October 2009

Baseball, free stuff and half-price pizza. A perfect night.

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Friendly reminder that I’ll be at Lucky’s Pub at 801 St. Emanuel (four blocks from Minute Maid Park) on Thursday, watching Game 2 of the World Series and raffling off the signed Miguel Tejada baseball that nearly took my head off in July.

If that alone isn’t enough to entice you to join in on the fun, the good folks at Lucky’s are offering half-price pizzas to anyone who shows up in Astros apparel, plus many happy hour drink specials that will apply all night.

I’ll be there at 6:30 p.m. CT. The game starts around 7:30 p.m. and we’ll raffle off the ball sometime after that.

See you there!

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The art of the press conference, and a few Mills tidbits.

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Once I learned that Brad Mills was hired as the Astros manager,I reached out to two good friends who have covered the Red Sox for parts or all of the last decade and asked them simply, “What do you think of Brad Mills?” Here’s what I received back:

Friend No. 1:
“Mills is a genuinely nice guy and he did an amazing job turning the Sox into such a well-run machine. He’s so efficient at everything he does. He’s not a great quote but he’s friendly and respectful. He’s the ultimate taskmaster.”

Friend No. 2:
“Tremendously organized. Probably the most organized coach I’ve ever been around. He had basically every day of Spring Training plotted out weeks in advance of camp, with charts on where everyone is at all times.

“He was a big help to Francona on the bench, helping pitchers with pickoff moves, etc., and aligning the defense, etc. He had great communication skills with the players and has been Francona’s confidant since their days as roommates at Arizona.

“I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about Brad Mills. And being around Francona on the Red Sox bench for the last six years can only help from an experience standpoint.”

Two things stood out to me from these responses: 1) both said Mills was incredibly organized and 2) Friend No. 2 pointed out that Mills is good at aligning defenses. And can I just say, hallelujah on both counts. The Astros are already better off in ’10 than they were in ’09, and they’re more than five months away from playing a game that counts in the standings.

I’ve heard from many of you over the last couple of weeks, and please allow me clear up a few misconceptions: coaches are responsible for much, much more than what you see them do during an actual game. Scouting reports need to be scoured. Spray charts need to be studied. Pitchers and catchers need to be prepped. And on and on and on.

Positioning has been an issue with this team for a long time — too long. Just hearing that Mills had a lot to do with aligning the Red Sox’ defense makes me feel like the Astros are on the right track. It seems like such a small thing, I know. But it’s not. It’s huge. Manager and coach pregame preparation can make all the difference between and winning and losing seasons.

Here’s what Red Sox manager Terry Francona said about his now former bench coach:

“I’ve probably taken it for granted that everybody is where they’re supposed to be because he’s so good at it. We’ll certainly have to make some adjustments. But his gain far outweighs any adjustments we have to make. Millsy embodies so much of what is good in baseball. For him to get an opportunity, it sure is nice. It sure is exciting for all of us.”

I have no idea what kind of manager Mills will be and until he’s actually sitting in the hot seat, none of us can make the judgment. But he was impressive during his press conference on Tuesday and I’m looking forward to seeing how he guides this team through a challenging transitional period.

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On another note, I haven’t seen the press conference room at Minute Maid Park this packed since Roger Clemens unretired for the 97th time a few years ago. When I saw Drayton McLane in the hallway a few minutes before the press conference started, I jokingly said, “Congratulations on getting this over with before the World Series.” He laughed and said the Commissioner called him three times — twice Monday and once Tuesday morning. “He said, ‘You have until 5 p.m. (Tuesday) to get this done,’” McLane recalled. That was the deadline — hire a manager by then, or wait until after the World Series. The former reporter in me was thankful this thing was over and done with.

I’m sure most of you have watched the press conference on TV or online in some capacity. Sound bites are nice and photo opps are fun, but that doesn’t give you the full experience. Here are some images from Tuesday’s presser, some of which you won’t normally see just by watching from afar. Enjoy.

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The media waited inside the press conference room, but outside, Mills and several members of the front office chatted casually before entering the room. Kudos to Mills (seen here with assistant GM Ricky Bennett) for acting naturally as three or four photographers snapped close up photos.

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A little to the left of Mills stood owner Drayton McLane and GM Ed Wade.

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PR director Gene Dias (middle) gives the gentle, “OK, we’re ready” signal, which is a nice way of telling the group, let’s go. Time to start the presser.

