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Looking Back While Heading West

Astros go for complete makeover as they deal with switch to American League

When the Houston Astros take the field this month, Texans will hardly be able to recognize anything about the baseball organization. Even their well-established rivalries will cease to exist.

With new coaches, new team colors and redesigned uniforms, there will be changes aplenty for the Astros during Jim Crane’s second year of ownership. The most significant, though, is the team’s move to the American League, a relatively rare realignment in Major League Baseball that thrusts the Astros into division rivalries with mostly West Coast teams.

Think Texas A&M leaving its state rivals behind to jump to the Southeastern Conference. In Houston’s case, it means beating out Oakland, Seattle, the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers for playoff spots. Longtime rivals Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cubs become just occasional opponents.

This all came about during the sale of the Astros from Drayton McLane to Crane and his investor group. The deal, approved in November 2011, had a final price tag of $610 million and one very important, unexpected provision: The Astros must move to the American League West Division.

“It was not something we had anticipated,” Astros President and CEO George Postolos says. “We weren’t on the inside yet. We were on the outside, trying to acquire a team, so we weren’t privy to the deliberations within baseball about the best plan for realignment.”

Crane resisted the move before finally consenting, Postolos says. His efforts were not completely for naught—he received a $70 million discount on the original sale price as compensation for the move.

After the sale, and into the 2012 season, the Astros celebrated 50 years of history as a franchise. All the while, the organization was also preparing for its future in a different league. This included rebranding the team. The color scheme returns to the orange and blue worn for much of the team’s history, from its days as the Colt 45s (1962-64) until 1994. Many fans, such as Terri Schlather, are excited by this change.

“I never liked when the Astros brought red in, because so many baseball teams have red as part of their color scheme,” Schlather says. “We would be at a game, and the Astros fans would be in red, and the Cardinals fans or the Reds fans were in red also, and there was no distinction of color.”

The Astros held 30 meetings with season ticket-holders before the 2012 season, and Postolos says it was during those meetings that they realized fans identified more closely with the classic logo and colors.

“There were some consistent themes that came out of those conversations,” Postolos says. “One of the themes was that people wanted a fresh start. We knew there were mixed emotions about the league change, so we needed to find a way to say ‘We are going to keep as much as we can of the past that you like, but we are also going to turn the page and look forward to a bright future.’ ”

No matter how pleased fans are about the new look, many are still hesitant about changing leagues. The news felt like they were “punched in the gut,” as Schlather put it.

Despite countless examinations of the situation in the media, fans such as Pat Richter are still wondering why this change needed to occur more than a decade after the last realignment.

“I don’t understand what problem it is that they think they are fixing by making it into two 15-team leagues,” Richter says. “We had 16 teams in the National League, and 14 in the American League for almost 15 or 16 years. I don’t remember even once people complaining about the leagues not having the same number of teams. So this seems to me that we are fixing a nonexistent problem.”

Richter says his biggest complaint is the loss of longstanding rivalries and the history between the Astros and the National League teams they have played over the past five decades.

“I’ll watch them and I’ll go to games, because I’m an Astros fan, but I don’t have the calendar circled for the Royals to be in town in July, the way you would for the Cubs or the Dodgers or the Braves or the Mets,” Richter says.

One of the teams with which the Astros will build a new chapter in their history is the Rangers. This is the first time both of Texas’ Major League Baseball teams will compete in the same division. They square off in a three-game series in Houston to start the season. In all, they will play 19 games against each other instead of six, as in previous years.

“There are so many Texans who up until now have proclaimed themselves to be Astros fans and Rangers fans, and now we find out who their team really is,” Schlather says. “To me, that part is going to be fun. It’s going to draw the dividing line in Texas, which up until now, people have been able to play both sides.”

No matter how many changes occur, there is one big hurdle for the team with back-to-back seasons of 100-plus losses, and that is winning. Fans and team officials agree that getting the team to return to its winning ways is the most important matter at hand.

“We know that most of our fans are really looking forward to the time when we are beating people more often than not, and we are competing for titles and looking forward to a time when we can win a World Series,” Postolos says. “Every decision we make now is with that goal in mind, and we are trying to lay the best foundation that we possibly can.”

Richter says that not only is winning important, but it also will determine the way future fans perceive this move.

“If they go into some long-term, Pittsburgh Pirates-like run where they are bad for 25 years, I think people, especially Astros fans, will look back and think it is the worst thing that ever happened,” Richter says. “I think the sooner they win, the better, from my attitude.”

Rachel Frey, an correspondent, lives in Houston.