December 2009

A special holiday salute from us, to you. (With pictures, of course!)

This holiday season, there’s a lot to be thankful for. Me? I’m thankful for Tim Kurkjian.

I know what you’re thinking. There have to be at least 100 people I should put on my list of life’s blessings before getting to Tim Kurkjian. Not that I don’t like Tim; in fact, not only do I think he’s the smartest baseball mind on the planet, he’s also delightful in person and just a heck of a nice guy.

But to understand why I’m thinking of my favorite ESPN baseball personality as I enjoy a little Yuletide cheer, I have to backtrack a bit — to mid-February, a few days after the entire baseball world reported to Spring Training.

At the time, I was covering the Astros for MLB.com. While many of my fellow reporters around the league already had blogs, I had stubbornly resisted. As if I didn’t have enough to keep my busy from day to day. And I stood by my convictions, until my boss informed us if we didn’t already have a blog, we had to start one. Immediately.

So there I was, sitting in the media workroom at Osceola County Stadium, trying to figure out the blog software. I figured posting pictures on the blog might be a nice little added touch, so I experimented with what I already had on my hard drive and eventually decided it was time to try to post one live on my new blog.

That’s when Kurkjian walked in, ready to do a spot for ESPN. Although Spring Training is casual — most people wear jeans and shorts and t-shirts — ESPN required its reporters to wear ties. The shots only show the reporters from the waist up, however, so Tim took a bit of a shortcut that many on-air folks take. He wore a button down shirt, a tie…and shorts and tennis shoes.

The imagery made me laugh out loud, and I snapped a picture. I asked Tim if I could post it and he gave his blessing. 

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So what “Video Killed the Radio Star” was to MTV, Tim Kurkjian is to me —  the very first picture I ever posted on my blog. Little did I know, it would be first of hundreds of photos I would post over the course of the next several months, and it shot to the top of the list as my favorite thing to do while working. More on that later.

This brings me to the person I’m second-most thankful for — my good friend and colleague Matthew Leach. Matthew covers the Cardinals for MLB.com and therefore is the reporter whom I have spent more time around than any other in the last decade. Not only do we travel to each other’s cities three times a year, but we’ve spent many an October side-by-side in the press box, watching our teams play incredibly memorable playoff baseball the rest of the country missed because they were too busy watching Yankees-Red Sox.

But that’s not why I’m grateful to Matthew — no, I’m grateful to Matthew because he is the one who introduced me to Twitter.

We were, not surprisingly, in the press box, watching an Astros-Cardinals spring matchup in Jupiter, Fla. Matthew and someone from a St. Louis radio station were trying to explain Twitter to me, and, typically, I wasn’t quite catching on, because, frankly, it really didn’t interest me all that much.

“This is dumb,” I said flatly.

“Give it time,” Leach said. “Twitter isn’t something you can explain. You just have to experience it.”

I rolled my eyes, but gave it another try. And another. And another. And soon, as Leach predicted, I was hooked. Just like that, I was officially addicted to social networking.

In the ensuing weeks, I became somewhat of a new media madman. I didn’t go anywhere without my camera, and my blog became one gigantic photo gallery. I then started posting those pictures on a Facebook page that became less about my personal life and more about telling the behind-the-scenes story of the hometown nine.

What started as an enjoyable hobby turned into a fabulous job opportunity — with the Astros, who had already realized that social networking is not only here to stay, but is taking over as the No. 1 way teams are communicating with their fans and marketing their product. They created a new social networking position, and asked me to take it. I did, and I’m so glad I took the plunge.

“Real time” is a very real thing, and it’s been an absolute blast giving you the play-by-play as it is happening. Not the on-field play-by-play, but rather, the news, anecdotes and behind-the-scenes view that brings a baseball team to life.

From tidbits from the manager’s sessions to Puma one-liners to what players eat during flights to the funny interactions in the clubhouse before a game, I hope you’ve enjoyed the peek into what makes a baseball team tick.

In good years and bad, there are always stories to tell. The best part of social networking is exposing players as people — people who have families and personalities and interests, just like the rest of us.

Social networking in sports would be nothing without fan interest and interaction. So I’m dedicating this blog to you (although Tim Kurkjian runs a close second). As we head into the new year, please enjoy this pictorial holiday greeting from some baseball folks I think you’ll recognize. Happy holidays, from the Astros family to yours. See you in 2010!

