Houston baseball fans had been waiting for this. Ever since the Colt .45s took the field against the Chicago Cubs on that hot, muggy April opening day in 1962, they had been waiting. Last night, 44 years and three ballparks later, the waiting ended when the National League pennant was hoisted for the first time in Houston. At long last, the fans were rewarded for their undying patience.

For Dave Dickhut, a pennant for the Astros was a great gift, if not an ironic one.

“This was special,” the Richmond native said. I was glad to see this happen. I feel a sort of special kinship with the Astros. You see, years ago, my father, Lawrence, was the Astros one millionth fan. He was rewarded with a stereo and 250 albums. Now the fans get a pennant. That’s not a bad reward.”

Fans were patient for the first ten years of the franchise, knowing it took time to build a winner. For the next eight years they suffered and agonized through seasons that seemed to hold promise, only to see the promises broken, again and again.

The came the breakthrough. In 1980, the team claimed its first pennant. It was a modest victory, a National League West title, but it was still a flag and it was all theirs. But they quickly found out that once you do win, fans expect you to keep winning. They didn’t. It would be six long years before they reached the playoffs again, in 1986.

Many felt that that would be the year since they had their best team ever, built around the likes of Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott and Glenn Davis. But it was not to be as the Mets turned a World Series dream into a nightmare.

Between 1997 and 1999, the Astros won three Division titles, only to be stopped in the first round each season. It was not until 2004 that they advanced to the NL Championship Series. But after downing the Atlanta Braves in the Division Playoffs, they fell to the St. Louis Cardinals four games to three, just one victory shy of that most elusive of goals, the World Series.

Still, that season planted a seed of hope, and the old baseball cry of “Wait ‘till next year” could be heard long and loud. 2005 would be the year when it all came together. Instead, halfway through the season it was all coming apart. Houston was dead in the water, injuries had taken its toll on some of its best players. They were struggling just to stay out of the cellar. Little did anyone realize that they were about to witness the greatest baseball miracle since the 1951 New York Giants.

No one knows quite how it happened, but slowly Houston began to move up, winning when they shouldn’t, and getting help from other teams that shouldn’t have been winning either. Fans held their breath until they were orange in the face and then let it all out in one huge shout of joy when Houston clinched the Wild Card Playoff spot.

For many, this was enough. In fact, it was more than they could have expected of this team. It was proof that there might be hope for a team many had counted out at the half-way point of the season. They were content to sit back and dream dreams of what might be in 2006.

Alann Kurtess was there when they beat Atlanta in that classic 18-inning game, earning Houston a match-up with the Cardinals for the NL crown.

“I remember being at Colt Stadium with my Granddad for the first game against the Cubs back in 1962. Houston hit the ball well, but had no pitching. They lost 98 games. This year they had great pitching but no hitting and they have a chance to go to the Series. Strange, huh?”

To the amazement of most of the baseball world, they did go to the Series, beating the Cards 4-2 in their best of seven series. It was surreal. The Astros, the Houston Astros, were going to the World Series.

Most of the 43,000 plus in attendance Monday night admit that it would have been nice to win it all, but the main thing is that they got there. Marcia Fouts was one of those.

“Sure it would have been great to win the Series, or at least given the White Sox a run for the money,” she said. “I wanted Houston to win. They didn’t, but that didn’t make the presentation tonight any less exciting. It was great!”

The only thing left is to finish what they started last season. And last night’s 1-0 win over the Marlins was a good start.

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