June 2009

So long, Brandon Backe.

Brandon Backe refused the Astros’ Minor League assignment, and now, the club in the process of giving him his unconditional release.

The decision to designate Backe for assignment a few days ago signaled the likely end of his tenure with the Astros, but today’s news obviously makes it official, and permanent.

I hope Backe finds another team, and I hope he does well. Even though he didn’t pan out in the last year or so, this Galveston kid was always a fan favorite, and he’ll forever be remembered for his tenacity when the pressure was on.

One image sticks in my mind more than any other. It was the last game of the season in 2004, and I was standing in the hallway in the clubhsouse that connects the locker room, the lunch room and the training room. As Brad Ausmus walked by, Phil Garner stopped him and said, “Clemens is sick. He can’t go. Backe’s pitching.” Ausmus’ face fell, just for a fleeting moment; then he nodded and walked away.

Pitching coach Jim Hickey then sat down next to Backe and quietly gave him the news. This was an hour before gametime, and the Astros’ postseason hopes were riding on this one game. Backe looked at Hickey and didn’t say a word. He just took a deep breath, nodded, and got ready to pitch.

Backe pitched his heart out, allowing three runs over five innings, and the Astros won the Wild Card. That performance was eclipsed only by his Game 5 start in the NLCS, when he went nose-to-nose with Woody Williams, allowing one hit over eight innings, in a game the Astros won on Jeff Kent’s ninth-inning home run.

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Here are a couple of details regarding how unconditional releases work:

* The process to obtain unconditional waivers for the purpose of giving a player his release takes three days.

* If Backe clears waivers, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and will collect his full 2009 salary, whether he signs with another club or not. If Backe does sign with another club, that team is required to pay him the Major League minimum salary (prorated).

Read Brian McTaggart’s story here.

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The decision to stick with six pitchers until the All-Star break makes sense for the Astros, especially if you think about it in terms of contract status.

The six pitchers are Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Felipe Paulino and Brian Moehler. All are pitching well. Obviously, Oswalt and Rodriguez are your mainstays who aren’t in danger of losing their status as top of the rotation guys. The next tier are Hampton and Moehler, who have not worked out of the bullpen this year. They’re also veterans signed to guaranteed contracts, which eliminates the possibility of moving them without losing them. Russ Ortiz, who has worked out of ‘pen and rotation, is in the same boat.

So who’s movable? Felipe Paulino. But why would you send him down? He’s under 30, he’s loaded with potential and he was very, very good his last outing.

So really, the Astros don’t have many options. I suppose they could release Hampton if he’s not good in his next outing or two, but then what if someone else starts struggling? You’re taking away depth in a rotation that doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.

Also, the Astros are considering using a starting pitcher to finish the suspended game, which would then put Roy and Wandy back on their regular schedule. That alone justifies utilizing a six-man rotation.

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From the Ask Alyson files:

I’m a bit confused how the continued game with the Nationals on July 9 will work. Will there be some kind of limit to the number of innings, or will they just play until there is a conclusion? If so, will the second game (the one originally scheduled for that date with the Astros as the home team) just start whenever the continued game ends, be it 7 p.m. or midnight (heaven forbid)? Will they be selling tickets to the continued game, and will they be broadcasting it as usual on FS-Houston? — Brian S.

Excellent questions. To review, the Astros and Nationals May 5 game was suspended in the 11th inning, and it will be played to its conclusion on July 9 at Minute Maid Park. The score was tied, 10-10, with the Nats batting in the bottom of the frame. Josh Willingham was at the plate with a runner on first and one out. The Nationals will be the home team.

There will be no limit to the number of innings played — they’ll play until someone wins. The second game will start no earlier than 7:05 p.m. CT but if the suspended game goes long, there will be a 30-minute break between games. If it ends quickly, the second game will start at its regular time.

A ticket to the regularly-scheduled game gets you into the suspended game. Both games will be broadcast on FS Houston and 740-AM KTRH.

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From around the cage at batting practice Monday afternoon:

Hitting coach Sean Berry talks, well, hitting, with Hunter Pence.  

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Mike Hampton and Roy Oswalt.

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Kaz Matsui stretches before he hits.

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Oswalt again.