Lance Berkman

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Bud Norris

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Hunter Pence

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Rhonda and Brad Mills

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Craig Biggio

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Jeff Bagwell

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Wandy Rodriguez

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The Lyon family — Sara, Andrew and Brandon

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The Sampson family — CJ, Heather, Colt and Chris

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J.R. Towles

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Drayton McLane

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Ed Wade

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Pam Gardner

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Tal Smith

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FS Houston’s Patti Smith

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FS Houston’s Kevin Eschenfelder

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FS Houston’s Greg Lucas

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FS Houston’s Bart Enis

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Enos Cabell

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Athletic trainers Nate Lucero and Rex Jones

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The clubhouse crew: Carl Schneider (home), Steve Perry (visitors), Dennis Liborio (home)

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Milo Hamilton

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Dave Raymond

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Jim Deshaies

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Bill Brown

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Brett Dolan

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Phil Garner

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Art Howe

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Larry Dierker

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MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart

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 The end…(sort of).

Right after I took the picture of Wade posted above, Drayton walked in, grabbed my camera and thought it would be fun to include a picture of myself and Wade in this blog. I disagreed. Oh, did I disagree. But in true rock/paper/scissors fashion, owner beats professional blogger, every time. 

Happy holidays!

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Tis the season to give away free stuff.

Friendly reminder that the Astros are giving away four free box seat tickets for a 2010 regular season game to the winner of their holiday decorating contest, which runs from now until Jan. 3.

Thanks to those of you who have sent in photos of your best Astros holiday decorations…and for those of you who haven’t done so yet, there’s still plenty of time to enter.

The task is simple: take a photo of your tree, your house…anything that contains Astros decorations, and submit your entry here.

So When you’re sitting around with the family this week, grab an extra cup of eggnog and your camera, and snap away. You never know, you just might win.

Here are some entries we’ve already received…

From Darba R:

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From Kay C:

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From Kimberly W:

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McLane, Crane release joint statement

Astros owner Drayton McLane and Houston businessman Jim Crane released the following statement on Saturday:

 

We had many conversations and meetings working toward a deal for the Astros through October 2008.  Jim offered a fair price, but we were unable to reach agreement on other terms.

 

While we were both disappointed at the time, we have since moved forward.

 

Jim appreciates and respects Drayton’s commitment to Major League Baseball, and wishes Drayton continued success with the Astros.

 

Jim has been a highly successful businessman in Houston for many years, and Drayton appreciates and respects Jim’s interest in Major League Baseball.

 

Drayton supports Jim in his continuing pursuit of a Major League franchise.

 

A full story in the Houston Chronicle regarding the joint statement can be found here.

Drayton acknowledges near-deal. But are the Astros for sale?

I spent most of the day sifting through various media reports detailing Drayton McLane’s near-sale of the Astros after the 2008 season.

McLane acknowledged the handshake deal between him and Houston-based businessman Jim Crane that occurred after a price was negotiated, but apparently the deal was not put into writing and never got to the stage where MLB’s owners and the Commissioner have to give their stamp of approval.

That handshake deal was made public on Tuesday through reports coming out of Dallas, where Crane was attempting to be the next owner of the Rangers. And then, it became a story in Houston.

So, here’s what we know:

1) In 2008, McLane agreed to a deal in principle sell majority ownership to Crane. The deal was later pulled off the table after Crane, according to McLane, cited his concern with the economic downturn.

2) McLane is not actively shopping the Astros, but he listens when a suitor comes calling. (I’m guessing it goes something like this: McLane: “Sure, show me what you’ve got.” Suitor: “Well, I don’t have much.” McLane: “Thanks for stopping by.”)

A couple of McLane quotes in this story by MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart stood out to me:

1) “In the last five or six years, a lot of people and talked [to me about buying the team] and 99 percent of the time it never amounts to more than one conversation.”

2) “If somebody comes to me or one of my sons and was a highly credible person or organization and had the financial wherewithal, we’d talk to them. If you ask me, ‘Are the Astros for sale?’ No.”

So, it appears McLane is not actively shopping the Astros. But if someone ponied up, say, $450 million, I’m guessing it would pique McLane’s interest. Can’t say I blame him — he bought the team for $117 million in 1992, so an offer of four times that amount would be tempting, especially if he doesn’t envision ownership of the Astros to stay within the family.

I love my house, but if someone offered me four times what I paid for it…well, you do the math.

