A wistful look back at Puma being Puma

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Many years ago, I titled this photo “Puma being Puma.”

It was a combination of a nod to who Lance Berkman was as a professional and a person — affable, fun, kind and a free spirit — and a slight jab at the phrase being thrown about in the media ad nauseam to describe the malcontent Manny Ramirez had become. “Manny being Manny” became a sort of rally cry for anyone who was trying to figure out why Ramirez acted out in ways that made him somewhat of an undesirable teammate. A once well-liked player, Ramirez had turned into somewhat of a pain for teammates and support staffers, all which were met with a collective non-committal shrug — as in, “Well, that’s just Manny being Manny.” ‘

Puma being Puma, on the other hand, was a very, very good thing, and it served us all well during his time spent in a Major League uniform. He was fun to watch play and was a tremendous subject to cover as a reporter, if only for his refusal to use clichés and give non-informational information. He was, for the most part, an open book, exceedingly honest even when his views drew criticism.

But what I love most about this picture is how and why it was taken to begin with. I’ve known Berkman, quite literally, from day one of his pro career. The first press conference I attended as a member of the Astros media relations office in 1997 was the one that announced Berkman, the club’s first-round Draft pick that year, had signed.

As time went on, and the Internet changed the way baseball is covered, visual effects became a driving force in the media. I had a camera with me for most of the years I covered the Astros for MLB.com, and as social media hit the landscape (and, for a few years, became my job), photographs weren’t just a nice supplement to the coverage. They were essential and relevant, and played a huge role in driving traffic to our web site and blogs.

That’s how I established such a love-hate relationship with Puma. He loved me. He hated my camera.

Oh sure, he was good-natured about it and for the most part went along with it, doing his best to ignore the camera while going about his business on a typical work day. But I was annoying. Most of the time, he laughed it off, but invariably, I knew that on most game days, I was going to get at least one eye roll from the Big Puma.

“Footer, would you get that stupid camera out of my face,” he’d politely request. “I’m just giving the people what they want,” I’d answer. “People want a thousand pictures of me taking BP?” he’d respond. “Well…yes,” I’d explain.

And so it was. This never became a huge issue, mainly because he respected me, I respected him, and we genuinely liked each other. And as the years went on, his annoyance gave way to a new determination — not so much to get me to put the camera down, but rather to dodge it as much as humanly possible.

The end result? A collection of shots of the back of Berkman’s head, or just a big empty space of nothing after he jumped out of the way at the last second. It cracked him up and after a while, the camera didn’t irritate him anymore. It just made him laugh.

So one day at Spring Training, during another mind-numbing session of batting practice, Puma was in full-force camera-dodge mode. I’d point it toward him, and he’d jump to the left. Then to the right. He’d duck, turn his back, run away…and he succeeded, every time. So finally, I turned my back to him, pretended to look toward the visiting dugout, put the camera in the air, backward, and took a photo. I had no idea where I was pointing or if he was even still standing there.

It turned out to be the very best picture I ever took of him (and explains why the top of his cap is cut off).

Berkman’s retirement announcement brought forth thoughtful, moving columns about why he was so well-liked as a player. We respected his athletic abilities, but appreciated his decency as a human being even more. As the Astros organize a formal event at the ballpark this season to honor him, we’ll read more and more about his terrific career. It’s all deserved.

But as soon as I heard Puma had made the retirement official, all I could think about were the pictures. There is an album on my Facebook page titled, “My favorite ‘Stop taking pictures of me’ pictures of the Puma.” That collection, plus many more taken since then, will serve as a reminder of how much genuine laughter we all shared during the years Berkman was an Astro.

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Veteran players don’t exactly love the length and dull nature of Spring Training. Henceforth, we call this “Grumpy Puma.”

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Grumpy Puma, part deux (with gum)

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Berkman hasn’t uttered a curse word since high school. So this one drew his favorite phrase… “Dadgummit.” As in, “Dadgummit, stop it already.”

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Passing the time at Spring Training, Puma-style.

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Still more passing time at Spring Training.

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I couldn’t help but notice how fantastically appropriate it was when Berkman was paired with Goofy for an ESPN parade at Disney.

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Me: “Do something interesting.” Puma: “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

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Invading the personal space of radio announcer Dave Raymond.

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Berkman didn’t always run from the camera. Here he is blocking me from taking a photo of Hunter Pence at a community event during the offseason.

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And again

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And…again

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“Act natural,” I requested during this shoot with Puma and reporter Brian McTaggart.

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Puma being Puma…one more time.

Civil Rights weekend roundup: on the issues, the progress and the work still to be done.

Emptying the notebook after a fantastic Civil Rights weekend in Chicago, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington…

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Is college baseball hurting the Major Leagues?

The Civil Rights roundtable discussion last Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center touched on several talking points, one being that the lack of African-American ballplayers in the Major Leagues can be attributed partly to the lack of substantial baseball scholarships offered at the collegiate level. Most baseball programs don’t offer full rides, opting instead to utilize partial scholarships that not only don’t fully cover tuition, but don’t provide enough for books, room and board, etc.

This deters a large population of the young athletes who can’t otherwise afford it from pursuing baseball. They go the football/basketball route, where scholarship money is more plentiful.

“It sets the African-American baseball player back 15 years,” said MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, who moderated the roundtable discussion. “These days a lot of teams like to draft college players and not high school players, and you just cut the legs off of African-American players.”

The notion that baseball has become too expensive would have been laughed at one or two generations ago. But not anymore. The intensity level of competition seems to have increased over the years, with select and traveling teams often the only way for a kid to participate in competitive organized baseball. This costs money. And subsequently, it eliminates a huge number of kids from being able to pursue baseball in earnest.

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Hank Aaron and Harold Reynolds at the roundtable discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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Longtime sports columnist Michael Wilbon, a veteran newspaper man perhaps best known for his work as half of the duo on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” was the keynote speaker at the Beacon Awards Luncheon honoring Bo Jackson and Aretha Franklin on Saturday. A native Chicagoan, Wilbon spoke passionately about his love for baseball as a kid growing up on the south side. Apparently, he could play a little, too.