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Hunter Pence laughs as he tells Ed Wade about his hair-cutting experience from that morning. Apparently, Pence wanted to trim the RallyHawk, but the first place he went to, the door was locked and the worker inside shook her head and said, “we’re closed.”

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Wesley Wright and Brian Moehler have a pre-batting practice chat.

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Blogging from the FiveSeven Grille. Text messaging about Jio. Bob Booooone salutes Pudge (as do the Astros).

On Saturday, I decided to abandon my seat in the comfortable (but often boring) press box and venture into the masses at Minute Maid Park. My destination — the center field area; more specifically, the FiveSeven Patio bar and FiveSeven Grille.

Saturdays are targeted as “Bud Light Young Professionals Pack” night, where instead of having to reserve an entire table, fans can purchase individual tickets to be in the seating area that overlooks Tal’s Hill, right next to the bullpen. The cost is $48, and includes a ticket, eight wings or an order of nachos, a 16-ounce beer or soda and an Astros souvenir mug.

The bar area, as I expected, was packed. I also was struck by how close the fans are to the bullpen. I then remembered that back in 2001, Jose Lima used to have the people from the center field restaurant deliver food to him out there. I’m guessing that tradition probably left when Lima did later that season, but still, if you’re listening, Jose Valverde…

Best part of the experience: twittering from my seat in the Grille, watching the game on TV and eating a delicious chicken caesar salad (my server, noting my computer, IPhone and camera, said, “You’re not on of those secret shoppers, are you?”). Worst part: having to answer, “no thanks, I’m working,” every time someone offered me a cool beverage.

The view from the Patio Bar:

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A glimpse of the bullpen:

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Received a couple of text messages from Assistant GM Bobby Heck, who was passing along information he received from Director of Baseball Research and Analysis Charlie Norton:

“Jio in lineup — 1st at-bat — 1st pitch — 1st hit.”

And then, this:
“And his second ab too.”

Translated, this means that first-round Draft pick Jiovanni Mier, who signed his contract Friday and was in uniform as the starting shortstop for the Greenveville Astros less than 24 hours later, logged his first professional hit in his first professional at-bat, on the first pitch he saw in his professional career. Then he did it again in his next at-bat.

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Pudge Rodriguez received a great deal of fanfare after he broke Carlton Fisk’s all-time games caught record during the Astros recent trip to Arlington. He was saluted by Rangers fans and was even paid a visit by former president George W. Bush. The Astros, however, had to wait until the team returned home to properly recognize Pudge’s record-setting game.

They presented Pudge with a nice memento during a pregame ceremony attended by club owner Drayton McLane, GM Ed Wade, Pudge’s wife, Claudia, and former All-Star catcher Bob Booooone, who flew to Houston just for this occasion.

Pudge knocked Boone from second to third on the all-time games caught list, and Boone, remembering his own record-setting day more than two decades ago, wanted to be part of Pudge’s celebration.

Boone was once the record-holder for games caught, a mark he reached on Sept. 16, 1987, when he passed Hall of Famer Al Lopez with his 1,919th game behind the plate.

“Al Lopez came to the game when I broke his record,” said Boone, who pushed his record to 2,225 games before Fisk passed him in ’93. “My dad (Ray Boone) had played for him. I was honered. He didn’t travel, ever. But he went from Tampa all the way to Anaheim for it. I wouldn’t have missed this (ceremony for Pudge) for anything.”

Boone and Pudge:

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Pudge and Drayton

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Boone, Drayton, Pudge and his wife, Claudia.

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Pudge and Brad Horn from the Hall of Fame. Pudge’s jersey that he wore during the record-setting game will be on display in Cooperstown, as soon as Brad gets home, I’m guessing.

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Pudge is congratulated by his former manager, Tigers skipper Jim Leyland.

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Pudge tips his cap to the crowd.

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Th Astros gift to Pudge — a shadowbox with the lineup, home plate (signed by the entire team) and pictures from the record-setting game.

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Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter

Mier signs on the dotted line…and heads to Greeneville.

Jiovanni Mier didn’t have a lot of time to acclimate himself to Houston on Friday — in fact, it was one of those here today, gone tomorrow trips that involved taking care of business quickly and moving on to the next task.

That’s fine with Mier. Over the course of 36 hours, he will have signed his first professional baseball contract and arrived to the city where he’ll reside for the next several months — Greeneville, Tenn., home of the Rookie League Greeneville Astros.

