February 2009

Booooooooooone.

After talking with Miguel Tejada today, I can see how important the World Baseball Classic is to him and how relieved he is to be back on the roster. He has tremendous pride in himself, and his country, and I cannot imagine how hard it would have been for him to watch his fellow countrymen representing the Dominican Republic during the Classic while he sat home, in a manner of speaking.

I think it also bothered Tejada, a tremendous “team guy,” to be portrayed as someone who turned his back on his team after being asked to step into a role he was unfamiliar with. I don’t blame him at all for not wanting to play first base, a position he’s never played for as long as he’s been in the big leagues, but I’m sure to some outsiders it made him look a bit selfish. Now that it has been established that he’ll play a little shortstop, a little third base and also DH here and there, this appears to be a win-win situation for both sides.

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Seeing Aaron Boone reminds me of a funny incident that happened during the 2003 World Series. As you probably remember, Boone hit the pennant-clinching walk-off home run in Game 7 of the ALCS that year, and instantly, it was the “in” thing for fans to yell “Booooooooooooone” every time he stepped into view.

So it’s either Game 1 or 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, and my pregame assignment was to write about the anthem singer. On this particular night, the featured performer was “American Idol” runner-up clay Aiken. After the PA announcer introduced him, I heard a small chorus of boos, and I included that little nugget in my story.

Aiken had a strong, strong fan base at the time. What I did not know is that this group had a name — the “Claymates.” When I woke up the next morning and checked my email, I had about 50 messages, sent in the middle of the night, from these “Claymates,” who were furious — FURIOUS — that I had suggested Aiken had been booed prior to singing the anthem. According to the Mates, the fans weren’t saying “boo.” they were saying “Boone.” As in Aaron Booooooooone.

So let me get this straight. The PA announcer says, “and now, to honor America with the singing of the national anthem is American Idol’s Clay Aiken” and everyone responds with “Booooooooone?” Riiiiight.

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For those of you wondering if the Astros are interested in the recently-released Adam Eaton: no. We didn’t even have to ask; Ed Wade volunteered the information unprovoked. “We have no interest in Adam Eaton.” So, there we have it.

Here and there:
Proud papa Cecil Cooper was brimming with pride Saturday morning as he talked about his 15-year-old daughter, Tori, singing the national anthem prior to the Rice-Texas A&M game at the College Classic at Minute Maid Park that night. Although Cooper couldn’t be there, the Astros set up a live stream on his computer so that he could get the in-house feed from Minute Maid Park. If all goes well, Tori will have an opportunity to sing prior to an Astros game this summer.

Continuing an Astros tradition, Wesley Wright threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Kissimmee Little League Opening Day ceremonies Saturday morning at Oak Field.

 

From the Inbox:

Drayton McLane has shown willingness to spend money if the team is in contention around June. With Ben Sheets saying he might not pitch until June, what are the chances that if we are in contention that Drayton pulls out the check book, providing Sheets proves he is healthy? — Taylor, Blackwell

It depends on what Sheets will command on the open market at that time, given he’s healthy and ready to contribute on a Major League level. I have my doubts that Sheets would be back to form before the season is over. But if he is, I’m sure he’ll be expensive. Knowing what we know about the economy and the hard line the Astros have taken with their now $107 million payroll, I wouldn’t count on seeing Sheets here mid-season.

 

Bagwell in the house.

It’s always good to see Jeff Bagwell, and it’ll be fun to him around for the next week or so. The retired first baseman, now one of general manager Ed Wade’s 27 special assistants [OK, that's a slight exaggeration] will float between the Minor League and Major League complexes and he plans to be in uniform for the Astros’ Grapefruit League opener at Osceola County Stadium on Wednesday.

“I’ll probably see some of the Minor League kids and go straight over there on Thursday,” Bagwell said. “I’ll be at the game tomorrow, walking around. It really depends on what Matty tells me I’m going to do.”

That would be Matt Galante, who is — you guessed it — a special assistant to Ed Wade.

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I don’t know about you, but talking to Darin Erstad about blowing his nose is making me sort of uncomfortable. Not nearly as uncomfortable, however, as I was talking to Kaz Matsui about his Spring Training problem this time last year. Still, having to ask Erstad what he’s going to do the next couple of weeks when he has to blow his nose, but can’t, was both humorous and nauseating.