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The normal order of speakers at a major Astros press conference is 1)Wade; 2)McLane and 3) whoever they hired/signed. This announcement was obviously a big one, hence, the packed room. That’s Larry Dierker in the front.

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Mills came across very well at the press conference. When he was asked to hold up the jersey again, he held up the front instead of back. “The name on the front is more important than the name on the back,” he said. Good move.

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Once each speaker has answered questions at the podium, the formal part of the presser is over and it’s time for “one-on-ones.” TVs like this because it gives more of a personal touch. Beat/print reporters like this because they need more quotes than just what is said during the formal part.

Reporters headed in three directions — most went to Mills, some went to Wade, some went to McLane. It’s a media free-for-all.

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Once word spread that hitting coach Sean Berry and Mills are friends and neighbors in California, Berry became a media target. Berry happened to be in town for a Make-A-Wish golf tournament (which was rained out Monday and rescheduled for November).

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Nothing like a press conference to bring a couple of former Astros greats to the ballpark. Left, Enos Cabell. Right, Larry Dierker.

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Photo opp No. 477: Mills checks out the field at Minute Maid Park. Photographers document every move while trying not to step on anyone.

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Mills and Wade have a chuckle while getting situated:

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Tal Smith (left), Mills, Wade

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Then McLane joins in.

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Side view.

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Sign up now for Halloween sleepover and receive a discount.

The Astros are offering a 25 percent discount for their ‘Stros Under the Stars sleepover on Halloween night for fans who sign up between now and Wednesday at 6 p.m. CT.

The event, which takes place this Saturday, is the first-ever Astros sleepover and will offer a host of activities, including playing catch in the outfield, throwing in the bullpen, touring one of the clubhouses and running the bases.

The Astros will show game 3 of the World Series on the big screen in center field. Dinner will be provided by Chick-Fil-A. Click here for complete details, plus instructions how to register.

The 2010 Spring Training schedule is very favorable for the Astros vacationer.

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Every year it seems as if the Astros play more road games on the weekends than home games during Spring Training. And when they were home on the weekends, it rarely coincided with spring break, which obviously is the most popular time for families to travel to Florida to take in some Grapefruit League baseball.

The Astros released their spring schedule on Friday, and there’s good news — the Astros are home parts or all of four weekends.

They’ll play a split squad with the Nationals at home on Saturday, March 13 (with part of the team traveling to play the Cardinals), and on Sunday the 14th, they’ll host the Braves.

The following weekend, they’re home against the Blue Jays (Friday, March 19), Yankees (Saturday, March 20) and Mets (Sunday, March 21). They’ll also be home the following weekend, hosting the Pirates (Friday, March 26) and Rays (Saturday, March 27).

Not a bad schedule, especially for those of you whose spring breaks fall in the middle of the month.

Astros Spring Training tickets will go on sale Saturday, Jan. 23 at 9 CT and can be purchased either online at astros.com, at the Osceola County Stadium box office (for home games only) or by telephone and in person at Florida Ticketmaster outlets.

Ticket prices for all but three games remain the same as 2009 — $22 for Dugout Box Seats, $20 for Outfield Box Seats. $18 for Upper Reserved Seats and $15 for Outfield Reserved Seats. For Yankees, Cardinals and Phillies — tabbed “premium games” — the ticket prices will be $25 for dugout, $23 for outfield box, $21 for upper reserved and $18 for outfield reserved.

Season tickets may be purchased now by calling (321) 697-3201. Season ticket prices are $436 for Dugout Box Seats, $398 for Outfield Box Seats, $360 for Upper Reserved Seats and $303 for Outfield Reserved Seats.

