August 2009

Does Hunter Pence like his eggs poached or scrambled? Tune in to find out answers to this, and other Astros mysteries.

0831_pence.jpgHunter Pence must have been paying attention when his mother taught him that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. He loves that big meal first thing in the morning, and one of his regular routines on the road is to find a really good breakfast spot and delve into the local fare.

Pence will be featured in the latest episode of the Astros’ new reality-based show titled “Here’s The Pitch!” on FS Houston. The crew documented one of his recent trips to breakfast eatery Le Peep in Houston, where he dined with the extended Pence clan — his older brother, Howie, his sister-in-law Allison, his niece Hayley and his nephew, Striker.

Also on the docket for “Here’s the Pitch!” Show #2, which will run Thursday at 12:30 p.m. CT and will re-air Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT:

Young Astros fans ask questions of their favorite players: Favorite baseball memory, how to hit a home run and what kind of cereal they like (I’m sensing a trend here). One segment will be devoted to rookie Bud Norris and strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman during a workout, where they’ll explain what it takes for a big leaguer to stay in shape.

The show will also highlight Lance Berkman’s recent visit with Berkman’s Buddies, whom the Puma hosts at Minute Maid Park every Saturday home game.

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I’m working on another pictorial blog documenting the Chicago leg of this three-city trip. In the meantime, here are some friendly reminders regarding what’s on tap when the Astros return from the trip this Friday…

Send in those recipes

The Astros are still accepting recipe ideas that they could add to the Minute Maid Park menu in 2010. If you have a recipe that would do well in a ballpark setting, send your idea to promotions@astros.com. Entries will be accepted through Sept. 5.

The winner will see his or her recipe sold at the ballpark next year and will win luxury suite tickets. The second and third place winners will win autographed Astros items.

Once we have all of the entries, a panel will select three fans that will be involved in a cook off on Sept. 12. I have happily volunteered my taste buds to the cause and will serve as one of the judges….

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300 home run giveaway

On Friday (Sept. 4), the Astros will celebrate the their three players who reached 300 home runs this season with a pregame ceremony and gift presentation. The first 20,000 fans will receive a 300 Home Run Art Card, courtesy of Minute Maid. Additionally, tickets in View Deck II will be sold for just $3 that day.

On Saturday (Sept. 5), the celebration continues as the first 10,000 fans will receive a 300 Home Run T-Shirt, courtesy of AT&T…

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Dog Days of Summer

On Monday (Sept. 7), the Astros are hosting Dog Day, presented by H-E-B. For $20 ($10 of which will go to the Houston Humane Society), you and your dog can enjoy the Astros-Phillies game from the Barking Room only section along Conoco Alley and the H-E-B Dog Zone, featuring Hill Country Fare Dog Food, located in KBR Plaza.

An additional $20 “human ticket” can be purchased with the above package. The deadline to register for tickets is Thursday.

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College Night is Sept. 10…read details here.

Heroes Night is Sept. 11 and will honor all of those who serve in our local police forces, fire departments, and EMS teams along with those that protect our Nation as part of the United States Armed Forces. Details here.

 

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This segment brought to you by your friendly Astros broadcasters.

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A typical ballgame starts at 7:05 p.m., but the process to get ready for that game takes time — often, hours — for those bringing it to the fans through radio and television broadcasts.

Specifically, “the guys in the truck” — also known as the television production crew — arrive to the ballpark six hours before gametime and are immersed in a constant flow of tasks involving building graphics and video that are eventually shown on the nightly telecast.

At Chase Field in Arizona, the TV truck is located just outside of the media entrance. Seven people are crammed into a space estimated to be 10 feet by 18 feet in diameter, and there are 17 computer screens are all going at once, containing everything from graphics for that night’s game to video footage needed for tomorrow’s game to camera angles from various points of the ballpark.

The traveling production crew consists of four people: the producer, Wave Robinson (pictured above, with Jim Deshaies), the director, Paul Byckowski, and two associate producers — Mike Uguccioni (graphics) and Jerry Blancas (video).

The on-air talent spends hours preparing as well. Most of the broadcasters ride the bus to the ballpark three hours before gametime, although the radio announcers — Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond — often go early in order to tape the daily pregame show with manager Cecil Cooper. At home, Raymond and Dolan alternate series while working with play-by-play announcer Milo Hamilton, but on the road, the two call every game together.

Much of preparing for a game simply involves chatting with the manager and players during the hours leading up to gametime. Broadcasters are usually around for Cooper’s daily session with the media, and you’ll often see them interacting with the players in the dugout and on the field during batting practice. These conversations are crucial to a broadcast, for obvious reasons — all of the injury updates and anecdotal information you hear on the airwaves comes from the information they’re gathering pregame.