Mier, the Astros’ first-round Draft pick, will assume the full-time duties at shortstop as early as Sunday. Prior to his departure, the California native spent a little over a day in the Bayou City, where he signed on the dotted line, autographed a handful of baseballs, met with the media, took batting practice on the field with the Astros and waved to the Minute Maid Park crowd as he was introduced by P.A. announcer Bob Ford in between innings.

Not bad for an 18-year-old only three weeks removed from his high school graduation.

Here’s a quick pictoral overview of Mier’s day:

Mier and Doug Deutsch, the scout who signed him, chat with club owner Drayton McLane.

 

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After a brief exchange of pleasantries, it was time to get down to business. I quickly learned signing a professional contract is sort of like closing on a house. Requires lots and lots of signatures, and then when you think you’re done, you sign your name around 10 more times (Scouting GM Bobby Heck on left).

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That’s his brother, Robert, and his mom, Leticia. Mier’s other brother, Jessie, is a catcher in the Dodgers system.  

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Leticia had to sign the contract as well, because Jiovanni is under the age of 21 — the legal age in New York, where Major League Baseball is based. As Heck pointed out, that is why the relationships between the team and the family of the player is important — the parents or guardians have to know the club will take care of their son.

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Group photo — Heck, McLane and Deutsch; Leticia, Jiovanni and Robert Mier; agents Brodie Scoffield  and Greg Genske.

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Mier signed about a dozen baseballs — the first of many, many dozens of baseballs he hopes to sign throughout his career.

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The Mier family brought personalized champagne bottles to the front office as a thank you…each bottle came with a picture, and the words “in appreciation in joining the Houston Astros.”

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Jiovanni suits up in the clubhouse. I have to say he did a phenomenal job of acting natural despite the cameras following him around.

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Now comes the hard part: meeting the team. Everyone was very welcoming (yes, Tejada included).

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Mier takes batting practice, while Wade takes in the scene from behind the cage.  

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Read Jason Grodky’s full report of the signing here.

Other news from Astros camp includes this bit  about Mike Hampton coming off the DL in time to pitch Tuesday.

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Mier’s BP session was fun to watch, but not quite as entertaining as Ed Wade and Carlos Lee’s exchange behind the cage while the young shortstop was hitting. The two had some laughs as Wade sent some pretty funny zingers Lee’s way. My favorite:

Lee (noticing Mier is a good hitter): “He swings like me.”

Wade: “He swings like you. I just hope he doesn’t run like you.”

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For those of you on Facebook (and really, these days, who isn’t?), are you member of the Astros Facebook page? It’s a useful tool — sort of one-stop shopping for information about promotions, ticket specials and player appearances, while also providing links to this blog and the news of the day from Astros.com.  I’m also posting a bunch of photos under the fan photo section at the top.

Astros Facebook Page

 

Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter

Props to Brian Moehler, a gamer.

Here’s what I like about Brian Moehler — he was completely let down by the defense behind him Thursday, but he wouldn’t call out his teammates. The strongest thing he said after the game was “Today we overcame the errors, and Lance had the big hits, and he pulled it out.” When he was done addressing the media, I asked him again if he was upset with the defense, and he just sort of looked toward the ceiling and said he was happy for Berkman, to have gotten those two home runs a day after making a costly error.

Moehler isn’t going to overpower anyone, but more often than not, he’ll give you a competitive outing. After his prior start against the Twins, during which he allowed three solo homers but still logged the win, he pointed out that he doesn’t mind giving up home runs, as long as he doesn’t walk anyone. Simply put, he throws strikes and opposing hitters are going to put the ball in play. Moehler relies on his defense — namely, his infielders — more than anyone on this staff. We see what can happen when they don’t come through.

However, when one of the culprits of the defensive problems from the past few days steps forward with some brutal honestly, it’s refreshing. Here’s what Puma had to say:

“The defense has been terrible. It cost us the game last night, and today it could have cost us the game. We have to figure something out, a little more intensity and a little more concentration. You can’t give teams extra outs in the Major Leagues and expect to win. We have been a good defensive team in the past and there’s no reason we can’t be. This year we just have to do it.”