“I thought I was unhittable,” he said. “Until this tank of a kid — five-foot-six, 200 pounds…he crushed a pitch that I threw about 370 feet.” Wilbon asked a teammate after the game who that kid was.

“Somebody said, ‘You don’t know who that is?’” Wilbon recalled. “‘It’s Puckett. Kirby Puckett.’

Wilbon laughed as he remembered responding, ‘OK. Let’s keep track of him.”

Fast forward 10 years. Wilbon was now a sports reporter for the Washington Post and, upon walking into the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, Puckett approached him.

“He said, ‘Don’t I know you? You look familiar,’” Wilbon recalled. “I said ‘Nah. It’s got to be someone else. We’ve never seen each other.”

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Wilbon was a White Sox fan, but later rooted for the Cubs as well, despite a disturbing incident his father encountered many years earlier at Wrigley Field. An avid Cubs fan at the time, Wilbon’s dad attempted to buy a ticket to watch Jackie Robinson’s first game at Wrigley, but he was, according to Wilbon, “shooed away from the box office.”

Apparently, the racism Robinson experienced as the first black player in the big leagues extended to the grandstands as well.

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Hank Aaron, as has been well-documented, had to deal with unspeakable racism during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record. He heard the taunts from the stands and received terrible, threatening, hateful letters from the lowest of the low, many of which included death threats that promised not only to affect him, but his family, too.

Yet to hear Aaron talk about it today, he feels anything he had to endure was nothing compared to what Robinson had to deal with when he broke the color barrier in 1947.

“Listen, I just went through a little tidbit of what Jackie went through…I had nothing,” Aaron said before the Beacon Awards luncheon. “All I had to do was walk out there and hit a baseball, go back in somewhere and hide and go back out the next day and hit another baseball. Jackie had some tough times. I happened to play against him the last two or three years that he played. He probably had the toughest of all.”

On a lighter note, Aaron asked by a local reporter to conjure up any fond memories of his time playing at Chicago-based Wrigley Field, remembered one particular game that left him, at the time, speechless.

“The thing I remember most about playing at Wrigley Field was hitting probably the hardest ball I ever hit in my life off Kenny Holtzman when he pitched a no-hitter,” Aaron said. “I thought for sure I hit a home run, and the wind blew it right back.

Aaron felt like it could have cleared the bleachers. But, no.

“It was the hardest ball I ever hit,” he said. “I don’t know how it stayed in the ballpark.”

Aaron was also quick to add that he was Holtzman’s final obstacle before nailing down the no-hitter: “He wasn’t afraid to pitch to me. He came right back and got me out for the last out.”

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Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was just entering the big leagues when Jackie Robinson was nearing retirement, and other than the two taking a picture together before a game, they didn’t cross paths as active players.

“My manager took me over and we posed for a picture, but after that, it was business as usual,” Frank Robinson said. “I believed in not fraternizing with the opposition while you’re in uniform.”

That changed once Jackie was finished with his playing career. Frank visited him at his office when Jackie was working for Chock Full O’Nuts.

“I spent a couple of hours with him just talking about baseball, about life, about the game away from the field and what the responsibilities were of me coming in and people of my color coming in at the time,” Robinson said. “Our responsibilities on and off the field. Really, it was the only time I talked to him.”

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Spend five minutes talking with Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, and it becomes apparent she’s a true slice of living history, with amazingly moving anecdotes about her father.

Jackie was of course well-known for the impact he had on Major League Baseball, but what he did once he retired shouldn’t be overlooked. After retiring in 1957, he really had two full-time jobs: as an executive for Chock Full O’Nuts, and as an advocate for the Civil Rights movement that took up almost as much time.

Jackie had a deal with his boss that he would be allowed to take off work to fulfill commitments all over the country as a Civil Rights Movement spokesman. In his free time, he and his family hosted jazz concerts at their home to raise money for various organizations as well as for families of victims of hate crimes.

The first guest? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not long after he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

“It was an unbelievable moment in our lives to see him at the March on Washington and then to see him up close and personal and see he was a warm and engaging person,” Sharon remembered.

Jackie Robinson died before a Major League Baseball team hired its first black manager, but he spent the final years of his life tirelessly pressing the league to break down that barrier, as well. His last statement to baseball was, according to Sharon, “I’m glad we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary [of his debut]. We might have broken this color barrier but still, I’m looking out there and there are no black managers.”

“He was still egging them on at the last moment,” Sharon said. “That baseball has to continue to change. That America has to continue to change.”

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

“Let Them Wear Towels” exposes bad behavior, terrible treatment and progress.

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A reporter’s job: keep eyes open, recorder running and don’t miss a morsel of what’s unfolding in front of you. To do this, it’s helpful to actually be there.

It was 2004. The Astros were in Atlanta. And they were celebrating.

That last part alone was remarkable. For years, there were very few reasons for the Astros to be celebrating in Atlanta. Whether it was the regular season, or, more significantly, the postseason, the only thing that happened to the Astros in Atlanta of any import was their ability to quietly pack up their belongings and get the heck out of town as quickly as possible.

The Astros never won in Atlanta. Even in their best seasons, they’d go there and get thumped, two, sometimes, three games. And the playoffs? Bah. Pick a year: 1997, 1999, 2001. Different seasons, same results. The Astros were, simply, the Braves’ personal punching bag.

That is, until 2004. The scene in the clubhouse was chaotic. The Astros finally did it — they beat the Braves in the Division Series, and they spent the next hour or so destroying the carpet in the visiting clubhouse with several dozen cases of bubbly. This was a big one. This wasn’t merely the first time the Astros won a postseason series against the Braves. This was the first time they won a postseason series, ever. Seven tries over 40 years and not a single time did they advance beyond the first round. Until now.

Amid the hugs and laughing and champagne chugging, there were so many other things going on in that clubhouse at Turner Field. Older players spoke sadly and solemnly about their friend, Ken Caminiti, who had died just days earlier. Longtime Brave John Smoltz, part of all of those prior teams that beat the Astros, snuck into a backroom adjacent to the visitors’ clubhouse to personally congratulate Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and wish them luck in the next round. General manager Gerry Hunsicker, normally buttoned up, stoic and very GM-like, laughed joyously, champagne-soaked hair wildly shooting off in every direction, recalling his thoughts even with the Astros up by seven or eight runs late in the game: “Oh boy. Here comes (Mike) Gallo. This thing isn’t over yet.”