Prior to the TV broadcast, Wave will pop into the booth for a quick meeting with Brownie and J.D. (Also known in stuffy circles as Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies.) As I quickly learned, this is about as casual a gathering as you will find. By this time of the year, I would imagine Brownie and J.D. don’t need a lot of coaching in terms of when to read a promo or mention a sponsor or talk about an upcoming show on FS Houston. After five months I’m assuming they can probably recite this stuff in their sleep. (I can just picture J.D. sitting up in bed screaming “Stay tuned for our Dodge Grab Life by The Horns feature when we talk to Carlos Lee about his favorite offseason activity!”)

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Pregame meeting in the booth…You can see that Brownie and J.D. are paying really, really close attention to Wave’s pregame pep talk.

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Brownie, Brett Dolan (right) and Dave Raymond (left) hang out in the dugout during batting practice.  

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Five days a week, the pregame show features the manager. Saturdays, however, are designated as “Coach’s Corner.” Here we have Dave Raymond interviewing hitting coach Sean Berry. On Sundays, the guest is GM Ed Wade.

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Before every game, Wave prints out dozens of cue cards for the TV broadcasters, who have a rundown of when each promo needs to be read. Here we have two that will probably sound familiar to the TV audience.  

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I snapped this picture about an hour and a half before gametime. FS Houston’s Greg Lucas and Brownie spend quite a bit of time preparing for the game. Brownie is extremely detailed — he has flash cards and highlighters and a scorebook so marked up by the end of the game that it is impossible to decipher…well, unless you’re Brownie.

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Inside the truck…as you can see, each screen is split into four sections. Hard to imagine these guys miss anything going on at the ballpark an any given day.

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I was lamenting the cramped quarters until Wave said this was one of the bigger workspaces in the league. Most of the time, they have an 8-foot by 10-foot area in which to squeeze six people.

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The visiting team crew uses three cameras on the road – one above third base that looks into the Astros dugout, one in the dugout and one for a location that varies from trip to trip. The rest of the cameras are shared with the local team’s Fox crew, which can be somewhat limiting from a creativity standpoint. At home, the FS Houston crew uses 10 cameras.

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That’s Jerry Blancas on the far right. Those cool video montages with shots from all aspects of the ballpark that you see late in the game are put together by Jerry.  

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Up in the booth, Brownie and J.D. spent an inning with Luis Gonzalez, who officially retired and was honored by the Diamondbacks that night. Gonzo also joined the D-Backs front office as a consultant to the president of the club.  

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Reality TV, starring your Houston Astros.

The Astros are about to launch a new reality-based show starring their own players, to be aired locally on FS Houston.

“Here’s the Pitch,” hosted by Jennifer Vogel, is a 30-minute reality-style program that will focus on the lifestyles and personalities of Astros players.

Fans will get to meet Astros players and their families, visit their favorite hang outs and see what they do for their community. The series also will utilize social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to connect fans directly with their favorite players.

The first episode of “Here’s the pitch” will air Thursday (Aug. 27) at 5 p.m. CT. New episodes will air Fridays in September at 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. CT.

“We’re excited about this series because it humanizes the team,” said FOX Sports Houston Senior Vice President/General Manager Steve Tello. “We do a good job of presenting and televising the games, now Astros fans will find out how the players spend their lives outside of baseball.”

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Calling all canines

As promised, here are the details for Dog Day at Minute Maid Park, presented by H-E-B. The deadline to register for tickets for the Sept. 7 game is Sept. 3.

For $20 (&10 of which will go to the Houston Humane Society), you and your dog can enjoy the Astros-Phillies game from the Barking Room only section along Conoco Alley and the H-E-B Dog Zone, featuring Hill Country Fare Dog Food, located in KBR Plaza.

An additional $20 “human ticket” can be purchased with the above package.

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Submit recipes, win prizes.

Friendly reminder that the Astros are looking for recipe ideas that they could add to the Minute Maid Park menu in 2010. If you have a recipe that would do well in a ballpark setting, send your idea to promotions@astros.com. Entries will be accepted through Sept. 5.

The winner will see his or her recipe sold at the ballpark next year and will win luxury suite tickets. The second and third place winners will win autographed Astros items.

Once we have all of the entries, a panel will select three fans that will be involved in a cook off on September 12.

From the Ask Alyson files:

Do the players have roommates on the road? If so, who determines what players room together? — Yvette M.

Players don’t have to room together on the road. I’m not sure when teams started giving players their own rooms — in the old days, it was standard for everyone to double up.

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From the photo vault…batting practice at Busch Stadium Wednesday:

Michael Bourn, Humberto Quintero  

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Television announcer Bill Brown chats with Cecil Cooper.

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It’s always fun to pick the brain of general manager Ed Wade, who is both accesible and straightforward when talking about the team. It’s standard for reporters and broadcasters to engage the GM in casual conversation during BP. That’s PR rep Sally Gunter in between Wade and Jim Deshaies, having a “Where’s Waldo” moment.

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Roy Oswalt, having a quiet moment on the bench a few hours before his start agains the Cardinals.

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On dress codes, pregame routines and other pressing issues.

After posting the pictures from yesterday’s travel day, the question I received more than any other was, what is the dress code when the team travels? I think a lot of you were surprised to see the guys so gussied up.