2010 Houston Astros Spring Training Schedule (subject to change, all times TBA)
Friday March 5 at Detroit
Saturday March 6 vs. Atlanta
Sunday March 7 at Atlanta
Monday March 8 vs. Toronto
Tuesday March 9 at Mets
Wednesday March 10 vs. Florida
Thursday March 11 at Washington
Friday March 12 at Toronto
Saturday March 13 vs. Washington (SS)
                             at St. Louis
Sunday March 14 vs. Atlanta
Monday March 15 OFF
Tuesday March 16 at Yankees
Wednesday March 17 vs. Washington
Thursday March 18 at Detroit
Friday March 19 vs. Toronto
Saturday March 20 vs. Yankees
Sunday March 21 vs. Mets
Monday March 22 vs. St. Louis
Tuesday March 23 at Pittburgh
Wednesday March 24 at Mets
Thursday March 25 at Philadelphia
Friday March 26 vs. Pittsburgh
Saturday March 27 vs. Tampa Bay
Sunday March 28 at Florida
Monday March 29 at Pittsburgh
Tuesday March 30 vs. Philadelphia
Wednesday March 31 at Atlanta
Thursday April 1 vs. Detroit
Friday April 2 vs. TBA at Minute Maid Park
Saturday April 3 vs. TBA at Minute Maid Park

Line of the day comes from Ed Wade.

When you watch Ed Wade being interviewed on television you get the buttoned up version of the Astros GM, straightforward and deliberate speaker who likes to keep things business-like when he’s on the record.

But Wade has a sharp sense of humor and is known to come up with more than a few one-liners when he’s speaking off-the-cuff.

Wade summed up his feelings perfectly when discussing how round two of the managerial search will be much different from the first go-around.

“We’ve been open on this thing, but I don’t want it to get to the point of ‘Dancing With The Stars,’” Wade said to MLB.com, referring to the reality TV show that votes off contestants as the program progresses.

In other words, the rest of the managerial search will be conducted privately. No more post-interview meetings with the media and no more lists of finalists made public (although I would imagine most of the names will leak eventually — that’s just how it works in today’s world).

The final two candidates were interviewed Monday — Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills and first base coach Tim Bogar. The next step will involve the search committee sitting down and narrowing the field of candidates. Wade has made it clear the next public announcement will be when they decide on a manager, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how long that process will take.

Brad Mills.

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Tim Bogar.

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Round One wraps up today.

Two members of the Red Sox coaching staff — bench coach Brad Mills and first base coach Tim Bogar — will interview with the Astros today as the club wraps up its first round of managerial interviews. Then it’s on to round two, which theoretically could begin as early as later this week.

When the process began I figured the Astros would make an announcement regarding a managerial hire once the World Series ended. But the interviews are moving swiftly and you have to wonder if they might even want to have a decision made earlier. With so many offdays between the two League Championship Series and the World Series, there might be time to get this done. The World Series doesn’t start until Wed., Oct. 28.

That said, if Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin is a finalist, and his team ends up winning the National League pennant, that might slow down the process.

Mackanin flew from Los Angeles to Houston on Saturday, stopping off long enough to interview before continuing on to Philadelphia, where his team had a day off between NLCS Games 2 and 3. Phil Garner had a much easier schedule, seeing he simply drove to Minute Maid Park from his home in The Woodlands.

You can read a full transcript of Garner’s meeting with the media here.

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As soon as Garner walked into the interview room Saturday, I couldn’t help but notice he was wearing his National League championship ring. “Nice move,” I said. He laughed. Coincidence? I think not.

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Pete Mackanin.

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Six down, four to go.

The Astros have conducted interviews with six managerial candidates — Dave Clark, Al Pedrique, Ned Yost, Randy Ready, Bob Melvin and Manny Acta – and will conduct four more: Phil Garner and Pete Mackanin on Saturday, and Tim Bogar and Brad Mills Monday.

A lot of you have asked me who I think has the inside track and you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been hesitant to offer up much insight as to who might have an edge. There’s a good reason for that — mainly, it is impossible for me to size up the candidates during a 10-minute media briefing and tell who was the most impressive during his 2 1/2 hour interview session with the club’s decision-makers.

I like Clark’s familiarity with the current club and Pedrique’s wealth of knowledge and array of experiences in the Minor and Major League ranks. I like Yost’s credentials as a former skipper in the Astros’ division and Ready strikes me as approachable, smart and good with people. Melvin has an authoritative air when he walks into a room and obviously has the big league managing credentials on his extensive resume. Acta is hugely impressive, having managed Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Wandy Rodriguez while working his way up through the Astros’ organization. He’s one of those people you just like immediately.

Obviously, I have a bit of familiarity with Clark and Pedrique, since they’re currently working in the Astros’ organization. And we all know what Garner brings to the table, so no mystery there. I know Bogar well from his days playing for the Astros from 1997-2000 and later as a manager in the Minor League system.