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The success rate of players who are chosen to play in the Futures Game during All-Star Week getting to the big league is ridiculously high — somewhere around 90 percent. This bodes well for the Astros, who will have two prospects participating in the game this year — catcher Jason Castro and pitcher Chia-Jen Lo. Read Brian McTaggart’s report here.  

 

RIP Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Man, what a day.

Congrats to the Pumas. News, notes and tidbits from inside the clubhouse.

Congratulations to Lance and Cara Berkman, also known as Mr. and Mrs. Puma, who welcomed their fourth daughter to the brood on Monday at 12:44 p.m. — Abigail Primm, weighing in at a healthy seven pounds, nine ounces. She joins big sisters Hannah, Carly and Katie.

Puma looked tired but elated when he arrived to the clubhouse later in the afternoon and proudly informed his teammates, “She’s beautiful.”

Later, the Astros honored Berkman — not for the baby, but for a pretty significant home run. This homestand could be renamed Milestone Week. The Astros planned a grand total of three pregame ceremonies to commemorate three players reaching noteworthy statistical marks. First, on Tuesday, they saluted Berkman for his 300th home run, which he hit during the recent road trip (June 13 at Minnesota). On Friday, they’ll recognize Miguel Tejada’s 2,000th hit, recorded on the same night Puma hit No. 300.

Finally, on Saturday, the Astros will honor Pudge Rodriguez, who set the all-time games caught record while the Astros were playing the Rangers in Arlington.

Overheard in the clubhouse:

* Doug Brocail, recovering from a hamstring tear, when asked if he thinks he’ll play again this year: “Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely.” Soon after he suffered the injury in early May, I asked him when he thought he might return. He said, “When’s the All-Star break?” I told him the week of July 11, and he said, “Let’s shoot for that.”

On Tuesday, he proudly showed me he could stretch the hamstring, something he hasn’t been able to do until recently.

* Drayton McLane stopped by the clubhouse to say hello to the team and offer his congratulations on the new baby Puma. As he made his rounds, a few reporters intercepted him with questions about the team and the season so far. MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart has the rundown here.

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Couple of reminders…

* Remember that suspended game in Washington last month? The score was tied, 10-10, in the bottom of the 11th, and that’s exactly where it will pick up on July 9 at Minute Maid Park, prior to the first game of a scheduled four-game set with the Nationals. The suspended game will resume at 6:05 p.m. CT, with Josh Willingham at the plate, a runner on first and one out in the 11th. The Nationals will be the home team until the game reaches its conclusion.

The regularly scheduled game will begin no earlier than 7:05 p.m. CT.

* The “Kids Free All Summer” ticket special began Tuesday and will run through Aug. 23. There’s no catch or fine print — simply, for every full-price adult ticket you purchase in the View Deck I, View Deck II or Mezzanine, you can get two free tickets in the same price level for kids 14 and under.

*Continuing with their season-long look back at 10 years at Minute Maid Park, the Astros have posted Carlos Lee’s favorite Houston memory on their blog. You can also read memories from Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and others on this same blog.

Player appearance alert — LaTroy Hawkins

Astros setup man LaTroy Hawkins will sign autographs and mingle with fans on Wednesday at the Whataburger restaurant located at 6888 Gulf Freeway at Woodridge. The session runs from 11 a.m. to noon CT.

The Astros and Whataburger have partnered to form the Ultimate Whatafan contest, where fans can register for prizes that include autographed jerseys from the Astros, Round Rock Express and Corpus Christi Hooks.

In addition, the Ultimate Whatafan will also receive two suite tickets to the Astros-Reds game on Sept. 26 and the opportunity to be on the field for batting practice. The winner will take part in the Astros Minor League MVP Ceremony and will throw out the ceremonial first pitch that day.

Hawkins’ autograph signing is the second of a series of four Whataburger appearances. The remaining dates are set for July 7 and Aug. 4.

Hats off to Dad.

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Every time I look at this picture of my dad and me taken at my cousin’s
wedding reception, I laugh, because believe it or not, it reminds me of
baseball.

It was August 28, 2004. I had spent the previous two days in Chicago,
covering the first two games of a four-game series between the Astros
and Cubs. I left to go to Atlanta for the wedding, and I missed games
three and four. Little did I know, those two days were pivotal in what
turned out to be the greatest late-season run in the history of the
Astros franchise.