On flights, players and coaches are required to wear jackets and socks, and jeans are not permitted.

Dress codes have varied over the years, depending on who is managing the team. I remember during the Larry Dierker days, the dress code was really, really relaxed — players could wear pretty much whatever they wanted, including jeans. I remember Lance Berkman and Brad Ausmus taking particular advantage of that privilege on a pretty regular basis. I didn’t agree with the jeans part — in my opinion, Major League teams should dress nicely when they are representing their organization.

However, I also didn’t think Jimy Williams’ dress code was necessary either. He was the anti-Dierker — not only were you not allowed to wear jeans on flights, you couldn’t wear them on a road trip, at all. Not even to walk around downtown while killing time before a night game. I thought this was a little extreme.

The dress code nowadays is a nice medium — no jeans on flights, jackets required, but players can wear whatever they want during their free time.

Speaking of dress codes, I would love to go back in time to the 1970s, just to see what players were wearing on road trips. Cecil Cooper often talks about the silk shirts and leisure suits that were high style back then. Coop apparently had three leisure suits, all the same style, but in different colors — pink, brown and green. Yes, pink — not salmon or coral. Just pink.

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The Astros played game No. 125 of the season Tuesday and prepared for said game in a clubhouse almost as familiar as the one at their home park in Houston.

The Astros make two to three trips every year to St. Louis so needless to say, they know how to make themselves at home here.

Players arrive to the clubhouse insanely early, but once they get there, there’s a whole lot of nothing going on. Select hitters pass the time by taking extra hacks in the batting cages, while others who are nursing aches and pains or more severe injuries spend their time in the training room. Others plop down on the sofa and watch movies, or hang at their lockers and chat with teammates.

Here we have Jose Valverde holding court with a few of his pitching teammates. Valverde is often the life of the party, as you can see here.

0825_valverde.jpgChess is another popular way to pass the time. Humberto Quintero and Yoshi Ono — Kaz Matsui’s interpreter — are two of a handful of Astros personnel who enjoy the game.

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Roy Oswalt met the team at the ballpark Tuesday after spending the last day and a half at his ranch in Missouri, about three hours from St. Louis. Oswalt owns about 3,000 acres of land and spends quite a bit of time there hunting and fishing, two of his favorite pastimes.

Oswalt is featured in a recent issue of “Outdoor Life” in a one-page spread titled ” “5 minutes with Roy Oswalt.” He answers the burning questions everyone wants to know: Why the passion for whitetails? Who’s the better hunter, you or Jake Peavy?

Here he is relaxing with a nice ice wrap on his lower back and “Everyone Loves Raymond” blaring on TV.

0825_oswalt.jpg Around 5:15, pitchers filter onto the field for stretching, followed by the position players. Broadcasters also have their pregame routines — such as radio announcer Dave Raymond, who is captured here conducting a pregame interview with Tim Byrdak.

0825_byrdak_franklin.jpgOn the other side of the dugout, Coop conducts his daily session with the media.

 

0825_coop_media.jpgAlberto Arias (right), Yorman Bazardo, hanging out before stretching.

 

0825_arias_bazardo.jpgOne of my favorite ways to pass the time is to take pictures of the players doing the side-to-side shuffle exercises. Those usually translate into some pretty entertaining still shots.

0825_moe_hawk.jpg Chatting with the enemy: Albert Pujols is known as one of the friendlier players in the MLB fraternity. Here he is chatting up Oswalt in between taking cuts in the cage.

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Wandy Rodriguez, Tuesday’s starter.

0825_wandy.jpg I showed Puma my Facebook album titled “My favorite ‘Stop taking my picture’ pictures of Puma” and he found it pretty amusing. Then he did a 180 and gave me a friendly pose. Which one do you like better…this one…

 

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…or this one?

 

 It’s like Bring your Kid to Work Day, only better different.

The Astros are hosting Dog Day at Minute Maid Park, presented by H-E-B, on Monday, Sept. 7. For $20 ($10 of which will go to the Houston Humane Society), you and your dog can enjoy the Astros-Phillies game from the Barking Room only section along Conoco Alley and the H-E-B Dog Zone, featuring Hill Country Fare Dog Food, located in KBR Plaza.

An additional $20 “human ticket” can be purchased with the above package. The deadline to register for tickets is Sept. 3.

The Astros will soon officially release more details, including a list of criteria that would make your dog either suitable or unsuitable to bring to the ballpark. Suitable includes things like being at least six months of age (your dog, not you), vaccinated, in good health and not aggressive toward other dogs. I ran through the unsuitable list but stopped when I got to the part about nasal discharge. I’d rather just post the link to the release as soon as it’s available and let you peruse it at your leisure.

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Blogging from the road, one picture at a time. First stop: St. Louis.

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Typically, fans are given a first-hand view of only one aspect of baseball: the game on the field. You see players in uniform, signing autographs, doing sprints in the outfield, taking batting practice. Occasionally, you might catch a glimpse of them walking into the ballpark on a game day.