If this was the scene in, say, 1984 and not 2004, the situation would have been different. Oh, sure, the carpet would have still been destroyed. And players would still be loud and laughing. And the GM would still look like a crazy mad scientist. And classy players from the losing team would still be gracious in defeat.

It would have been different, however, in that the only reporters documenting all of this would have been men. Me? I would have been standing outside of the clubhouse, alone, missing everything, and hoping someone would be nice enough to come outside and tell me about it.

I thought about this, and the dozens of other poignant moments that I would have missed during my years covering the Astros for MLB.com, as I watched the documentary “Let Them Wear Towels” on ESPN Classic. This hour-long special, chronicling the treatment women sports reporters received decades ago, both enraged and enlightened me. Previously, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how things were handled back then. After watching this show, I realize I had absolutely no idea how bad it really was.

It’s impossible to truly comprehend how horribly women were treated back then, mainly because it seems so preposterous in modern times. If you walk into a Major League clubhouse today, you may not find the same number of women reporters as men, but the ratio is closer than ever. And there are probably athletes who still don’t like women in locker rooms, but for the most part, it’s a teeny tiny minority. It’s not unnatural or weird or a spectacle for a woman to be in a locker room. It’s simply a normal workday.

This would be in stark contrast to women being harassed, screamed at and physically thrown out of clubhouses, which apparently was standard practice in the 1970s and ’80s. As I watched “Let Them Wear Towels,” I found myself gasping with disbelief, just stunned, with what women had to deal with back then. It just infuriated me. One account actually moved me to tears.

I tried to imagine what it would be like today, to go through what our predecessors endured. And I can’t. It just makes no sense. Standing alone in a hallway, barricaded from a place I had every right to be? Shunned by not only the athletes, but also the public relations directors and fellow reporters, most of who refused to help? Having absolutely no control over anything, including the crappy copy I was about to file to my editor because I had no quotes? And not losing my mind — or worse, my temper — throughout?

I’d like to think I would have pushed forward and fought for what was right. Would I have stood my ground? Probably. Would I have done it with as much restraint, class and dignity as the women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels” did? Well…

As I watched, I tried to put myself into a 1980s setting where women in locker rooms were treated like human feces. Then I thought, why not do the reverse — put the actions of yesteryear in the context of today?

Below is what may have taken place if a female sportswriter in the 1970s or ’80s was live tweeting her experiences, in real time. Most of this is based on exactly what was relayed to us by the brave, strong women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels.”

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Couple of notes:

* Kingman most definitely dumped water over a reporter’s head, but there was no limping on his part later. I added that as a way of relaying how the situation may have been handled differently in, say, 2013, if it had happened to not @alysonfmlb but to @alysonfooter on a day that she may or may not have been moved to use her knee as a weapon of mass destruction.

* The kindness Garvey showed to Claire Smith of the New York Times brought tears to my eyes. It was such a small gesture, but looking back, it probably was a main turning point in the lifting of this outrageous ban on women in clubhouses. And Garvey acted as he did because he knew it was the right thing to do. Simple enough, no? You’d think.

* There is much more to the documentary, including the account of a landmark lawsuit filed by Sports Illustrated against Major League Baseball on behalf of then-26-year-old reporter Melissa Ludtke to grant women access into locker rooms. And then there’s the unspeakable treatment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by the New England Patriots, the aftermath of which was so unbearable that Olson ended up moving to Australia for a spell to get out of the public spotlight.

To say we’ve come a long way would be laughably understated. Not only is the behavior that was so rampant in a generation ago looked down upon today, almost all of it is also illegal.

Progress can’t be made without our predecessors fighting for change. It’s just unfortunate so many had to suffer that much in order to move things forward.

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

So you say you want to work in baseball…

Derrick Hall started out in this business the same way everyone else did – at the bottom.

He was young, eager and willing to do anything, and he did in 1992, throwing himself into his work as an intern with the Class A Vero Beach Dodgers. He stocked shelves. He gave away free car washes to lucky fans who bought the right stamped program. He hammed it up in the stands as a Monty Hall-type entertainer.

He also learned how to deal with people.

“I knew every one of my season ticket holders by name,” Hall recalled. “I knew which ones liked Bud Light and which ones liked frozen lemonade.”

Today, he’s still on a first-name basis with season ticket holders. Sponsors, too. And every front office employee, top to bottom. It’s all part of his job as the president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, an organization widely regarded as boasting one of the industry’s healthiest work environments.

Hall, addressing a roomful of job seekers on Wednesday in Houston, ticked off his list of criteria when he’s looking to fill a position.

“You have passion,” he said.

And?

“You truly love the game of baseball. You’re a fit for the right reason. And you want to make a career of it.”

It sounds simple, yes. That’s because it is. Hall understands what it takes to work in baseball. He’s been doing it for most of his adult life, as have most industry executives. They do it because they love it.

Sustainability in this game requires skill and know-how, sure, but a genuine appreciation for the game is another vital element. It takes almost no time for the novelty of “Neat, I’m working in baseball” to wear off. A few 80-hour workweeks and modest wages are usually all that’s needed to weed out those who say “Heck, why not, I’ll give it a try, might be fun” and those who will do anything it takes to work in baseball, because it’s all they’ve ever wanted to do, and because they’ll go to whatever lengths necessary just to get the proverbial foot in the door.

I think it’s safe to say if you travel to a far-away place on your own dime in order to get 10 minutes of face-to-face time with a baseball executive without any guarantees that it will lead to future employment, you fall into the latter category.

That’s why if I was in a position to hire someone, I’d begin my search at a baseball-sponsored job fair.

There are currently two — the PBEO job fair at the Winter Meetings, and the Job Seeker Trade Fair at the Diversity Business Summit. PBEO (Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities) has been around for a couple decades at the very minimum, while the Diversity Business Summit is newer, just having hosted its second-ever event in Houston on Wednesday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Both offer opportunities for job seekers to meet with teams in person. In essence, their resumes fly to the top of the digital stack, and even if there’s not a match, the chance to network and lay groundwork for possible future employment can prove invaluable. From a team standpoint, it’s a good way to jump right over the people who may not be serious about it and get right to those who say they want to work in baseball and mean it.

