Corpus Christi Hooks, Boooooone and pulling tarp.
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.”
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.
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.
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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