Incidentally, Erstad does have a backup plan. I’ll let you use your imagination on that one.

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The mood in camp today was a little more upbeat than normal. Brandon Backe is starting to get the color back in his face, which was good to see. Doug Brocail was his typically chatty self, and seems to be working through his tendinitis issues.

Lance Berkman told me he asked Ed Wade [jokingly] for a two-year, $20 million extension. Wade joked back that the only extra money they’re spending on him is for his retirement party.

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I’m hearing Miguel Tejada may not play in the World Baseball Classic after all. Playing time may be an issue, and the Dominican Repulic team may be considering asking Tejada to play out of position. We’ll find out soon enough because final rosters are being announced tonight on MLB Network, but it sounds like he’s reconsidering his decision to play.

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I’m still in the process of trying to figure out how this blog thing works, and as you probably have noticed, I haven’t quite gotten the hang of the picture posting part. But I really can’t let my shot of Tim Kurkjian in yesterday’s blog be the only picture I post. So here’s a shot of Berkman, pretending to be mad that I’m taking his picture. He does this often. Instead of ignoring the photographers like all of the other players, Lance can’t help himself. Here, he is saying “Would you please put that dang camera away?” Strong words from the Puma.

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Bunting can be fun. But the flu? Not so much.

One thing I’ve learned about ballplayers over the years is that they take competitiveness to an entirely different level, no matter what they’re doing. Of course, they’re ultra competitive when they’re on the field playing baseball, but that fierceness spills over to other parts of their life, and often, no matter what they’re doing, they’re doing it to win.

Take the annual bunting competition among pitchers, for example. In a nutshell, the grass in front of the plate is sectioned off by points, and the goal is to have the ball stop in the boxes labeled one, two and three. Other boxes are labeled minus one, minus two and minus three — those are the boxes too close to the plate and too close to the mound.

The finals were Monday, and Doug Brocail won the whole thing, despite receiving an earful from Tim Byrdak, who stood behind the cage and attempted to rattle his teammates.

“It’s a good thing Milo showed up,” Byrdak said, referring to the Astros’ 81-year-old Hall of Fame broadcaster, Milo Hamilton. “Now Brocail is the second oldest guy in camp.”

To bunting-challenged Chad Paronto, Byrdak said simply, “I want to rip my eyes out. This is horrible.”

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A Major League clubhouse is useful for many reasons, but unfortunately, it also can be a launching pad for germs. When one person gets sick, they all get sick, as appears to be the case this week in Astros camp. This time, it’s a stomach flu that is going around, and for those of you that have had that particular virus, you know it’s awful. Brandon Backe came in this morning feeling like he lost 10 pounds over the last 35 hours, and Edwin Maysonet had a similar bout with the illness as well. I just heard the Diamondbacks had 11 players and coaches out with the stomach flu at the same time, so maybe the Astros should consider themselves lucky.

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One of my favorite baseball analysts in Tim Kurkjian from ESPN, and it was great to see him today at Astros camp. He’s floating around the Spring Training sites and hopes to get to all 30 teams in the next couple of weeks. He was nice enough to not only not be offended when I laughed at his outfit today, but he also let me take a picture. This is what broadcasters often look like when they go on camera — tie and sport coat — and shorts (out of shot, of course).

 

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I think my favorite quote of the day came from Darin Erstad, who is as understated and humble as they come but is really funny, even when he’s not trying to be. He was amused when a couple of us reporter types rushed over to talk to him about the ground ball that bounced off his cheekbone yesterday, forcing him to have a precautionary x-ray taken, just to be sure nothing was wrong.

Erstad thought nothing of the mishap when it first happened and continued on with the workout, but later, he sensed something may be not quite right.

“I went to blow my nose last night and I said ‘Uh, I better check this out,” he said.

Alyson

Oswalt in typical form…Astros on TV.

Roy Oswalt enjoyed facing his slugging teammates as the batting practice pitcher on Saturday during a session that included a few broken bats, a few laughs and a bunch of good-natured trash talking.

You can imagine the lively scene as Oswalt threw to Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, but at the same time, Oswalt was careful about where his pitches were going, so as to not hurt his own teammates.

