10/04/2004 4:24 PM ET
Astros treat fans to 'Rally Monday'
Over 8,000 attend playoff party at Minute Maid Park
By Gene Duffey / Special to MLB.com
HOUSTON -- Ten days ago, Astros manager Phil Garner's wife, Carol, asked him if she should buy the plane tickets for their annual after-the-season vacation on Figure 8 Island, N.C.
For the last 23 years the Garners have met six other couples there, all friends from Phil's playing days with the Pirates in the late 1970s.
"Go ahead and buy them," Garner told his wife of 31 years. "That's a sure way we'll get in [the playoffs]."
Against all odds the Astros did it, winning 36 of their last 46 games to beat out San Francisco for the National League Wild Card spot by the thinnest of margins.
"It's improbable, fantastic, maybe magical," Garner said before the Rally Monday party that over 8,000 attended at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros, afraid to jinx themselves, didn't announce the party until after Houston closer Brad Lidge struck out Colorado's Aaron Miles Sunday for the final out in the 5-3 playoff clincher.
The other seven playoff clubs had more time to prepare for the first Rally Monday, a promotion of Major League Baseball. Less than 24 hours earlier, the Astros didn't know if there would a rally in Houston or if they would be in San Francisco for a one-game playoff with the Giants.
"Holy Toledo, what a crowd," proclaimed Milo Hamilton, the venerable voice of the Astros who emceed the Rally from a stage set up near the third base dugout. "Is anybody working today?"
Larry Gaudreau, a retired security officer, was first in line at one of the gates Monday morning -- he arrived at 9:30, two hours before the doors opened.
Once they did, recording artist Randy Rogers began entertaining the crowd immediately.
General manager Gerry Hunsicker asked the fans, who were provided free hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks during the two-hour party, if any of them believed on July 31 that the Astros would make the playoffs.
"We all felt the wheels were about to come off," Hunsicker said privately before taking the stage. "You kept scratching your head and wondering why this is happening.
"Phil enabled us to turn the page. His energy level and enthusiasm became contagious."
Hamilton also introduced mayor Bill White ("Houston right now is on a roll") and Garner to the cheering crowd, who were waving giveaway fans to stay cool underneath the open Minute Maid Park roof.
The Astros were underachieving at the All-Star Break when the club named Garner to replace manager Jimy Williams.
Houston stood at 44-44, 11 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central, and the players were already talking about the wild card rather than any chance of catching the Cardinals.
"You knew you needed help because we were looking up at five teams," Hamilton said of Houston's playoff prospects.
The team didn't turn instantly.
On Aug. 14, following an 8-3 loss at Montreal, the Astros were four games under .500, spinning their wheels in the mud.
"I was concerned," Garner admitted Monday. "I tried some things and nothing happened."
There were days he wondered why he had gotten back into baseball.
"I don't know why the hell I'm doing this," he told himself. "My life was pretty good."
"He has a way of bringing out the best in people," Carol said. "He thrives on pressure. But he felt he wasn't making a difference."
In the end, he did.
Tal Smith, Houston's president of baseball operations, recalled being a St. Louis fan as a kid, when the Cardinals won 43 of their last 51 to close out the 1942 season.
"This is a first since the '69 Mets," Smith said of the Astros' stretch run.
Those Mets also overtook the Chicago Cubs and went on to win the World Series.
Smith pointed to the Astros going 11-0 in one-run games over the final six weeks and 8-2 in two-run games in that span.
"It's been an amazing run," he said. "We played so poorly in May, June, July and the first half of August. I kept thinking of Jim Valvano's famous speech, 'Don't give up, don't ever give up.' There's always hope.
"You didn't anticipate the Cubs losing seven of eight, or the Dodgers scoring seven runs in the ninth [to beat San Francisco Saturday]."
Left-hander reliever Mike Gallo was the only player able to make the Monday Rally, as the rest of his teammates scheduled to gather for a 4 p.m. workout.
"I would not want to miss this," he said, staring up at the fans scurrying for seats in the stands. "This is something you tell your kids about. I've got goose bumps. I want to come back and do this at the World Series."
Just another Manic Monday.
Gallo was a part of the maligned middle relief corps that failed to protect leads in the summer.
But that crew turned tough in September, when it mattered most.
"We got kicked around a little bit," Gallo said. "We leaned on each other. You've got to learn from your failures.
"We've been playing playoff type games for the last month. Usually the hottest team going into the playoffs does some damage."
Beginning Wednesday in Atlanta, the improbable Astros will be playing playoff games for real.
Gene Duffey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.