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updated: 9/9/2016 7:51 PM

Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros renew old rivalry

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  • One of the highlights in the Cubs-Astros rivalry was when rookie Kerry Wood tied the major league record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game on May 6, 1998. He pitched a one-hitter to beat the Astros 2-0.

    One of the highlights in the Cubs-Astros rivalry was when rookie Kerry Wood tied the major league record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game on May 6, 1998. He pitched a one-hitter to beat the Astros 2-0.
    Associated Press/1998 file

 
 

The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros renew acquaintances this weekend in Houston at Minute Maid Park, but things don't feel the same.

It wasn't quite Cubs-Cardinals, but this rivalry had something going from the time Houston joined the National League as the Colt .45s in 1962. The Colts became the Astros in 1965 when they moved into the space-age Astrodome, known then as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

There were oh so many memories over the years.

Kerry Wood tossed his 20-strikeout game against the Astros at Wrigley Field on May 6, 1998, when Houston's Killer Bees were in their best days, with Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Derek Bell.

Carlos Zambrano no-hit the Astros on Sept. 14, 2008, in a neutral-site game played in Milwaukee because Hurricane Ike posed a threat to Texas.

The Cubs battled for the 1998 wild card, losing at the Astrodome on the final Sunday of the regular season only to find out on the way to the clubhouse that the Rockies' Neifi Perez had homered to beat the Giants, forcing a 163rd game the next night, which the Cubs won.

Most old-time Cubs fans can't forget manager Leo Durocher calling the Astrodome a pool table because of its newfangled AstroTurf. For good measure, Leo ripped the dugout telephone off the wall.

But all that ended in 2013, when the Astros moved to the American League to give each league 15 teams.

Cubs TV analyst Jim Deshaies pitched for the Astros from 1985-91 and broadcast their games for 16 years before joining the booth in Chicago in 2013. As much as he loved the rivalry, Deshaies understands why the 'Stros made the switch.

"I wish they weren't," said Deshaies, who works alongside play-by-play man Len Kasper. "I've come to terms with it, but I'm like a lot of the fans down there who preferred National League baseball, who kind of grew up with a National League club, have a lot of history in the National League.

"The Astros-Cubs-Cardinals, man. When I was broadcasting, they were great rivalries. Yeah, it's hard to move on from that. And I think it took the fans a little while to warm up."

The Cubs entered this weekend's series with a record of 331-377 against the Astros. As an expansion team, Houston played at Colt Stadium, where the temperature was high, the humidity higher and mosquitoes were as big as B-52s.

The Astrodome offered air-conditioned relief, but not much else to other teams. The Cubs were 83-137 at the Dome. Durocher, who later managed the Astros, never liked the taunts from the new electronic scoreboard, and he wasn't a fan of the high bounces the ball took on the artificial turf, which was put in when grass wouldn't grow in the Dome after the roof was painted.

The Dome was home to Deshaies, and he acknowledged the mystique.

"It was a pitcher's park," he said. "A lot of hitters said it was dark in there, and the Astros had a lot of good pitching. You run through there in the early '80s, late '70s, and you deal with J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan in a three-game series. Hang with them. Then later on it was Nolan and Mike Scott. Bob Knepper in his prime.

"The Astros were a slash-and-dash kind of team in those years, so there were a lot of 2-1, 3-2 games. It was just a different style of baseball in that big, cavernous dome."

The Astros moved to Enron Field -- now Minute Maid Park -- in 2000. Real grass grows, a retractable roof has replaced the dome, and a short porch in left field made it an inviting hitter's park.

So inviting that former Cubs manager Lou Piniella threatened to ban batting practice in domed stadiums because he felt his hitters did nothing but swing for the fences, or in the case of Minute Maid, the "pumpkins."

It was always fun to hear Lou talk about "the pumpkins," which were actually large depictions of oranges -- it's Minute Maid Park, after all -- carted back and forth by a train on top of the left-field wall structure.

"It was interesting," Deshaies said of the stadium move. "The teams that they built in the 2000s were tremendous hitting teams. They had some pitchers, too, but Biggio, Bagwell, Moises (Alou), Derek Bell, Richard Hidalgo, Morgan Ensberg -- they could really put some runs on the board."

Time chugs onward, and now the Astros are in the AL West, where they can slug it out with the Texas Rangers for Lone Star bragging rights.

"They're getting their butts kicked routinely by the Rangers these days," Deshaies said. "I think that helps, that the Rangers and the Astros are in the same division now. I think people will really be able to cling to that because there's always been that rivalry between Houston and Dallas.

"They tried to make it up when they played in interleague, the Lone Star Series. They played for the Silver Boot. Rivalries don't really exist in this game unless you're fighting for the same prize, so putting those two teams in the same division makes a lot of sense."

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