I’m in my hotel room, watching the game on WGN. Eighth inning, two on,
one out. Astros ahead, 7-6. Brad Lidge on the mound, facing Corey
Patterson.

And I’m having a true dilemma. I have five minutes until I have to meet
my family in the lobby. The instructions were clear. Mom’s rules.

Baseball rules, however, dictated that I needed to be watching Lidge
face Corey Patterson. I paced for a few more minutes, pondered my
options…and headed to the lobby.

And I waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes [A
little background -- Footers aren't late. Ever. Growing up, if we had
to leave the house at 5:45, you could already hear my mom pacing at
5:44 and 15 seconds. We were the first ones to arrive at every single
extended family function. It was annoying).

Finally, my parents showed up, 17 minutes late. "Where have you been?" I asked, incredulously. No answer from my mom.

"You don't leave in the middle of an inning," my dad said, as if the
answer could not be more obvious. I looked over at my mom and she had
one of those I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it looks on her face. So, I let
it drop.

They say you never stop learning from your parents. Apparently it's
true. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of your basic life lessons,
until my dad wisely pointed out that you have to line up your
priorities -- Astros-Cubs Wild Card race first, everything else, well,
second. My dad stuck around to watch Lidge walk Derrek Lee to load the
bases before fanning Todd Walker with a 94 mph fastball to end the
eighth inning. Me? I had to hear about it, from my dad.

That's a long intro to my main point of this blog -- as we celebrate
Dads today, we also celebrate baseball. After all, for most of us, the
two go hand in hand.

My dad, meticulous and analytical by nature, has a wide variety of
approaches when discussing his favorite sport. He's inquisitive ["Does
Billy Wagner know that you can throw 100 mph, but if Major League
hitters know what's coming, they'll still hit it out of the park?"]; 
demanding ["Next time you talk to Jimy Williams, ask him if he's heard
of bunting"] and blunt [Me: "Hi Dad, Happy Birthday." Dad: "They
stink."]

My dad likes numbers. He has an uncanny ability to calculate just about
anything in his head, especially when it comes to the Wild Card
standings. Take, for example, that same 2004 season. It’s July 30. The
Astros and Reds stopped play for a rain delay, and, as expected, my
cell phone rings. It’s my dad.

He had it all figured out — the formula that would win the Astros the
Wild Card. They just had to go 40-20 for the rest of the season. He ran
through the scenarios for all of the contending teams — the Marlins
will do this. The Cubs, this, The Phillies, this. And on and on.

Roll eyes. I asked him if he had been watching this gosh-awful team,
and for crying out loud, how could he possibly believe they would win
anything?

I said something along the lines of “lay off the hallucinogens,” and ended the conversation.

Fast forward a few months. The season was over, the Astros had just
lost Game 7 of the NLCS to end an incredible postseason run. I went
back to that game in Cincinnati and counted the wins and losses from
that point forward. Dad said they needed to go 40-20. They went 41-19.

I called him and said, “I don’t know why I don’t just accept the fact that my father really does know best.”

So here’s to my dad. And your dad. Here’s to the dads that are still
here with us and to the ones who have passed on. Here’s to every dad
who has ever taken his kids to the ballpark, bought a few hotdogs, and
passed along the greatness of our game to the next generation. Here’s
to the dad who yells at the TV when his team loses but then takes a
deep breath, turns to his kids and says reassuringly, “We’ll get ‘em
tomorrow.”  

Thanks, Dad.

Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter.

Our very own J.D. counts down with the Twins.

Jim Deshaies didn’t play in Minnesota long — in fact, his entire tenure as a Twin lasted two seasons — 1993 and 1994. Still, Deshaies has fond memories of the Twin Cities, especially considering this is where his two oldest daughters can first remember their dad playing baseball, while his wife, Lori, was pregnant with their youngest daughter while he was with the Twins.

The Astros are playing at the Metrodome this weekend, their first trip to Minneapolis since they were here for an Interleague Series in 2001. The Twins are closing down the old Dome this year in anticipation of the opening of their brand new ballpark in 2010. To commemorate the final season, the Twins are doing what many teams have done before them — counting down the home games remaining, one day at a time.

