On the Astros: Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt's retirement leaves lingering questions

Bob Levey

Saturday was a night full of memories. Were there any unanswered questions about Oswalt and Berkman's tenure?

During batting practice Saturday, Lance Berkman walked up to greet Astros manager Bo Porter. As soon as he came close, Porter clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Hey, I'm looking for a three-hole hitter."

Later, in the press conference where Berkman and Roy Oswalt signed one-day contract to retire as Astros, Porter again quipped, "So, does this mean they're active for the game tonight?"

Despite showing Porter's comedic chops, these moment raised a question that we'll get back to in a bit. They also fit perfectly into the spirit of a light-hearted evening as Houston fans paid tribute to two of the franchise's best.

It was an emotional night for both, as Oswalt appeared to get choked up when talking about how special Houston is to him. Berkman responded with more levity, but also talked about how he wished the stadium could be as loud for the current team as it was back in Minute Maid Park's heyday.

The stadium got loud Saturday, but was a far cry from the 42,000 which used to pack MMP during those playoff runs. The allure of seeing two of the franchise best players from the last decade wasn't enough to fill the stadium or get the cheers going in memory of those playoff runs from the past.

Maybe that's because Berkman and Oswalt live in a weird sort of limbo. They were overshadowed by bigger names when they played, sharing the limelight with Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Once they had the team to themselves, Houston plummeted to the bottom of the standings thanks to a decade of bad drafts and disastrous roster moves (Jason Jennings, Carlos Lee).

The duo didn't play long enough to accumulate the counting stats necessary to be in the Hall of Fame, with only Berkman a long, long shot because of his switch-hitting prowess. Unlike some of their generation, neither were tainted by the hint of PEDs. The closest they got to performance enhancers may have been Roy Oswalt's possibly apocryphal story about getting shocked by his car and gaining a few mph on his fastball.

But, the biggest reason these two live in a sort of limbo is they weren't allowed to finish their careers in Houston. Two of the franchise's best players ended their runs playing for the Rangers and Rockies, respectively. Instead of this ceremony capping a 14- or 15-year career, they had to come back after falling off the Houston sports map since 2010.

Now, the only reason they two are remembered is for what they brought in trade. Yet, they were still greeted like old friends on Saturday. The question that I alluded to up top is this: should Houston have kept the two stars until they retired? Would the two proud, competitive players have stuck through all the losses?

The blueprint Jeff Luhnow has undertaken is staggering. No owner or GM have so willingly torn down a franchise's roster as Houston did over the past three seasons. Luhnow almost certainly wouldn't have kept Oswalt and Berkman around during that time, but there's an argument to be made for it.

If Houston had allowed Berkman and Oswalt to remain with the franchise, would it have helped attendance through these lean years? Would fans have turned up just to see Oswalt break the all-time franchise wins record? Would they have been there as Berkman tried to get to 2,000 hits? Would those two favorite sons, who journeyed through Houston's own farm system, have staved off the apathy that has struck the team's attendance?

The answer is probably not. Those two alone would not have saved Houston baseball over the past three years. They may have just prolonged the rebuilding process. But, could they have helped instill the "Astros Way" into a young team before now? What if Jarred Cosart had been able to spend some time around Roy Oswalt as a teammate? Oswalt has always talked about the ways Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte influenced his work ethic. Could he have done the same for Cosart, Bud Norris and others?

We don't know and we won't know. That's the reality of sports. It's been that way for a long, long time. Johnny Unitas didn't get a chance to end his career with the Colts. Hakeem Olajuwon hung it up in Toronto, not Houston. Wade Boggs wore a Devil Rays uniform in his final years. The way it should work in sports is not the way it does work.

At least Astros fans got to say goodbye to Berkman and Oswalt one last time.

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