I’m admittedly a little biased. I got my first baseball job after attending the PBEO job fair at the Winter Meetings in Los Angeles in 1995. I bought a plane ticket, booked a hotel, grabbed a stack of resumes (and my mom) and headed west, where I had no idea what was ahead of me. All I knew was that it was what I needed to do if I was going to make a serious go of this baseball thing.

(This was before the Internet, so I had to actually call a number to sign up for the job fair. No, seriously — I talked to someone very helpful named Anne, who explained that I would need to write the phone number to my hotel on my resumes when I got there, so that perspective employers could call my room if they needed to find me, especially if they had a job offer. Really, this is how we did in the stone ages, when # meant “pound” and “apps” was short for appetizers.)

The experience was excruciating. Three days of anxiety, sweat and nervous nail-biting, while competing with 500 other job fair attendees trying to nab the same low-paying (or no-paying) mostly Minor League jobs. There was one Major League opening, with the Dodgers, but you needed to know how to speak Japanese. (Nomo-mania and all.)

I don’t remember how many teams I interviewed with, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of more than two and less than five. Salary-wise, I figured I could make it work if I didn’t do anything frivolous, like eat. One interviewer from a New York-Penn League team asked, “How do you feel about cleaning bathrooms?” Another said they couldn’t pay me. It wasn’t an internship, like for class credit. They were just not offering money. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.

I landed a job with the Double-A Canton-Akron Indians, was handed a semi-cool title and a salary that basically took care of the rent and a biweekly six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. I pulled tarp. I cleaned the stadium after rainy nights. I sold concessions when workers didn’t show. It was a tough year. Let’s just say the work environment was very much the opposite of what Derrick Hall has going at the Diamondbacks. But it was exactly where I needed to be to get to where I wanted to go. The Indians job was a start. The job fair was my springboard.

That’s not to say job fairs are the only way to go. A former colleague at the Astros still has the hand-written rejection letter Drayton McLane sent him 12 or 13 years ago. A soon-to-be graduate at Texas A&M University, Clint just wanted in and was willing to take on just about any task to get there. McLane — not his secretary, not his public relations staff, but actually Drayton himself — kindly explained they didn’t have any positions available, but encouraged him to stay determined and keep charging.

Clint finally got one foot in the door working in the tour department. He eventually landed an internship in marketing, and a couple of years later was promoted to Director of Marketing.

That’s how it was in the Astros’ front office for a long time. College students did internships and internships sometimes turned into full-time employment. At one point, about half the workers on the business side of the operation had started out as interns.

This isn’t unique to just Houston. Every team has similar stories. Most executives, both high-ranking and the middle of the pack, started out by doing the grunt work dumped on them by their bosses. They stayed because they couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else.

In this game, that’s not just the right attitude. It’s the only one that works.

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

Osama bin Laden: He gone!!!!

The text came in on May 2, 2011, as I was watching President Obama confirm what the wire reports had already told us: Osama bin Laden had been killed by a heroic Navy SEAL Team 6. The country celebrated, with impromptu “USA! USA!” chants popping up in ballparks stretching from California to New York.

Then I received a text from an Astros player who was relatively new to Twitter.

“Can I tweet, ‘Bin Laden. HE GONE!!!!!’” he asked.

I laughed and assured him that it was fine, that it was a very American thing to be happy about this news, and that while normally it wouldn’t be a good idea to celebrate death on Twitter, for this, it was entirely patriotic and very appropriate.

While I found our exchange amusing, I also was glad that he took the extra measure to check in. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to say something that would reflect poorly on him and subsequently, on the organization, and I appreciated it. At that time, we had already constructed a code of ethics regarding social media, a four-page explanation that was included in the Minor League handbook. But we were still in the process of educating players on the Major League level as to what was expected of them if they chose to be active on Facebook and Twitter.

During my time overseeing the social media side of the Astros’ operation from 2009 to 2012, I encouraged players to embrace social media but made sure they understood they needed to be smart about it. The upside of Twitter is that it’s a great way to interact directly with the fans, which in turn can reflect favorably on a player’s marketability. But it can also be dangerous, since there’s no filter between the players and the public.

Twitter is based largely on knee-jerk reactions, which can spell trouble, especially for a professional athlete in the public spotlight. Basically, it’s a free-for-all, where a brief short-tempered moment can turn into public controversy, creating unnecessary headaches for the players and the organizations that employ them.

This was recently brought to light by an unfortunate lapse in judgment by Ian Stewart, an infielder in the Cubs’ organization who is currently playing for the club’s Triple-A team in Iowa. Through a series of tweets, mostly coming from exchanges with inquisitive followers, Stewart unleashed a lot of anger directed in large part toward Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

To state the obvious, the Cubs weren’t happy. Citing a “loyalty clause” in Stewart’s contract, the infielder has been suspended without pay. Terms of the suspension will be announced at a later time, after the Cubs get through the legalities of the process.

It goes without saying (and Stewart actually did say it later, through a string of repentant tweets) that he’d like to have those 15 minutes back. Surely, he’d have gone about things differently and just vented to a buddy over a beer, or called his mom, or simply seethed inwardly, unnoticed. You know, the way we used to complain about our problems during the stone ages of the early 2000s, before social media.

What happened to Stewart should serve as a cautionary tale to all players. There are a few fights you cannot win, one of which is taking on your organization through social media, especially when you have accomplished little, if anything, in the big leagues. (The other is criticizing the fans, especially about low attendance, but that’s a topic for another day).

During my time with the Astros, I had a chance to speak to a few of the Minor League affiliates during my yearly trips to check out the organization’s top prospects. We also held media training sessions during Spring Training with eight to 10 of the young players in Major League camp who were expected to have a presence in Houston at some point within a year or so. My message: please, please please…think before you tweet.

“Before you tweet something, imagine one of the beat writers standing in front of you with a flip cam pointed at your face and a tape recorder running,” I’d say. “Now, say the tweet out loud. Are you comfortable with this being on the record?”