But getting through a season is much more involved than simply showing up to the clubhouse and putting on the uniform, especially on the road. The process begins and ends with bus rides and plane trips, with lengthy hotel stays in between.

The Astros left for a three-city trip on Monday, and in this blog you’ll find a play-by-play of sorts as we share the ins and outs of road tripping in the big leagues. A columnist friend once told me that fans are as interested in the process of covering a team as they are reading about balls and strikes and wins and losses. Hopefully, you’ll find this day-to-day pictorial diary entertaining and maybe a little informative. Check back early and often.

Making sure everyone is on the same page. Literally.

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This is one section of the itinerary that is handed out to each member of the traveling party prior to road trips. It details everything one would need to know in terms of bus times, flight times and game times as well as hotel information and Will Call locations. In St. Louis, the hotel is in walking distance to the ballpark, so no bus is needed. Instead, a time is given when players are required to report to the clubhouse.

Leaving home

The team usually travels on a game day, leaving 45 minutes after the last out is made. But this time, the Astros had an offday in between their final home game and the first game of the road trip, and that becomes the designated travel day.

Luggage had to be on the truck by 4:45 p.m., and the buses left for the airport at 5:15. Teams use two buses — one for players only, and the other for everyone else — manager, coaches, traveling secretary, broadcasters, strength and conditioning coach, media relations rep, TV production crew. (And me.)

Also, any players traveling with their families ride the non-player bus.

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Although teams don’t go through airport security, they do have TSA reps who come to the ballpark and do a full screening. Occasionally, the screening will be done on the tarmac at the airports but for the most part they’re done at the stadium.

The buses then pull right up to the plane and the team files on.

Hunter Pence, Sammy Gervacio.  

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 Darin Erstad, Jessica Erstad (among others).

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Kaz Matsui.

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Bud Norris, Jason Michaels, Geoff Blum, Felipe Paulino.

0824_group.jpgThe plane is a regular Continental jet chartered by the team. Seating-wise, here is the standard protocol:

First class: Manager, coaches (pictured: Jose Cruz, Ed Romero, Dewey Robinson), general manager, traveling secretary, clubhouse manager.

0824_cheo.jpgFirst half of coach: Non-players (see above list — broadcasters, athletic trainers, etc.)

Brett Dolan, Dave Raymond.

0824_bcasters.jpgSecond half of coach — players.

Preparing for takeoff

0824_snacks.jpgWhile everyone gets situated and delves into the cheese and crackers/potato chips/peanut butter and jelly sandwich/Lunchables spread waiting for them in the first row of coach, the equipment crew gets to work, loading the plane. This, of course, does not involve just luggage. The bulk of the items involve equipment — bats, uniforms, shoes…anything a player needs on a roadie (including golf clubs) is transported from the stadium on the 16-wheel equipment truck and loaded on the plane.

0824_unload.jpgOnce the team lands, the buses are parked right on the tarmac ready to transport the team to the hotel. The equipment truck is then loaded and arrives to the hotel about 30 minutes after the team.

The arrival

Each player and staff member then finds his or her name among a group of envelopes containing a room key and rooming list displayed on a table near the entrance of the hotel (you can see the suspicious hotel manager in the background wondering who the strange lady is snapping pictures).

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Moehler an Astro in 2010? I vote yes. Yes on Randy Wolf, too.

The Astros won’t have much money to play with next year, and I’d like to see what extra they do have spent on pitching. The first thing I would do is pick up the option on Brian Moehler’s contract, which will be worth either $2.3 million if he pitches fewer than 150 innings this year, and $3 million if he exceeds that total. He’s pitched 119 innings so far and assuming he makes six more starts and averages six innings per start, he’ll come in just over 150.

So, for argument’s sake, let’s say the option is worth $3 million. Going over the projected salaries for 2010, four players will take up more than half the payroll — Lance Berkman ($14.5 million), Roy Oswalt ($15), Carlos Lee ($18.5) and Kaz Matsui ($5). Including Moehler’s option, that’s $56 million for five.

Drayton McLane has not set the payroll for next season, but for now let’s estimate it at $95 million. They’ll need about $21 million to cover the arbitration-eligible players. That leaves $18 million to spend on the rest of the team, with more than half the 25-man roster still undetermined. If Miguel Tejada agrees to play third base for $5 million, and Tommy Manzella and Jason Castro make the league minimum as the starting shortstop and catcher, respectively, I would fill the rest of the infield with Jeff Keppinger, who will probably cost a little less than $1 million in arbitration, and Geoff Blum, who the Astros probably could sign now for around $2 million.

The Astros will probably have to round out the bullpen with mostly young guys — Yorman Bazardo, Alberto Arias, Sammy Gervacio, Wesley Wright and Jeff Fulchino (he’ll be 30 next season, but he’s not yet arbitration-eligible, which puts him in the category of “young”). I have no idea what they’re going to do with the closer situation. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to afford to bring back Jose Valverde, who I’m assuming will be looking for a multi-year deal exceeding the $8 million he made this year. The Astros may be forced to try to either convert one of their young relievers into a closer or trade for a young pitcher viewed as a possible future closer.

Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez will get hefty raises in arbitration. I do not know what the final figures will be but I have Wandy penciled in for $5 million and Pence and Bourn making around $2 million.There are still approximately two bullpen spots and the two backup outfielder spots to fill. That doesn’t leave a lot of extra money to play with, but whatever wiggle room they have should be spent on a starting pitcher, and I would like to see them once again pursue Randy Wolf.

In Wolf, the team would be getting a veteran pitcher who has had success here and is, most importantly, healthy. They pulled their offer to him last year when the economy went in the toilet, and they took their chances on Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz. That didn’t pan out.

I’d rather spend a little extra on someone healthy and have a rotation that can survive the realities of this organization — the promising pitching prospects are still working their way through the system and will not be ready in 2010. That leaves them with little Major League-ready depth, which means they simply have to strengthen what they do have at this level. A Randy Wolf would be the perfect No. 3 to slide in behind Oswalt and Rodriguez and ahead of Norris and Moehler.

That’s my two cents. What say you?

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Random pictures from a weekend of baseball at Minute Maid Park:

Michael Bourn, Sean Berry and Ed Wade have a laugh during batting practice.

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Roy Oswalt signs autographs for young fans.

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The Astros honor Kaz Matsui for logging his 2,000th career hit…

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…And Carlos Lee for his 300th career home run.

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Puma addresses a crowd of at least 5,000 on Faith and Family night.

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Calling all foodies. Ask an Astro, and one more Rookie Road Trip blast from the past.

Too many cooks in the kitchen? Send them to the Astros, who are welcoming recipe ideas to add to the Minute Maid Park menu in 2010. If you have a recipe that would do well in a ballpark setting (translated: easy to prepare in large quantities), send your idea to promotions@astros.com. Entries will be accepted through Sept. 5.

The winner will see his or her recipe sold at the ballpark next year and will win luxury suite tickets. The second and third place winners will win autographed Astros items.

Once we have all of the entries, a panel will select three fans that will be involved in a cook off on September 12.

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Have a burning question for an Astros player? FS Houston is taking questions from fans for players to answer on a future show. Send your questions to promotions@astros.com and check back to see if yours was picked.

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Rookie Road Trip, part two

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Found another fun picture from a Rookie Road Trip from yesteryear. This one doesn’t fit the category of “Guess the Astro,” because even with the grainy quality of a picture taken by a disposable camera eight years ago, you can still see who’s who, for the most part.

Ricky Stone’s that blurry figure in the back left, standing behind Tim Redding (talking on the phone). That’s Carlos Hernandez next to him, and Roy Oswalt in the front. The two on the right are Scott Linebrink and Adam Everett. I’m trying to figure out who that is to the left of Linebrink. Considering this was September of 2001, I’m thinking maybe Wilfredo Rodriguez? He gave up Bonds’ 70th homer toward the end of that season. Anyone? Anyone?

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What the Astros got for Pudge.

One scouting report describes Matt Nevarez as having a “huge arm” but also as “extremely raw.” The Astros do not see him as raw. They like his plus-plus fastball and see what could be the makings of an average slider. Nevarez is young, only 22, and even though that’s a little old for Class A, where he was at the time of the trade, he missed some time because of an elbow injury. Now seemingly healthy, the Astros envision Nevarez as a possible power arm for the back end of the bullpen.

Reportedly, the Astros also received infielder Jose Vallejo as one of the two players to be named later. According to this report, the Astros will get a second PTBNL if the Rangers reach the playoffs. 

It’s obviously too early to tell if this trade will work in the Astros favor, but that they obtained a young power arm is encouraging. I would have preferred a starting pitcher, but it would have taken more than Pudge Rodriguez to get that.

Ed Wade addressed several topics during his briefing with the media Tuesday. First, he offered a timeline of how the deal was done. Rangers GM Jon Daniels, according to Wade, called him Friday after front-line catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was diagnosed with an arm ailment. Daniels expressed interest in Pudge, and after mulling over the Astros asking price, he called Wade again Tuesday morning and said he was prepared to move forward with the trade.

The Rangers, Wade said, did not have interest in Pudge until Saltalamacchia went down.

Pudge has a no-trade clause, and he had to agree before the two sides could make it official. That part is why it took so long between the news breaking that Pudge was headed to the Rangers and the Astros acknowledging that they had indeed completed the trade: Pudge first had to accept a trade that would push him into a backup role with his new team.

Wade also offered this interesting tidbit: during their parting conversation Tuesday morning, Pudge wanted to talk about next year, and his interest in possibly returning to the Astros. Wade told him they were prepared instead to look at some of their young catching prospects. “I advised him to take advantage of going ‘home’ and see what the offseason presents at that time,” Wade said.