This has been a strange story. I imagine if this had all come out a year ago, when the handshake deal took place, it would have some legs. Instead, everyone missed the story, and now, I just feel like I’m late to the party and someone has already eaten all of the guacamole dip.

What say you?

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Winter Meetings, reporter-style.

Covering baseball’s Winter Meetings, at least for reporters, can be compared to taking final exams in college — it’s the most intense week of the year, and you walk out of the last one, on the last day, pretty much feeling like you were run over by a Mack truck.

Chasing rumors, attempting to separate fact from fiction, sniffing around for leads and running agents down in the hotel lobby is consistently exhausting, occasionally humiliating and all too often, it ends up taking you nowhere, except back to square one — where you find a new bulk of rumors to chase.

So, for the average reporter, the Winter Meetings are about as fun as a trip to the dentist. That said, the meetings are also in their own way fascinating. This is the only time of year that the entire the baseball universe gathers in the same city to talk business, so there’s always a chance for that blockbuster trade or splashy free agent signing. And the rumor mill never, ever stops churning.

Geographically, there are three main areas where you’ll find baseball people: the hotel lobby, the GM suite and the media area, which includes a workroom/press conference room and a long hallway occupied by the radio/television side — i.e., MLB Network, XM/Sirius satellite radio and MLB.com.

I spent Tuesday morning and afternoon floating through all three areas, with camera in tow (of course). Enjoy the pictorial tour, and apologies in advance for the lighting issues…the dim hotel lights are driving me nuts.

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The lobby
The hotel lobby is the epicenter of all Winter Meetings. It’s where reporters hang out, hoping to run into agents, and where agents strategically stroll through knowing scoop-hungry reporters are looking for them. It’s where scouts roam and exchange information with other scouts. It’s where job-seekers go to, well, find jobs.

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The media

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This gigantic room serves three purposes: it provides workspace for the hundreds of reporters covering the Winter Meetings, it serves as a press conference room when teams have trades or signings to announce (or when future Hall of Famers announce their retirement, as Greg Maddux did in Vegas last year) and provides space for the manager-reporter media sessions.

Here’s Houston’s manager, Brad Mills, addressing reporters.

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And the Mets’ Jerry Manuel

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And the Cardinals’ Tony La Russa (when I walked up he was talking about — what else? — his new hitting coach, Mark McGwire).

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Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon

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Radio/TV row

The radio and TV outlets were lined up in a nice, orderly row: first, XM/Sirius Satellite radio, then MLB Network and finally MLB.com. Not every manager was interviewed by every outlet, but the higher-profile managers usually made their way down the line over the course of about 20 minutes.

Mills, well-known as Red Sox skipper Terry Francona’s right-hand man for six years (and two World Championships) was a popular guy. Here he is with Casey Stern and Buck Martinez on MLB Homeplate on XM/Sirius Satellite radio.

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His next stop was MLB.com for an interview with Vinny Micucci.

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On his way back to the GM suite, Mills ran into Milwaukee skipper Ken Macha (shown below). The one thing that struck me through this week is how many friends in the industry came up to me to tell me how much they like and respect Mills. He clearly has established a nice reputation during his many decades in baseball.

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Other random shots:
I took this picture of Peter Gammons on Monday, not realizing he was about to announce he was leaving ESPN and joining MLB Network and MLB.com. As a former MLB.com-er, I consider this great news. Congratulations to Peter.

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Atlanta manager Bobby Cox was a popular guest, which is understandable considering he’s already announced he’s retiring after next season.  

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I’ll admit it, I’m an MLB Network junkie. I love its Hote Stove show and all of the old “All-Time Games” it shows during the day. In this shot, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is about to go on with Tom Verducci, Dan Plesac and Victor Rojas.

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The day ends in the GM suite, where Ed Wade spends most of the morning and afternoon talking with his staff and other clubs about possible matches down the road. At the end of the day, Ed goes over the business of the day and asks for feedback. He then ends the day with a brief meeting with reporters, although the work never really ends…talks and meetings can, and usually do, drag into the night.

In Tuesday’s media session, Wade reiterated his desire to re-sign LaTroy Hawkins and admitted signing Miguel Tejada is probably not happening, given Tejada’s desire for a multi-year deal.

Read about it here and here.

Valverde rejects arbitration offer. Astros gain payroll flexibility.

