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June 27, 2017

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Baseball Gods still have it in for the cursed Astros

This is about the baseball curse that gets no pub but might be stronger than them all.

It's called the Judge's Jinx, after Judge Roy Hofheinz, the late Houston politician and entrepreneur who years ago inflicted plastic grass and indoor baseball on the sports world.

Obviously, he never cleared the ideas with the sports gods.

They were furious when he opened the Astrodome in 1965, and they're as angry as ever now, as evidenced by the stunning, last-ditch home run Albert Pujols hit Monday night to keep the Houston Astros from going to the World Series for the first time.

The home run gave the St. Louis Cardinals the victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and sent the series back to St. Louis with Houston holding a 3-2 edge. Game 6 is tonight.

But the struggle isn't between the Astros and Cardinals so much as between the Astros and the horrid curse that continues to afflict them.

Baseball's other famously cursed teams — the White Sox, Red Sox, Cubs, Phillies, etc — have at least won the World Series at some point. The Astros, a 1962 expansion team, have never gotten there.

Before Monday night, they had played four postseason games with a chance to reach the Series. They lost the first three in extra innings — the last two games of the 1980 NLCS to the Phillies, and Game 6 of the 2004 NLCS to the Cardinals. The Cardinals also won Game 7 last year.

It was hard not to believe some mysterious force was working against them.

But for sheer, staggering disappointment, it was all just a warm-up for Monday night's whopper.

Leading the series 3-1, and playing at home before a deliriously happy crowd, the Astros were up two runs in the top of the ninth, no one on, two strikes on the batter. All they needed was one more strike. But they couldn't get it.

A single and a walk put two runners on, and Pujols drove a slider from closer Brad Lidge deep into the stands to win the game.

Judge Hofheinz died in 1982, but his Jinx is very much alive.

Hofheinz was a controversial former mayor who wore black-framed glasses, ignored a city council impeachment vote and dreamed up the concept of the first indoor sports facility, which was nicknamed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1965. The judge lived inside, in a luxurious apartment.

The whole idea of indoor sports boggled minds at first. One morning over breakfast, my father put down the paper and said: "They're playing baseball indoors down in Houston. We need to go see that." We lived in Dallas, 250 miles away. We drove down and watched Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale win games for the Dodgers. The players looked like ants from our nosebleed perch.

The dome had real grass and a clear plastic roof that first year; allowing sunlight to come in was going to enable the grass to grow, it was said. But fielders were blinded by the sun during day games, so the roof was painted. That killed the grass. AstroTurf was quickly developed and installed in 1966.

Fake grass was initially seen as just another wondrous aspect of the dome along with its exploding scoreboards and luxury suites; artificial turf soon became commonplace in new football and baseball stadiums.

It took years — and countless knee injuries — for people to realize that plastic grass was perhaps the most dangerous, insidious sports idea ever.

And the Astros are still paying for it, even though they left the dome for a new park in 2000.

You can almost see them pleading their case before the sports gods. The Astrodome is a dinosaur now. Open-air and retractable-roof stadiums are popular. Synthetic grass has become so sophisticated and forgiving that teams such as the Ravens prefer it to the real thing. Isn't it time for the Jinx to be doused?

But one can also see the sports gods firing back their argument — games were meant to be played outside, on God's green grass, in front of fans who actually want to pay attention instead of sitting in faux living rooms paying US$7.50 for a beer and it was the Judge who started us down that road.

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