Astros owner Drayton McLane was pressed about the public perception that the team was throwing in the proverbial towel by trading away one of their most experienced players, and McLane insisted this was not the beginning of the club going into full tear-down mode.

“If we were interested in changing the total texture of the team, we would have done it at the trade deadline,” McLane said. “We had not had conversations about trading Pudge. This was unusual. We got call after the Rangers No. 1 catcher was injured.”

McLane added that Rangers owner Tom Hicks called him about Pudge. “I was very reluctant,” McLane said. “I said, ‘You need to make a strong offer before we’d even consider this.’”

Astros players reactions ranged from disappointment to indifference. Some took it hard and feel that taking away someone with Pudge’s history is equal to giving up on the season. Others weren’t terribly surprised — after all, Pudge was pretty much down to catching a few times a week and splitting time with Humberto Quintero.

“Pudge wasn’t catching as much lately,” Lance Berkman said. “That’s what it seemed like. That’s why I thought there might be something going on even before this (trade). It’s one thing if he was the every day catcher. But he was more part-time.”

Roy Oswalt had this to say: “I guess that’s the process of trying to build the club for next year. That’s what I’m hoping they are doing now. There is a time where you have to start rebuilding, and if you wait until the end of the season, you may not get the pieces you need for the next year.”

My take: While I realize Pudge was a popular player in the clubhouse and with the fans, and he’s accomplished a heck of a lot in his career, and he’s probably headed for the Hall of Fame, I’m not understanding why this is viewed as such a huge loss. Pudge was hitting .251, he grounded into 13 double plays and was showing signs of wearing down, hitting just .170 (10-for-59) with one extra base hit over his last 15 games. And his defense, lauded for so many of his 19 years in the big leagues, wasn’t anything great. Five passed balls in 90 games is, in my estimation, too many.

The 37-year-old Rodriguez is going back to the Rangers, where he spent his best years, to be a backup to Taylor Teagarden. The Astros have a farm system with giant holes and a big league team playing poorly. At first glance, this appears to be a win-win for both sides.

The Astros were also negotiating from a position of strength, which doesn’t happen too often. The Rangers needed Pudge and the Astros were in no huge hurry to rid themselves of him. From the reports I’m reading, the Rangers didn’t give up just a bag of beans for Pudge. We’ll see.

As for how the catching situation will shake out…for now, Chris Coste and Quintero will share the time behind the plate. The Astros will strongly consider bringing up J.R. Towles when rosters expand to 40 on Sept. 1, which would give them a true emergency catcher. Jason Castro, who is headed for the World Cup games in September, does not appear to be on the radar this year. I am holding out hope they consider giving him a chance to win the starting catcher job out of Spring Training in 2010.

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Fun at the Puma palace

We’ll never accuse Berkman of forgetting from where he came, especially when it comes to his alma mater.

Puma recently welcomed 25 Rice University students to his home as part of orientation week, during which co-eds are sent on a scavenger hunt with specific items to obtain on their excursion. Apparently, one of those items this year was a picture with Puma. A friend had reached out to Berkman ahead of time, so it was no surprise when the group showed up at his place wanting a quick pose. Berkman readily obliged, remembering his own “O-Week” at Rice nearly 15 years ago.

“I did it when I was a freshman,” he said. “We fit a full soccer goal into the back of a mini pick-up truck.”

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Need to vent? Join Facebook.

Frustrated. Elated. Mad. Sad. Indignant. Excited. Optimistic. Annoyed. Indifferent. Hopeful.

Baseball evokes a wide range of emotions from its fans, and over the course of this season, and seasons past, I’ve heard from fans who have expressed one or two, or all, of the above. Now, thanks to social networking, we can be mad, sad, elated, hopeful and annoyed together.

Some of you post on my blog, some on Twitter, some on Facebook. Your comments (keep them clean, please) are always welcome and I try my best to join in the conversation and address/answer everything I can. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to join the Astros Facebook page. There are some lively conversations that take place there, and I promise that you’ll find a ton of people who think just like you, and another ton who will think you’re nuts.

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Cheap tickets alert

Two of the more popular summer promotions have been extended to the end of the season…

Price Matters: For $10, you get a View Deck II ticket, a hot dog, soda and chips. The offer is for the following games: Aug. 23 (D-Backs), Sept. 4-7 (Phillies), Sept. 8 (Braves), Sept. 11-13 (Pirates), Sept. 22 (Cardinals), Sept. 25-27 (Reds).

Kids Free All Summer…er, season:
This offer was originally scheduled to end on Sunday, but it’s been extended to include all remaining home games. 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 & under.

Day 2 in Corpus Christi. Catching up with Castro the (future) Astro.

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It’s not unusual for a twenty-something to tour Europe as a post-college graduation adventure, but Jason Castro never had that opportunity.

Castro went directly from the College World Series to the New York-Penn League, where he began his professional career with the Tri-City Valley Cats after being selected as the Astros’ No. 1 Draft pick in 2008. Traveling to exotic far-away places was not an option at the time, but it turns out, Castro is indeed going to get that tour trhough Europe.

