and a half per game higher than the previous season.

By the All-Star break, the defending champions were in dead last, 21 games out of first place, and well on a pace to lose over 100 games. And for the first time in many years, the Astros had only one representative at the mid-summer's classic. Shane Reynolds entered the contest with a 6-5 record, but did not pitch due to an injury.

But baseball is a zero-sum game, and what is bad for pitchers must be good for hitters. While the pitching staff was getting shelled, six hitters finished the season with over 20 homers. Jeff Bagwell led the team with 47 homers and 132 RBI, and Hidalgo lived up to his minor-league expectations, slugging 44 homers and knocking in 122 runs. Moises Alou had 30 homers to go with a team-leading .355 average, while Lance Berkman and Daryle Ward combined for 41 homers in an outfield platoon. Hidalgo finished especially hot, batting .477 with 11 homers in September. His "Player of the Month" award was one of the team's highlights for the season. Backup catcher Tony Eusebio also impressed, setting a club mark with a 24 game hitting streak.

In the starting rotation, Scott Elarton was the closest thing that the Astros had to an ace pitcher. Even though his ERA was 4.81, Scott parleyed two good months and plenty of run support into a deceptive 17-7 record. Other players weren't so lucky, however. All-Star closer Billy Wagner had elbow problems and underwent season-ending surgery on June 27. Second baseman Craig Biggio injured his knee in a collision at second base on August 1 and missed the rest of the season as well. Rookie catcher Mitch Meluskey had a hot head to go with his hot bat, and slugged Matt Mieske during a batting practice dispute on June 11. Combined with his defensive struggles, the ugly incident would result in Meluskey being traded after the season was over. All in all, it was a very disappointing season for the team.

2000 saw the final appearance of Ken Caminiti in an Astros uniform. Out for most of the season with a wrist injury, and undergoing voluntary rehabilitation for alcohol abuse, the popular third baseman was given his release the following off-season. He was replaced in mid-June by AAA call-up Chris Truby. Another late-season call-up was starting pitcher Wade Miller, who showed flashes of the dominance he would display in 2001. And after several shaky starting performances, Octavio Dotel seemed to find his niche as a closer (even though he complained about being assigned to the bullpen), filling in for the injured Billy Wagner.

As expected with a new ballpark, a record number of Houston fans, over three million, bought tickets. But by July, there were plenty of empty seats on display. The Astros did rally for a winning records in August and September, ending up with a 72-90 mark and avoiding the ignominy of a 100-loss season. Their respectable finish left fans wondering what to expect in the following season.

72-90

By Astro Daily
 

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