The media sessions this week just weren’t designed to determine who would is best for the job. They were simply quick question and answer sessions that didn’t dig too deeply under the surface.

I will say this — it is my feeling that the Astros are leaning toward hiring someone with prior big league managing experience. If that is the case, then there are seven with a leg up: Clark, Pedrique, Yost, Melvin, Acta, Garner and Mackanin.

You’ve been following the search…who do you like?

Clark?

Pedrique?

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Yost?

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 Ready?

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Melvin?

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Acta?

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A word on the coaching changes.

With about a week left in the season, after manager Cecil Cooper was dismissed, I stood with one of the coaches behind the cage during batting practice and we talked about the pending fate of the rest of the staff.

This particular coach understood the business, and he realized that with managerial changes usually come coaching changes. “No one’s safe, obviously,” the coach said. Then we both looked into the direction of Jose Cruz and I said, “well, almost no one.” Then we chuckled. Cruz’s job security was a well-known and accepted fact in Astros annals. It was often compared to a seat on the Supreme Court  — a lifetime assignment, for as long as he wanted it. Or so we thought.

Turns out, Cruz’s security as a coach wasn’t so rock-solid. Late Tuesday, the news broke that he was removed from his post as first base coach and offered another position in the organization.

Cruz was one of four removed from the Major League coaching staff. Pitching coach Dewey Robinson, bench coach Ed Romero and bullpen coach Mark Bailey were also dismissed and offered jobs in the organization.

Only Robinson declined. He’ll move to the Tampa Bay organization in 2010.

The Astros, predictably, are in the midst of a bit of a public relations mess. That comes as no surprise, considering Cruz has, rightfully, carried the tag of “franchise icon” for more than 30 years and has held up his end of the bargain by being a model Astros citizen — friendly, kind and accommodating to the fans, the players, the front office. He’s always available, and he’s always smiling.

So from a PR standpoint, this wasn’t a good day. From a baseball standpoint, however, I am having a hard time understanding some of the outrage. The Astros would like to keep Cruz on staff and he was offered another position — a very fair position, in my opinion — that will allow for him to be in uniform as an instructor for Spring Training, as well as suit up for batting practice during regular season home games. During games, Ed Wade wants him in the booth with the rest of his brain trust, and when the team is out of town, Cruz will work as a community ambassador, a la Jimmy Wynn and Larry Dierker.

When the story first broke, it was portrayed as Cruz being fired, which he was not. That Wade was not asked to comment in the initial story added to the confusion.

I’ve been here since ’97 and have seen four managerial changes and countless coaching changes. Very rarely, if ever, were the coaches asked to stay in the organization in other capacities. That the Astros thought enough of the four coaches they dismissed to try to keep them surprised me, to be honest. I was especially surprised to hear that Romero will manage the club’s Rookie League team. Usually, the coach who was brought here by the since-fired manager doesn’t stand a chance to stay in the organization (See Lamont, Gene, and Mansolino, Doug).

Regardless, the Astros made their decisions, and quite frankly, the fate of the coaching staff really shouldn’t come as a big shock. Of the last four non-playoff seasons, 2009 was the worst, in my opinion. I’ve never seen the bottom fall out in September like it did this year. Morale among the players that have been around for a while was at an all-time low.

This wasn’t the fault of one particular person, or two people, or three. I’m certainly in no way pinning this on Cruz. But when things get this bad, personnel changes are inevitable. New ideas. New communication. New clubhouse atmosphere. New faces. A new start. That’s what happens when things get bad and quite frankly, that time has come for the Astros.

I’m not going to throw a bunch of company-written talking points at you about how change is tough and sometimes decisions are made that aren’t popular and blah blah blah. A lot of you are mad, and that’s entirely understandable.

But I’m also not going to pretend the Astros weren’t flawed. The problems were wide-spread, and sometimes, the truth hurts. And the truth is, the Astros took the field 162 times last year and rarely were they the most prepared team in the ballpark. That falls on a whole host of people — starting with the manager, and his coaches.

Yea, change stinks. Unfortunately, losing stinks more.

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The Astros began their managerial search in earnest Wednesday, first interviewing Dave Clark, followed by Al Pedrique. Here are a couple of shots from the “postgame” meetings with the media (and you can also read McTaggart’s coverage of the day’s events here):

Clark answers questions from reporters.

Al Pedrique followed later in the afternoon.