Even before his season as the starting catcher for the Double-A Hooks concludes in early September, Castro will head to Cary, NC, to report to Team USA. That club will participate in the IBAF World Cup, a 22-team tournament that begins play on Sept. 9 in Spain, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Croatia.

“When I found out that I was selected to play on the team, it was definitely an honor,” Castro said before the Hooks game against the Arkansas Travelers on Wednesday. “I’ve never been to Europe before. To represent Team USA is something I’ve never been able to do, so this is pretty special.”

Once that tournament is complete, Castro will likely continue to play offseason baseball in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll have a couple of months of down time before reporting to Spring Training in February, but where he lands on the Astros depth chart between now and then is anyone’s guess. Few have doubts about Castro’s certain future as the Astros’ No. 1 catcher. The only question is, how soon will the future arrive?

From a public standpoint, there is pressure to push Castro into that role coming out of Spring Training. The Astros are hesitant to do that, fearing pushing him too soon could be detrimental to the big picture. They anointed J.R. Towles “the guy” entering Spring Training in 2008, and that all but backfired. They don’t want to repeat history.

So will the Astros need to find another stop-gap, a la Pudge Rodriguez, next spring, until Castro is ready? Will there even be a stop-gap available? Or, do they hand Castro the job, step away, and cross their fingers?

Those are discussions the front office will probably have a hundred times this offseason. Castro will simply do what’s asked of him, and while he is aware of the hype surrounding him — he follows the Astros pretty regularly, when his schedule allows — he doesn’t intend to preoccupy himself with worrying about whether he’ll have a legitimate chance to win a job in the big leagues next March.

“It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing, and now that I’m kind of on the cusp of getting that opportunity, it’s exciting,” he said. “There is some pressure. But I’ve tried to keep it in the back of my mind and not let it really come into play when I’m on the field. I can’t really worry about it. Hopefully, the things I do on the field will speak for themselves.”

Castro began the 2009 season at Class A Lancaster and was promoted to Corpus in early June. Over 48 games with the Hooks, he’s hitting .304 with nine doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs.

Hooks manager Luis Pujols, the ex-catcher who played for two Astros playoff teams during his seven-year tenure in Houston (1977-83), said of Castro’s first-round pick status, “He’s No. 1, and he’s backing it up here.” Asked about Castro possibly being the Astros No. 1 catcher Opening Day next year, however, Pujols was more reserved.

“I like him. I wish I could say he’ll be the guy next year, but he’s still a long way away,” Pujols said. “I’d like to see him finish the season here, go to World Cup games, the Arizona Fall League, Spring Training, and then who knows?”

Castro is a quick study, Pujols noted, which definitely helps to accelerate the learning process.

“Everything we tell him, he’s able to put in place during the game right away,” Pujols said. “I see him hitting and it seems like he’s hitting the ball hard everywhere. He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs. He’s a gapper. He hits the ball hard to right field and left field. He doesn’t strike out much. I haven’t seen a young guy like that in a while.”

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Chia-Jen Lo is another one to keep an eye on. He was also promoted mid-season from Lancaster to Corpus Christi, and although he’s had some fatigue issues with his shoulder, the 23-year-old right-handed reliever appears to be adjusting well in his first year of professional baseball in America.

Lo has never experienced this kind of workload, a lesson the team learned the hard way when it lost him to tendinitis for a few weeks. Now, he’s restricted to throwing no more than two innings, and through 23 appearances, he has a 3.75 ERA and is averaging a strikeout per inning.

“The hardest thing to adjust to is the long season,” Lo said through his interpreter, Justin Wei. “I’ve never been through this many games. It’s my first full season, and it’s been an adjustment.”

Lo is also in the process of learning English. A tutor comes to the ballpark regularly to work with him, and he admits picking up the language is definitely a work in progress.

“It’s hard,” he laughed. “It’ll be at least a year.”

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Corpus Christi Hooks, Boooooone and pulling tarp.

 
0812_boone_closeup.jpgCORPUS CHRISTI — Although he’s a good 10-15 years older than most players who comprise the Corpus Christi Hooks roster, Aaron Boone fits in quite well here.

In his Hooks t-shirt and shorts — standard attire for batting practice in 99 degree temps at Whataburger Field — Boone falls into place during fielding drills and takes batting practice with his group as scheduled, three hours before the Double-A Hooks game with the Arkansas Travelers. But Boone isn’t like the other guys, of course. The other guys are working their way up to the big leagues. Boone is working his way back.

Only five months have passed since Boone stood in front of his Astros teammates before a meaningless Spring Training game in March and shocked them with the news that he would soon need heart surgery, and that his season, and career, could very well be over.

Apparently, those two prognostications were a bit hasty. Boone has a very realistic chance to return to the Major Leagues this year, and if he completes the plan he recently mapped out with general manager Ed Wade, he’ll join the Astros as early as Sept. 1, when rosters expand to 40.