Tweets are most definitely suitable for public, and media, consumption. If reporters see something newsworthy on Twitter, it’s considered very much on the record and if it’s juicy enough, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll run with it. This is the world we live in today. Players may not like it, but they have to adjust to it. Some have done this better than others.

Prior to Spring Training in 2012, we designed large signs, in English and Spanish, to hang in the clubhouses at all of the Minor League affiliates, plus in the Major League clubhouses in Houston and Kissimmee. Titled “The Dos and Don’ts of Twitter” (with focus more on the don’ts), we explained the rules in an orderly, colorful fashion, using eye-catching graphics to illustrate what’s good and what’s bad. Some sections included smiley faces and a cartoon drawing of a “thumbs up” to show what is acceptable, while frowning faces and thumbs down were used in the “don’t do this” areas.

Major League Baseball had sent out its own memo to the players explaining what was acceptable and what wasn’t regarding social media, but we wanted to spell out the expectations of players on something that could serve as a daily reminder without any effort, other than looking at it hanging on the wall. Most importantly, we just wanted the players to read it.

Included in the “what not to do on Twitter” section: don’t call out teammates or air private disagreements with coaches/managers/front office. Don’t tweet after drinking alcohol and don’t use profanity/sexual innuendos.

Also, don’t comment on signings or trades before the transactions are officially announced by the team. During our Spring Training talks with the Minor Leaguers, we explained that for every promotion, someone on the Major League team was getting traded, or released, or demoted. Informing the Minor League player that he was going to the big leagues was just one step in the process, and likely, the first step.

So while you’re on Twitter celebrating your buddy making it to “the show,” we explained, there’s someone in the Major League clubhouse who’s about to lose his job. It’s usually in that order.

“Until you see it on my Twitter, it hasn’t happened,” I’d say. “I don’t care if a full 24 hours goes by between when it leaks out and when it’s confirmed. It’s unofficial until we say it’s not.”

On the list of “what to do on Twitter,” we encouraged players to show gratitude to the fans, to thank them for their support, and be humble. Talk about working hard and trying to improve. Speak of their teammates in a supportive manner, and talk about community events they’ve participated in.

In the middle of the poster, in a shaded box, was this:

BEFORE TWEETING, ASK YOURSELF:

* Is this something I want my parents/wife/girlfriend/relatives to know about me?

* Will this create conflict with my teammates/organization?

* Is this something I would be OK seeing quoted in a newspaper/online news site?

Finally, we gave examples of good tweets and bad tweets by professional athletes.

@JustinVerlander: My 2012 resolutions: Help Tigers get to World Series, meet more veterans, learn Spanish.

Good tweet.

@OakcliffBully (Kenyon Martin): All the haters should catch full blown aids and die! do the world a favor! and rid us of you all!

Clearly, a bad tweet.

Our intent wasn’t to stifle players or take away their freedom of speech. I wanted them to be themselves, to have opinions, to show their personalities and embrace the opportunity for a healthy give-and-take with the fanbase. But they also needed to understand that while they are representing Major League Baseball and the teams that are paying them, they are held to a higher standard.

There have been hiccups over time, sure. And it’s possible that another Ian Stewart situation will happen again. For the most part, though, I’ve been impressed by how ballplayers handle social media, especially during times of adversity when fans can vent their frustrations directly to a players’ Twitter account. These guys show amazing restraint, and I commend them.

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Notes from San Francisco: Language barriers, Affleldt’s new book and saying hi to an old friend.

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Hundreds of reporters from all corners of the globe are covering the World Baseball Classic, which presents an assortment of challenges for the tournament’s organizers. The main hurdle? Language barriers.

I’ve never covered an Olympics, but presumably, Major League Baseball has ripped a page or two from that handbook in terms of handling the media during the Classic.

Every reporter, regardless of what language he or she speaks, will have access to every quote uttered by the participants on the podium. How this is carried out is fascinating.

From a media standpoint, the World Baseball Classic is organized in the same manner as a Major League postseason. Formal press conferences are held in an interview room before and after games, attended by managers and select players.

Unlike the Major League playoffs, where clubhouses are open to accredited media after games, clubhouses are closed throughout the duration of the tournament. That makes the interview room sessions essential to reporters who would have very limited access to the players without them.

As a result, press conferences are very well attended, and, compared to the postseason, each session lasts quite a while — often 20 minutes or more. What makes these gatherings interesting is how many different languages are spoken, and because the reporters covering the World Baseball Classic aren’t necessarily from the same countries as the teams that are playing in it, this could be challenging during a general question-and-answer session.

That’s why a World Baseball Classic media gathering can look more like a United Nations convention than a baseball session. Interpreters work simultaneously to ensure every person in the room is able to ask questions in his or her native language, to listen to questions asked by people who speak other languages and to understand the answers given by the folks on the podium, regardless of what language they’re speaking.

How does this work? Headphones are available outside of the interview room, with channels to select from, depending on the language you want to hear.

Easy enough for even reporters to understand.

The postgame scene following Puerto Rico’s win over Japan on Sunday was interesting. Japanese media had questions for the Spanish-speaking players and Spanish-language reporters interviewed the Japanese manager, and thanks to the interpreters sitting in glass-enclosed booths in the back of the room, everyone got answers.

When a question is asked, interpreters from the other two languages repeat the question, and when an answer is given, the same process applies. Reporters tune into the channel of their choosing and simply listen in.

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The players and managers also wear headphones, which enables them to get the questions interpreted if they’re asked by someone who doesn’t speak their language. This process allows for a Japanese reporter to ask a question of a Puerto Rican player and receive a full answer in less than 45 seconds.

The other extremely helpful part of World Baseball Classic coverage is the utilization of court reporters, who document every press conference and provide transcripts to the media within minutes of the conclusion of the session.

Regardless of what language is used to ask the questions and given the answers, the transcripts are all handed out in English.

Pregame press conference: Dominican manager Tony Pena, infielder Robinson Cano

Pregame press conference: Dominican manager Tony Pena, second baseman Robinson Cano

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Netherlands press conference: Curt Smith (left), Hensley Meulens, Wladimir Balentien.