It’s impossible to determine how the rest of the offseason will turn out for the Astros, but Jose Valverde’s decision to reject the club’s arbitration offer is a step in the right direction. The club can still negotiate with the closer, but if it loses him to another team, it not only gains draft picks but the Astros will also have a little bit of extra payroll to perhaps fortify their club in other areas.

The Astros will receive a first-round draft pick and a compensation pick between the first and second rounds if Valverde signs with a team selecting 16 through 30 in the draft. Houston will receive a compensation pick between the first and second rounds of the draft along with a second-round pick if Valverde signs with a team selecting in the first 15 picks of the draft.

 

Read McTaggart’s full rundown of the Valverde saga here.

 

Thoughts on the non-tender deadline, while waiting for Valverde.

The Winter Meetings could be slow for budget-conscious teams, not only because of payroll restraints, but because the non-tender date doesn’t arrive until after the Meetings have concluded.

Dec. 12 (Saturday) is the deadline for clubs to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. With so many teams holding a tight line on their 2010 payrolls, a lot of quality players due for hefty raises in arbitration could become available by being non-tendered by their clubs.

This will present an opportunity for the Astros to perhaps find affordable free agents to fill out their roster. Conversely, I do envision the Astros deciding tendering contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players.

To illustrate a typical non-tender opportunity, consider the Astros’ decision this time last year to non-tender Ty Wigginton. He had a good year and was probably going to make upwards of $7 million in arbitration, which was too much for the Astros to commit to a position player who was a solid player but wasn’t considered one of the elite third baseman (incidentally, Wigginton’s best months were after he took over left field for Carlos Lee).

In the past, the non-tenders were considered something of the “scrap heap,” but not anymore. Economics have partly played a role in the quality of non-tenders improving, and the Astros will be on the lookout for a possible pickup.

Meanwhile, things are probably going to be slow for the Astros during their four-day stay in chilly Indianapolis. They spent Monday talking about their players and players around the league, but mostly, they were simply waiting to hear whether Jose Valverde accepted or rejected their offer of arbitration. If he rejects, the Astros might have some money to play with. If he accepts, they’ll have their closer for 2010 (a good thing), but very little money to fill out the rest of the roster (not so good).

Some highlights from Ed Wade’s daily end-of-the-day session with the media:

On Miguel Tejada:
“I talked to Diego Benz (Tejada’s agent) two weeks ago. I’d categorize it as a candid conversation.” Reiterated earlier stance that the Astros’ interest in Tejada is “to play third base, at a reduced price.” Wade has not heard back from Tejada’s camp since that conversation.

On Valverde arbitration decision:
“I would assume most of these guys offered will wait until the last minute to accept or reject.” (Deadline is midnight)

Wade rattled off four names who could possibly act as setup men in ’10: Alberto Arias, Jeff Fulchino, Chris Sampson, LaTroy Hawkins.

Said he could fortify the bench “sooner rather than later.”

And finally, “From a trade standpoint, candidly, it’s quiet on our front at this point.”

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Hurry up…and wait.

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above, l to r: club president/baseball operations Tal Smith; assistant GM/scouting Bobby Heck; GM Ed Wade; Minor League Field Coordinator Dick Scott, Asst. GM Ricky Bennett. The group was reviewing the dry erase boards, consisting of lists of players both inside and outside of the organization.

I just spent a couple of hours in general manager Ed Wade’s suite, where most of the morning and early afternoon were spent making lists of discussion topics for a full staff meeting, due to start around 4.

Right now, the main activity is making lists, lists and more lists. Lists of players outside the organization who might be of interest to the Astros, either via free agency or trade market.

Lists of players within the organization that might be considered as trade bait. Lists of Minor Leaguers considered untouchable.

As Brian McTaggart noted in his Winter Meetings preview, relief pitching, third base and bench help are among the Astros’ needs.

At this point, the Astros are simply waiting to hear what decision Jose Valverde has made regarding the Astros’ offer of arbitration. He has until midnight ET tonight at accept or reject.

The Astros are in a good position on this one — if Valverde accepts, they’ll have arguably the best free agent closer in uniform next year. If he rejects, the Astros can still negotiate with him, and if Valverde signs with another team, they’ll get high draft picks.

A Valverde rejection would also give the Astros some payroll to play with, which is significant considering how little flexibility the Astros have in that area this offseason.