Above the left field seats hangs a sign that says, “Countdown to Outdoor Baseball.” Next to it are manually movable pieces serving as numbers. The Twins asked Deshaies, now the Astros’ color television analyst, to be the featured guest to unveil the new number on Friday. Deshaies wore No. 44 as a Twin, so it’s only fitting that was the number he revealed during the sixth inning of the Twins-Astros opener.

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Like most of the old ballparks, the Metrodome’s charm has probably reached its expiration point. But this stadium has enjoyed quite a bit of history over the years, including World Series in 1987 and 1991 that will be remembered as two of the most exciting Fall Classics in baseball history. The Twins have a nice group of legendary players who built their memorable careers in Minnesota. Here are two of the six retired numbers that hang on the wall in the outfield — Kirby Puckett, and Kent Hrbek.

Incidentally, Friday was Kent Hrbek bobblehead day.

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Congratulations, Pudge.

Congratulations to Pudge Rodriguez, the proud owner of the all-time games caught record, which he set when Wednesday’s game in Texas became official in the middle of the fifth inning.

A few of the Astros veterans bought Pudge a bottle of Cristal champagne on behalf of the entire team, and a subdued but appropriate celebration took place following the game. Even though the Astros lost — and it was one of those bad losses — the players had enough class to realize a momentous occasion should not be pushed aside because of one bad night.

All of the players autographed the bottle of Cristal, and in turn, each player received his own bottle of Korbel champagne. Pudge signed every bottle, “Ivan Rodriguez, No. 12, 2,227th game.” Very nice touch, and a big night for one very classy 19-year veteran.

The moment that the record was set kind of came and went without much hooplah. Let’s face it, when you’re setting a record that first requires 4 1/2 innings to be played, and you’re on the road, and you’re not Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995, it’s difficult to get hyped up about the exact moment it happens, because it comes and goes with the blink of an eye.

Still, the Rangers and their fans were classy from beginning to end. Pudge received a standing ovation as he made his first plate appearance, and the Rangers ran a video tribute during the third inning to commemorate both his career and his record-setting day. They showed pictures of the catchers he has passed, including Hall of Famer Gary Carter (fourth place), Bob Boone (third) and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk (second).

I snuck down to the photo well by the Astros’ dugout to capture the very moment that Pudge became the record holder. Here are a few:

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To be honest, the pregame hooplah was much more fun to document than the record-setting moment. I asked Pudge ahead of time if he minded me following him around as he prepared for the game; fortunately, he had no issues with it, so here we go…

Pudge signed a couple dozen autographs for teammates and coaches who wanted to obtain their own piece of history. Here he is signing a lineup card for bench coach Ed Romero.

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You can see the “2,227 games” at the bottom, commemorating the occasion.

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This is the lineup card from the night before, when Pudge tied Carlton Fisk.

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Pudge has a quiet moment at his locker, prior to the clubhouse opening to the media at 3:35 p.m. The quiet moments soon would end.

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Another quiet moment (with the exception of me standing there pointing a camera at him every time he turned around. Fortunately he was a good sport about it).

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This would normally be just another ordinary picture of the media crush surrounding a player, if not for the big dude in the back taping the interview — that’s none other than closer Jose Valverde, complete with tape recorder and scowl a lot of reporters wear when interviewing players.

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Pudge hadn’t realized Valverde was part of the “media” until he finished the interviews.

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He was still laughing about it as he finished an interview with FS Houston’s Greg Lucas.

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Pudge came out to sign autographs for fans and discovered a line of a few hundred people waiting for him.

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Here’s Hunter Pence having some fun with the man of the hour.

<br />
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<p>And the non-Pudge version of Wednesday’s fun: </p>
<p>Lots of autograph signing…Jim Deshaies</p>
<p><span class=0617_jd.jpg

Jason Michaels

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Kaz Matsui takes in the scene before BP.

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Keppinger and Pence chat at the cage.

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Wednesday’s starter, Russ Ortiz.

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Pence was saying something funny to me but I can’t remember what it was.

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Kids, signs and baseball…a terrific combination, every time.

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Puma looks very puma-like as he stretches before taking BP.

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Puma says relax. Did you know Pudge is about to set a record?

Lance Berkman did just about everything in his power to break out of his seemingly endless season-opening slump — he took early batting practice, watched tape and took swing after swing after swing over a countless number of hours in the cage.