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Book Club

At 33 years old, Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt is fully aware that he’s probably too young to be writing an autobiography when there are still so many life experiences coming his way. But he does feel he has a few things he’d like to pass along to young people, and he also seeks a platform by which to speak out against injustices in the world he’d like to help wipe out.

He had those two elements in mind when he wrote a book titled “To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice, and Major League Baseball,” which is set to be released on April 1.

The focus of the book is not necessarily on Affeldt’s life, although he does offer several anecdotal bits based on his own experiences. Simply, Affeldt feels that professional athletes (contrary to what Charles Barkley has to say about it), are indeed role models. As a believer in good living, leadership and doing the right thing, Affeldt doesn’t shy away from the responsibilities that accompany being in the public eye. He embraces it.

“A lot of guys say, ‘I don’t want to be a role model,’” he said before one of Team USA’s World Baseball Classic games in Phoenix. “Well, too bad. You chose the wrong profession. You’re automatically a role model. Good or bad, you’re going to be one.”

How many of us, at age 30, would love to go back to our 18-year-old selves and offer a little foreshadowing as to what’s coming? That’s part of what Affeldt, who lived all over the world as part of a military family growing up, hopes to accomplish by publishing this book. He’d like to act as a middle man of sorts to kids just now coming of age.

“There’s a lot of 15 to 25-year-olds that I think are a little bit confused when it comes to leading in this country and in the world,” he said. “I wanted to give a little bit of my perspective on what I think a leader does, no matter if he plays sports or not.”

At the same time, Affeldt does feel strongly about being an influence on athletes specifically.

“If I can get to those high school kids right now and say, ‘Look, as an athlete, this is what an athlete is going to act like. This is what an athlete should act like,’” he said. “Sometimes when you watch TV you don’t always see what an athlete is supposed to act like, but I would like to share a different way of being an athlete.”

Part of this involves paying it forward. Affeldt has been actively involved in a number of charitable causes in recent years, including the Not For Sale/Free2Play Foundation, which is driven to rid the world of human trafficking, genocide and slavery, much of it in less-developed countries.

In 2005, he founded “Generation Alive,” a movement of young people responding to the needs of other young people. In 2010, he was the Giants’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

___________

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Where are They Now?

For those of you watching the World Baseball Classic game between the Dominican Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday: What was the first thing you thought of as you watched Moises Sierra dive into the stands to make the catch in left field that ended the first inning?

If you said “Steve Bartman,” you’re probably not alone.

It’s quite possible that for the rest of human civilization as we know it, any time a ballplayer makes a catch while interfering with a foul ball-seeking fan, images of Bartman and that fateful 2003 NLCS game between the Cubs and Marlins will come to mind.

So you had to appreciate that following Sierra’s catch, the cameras immediately panned to Moises Alou, whose brush with fan interference during that Cubs playoff game nearly a decade ago didn’t turn out quite as well. Alou was easy to find for this camera shot — as the general manager of the Dominican Republic team, he was in the dugout during the game. (He’s also pictured above, on the left.)

Alou’s full-time job is serving as the GM of Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. He also moonlights as a batting practice shagger, as evidenced by this photo taken Monday afternoon at AT&T Park:

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Triggerettes, Earthmen, epic homers and soul-crushing losses: Brownie’s new book covers all the bases.

I always said if I could hop on a time machine and live through whatever era of Astros baseball I wanted, I’d definitely plant myself around the 1986 team. It had everything — personality, fun, a little intellect sprinkled in here and there, and, most importantly, those zany guys won 96 games. What could be better?

But after reading through Bill Brown’s new book chronicling five decades of Houston baseball, I’m thinking I’d like to try out 1964-ish, just before the Colt .45s moved out of their smoking hot, skeeter-infested outdoor stadium and into their new air-conditioned domed wonder.

It’s not that I’m anxious to witness outdoor baseball in Houston in August. Goodness no. I just think it would be fun to be a Triggerette.

Tiggerettes were, as best as I can tell, neatly dressed and presumably perfectly coifed young women who guided patrons to their seats. They fit in with a full-blown Wild West vibe that was working at Colt Stadium back in those days, when parking attendants wore orange Stetsons and workers in The Fast Draw Club dressed in old-style saloon attire.

Had I made it through a sweltering summer at the old ballpark, I probably would have had a good chance to make the cut and move with the team to the Astrodome. But I would have had to change my title from Triggerette to Space-ette, a small price to pay considering the Stetson-wearing parking attendants were renamed Space Finders, and if you wanted to be part of the grounds crew, you had to answer to “Earthman.”

You have to love how different things were back then. The notion that an entire baseball team would dress in matching blue suits and pose on the steps of their team plane HOLDING GUNS (guns!) sounds absurd in today’s age, of course. But that’s part of why history is so fascinating. It takes us back to a time that was, more or less, completely foreign to anything that has to do with everyday life as we currently know it.

Brown’s book, “Deep in the Heart: Blazing a Trail from Expansion to the World Series,” was a labor of love he started years ago, and with the assistance of co-author and Astros employee Mike Acosta, the longtime Astros broadcaster has produced a fabulous 192-page pictorial look back at Houston’s 50-plus years of baseball history.

The book will be ready for sale on March 31 — Opening Night — at Minute Maid Park. The cost will be $39.95.

How long and hard did Brownie work on this book? He pretty much summed it up with this comment to MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:

“If there were such a thing as a woman being pregnant for three years and being relieved when she finally has a baby, it’s somewhat akin to that.”

What took this book so long to complete is probably what makes it so good: it seems that Brownie talked to every living figure who significantly contributed to Astros history. As you thumb through, you’ll find descriptions of every epic moment in history, told by the very people who were directly involved.

I loved Billy Hatcher describing his 14th-inning home run in Game of the NLCS as “probably the closest thing I’ll ever do to get to heaven.” Brad Ausmus gave some great insight into the 18-inning Division Series clincher in ’05, which ended with a Chris Burke home run into the Crawford Boxes. Larry Dierker, a gifted writer in his own right, is quoted multiple times throughout the book — fitting, given how much he has been a part of every decade of the franchise’s history.