“It’s just all in fun,” Oswalt said. “I’m not going to throw in on the guys. Just in case I hit one of the guys I don’t want to knock him out for the season as far as breaking something.

In terms of trash-talking, Oswalt was clearly enjoying the fact that his hitting teammates hadn’t seen live pitching since last September. Advantage, Oswalt.

“I had the upper hand,” he said. “I ran up a few balls here and there, just to keep them honest. I don’t want them to be leaning out over there, but not too far in. But I’m not throwing on the inside part of the plate.”

Random news and notes:
Good news — a ton of Astros spring games will be on television this year. ESPN will broadcast the Astros-Braves game at Disney next Thursday (Feb. 26) at 12:05 p.m. CT., and FS Houston will broadcast four games: March 20 vs. Cincinnati, March 23 vs. Florida, March 24 vs. the Mets and March 25 at St. Louis. Also, when the Astros return home, the April 4 exhibition game with the Indians will also be on FS Houston.

The Yankees games usually sell out, and this year is no exception. The game between these two teams at Osceola County Stadium on March 18 is standing room only.

I’ve had a lot of questions about FanFest…it will take place the weekend of the exhibition games with the Indians, April 3 and 4.

Alyson

Grapefruit League on the horizon.

Grapefruit League games will begin on Wednesday, and it looks like Mike Hampton will get the first start. He’ll take the mound against the Nationals at Osceola County Stadium, beginning at 1:05 p.m. ET. Because it’s only the first game, Hampton probably won’t pitch more than one, or maybe two, innings.

Roy Oswalt will start the second game next Thursday at the Braves. That probably will be the only start he makes before departing for Clearwater on March 2 to join his Team USA teammates as they gear up for the World Baseball Classic. Depending on how far their teams get in the tournament, Oswalt, Carlos Lee [Panama] and Miguel Tejada [Dominican Repubic] could be away from Astros camp for three weeks.

Today is photo day, an annual rite of passage that involves players walking from station to station and posing for various outlets, including baseball card companies and wire services. Players don’t particularly love this day, because it means arriving to the ballpark before 7:30 a.m. The good thing is they get everything done at once and don’t have to do this again, until next year.

More later on Toby Hall’s MRI results and other news and notes from spring camp.

Alyson

 

Hampton’s OK, Lee’s on his way

It was good to see Mike Hampton walk into the clubhouse today, but it was somewhat chilling to hear how scared he was while going through the ordeal. Even though he knew he was probably going to be fine, he was pretty on edge until he, and his heart, got that clean bill of health. Hampton threw an abbreviated bullpen Wednesday and shouldn’t be held back from anything down the road, which is good.

It was nice to hear Ed Wade be so definitive about Pudge Rodriguez. He’s been up front with the club’s disinterest in the free agent catcher, but every time I heard another rumor about the Astros being one of the teams Pudge was considering, I had to wonder. The news of Toby Hall having an MRI on his shoulder prompted me to say to Wade, jokingly, “So maybe now you’re going to make that offer to Pudge?” To which Wade responded, “We are not signing Pudge. Let’s put that to rest right now.”

So, consider the topic officially resting. Until Pudge says he’ll play for the league minimum.

Leftover news and notes:
Every player on the 40-man roster submitted urine samples for scheduled drug testing. This is different from random testing, of course. But the rules are the same, and, might I add, somewhat unpleasant, considering players have to be watched when they submit their samples. I remember having a conversation with Lance Berkman last year about his support of blood testing, and I reminded him that his very own union argued that blood testing was an invasion of privacy. He said something along the lines of, “You want to talk invasion of privacy? Ever had any watch you [use the bathroom?"]

My answer, thankfully, was no.

Carlos Lee is due to arrive to camp Thursday morning. It’ll be interesting to hear how he explains not reporting on time. I want to believe that he truly just had the date wrong, but I’m struggling.

Chris Sampson, fully recovered from offseason elbow surgery, is still a few days behind his teammates activity-wise, but he’s expected the throw off the mound Monday or Tuesday of next week. Also, Jose Valverde is experiencing no ill effects from the skin irritation on his right arm.

Alyson

Berkman speaks. What else is new?

Today was so draining that by the time I walked to my car to leave for the day, I felt like I had just walked out of my last final exam in college before Christmas break.

Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee and Mike Hampton kept us plenty busy on Tuesday. We received great news on Hampton [he's heart-healthy and cleared to rejoin the team], listened to Tejada speak about his recent troubles [not that he offered any useful information, except that he addressed his team and apologized] and found out Lee was a no-show, which irked select teammates [Lance Berkman] but didn’t come as a huge shock to anyone.

I kind of like the quiet atmosphere when it’s just the pitchers and catchers in camp, but it’s sure nice to have Berkman around again. Not only because he’s just a fun guy, but he is, if you haven’t noticed yet, a reporter’s best friend, offering honest, forthright and often hilarious takes on life as a ballplayer.

Berkman is not furious with Lee for not showing up on time. But clearly, he’s irritated.

“On one hand, it’s Carlos, Berkman said. “That’s just the way he is. He’s a great teammate, we love having him in here and obviously he’s a tremendous RBI guy. But part of you certainly is like…he and myself and Miggy and may be a couple other guys, we’re going to be looked to to carry the load. I think it’s a good example for the young guys and everybody else to be here when everybody gets here.”

Lee’s excuse? He had the report date wrong. That’s a little hard to believe, but I’ll reseve judgment until I talk to him Thursday.

Back to Berkman. The day he reports to camp is usually the day he addresses reporters for as long as they need him, and boy, does he offer good insight. I liked what he said when asked if he felt Drayton McLane was doing everything possible to be a champion in Houston.

Basically, Berkman’s contention is that only one team does whatever it takes, year after year, to win a World Series: the Yankees. A slam on the Astros? Not really. Berkman was simply pointing out that the Yankees have unlimited funds, and the Astros do not.

“[The Yankees] are sort of operating in a dream world up there, where their revenue stream is certainly a lot different than ours is,” Berkman said. “You can’t fault Drayton for being responsible with his finances, and he owns the team and he can whatever he wants with it.”

Berkman then pointed out that McLane is always willing to add a part mid-season, “whether it be a Randy Johnson or a Carlos Beltran” or someone else to help them get to the playoffs.

“Do I feel like Drayton is doing everything he can in the free agent market to bring a championship to Houston?” Berkman asked. “Maybe not. But do I feel like he’s more than willing to pull the trigger on a trade if he thinks it’ll help us win? Absolutely. He’s a good balance.”

That said, Berkman sees the window closing on his own chances to win a World Series. He turned 33 last week, and feels like he has three or four “really good years and we’ll see how it goes after that.”

Alyson

 

What a strange day.

Usually it’s a very good thing that you never really know what’s going to happen on any given day of Spring Training. That’s one of the interesting parts of this job — you think it’s going to be a normal, ho-hum day, and something strange and unusual happens and all of a sudden, there’s plenty to write about.

But this Mike Hampton thing came out of left field, so to speak. I know it’s probably nothing. But anytime you hear “irregular” in the same sentence as “heart,” it’s scary. Especially when you’re talking about a seemingly healthy 36-year-old man.

So, we’ll hope for the best. Supposedly we’ll hear the results of his appointment with Dr. Muntz on Tuesday, and like the Astros are telling us, it’s probably nothing. But I’ll feel better when I actually see Hampton back in camp this week.

Tuesday is going to be a busy day at Osceola County Stadium. Not only is it the first day the full squad works out together, but Miguel Tejada is due to arrive sometime in the morning. With his sentencing date pending (March 26), it’s highly unlikely he’s going to say much about his involvement in the PED mess that has taken over this sport in the last year. The only saving grace for Tejada is Alex Rodriguez is scheduled to face the media at the very same time Tejada is due to report to Astos camp, so it’s more likely Tejada will have only a handful of reporters waiting for him, as opposed to the circus that awaits A-Rod.

I don’t know what to do with this Pudge Rodriguez thing anymore. This is the most bizarre non-story I’ve covered in a while. We keep reading stories about Pudge considering signing with the Astros, but the interest appears to be one-sided. Ed Wade last talked to Rodriguez’s representatives 23 days ago and he has never made a formal offer to Pudge. But this story won’t go away. I wonder what would happen if Pudge’s asking price dropped to, say, $1 million.