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A back-of-the-room shot of Pedrique’s presser.

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Most of the media traffic was in the back, where the cameras were set up.

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Covering a managerial search (or anything else, for that matter).

The names of the Astros managerial candidates slowly began to leak from all ends of the country starting last week, and with every Bob Melvin, Manny Acta and Ned Yost tidbit that made its way onto the airwaves and internet sites, I wondered how long it would be until the Astros decided to simply reveal the names of all of their managerial candidates.

Clearly, they had two choices: stay tight-lipped about who they were interested in and wait for all names to inevitably become public anyway, or just simply reveal the candidates themselves and end the media’s relentless scavenger hunt.

The latter makes life easier for everyone and saves time for the general manager. When one reporter uncovers a name and publishes that name, Ed Wade then has to spend the rest of his day fielding calls from the other reporters who are looking for confirmation on the name leaked. This can go on all day, all week, all month.

As a reporter, times like these — whether I was covering a manager search, a GM search or the free agent/hot stove season — were incredibly pressure-filled. You’re never sure what your competition has, so you simply have to make sure you are doing everything you can to not be beaten on a story. This meant cold-calling potential manager/GM candidates and figuring out what the team is doing by simple process of elimination. It meant getting a tip and stalking the guy at the airport. It meant calling representatives of free agents who played a position the Astros needed to fill and trying to figure out who the team was pursuing. It is a long and painstaking process and for every one thing you uncover, there are 10 other storylines that ended up going nowhere.

That brings me to present times. The Astros’ original plan was to reveal two managerial candidates per day, the day before those candidates were to interview with the team. But by Monday, six of the 10 candidates had been leaked anyway, so the Astros decided to go ahead and just give out the list.

This has been perceived by some as a circus. I disagree. Sure, it’s unconventional, but we’re not living in the stone ages. It’s a world of 24-hour news cycles and the internet, and the list of media outlets trying to cover a story has quadrupled in the last 10 years. Keeping major news under wraps is pretty much impossible.

So the Astros got ahead of the story, revealed the names and are making every candidate available to the media once his interview is complete. In turn, life became a lot easier for Wade and the media, and the fans benefit as well, because they’re going to be able to follow along with the process as it’s happening.

The full schedule of interviews can be found here.

The Astros’ interest in Phil Garner, and Garner’s interest in the Astros, came as a shock to everyone. Heck, I had him on my “no chance” list. But the longer I think about it, the more sense it makes. And Garner seems sincere with his desire to return

Astros reveal list of 10 managerial candidates. Guess who made the cut?

The Astros managerial search just got a whole more interesting. This is going to be a fun couple of weeks, regardless of the final outcome.

The Astros revealed their list of 10 managerial candidates and the list consists of a handful of former skippers — including one of their own, Phil Garner. Yes, you read that right. Phil Garner.

The full list: interim manager Dave Clark, Minor League Field Coordinator Al Pedrique, former Brewers manager Ned Yost, Padres hitting coach Randy Ready, former Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin, former Nationals manager Manny Acta, Garner, Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills, Red Sox first base coach Tim Bogar and Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin.

Everyone but Mackanin will interview this week, and Mackanin will meet with the Astros brass once his team is finished with the postseason.

The managerial candidates will be interviewed by a committee made up of Astros President of Baseball Operations Tal Smith, general manager Ed Wade, Assistant General Managers Ricky Bennett, David Gottfried and Bobby Heck and Special Assistant to the General Manager Enos Cabell.

Clark and Pedrique will be the first of 10 candidates to be interviewed. All candidates will be available to the media following their respective interviews.

“We’re excited about the entire group of candidates,” Wade said. “All 10 candidates have a great deal of experience and are held in high regard throughout Major League Baseball. Clarkie and Al are great internal candidates and are very well-respected both inside and outside the Astros family.”

The interview schedule will go as follows:

Wednesday, October 14: Dave Clark, Al Pedrique
Thursday, October 15: Ned Yost, Randy Ready
Friday, October 16: Bob Melvin, Manny Acta
Saturday, October 17: Phil Garner
Monday, October 19: Brad Mills, Tim Bogar

Following the first round of interviews, the Astros expect to select a short list of finalists who will then meet for a second round of interviews with Smith, Wade, Astros Chairman and CEO Drayton McLane and Astros President of Business Operations Pam Gardner.

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