Brownie was kind enough to send along a few pages so we can give you a sneak peek of “Deep in the Heart.” For die-hard fans (and newbies too), this will make a great keepsake.

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Most players can’t wait to retire, until they actually do it.

Lance Berkman always thought he'd embrace retirement. Then why is he still playing?

Lance Berkman always thought he’d embrace retirement. Then why is he still playing?

I’m usually skeptical when a player retires from baseball while he’s still producing at a high level, but in Chipper Jones‘ case, I really do believe he means it when he says he’s comfortable with his decision to step away from the game, with no desire to return. I just wonder if he’s going to feel that way in another year.

Jones appears to be a rarity. Most players heed the advice from those who came before them: play until they rip the uniform off of you. Loosely translated, it means play until 1) you can no longer can sustain the stamina or strength needed to be productive and 2) the phone stops ringing. (I once asked a coach who played in the big leagues for 18 years, “What year did you retire?” His answer: “Good players don’t retire. They play until they don’t get asked back.”)

It’s understandable that players start to feel the tug of retirement when they’re older and still active. Major League life seems glamorous, and some parts are. Money, charter flights and first-class hotel accommodations are all part of it. But in truth, after you’re in it for a while, it becomes a grind just like every other job. Time away from the kids starts to get old, and for those who don’t get out much on the road, the travel can be boring.

Still, it’s a good life, and most of the time, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than anything these players will do in their post-playing careers. Part of the problem is that players don’t really know this until they’ve actually retired.

I was surprised when Andy Pettitte retired a couple of years ago when he seemingly had plenty left in his left arm, and I wasn’t at all shocked when he came back to the Yankees after a year out of the game. Pettitte appeared to have reached the same conclusion as others who are pondering getting out: nothing they will do after their careers end will ever be as fulfilling as playing Major League Baseball. Especially when you’re affiliated with a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series every year.

During my years covering the Astros, there were two players who made it very clear at about age 30 that they were looking forward to retiring and had no intention to stretch their careers past the parameters of their current contacts: Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.

Berkman was signed through 2010; Oswalt, 2011. Both swore when those commitments ran out, so would they. Berkman was traded to the Yankees in the final year of his contract in ’10, signed on with the Cardinals and won the World Series in ’11. He signed with the Rangers late this past offseason and is talking of playing in 2014, too.

Oswalt held out for an offer from a contender in 2012 and missed half the season but ended up with the Rangers during their stretch run. As of today, he’s unsigned for 2013.

So what happened?

Berkman said he wasn’t necessarily surprised that he felt the tug to keep playing, but acknowledged that talking about retiring is a lot easier than actually doing it. He has always identified himself as a husband, father and devotee to his faith first and a ballplayer last, but the reality is a lot of his identity is indeed wrapped up in what he does for a living. When playing baseball is the only thing you know, it’s a little scary to think of life without it.

Think about it: if a player retires at 40 and lives to a normal life expectancy, he has at least 40 more years to fill. When you’re first starting out, this all seems so far off. But when you’re 36, 37, 38…

“It’s a mental fight,” Berkman said the day before he left for Spring Training. “Is this the right thing to do? You don’t want to sell yourself short. There’s family considerations. There’s all kinds of stuff that goes into the vortex. Your mind is just spinning around and spinning around and you’re trying to make the best decision that you can.”

A big part of who he is, Berkman admitted, is as a Major League Baseball player. “When you don’t have that anymore, how are you going to react to everyday life?” he wondered.

While Berkman does have a list in his mind of things he’d like to do post-career, he also knows he doesn’t necessarily have to start now.

“Even for a guy such as myself who said for years, ‘It’s going to be easy to walk away,’ the reality is, it’s not going to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be too cavalier with that statement. It’s a pretty big thing and a pretty big time in your life. The flip side of that, I am kind of glad that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s other things other than playing baseball that are intersting to me, and you just don’t have time to pursue those things as a player.”

Jones’ named popped up in the news recently when Yankees GM Brian Cashman expressed interest in seeing if “Larry” — yes, oddly, Cashman referred to Chipper by his real name — would be interested in signing on as a fill-in for the injured Mark Teixeira.

Jones responded by tweeting that he prefers to continue his new life as a bad golfer.

Odds are, he’ll still feel this way next year, too.

Won’t he?

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There was something terribly appropriate about Houston Chronicle TV/Radio columnist David Barron describing a recent honor bestowed upon me as “big”, “huge” and “overwhelming,” considering the subject matter — my hair — has been described as all three (mostly at the same time) for the better part of my adult life.

My goal to not draw attention to myself or my towering inferno (another nickname given to me by a college buddy) ended when Barron inexplicably got on Super-Hair.net’s email distribution list. Now the secret’s out. I am indeed a two-time winner of the prestigious “best curls” category in the annual Crown Awards.

I rehearsed my best fake “Who, me????” while watching Anne Hathaway at the Oscars, just in case the secret was leaked. My acceptance speech involved two people: my great-grandmother Libby Goldman, for passing along the red hair gene, and Juan at Satori Heights Salon in Houston, for finding a way to tame this mess.

Other than that, I’d like to also acknowledge all of the support and encouragement that has come my way as I attempted to make a better life for myself and my hair over the last 30 years.

That means you, strange old man on the elevator when I was touring Ohio University as a high school kid. “I’d rather be dead than red in the head,” you said. You made my 17-year-old heart sing! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

And you, the legions of do-gooders who made sure I knew that I could never be a contestant on “Millionaire Matchmaker” because the host hates two things: 1) red hair; and 2) curly hair. Hopes, crushed. Those sugar daddies don’t know what they’re missing. But thank you for correctly assuming I didn’t know this, and realizing how important it was that I did.

And I couldn’t have made it without YOU, middle-aged, bourbon-guzzling balding sports bar guy with your sage observations: “Spiral perms are stupid.” Hear, hear, my brother. Hear, hear.

Lest we not forget you, weird stammering guy striking up a conversation with, “Yea, uh, my sister has red hair.” Riveting exchange, and something I’ll never forget, especially the awkward silence that followed. So, THANK YOU for that.

And to you, the kid who sat behind me in ninth-grade Algebra and asked if I was “keeping a bird’s nest in there.” Your guidance and concern has helped shape me into the person I am today. XOXOXO.