If you’re ever in Kissimmee, you must stop for dinner at La Forchetta, the best Italian restaurant this side of the Mississippi, as they say. Had the veal marsala tonight. If you’re planning a trip to spring training, let me know and I’ll tell you how to get there. You won’t regret it. It’s the Astros home away from home, for good reason.

Alyson 

Day one in the books. Glad I remembered the sunblock.

Random news, tidbits and thoughts after my first day of Spring Training…

Roy Oswalt’s arm in better shape than it usually is this time of year, because of the World Baseball Classic. Oswalt, the likely ace of Team U.S.A., will leave Astros camp on March 2 to train in Clearwater, which means he’ll probably make only one start with the Astros before he takes off. Oswalt has been throwing to the baseball team at his old school, Holmes Community College, and reached 60 pitches the last time out. He should be fine, both for Team U.S.A. and for the Astros.

J.R. Towles didn’t have such a great experience at Winter Ball this year. Not only did he receive only 17 at-bats in five weeks with the Aguilas club in the Dominican League, he was the victim of theft after his hotel room was broken into while he took some time off to go home for Christmas. The manager at his hotel in Santiago, according to Towles, told him his belongings would be safe in his room while he was gone, but apparently, that wasn’t that case. Luggage and his wife’s clothes were among the many items missing when he returned. The experience left Towles with a bitter taste in his mouth, but he did walk away with a new appreciation for the Latin players who come to the United States to play. “I don’t know Spanish, and even ordering food took me sometimes 30 minutes,” Towles said. “I didn’t know how to tell them what I wanted and they didn’t know how to tell me what it was. I definitely gained an appreciation for what players have to go through here.”

What is it with the Astros and unsubstantiated rumors? First, it was Andy Pettitte “considering a lesser offer from the Astros” [not true]. Then it was the Astros making a move for Adam Dunn [also not true]. Now, the Astros have supposedly made an offer of around $2.5 million for Pudge Rodriguez, which, according to Ed Wade, has no validity whatsoever.

You wouldn’t believe how much information you can get from Wade in a three-minute conversation. You’d think more people would at least try it.

That said, after hearing Wade talk about the “11th hour” offers he made to Braden Looper and Randy Wolf, you have to wonder if the GM would at least be interested if Pudge’s asking price came down to, say, $1 million. Still, Wade really sounded like he wasn’t going to sign anyone else, and with the last two really quality free agent pitchers now off the table, I would have to believe that to be true.

Performance-enhancing drugs (let’s call them PED’s for short) are undoubtedly a hot topic in some Spring Training camps, but I can assure you the media covering the Astros would be more than happy if the subject was avoided all together. One local reporter brought it up in Cecil Cooper’s office this morning and you could practically hear the collective whisper — “here we go again.” Of course, there’s no chance we’re going to be able to put it off much longer, seeing Miguel Tejada is expected to be here on Tuesday. Should be interesting. He was smart not to take any questions the day of his court appearance last week (remember this is a legal issue) but eventually he’s going to have to talk. His sentencing is March 26, and afterward he might not be able to avoid the lingering questions that will follow him until he just stands up and gives some answers.

Brandon Backe will someday have a lot to say about his altercation with the Galveston Police last fall. He just can’t do it yet. But rest assured, he will.

On a completely unrelated note, this is what I love about Spring Training — all of the cynicism from the previous year is gone. Backe could not have had a worse ending to his season in ’08, yet after talking to him Saturday, I’m convinced he’s going to do what it takes this spring to make the rotation. He’s in great shape, feels strong and has a tremendous attitude. We’ll see how that translates.

Speaking of new beginnings, Cooper was completely at ease today — relaxed, comfortable, friendly.

Since my last trip to Kissimmee, a Pei Wei has opened in a shopping area I pass on my way to and from work. Things are definitely looking up.

Alyson

It’s the time again

Hard to believe, but I’ll be hopping a flight on Friday to Florida, my home away from home for the next 49 days. Pitchers and catchers report for duty at Osceola County Stadium on Saturday, at which time Spring Training will be underway. I figure, this would be as good a time as any to start a blog, so here we go…

Stay tuned for updates as I attempt to bring you all things Astros for the next seven weeks. I look forward to hearing from you and thanks for reading!

Alyson

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