Manager Brad Mills is in town, and I believe he’ll be the only uniformed personnel with Wade this week at the Winter Meetings. Every manager is asked to conduct a 30-minute media session in the press workroom this week, and Mills is scheduled to do so on Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET.

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Tal Smith, Brad Mills, Ricky Bennett

Asst. GM Dave Gottfried

Astros happenings: Baseball dinner, extra Spring Training games, and a sad loss for the Astros family.

The annual baseball Winter Meetings will be held in Indianapolis next week, and your friendly neighborhood blogger will be heading that way Sunday afternoon, armed with my camera, iphone and notepad. Please check my blog, as well as my Twitter account, for updates throughout the week, as I’ll be working diligently to capture the atmosphere (as well as news, notes and tidbits) during this annual baseball bonanza.

In the meantime, here are a few odds and ends to chew on as you head out for the weekend…

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Baseball dinner

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The annual Houston Baseball Dinner will be held on Jan. 21 at the Hilton Americas Hotel downtown. The honorees are Michael Bourn (MVP); Wandy Rodriguez (Pitcher of the Year); Jeff Fulchino (Rookie of the Year); Brian Moehler (Darryl Kile Award) and Lance Berkman (Russell Distinguished Achievement Award).

Tickets are $75, with tables of 10 available for $750. While this is in no way a cheap ticket, the baseball dinner is one of the more affordable off-the-field events involving the Astros, and it’s always a fun night. It’s especially enjoyable when Puma is involved, because he usually brings down the house with an address that’s more of stand-up comedy routine than an acceptance speech.

If you are interested in attending the baseball dinner, please call Jo Russell at 713-789-0626.

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Condolences

The Astros lost a longtime friend and employee when one of their scouts, Gerry Craft, suffered a stroke and passed away on Sunday. Craft, 58, served as an area, regional and professional scout for over 20 years.

During Craft’s time as the club’s East Coast supervisor from 1998-2007, the following players were drafted under his watch: Brad Lidge, Cory Doyne, Chris Burke, Charlton Jimerson, Brooks Conrad, Josh Anderson, Jimmy Barthmaier, Lou Santangelo, Evan Englebrook, Chad Reineke, Max Sapp, Sergio Perez and Chris Johnson.

Condolences to Gerry’s wife, Louise, and his daughters, Maizee and Mandee.

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Spring Training

It’s official…Astros pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time on Feb. 20, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Feb. 24. Additionally, the Astros have added three games to their Spring Training schedule: March 4 at home vs. Nats; March 16 at home vs. Boston (split squad); March 21 at Boston (split squad). For the full schedule, click here:
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End of year sale

There will be a two-day, ‘Blowout Sale’ at the Astros Team Store at Minute Maid Park December 15 and 16. As a special attraction, HOF broadcaster Milo Hamilton will be at the store on each day signing his newly released CD entitled “A Call For The Ages,” which features a collection of his most memorable calls. Hamilton will be at the store from 2 to 5 p.m. on December 15 and from Noon to 4 p.m. on December 16.

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

And finally….enjoy these photos of Minute Maid Park, inundated by snow. Could be a while before we see this again (I hope!):

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Hand-pick your seats at Minute Maid Park for next season.

In anticipation of its Select-A-Seat event next weekend, the Astros Ticket Services Department has added a couple of nice incentives for fans interested in season tickets for 2010.

Anyone who purchases or renews season tickets or 27-game mini-plans during the Select-A-Seat event on Saturday, Dec. 12 will receive the following:

* $50 (per account) in food, beverage and retail vouchers for full season tickets and “Buy two, get two” season tickets.

* $25  (per account) in food, beverage and retail vouchers for 27-game mini plans.

Select-A-Seat runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and will include one-on-one guided tours to find the perfect set of seats. Ticket sales representatives will offer valuable information on each available seat location to ensure an investment in the perfect plan.

New for 2010 is the “Buy Two, Get Two Free” season ticket offer. As part of this package, fans purchasing two season tickets in the View Deck I and View Deck II seating levels or in select Terrace Deck sections will receive two additional season tickets in the same price level for free. These full season packages start at only $415 per season seat — only $5 per game.

The Astros are also offering special “Early Bird” incentives for those who buy their season tickets by Dec. 18. The incentives include a choice of taking batting practice, playing catch in the outfield or a taking clubhouse tour at Minute Maid Park.

For more information, call Astros Ticket Services at 1-800-ASTROS2.

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