I’m truly humbled, not only to have finally beaten that pesky Jennifer Beals this time around, but also to be sandwiched between a world-class tennis player and the reigning “It Girl” on the Super-Hair.net web site. Pinch me!

Who knew life could be this grand?

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Braves legend Dale Murphy talks Twitter, the Harlem Shake and the Kardashians.

PHOENIX – Dale Murphy proudly considers himself a serial tweeter, a notion that was hammered home by one of his more than 40,000 followers with this tweet: “Follow Murph. He tweets more than a Kardashian.”

And with that, Murphy (@dalemurphy3) was off and running.

It wasn’t always a smooth ride. In the beginning, like most folks of his generation (Murphy turns 57 on Tuesday), his kids had to guide him through it. And once, he accidentally sent out a tweet that was intended to be a text message to his wife.

Fortunately, it was only about picking up eggs and milk at the grocery store. For the most part, Murphy, widely considered one of the nicest and most approachable players to ever don a big league uniform, is loving the engagement with the fans and relishes the opportunity to communicate directly with the masses.

“When I played, it was a little easier for people to have contact with players,” Murphy said. “Everything was toned down a lot more. There’s a lot more security now, understandably, for a lot of reasons. (Twitter) is an unbelievable way for people to have contact with current players.”

Back in his day, Social Media was unheard of. Murphy, currently a coach for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, played 18 years in the big leagues, mostly with the Braves, from 1976 until his final season in 1993. Back then, “tweeting” was a noise a bird made, “blog” wasn’t yet a word, cameras and phones were totally unrelated to each other and the #hashtag was known as a “pound” sign.

Nowadays, privacy is at a premium. Sure, people can still choose to remain out of the spotlight and under the radar, but the digital age gives those who don’t mind a more public image a stage to do so.

If it’s done right, Murphy said, Twitter can be a great thing for athletes and fans.

“Who would have thought you could interact this way with personalities and people and athletes?” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Rumor had it that Murphy wanted Team USA to be the first baseball team to do the Harlem Shake, and that he just may have mentioned this idea to skipper Joe Torre.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Torre said.

But  Murphy has cooled on the Shake. After all, it’s SO two weeks ago.

“It’s over,” Murphy said. “It lasted two weeks. It’s too old.”

More instant replay is coming in ’14. The question is, how much more?

Whether he's talking pitching, World Baseball Classic or instant replay, Joe Torre attracts a crowd wherever he goes.

Whether he’s talking pitching, World Baseball Classic or instant replay, Joe Torre attracts a crowd wherever he goes.

Major League Baseball implementing expanded replay in 2014 isn’t exactly new news, but every time Joe Torre addresses the situation, as he did on Tuesday, he seems to bring a new clarity to the situation.

Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, is currently serving as Team USA’s manager in the World Baseball Classic. With his club playing at Camelback Ranch in Glendale to play the White Sox, Torre was again back in arm’s reach of curious reporters who are determined to get to the bottom of the instant replay conundrum.

It appears everyone is on board with the notion that more instant replay is needed. The question appears to be, how far should they take it? And, how much is too much? There are limits, Torre said, asking, “Do we want to get everything right?”

Torre obviously isn’t looking for bad calls to be made. He’s simply looking for a logical way to decipher what needs to be put under further review and what should simply be considered the human aspect of umpiring. Effusive in his praise of the umpires, Torre is not looking to stop play for every single disputed call.

After all, Torre said, even when play is halted, there’s no guarantee replay will provide a final decision with 100 percent accuracy.

“To me, even when you use replay there are going to be times when you’re not going to be able to tell,” he said. “Two guys can see the same replay and you’re going to get, ‘I see it this way, I see it that way.’ I think what we’re looking at is some of the obvious stuff that you can see right away. We certainly want to address that. But I don’t think we want to get into every single play. The game would never end.”

As it stands, the current replay rules involve judging whether home runs are fair or foul and whether a fan interfered with a ball. Possible expansion includes fair balls, foul balls and trapped balls.

The two elements that will never be up for replay scrutiny are balls and strikes. Torre has no desire to tinker with something that doesn’t need to be fixed, citing the umpires’ more than 95 accuracy rate in that department.

“You have to have something to yell about,” Torre quipped. “I don’t want to take the yelling out of this thing. That’s part of the color.”

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Instant replay has been a hot topic for quite some time, ever since MLB implemented it for the first time in 2008. I remember at the time hearing some fans use it as an opportunity to take shots at the umpires, which I felt was completely unfair and misguided.

The quality of the umpires, most of whom are universally respected by the managers and players, has not increased or declined over the years. It’s the same as it’s always been, and umpires make calls with a higher degree of accuracy than most may think.

The issues emerged when technology exploded. It started when TV rightsholders suddenly had the ability to install cameras at every corner of the ballpark and had 27 different angles when showing a play in slo-mo after the fact. This enabled the viewing public to see, immediately, if a call was good or bad. In my opinion, that was unfair to the umpires. They were watching plays unfold in real time and had a fraction of a second to make a call. If they made an error, it would take only about 30 seconds for the networks to let the entire viewing public know it, and even less time was needed for the fans’ wrath to reach the playing field.

Things became worse for the umps when the new ballparks emerged. In the old days, outfield walls simply went straight across and a home run was determined by one bit of criteria: the ball either cleared the seats, or it bounced off the wall and back onto the field. There wasn’t much gray area, making it much easier for the umpires to make a snap decision before starting the one-fingered twirl.

Today, uneven outfield walls and zig-zaggy lines define what’s in and out of play. It’s part of the “uniqueness” of stadiums. But what’s neat for the fans became headaches for the umps. I saw this firsthand at Minute Maid Park, where the crazy outfield dimensions made it, at times, impossible to decipher what was a home run and what just barely missed.

Implementing instant replay the first time helped rectify those issues, and there is nothing at all wrong with everyone acknowledging that the umpires indeed could use some help. It’s simply not fair to have them out on a tightrope by themselves while the fan base can see a blown call from nine different angles while standing in the beer line and watching the TVs on the concourse. Times have changed, and helping umpires evolve with the times should only be looked at as a good thing.

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