Boone is currently on an extended rehab assignment, beginning with the Double-A Hooks, where he played first base Wednesday night. Eventually, he’ll work his way to Triple-A Round Rock, and after that, Houston.

The quick comeback has surprised many around the game, but Boone is neither shocked nor overwhelmed by what he’s attempting to do. And don’t look for him to wax poetic about realizing his own mortality after the health scare — he talks very matter-of-factly about everything — the surgery, the recovery, and the comeback attempt.

“It’s not like I’ve sat back and reflected on it,” he said. “I’m living it, and it’s been about getting better. I feel ready to try and do this.”

The Spring Training meeting with his teammates was “a very emotional day,” he said, more emotional that he anticipated. “But once it was over,” he added, “it was about, ‘OK, let’s get this (surgery) scheduled. Let’s get on with it. Let’s get going.”

And once the doctors told him the surgery went exactly as planned, Boone turned his attention back to the baseball season.

“I knew the timeline might allow me to do this,” he said. “I still love playing and I feel like I owe trying this thing to myself, to the Astros, who have been unbelievable to me, the people who have contacted me who have had heart issues, and general people that have come up and are pulling for me. That’s good motivation.”

His isn’t scared to walk away, however. “I’m not addicted to the game,” he said. “If it ended tomorrow, that would be cool, too.”

 

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So I’m here in Corpus for a couple of days, not only to catch up with Boooooone, but also to talk to some of the Astros’ up-and-coming prospects. I had a nice chat with catcher Jason Castro the (future) Astro, which I’ll post in the next day or so. I’m also hoping to catch up with Chia-Jen Lo (and, more importantly, Chia-Jen Lo’s interpreter) before I leave Thursdsay night.

Castro and Lo are probably the closest to the big leagues of this group, but I’m also intrigued by outfielder Drew Locke, an offensive juggernaut who was hitting .325 with 18 homers and 101 RBIs heading into Wednesday’s game.

The Astros picked up Locke from the Dodgers during the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft last December. As a corner outfielder, he would appear to be blocked by a couple of mainstays in Houston. But I wouldn’t discard the possibility of making room from an offensively-sound corner outfielder who possibly could play first base. At the very least, he’s someone to keep an eye on.

Fun facts:
In the five-year history of the Corpus Christi Hooks, 25 have eventually reached the big leagues.

Twenty-four have played for the Hooks after playing in the big leagues.

The most expensive ticket at Whataburger Field is $12, and that’s only if you buy the ticket the day of the game.  Advance tickets cost no more than 10 bucks, and general admission is $5. The ballpark is awesome, the seating area is comfortable and close to the field. It’s simply a great place to spend a night out with the family.

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Being in Corpus Christi makes me realize how far Minor League Baseball has come in the last decade or so. The ballparks sparkle, the player facilities are top rate and the fan experience is first-class. New ballparks aren’t just a trend in the big leagues — in the last decade, countless new Minor League stadiums have gone up all over the country — quaint, classy venues that provide a comfortable, fun and most importantly, affordable, place for a family to watch a ball game.

This is in stark contrast to my own Minor League experience, which dates back to 1996, when I worked for the Double-A Cleveland Indians in Canton, OH. The Canton-Akron Indians (original, huh?) were playing their last year at the old Thurman Munson Stadium before moving a half-hour north to Akron, where the club would reside in a brand new ballpark and rename themselves the Akron Aeros.

As nice as new Canal Park was, Munson Stadium left much to be desired — made of metal (or, as we called it, tin), cramped facilities, tiny, dark, dank clubhouses.

Back then, being a member of a Minor League front office meant having a fancy schmancy title while assuming a variety of other responsibilities, most of which I’ve tried to forget over the last 13 years. I believe my fancy schmancy title was Director of Advertising and Publications. A typical workday, in addition to selling season tickets and billboards, involved pulling tarp, running the Dizzy Bat Race between innings, cleaning the stadium on a Sunday morning after a Saturday night game, and, when the concession folks failed to show up for work, selling beer and hot dogs.

For those not from Northeastern Ohio, here’s a little history lesson — in April and May and the first half of June, it rains, pretty much at some point, every day. The grounds crew wasn’t part of the front office staff — it was the front office staff. As soon as so much as a sprinkle would fall on the field, one of the higher-ups would scream “TARP!”, which meant drop whatever you’re doing, pull on your “tarp gear” and get out to the field.

That was the easy part. What I soon learned was that if the tarp is still on the field when the sun comes up the next day, the grass underneath will burn. So, in the event we had to leave the tarp on overnight, it would have to come off first thing in the morning.

I always dreaded that 6 a.m. phone call — “FOOTER!!! TARP!!! TWENTY MINUTES!!!”

I learned on Wednesday that not much has changed in that respect over the years. The facilities are better, but the job descriptions are largely the same. Here are a couple of shots of the “tarp crew” — a.k.a., Hooks front office staff — pulling the tarp onto the field after Wednesday’s game. Most will be back at 7:30 a.m. to take it off.

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