Getting There

This weekend, I will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s still a little surreal. It’s the greatest individual honor a player could ever receive, and I’m humbled and blessed to be considered among the greatest of all time.

But if you talk to anyone who’s ever played the game, they’ll tell you the same thing: You don’t play for individual honors. You don’t play for stats, you don’t play to make the All-Star team and you don’t play to make it into the Hall of Fame. You play to win a World Series ring. Every year, that’s the goal. If you do make it to the Hall, that means you’ve had a long, successful career, and hopefully you’ve won — or at least had the chance to play for — a couple of championships along the way.

Being a New York kid, my dream was that simple: Make it to the big leagues, play in a few World Series and hopefully win a couple. That’s what I watched the Yankees do growing up, so that’s what I knew. Greatness was an expectation.

The first part of that dream came true when I got drafted by the Houston Astros in 1987.

In terms of tradition, I couldn’t have been drafted by an organization more different than the Yankees I grew up watching. The Astros had only been around since the 60s, while the Yankees had been around seemingly forever. The Astros had only been to the postseason twice, while the Yankees had won more championships than any other team. In my teenage years alone, the Yankees went to four World Series, winning two.

While the Yankees were iconic in just about every way, in Houston, we had to build our own tradition and culture from scratch. Nothing came easy.

We didn’t make the playoffs until my 10th season. We got swept by the Braves in a five-game series, but that playoff run was the start of something. In 1998, ’99 and again in 2001, we got back to the playoffs. In 2004, we finally broke out of the first round and made it to the NLCS.

During the 2005 postseason, I heard a certain stat being thrown around. I guess I was the longest-tenured MLB player who had never played in a World Series. But believe me, it wasn’t from a lack of trying. As a teenager watching the Yankees — they made it seem so easy. Like getting to the World Series was just part of the game. But anyone who’s played the game — even those who’ve won multiple championships — knows how difficult it is to make it to and win the World Series, especially on a consistent basis.

That 2005 season, we made it back to the NLCS for the second consecutive year. This time, in my 18th Major League season, we finally broke through. We finally made it to the World Series.

As you get older, you tend to appreciate things more, because with age comes perspective. Here I was, 39 years old, about to play in my first World Series. Had I gotten to the World Series as a 22- or 23-year-old, I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate it as much. But because I knew just how difficult it is to get there, it was that much more special.

I was fortunate enough to have been to seven All-Star games and to the postseason seven times, but to finally break that barrier and get to the World Series was something bigger than I’d ever imagined. When I walked out onto that field for Game 1, I instantly felt bad for all the guys who’d never gotten the chance to play in one. There are some amazing players — even Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks, Rod Carew and Ken Griffey Jr. — who never got a chance to play in a World Series. It just goes to show you that you can’t measure an individual by how many rings he’s won. Getting to and winning a World Series is a team accomplishment. You can’t knock an individual player for having never made it there. He just wasn’t fortunate enough to be on the right team at the right time.

But you’re never satisfied just getting there. You get that far, you wanna win it. That’s the goal.

We came to play, but so did the White Sox. It was a tough series. A couple of one-run games, a 14-inning marathon in Game 3 — no game was decided by more than two runs. Every game could have gone either way. But in each game, the White Sox did what they needed to do to make it go their way, and they won the series, 4-0.

Jeff Bagwell, Brad Ausmus and I were pretty close. We talked a lot. But when the White Sox made the final out to win the series — on our home field, no less — we didn’t say a word. Nothing needed to be said. We didn’t beat ourselves, they just beat us.

There’s definitely a hangover effect in the days and weeks after. We felt terrible because we wanted to win, and each game was so close I couldn’t help but think that one pitch, one bounce or one play could have been the difference in the Astros winning a world championship instead of the White Sox.

But those feelings didn’t last long.

I live in Houston. And after the World Series, even though I was still discouraged that we’d lost, when I’d get in my car, no matter where I went — South Texas, the grocery store, a Little League field somewhere — people would come up to me and thank me. They’d say, “Thank you. I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.” It was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe the reception and how grateful people were for us just getting there. They were so genuinely grateful that it almost felt like we did win. All that love really eased the pain of losing for me and my teammates.

Even though I’d played 18 seasons in Houston, it really didn’t hit me until then: The Astros aren’t the Yankees. Astros fans didn’t have the same Yankees culture I grew up with, and the organization certainly didn’t have the Yankees’ payroll. When the fans embraced us and thanked us even though we lost the World Series, for the first time in my career I sat back and thought, Wow. This is something new. This has never happened here before. I didn’t realize what it meant to them just to be there. Just to reach that milestone.

And it wasn’t just Astros fans. Texas is a fiercely proud state, and it was the first time any team from Texas had made it to the World Series. The Rangers weren’t around until the 70s and faced a lot of the same challenges as the Astros.

I had to wait 18 seasons to finally play in my first World Series, but let me tell you something: With the reception we got all over the state, it was well worth the wait. Just making it to that World Series was one of the coolest things I ever experienced as a player.

As crazy as the Astros fans went when we went to the World Series in 2005, I can’t imagine what they’ll be like when we finally break through and win one. We’ve had a tough stretch for the last few years, but our fans? They’re ready and waiting. With that in mind, it’s going to be interesting to see the mood of the city and the excitement in that town as we move through the second half of the 2015 season.

This young Astros team is right in the thick of the AL West race, and when you look at our guys — the excitement and the energy they play with — we’re a fun team to watch. You got pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who started the All-Star game. You got Jose Altuve, a third-year guy and another All-Star. You got former No. 1 pick Carlos Correa up in the big leagues and doing his thing. You got George Springer, who’s as exciting a player as anybody in the league.

Pitching, defense and timely hitting wins championships. On the Astros, we have three or four different guys who can play all three outfield positions. Our infield is solid. Out catching group is solid. Our bullpen is solid. Our pitching staff is solid. And with the big hitters we have, we have a chance to put up runs at any time. We’re a good, young team, and it’ll be interesting to see how the second half plays out.

By making it to the playoffs seven times, those late-90s and 2000s teams — with me, Baggy, Ausmus and a lot of other great players — changed the culture in Houston. We weren’t just hoping to get to the playoffs anymore. We expected to. Our fanbase is ready for our boys to get back to the standard, and they’re right there.

I said it before and I’ll say it a lot this weekend, and probably for the rest of my life, but I’m humbled and blessed to have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s the greatest individual honor a player could ever receive.

But would I give it all back — the Hall, the All-Star appearances, the Gold Gloves, the Silver Sluggers — to have won that World Series ring? Heck yeah. Not because I don’t value those accomplishments or because I’m not honored to be in the Hall of Fame, but because of what it would have meant to the city of Houston. If I could have accomplished one thing in my career that I didn’t accomplish, it would be having given Houston — and the state of Texas — that first World Series championship.

But since we can’t go back in time, it’s up to the next wave of Astros. It’s up to that young group of guys who’s surprising everybody this season. I’m confident they’ll get there, and I know the state of Texas will be ready when they do.