When the calendar flipped to June, Puma decided to start thinking less and simply take it easy. He gave himself a break and stopped overanalyzing his struggles, which sounds easy enough but is often one of the toughest things for a player to do.

You can’t dispute the results. Since June 1 (prior to Tuesday’s opener with the Rangers), Berkman is hitting .357 (15-for-42) with three homers and eight RBIs.

Logic suggests his numbers have improved simply because he’s an elite Major League hitter, and the best ones always come around. Do I believe that his decision to stop putting in so much overtime is the sole reason for the turnaround? Of course not. But there’s something to be said about a player who can step back, assess the situation and realize that maybe sometimes less is more.

In explaining his new approach, Puma also pointed out that every player is different, and there’s no right and wrong way to deal with a slump. If a player goes 0-for-4 and feels better taking a bunch of swings in the cage after the game, so be it. Some players need the constant repetitions, a ton of extra work, and a place to channel their energy in order to feel comfortable during games. It’s entirely possible that Puma will, at some point, feel he needs some extra work in the cage. But for now, he’s going to relax. The method appears to be working.

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The Dodgers wrapped up a weekend series with the Rangers in Arlington prior to the Astros’ arrival, and a couple of former Houston players who now playing in L.A. left behind greetings and salutations for their former teammates. On the dry erase board that normally bears the Astros lineup was a note from Brad Ausmus and Mark Loretta. Most were private jokes that I didn’t understand, but one line was addressed to Darin Erstad — “Keep your head up.” Encouraging words from a couple of veterans who understand what it’s like to struggle at the plate. (Especially Ausmus.)

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The next official game Pudge Rodriguez plays will set the Major League Baseball record for all-time games caught. Thanks to the Astros exemplary media relations department, we now have these fun “Betcha didn’t know” facts about Pudge’s career that led him to the eve of his historic day:

Pudge, who played his first 11 years with the Rangers, played in his first game on June 20, 1991, at the Chicago White Sox. The Rangers starting pitcher was Kevin Brown, and the opposing White Sox catcher was none other than…the other Pudge — Carlton Fisk, the holder of the record that Rodriguez will break this week in Arlington.

Rodriguez’s first hit arrived during the same game — it was a ninth-inning single off Melido Perez that drove in two runs. Rodriguez’s first home run arrived more than two months later, on Aug. 30 during a home game against the Royals. It was a solo homer off Storm Davis.

On Sept. 5, 2007, he logged his 2,473rd career hit, passing Ted Simmons for most hits by a catcher all-time.

Pudge then moved into third place all-time in games caught a little over two weeks later, on Sept. 22. It was his 2,057th game behind the plate, and he passed Hall of Famer Gary Carter on the all-time list.

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And we conclude with the latest series of snapshots from batting practice…

Hitting coach Sean Berry and the Puma walk out of the tunnel to discover it was about 93 degrees…down from 98 earlier that afternoon. Not that I need more ammo to truly appreciate the roof at Minute Maid Park, but every once in a while it’s nice to be reminded how lucky we are.

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Darin Erstad has a strict regimen before every game. You could say he has a heightened intensity level. So I play it safe and take pictures when he’s not looking.

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Erstad and Hunter Pence became fast friends as soon as Erstad signed with the Astros in ’08. The two are very much alike in how they prepare for and approach the game. Ironically, Erstad was Pence’s favorite player when he was a blossoming high school player.

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The ridiculously high temperatures were a hot topic, so to speak, during BP on Tuesday. Roy Oswalt and I were discussing humidity and I was trying to explain to him that humidity levels are higher in Houston than Arlington. He had a different take on it.

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So, as you can see, we just agreed to disagree on that one. 

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Hunter Pence talked to reporters about Rodriguez, who tied the all-time games caught record later that evening. Pence grew up in Arlington and watched Pudge for many years through his youth. Pence said it’s still strange to see Pudge in anything but a Rangers uniform.

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Pudge’s pending record-setting game is pretty big news in Arlington, where he spent the first 11 years of his career. Here was my vantage point from the dugout as Pudge was met with about a dozen or so photographers here to document the momentous occasion.

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Pudge’s teammates, stretching.

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You haven’t lived until you snap a shot of Jose Valverde from this angle. Here he is signing autographs before BP.
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