Lately, the Houston Astros have found themselves in the news, which is terrific for all of those fans who complain that the media doesn't pay their team any attention. (This is all fans.) I don't know that the Astros have been the biggest story - there are the managerial searches by the Red Sox and the Cubs, there was the whole Wilson Ramos thing, there's everything that the Marlins are doing, and so on - but the Astros are there, in real-life headlines. Look! Look at ESPN/MLB, right now, as I'm writing this!
But the reason for the Astros being in the news isn't a good one, at least as far as Astros fans are concerned. One could argue that whenever the Astros have been in the news of late, the reason hasn't been a good one, at least as far as Astros fans are concerned, but the Astros haven't lost a bunch of games or traded a player away - they're in the news because they're moving to the American League West in time for the 2013 regular season.
It was long presumed, and now it's basically official. Major League Baseball has wanted to even the leagues at 15 teams apiece. The Astros are being sold from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane. Major League Baseball has gotten the Astros to agree to a move as a condition of the sale. Not that they really had much of a choice. As such, we're a year away from looking at six divisions with five teams in each.
A lot of Astros fans - possibly and probably the majority of them - are opposed to the move, and understandably so. There's a sense that their team is being extorted. There's always going to be opposition to almost any kind of change to any familiar routine. And there's the question of "Why us?" considering the Astros have a long history of National League participation. The Milwaukee Brewers, meanwhile, were an AL team until 1998, and that was the same year that the Arizona Diamondbacks joined the NL as an expansion franchise. "Why not move one of them?" many have asked.
But there are those who are opposed to the move, and those who are extremely opposed to the move. I was reading a post by Larry Stone, and he linked out to this post from Steve Campbell. Found within:
An informal Chronicle online poll last month showed 76 percent of the respondents opposing a league change, with 35 percent vowing to sever their allegiance if the Astros were to join the AL.
This is the Houston Chronicle we're talking about, and while I'm not sure about the poll's sample size, 35 percent is a big percent. Of all the poll respondents, 35 percent of them said they would quit the Astros cold turkey if they got moved. And they're going to move.
Numbers like that seem like they could be a cause for concern. Last season, the Astros lost 106 games. They might have the worst major league roster in all of baseball, and their farm system isn't one of the best. They were probably already looking at some lean years ahead in terms of attendance. And now a significant fraction of the fan base is threatening to walk away. That isn't what the Astros want to hear.
But at the same time, I don't think the Astros have much to worry about, when it comes to fan allegiance. I suspect that, when the Astros do move, those fans, or at least the vast majority of them, will elect to stick around.
We have only one precedent for what the Astros will go through, and that was the Brewers in the 90s. It's worth examining what happened with them:
Shown in the table are the three years before the Brewers moved, and the three years after the Brewers moved (in the fourth year post-move, they opened Miller Park). In none of these years did the Brewers make the playoffs. In none of these years did the Brewers finish .500. Their best years were 1996 and 1997, when they played in the AL. Yet attendance after the move improved, and even three years later, they still drew more than they did before.
There are caveats. This is but one example. The Brewers moved when interleague play was still fresh. Maybe most importantly, the Brewers moved shortly after the strike, when fans were returning to the game. We can't reach any conclusions based on the table above.
But it does suggest that a league change isn't going to drive Astros fans away. Now, the Brewers moved from the AL to the NL, while the Astros are moving from the NL to the AL. The NL game is thought to be more "traditional", more "pure", and there is a huge, staggeringly huge resistance on the part of Astros fans to play with the designated hitter. Some of them seem legitimately repulsed by it. But remember that Brewers fans were adapting to a new game, too - a new game, where the designated hitter is replaced by a really terrible hitter. That's a big adjustment, and they managed.
Some Astros fans are threatening to walk away because they don't want to deal with the DH, but in order for them to follow through, their loyalty to the Astros has to be lesser than their loyalty to the league in which the Astros play. These people aren't fans of the National League - they're fans of the Astros, and they're going to stay with the Astros.
This is going to be a big change. One of the biggest. It's natural and understandable that some people are going to be upset, and it's understandable that some people are going to be very upset. But when it's all said and done, the Astros will still have their fan base, because their fans will come to terms with the new situation. They're not going to abandon baseball, and it's not like they have many handy alternatives. Who's close by? The Rangers? They use the DH. And...and that's about it, really.
People who have rooted for the National League Astros are going to root for the American League Astros. Maybe not every last one of them, but then, maybe they'll pick up some new fans along the way. While it's going to be weird at first, because it'll be a different game, we all follow our favorite teams for the ride, and this is just another part of the ride.