January 2010

Let the Castro watch begin.

Jason Castro reported to his first big league Spring Training camp last year relatively unnoticed, all things considered.

The club’s No. 1 Draft pick in ’08, Castro received the big league invite in ’09 not because he had a remote chance to make the club (he didn’t), but because the team told him if he handled his first professional season as well as expected, he would be welcomed to big league camp the following spring. Castro held up his end of the bargain, so the Astros held up theirs.

The stakes are different — higher, even — this year as Castro prepares for his second Major League Spring Training. Castro’s chances to make the club when camp breaks vary, depending on who you talk to. The cautious approach, which obviously protects the player, is to say simply that Castro will have a very real chance to make the club, but it’s more likely he’ll start the season at Triple-A and then work his way onto the big league roster at some point in 2010.

That’s all well and good and I do take that at face value, to a point. But we also see that the projected catchers this season are Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles, and while they have value and merits in their own right, these are the same two catchers the Astros had last year when they scoured the free agent market for a stop-gap and landed on Pudge Rodriguez.

So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to speculate that the Astros might outwardly feel that Castro will ease his way into the starting job eventually, but inwardly have every finger and toe crossed that Castro might just hit well, handle the pitching staff with ease and give the Astros no choice but to start him behind the plate on Opening Day.

It’ll be an interesting storyline come Feb. 20, when pitchers and catchers step onto those backfields at Osceola County Stadium for the first time (side note — morning workouts are open to the public and free. Gates will open about five minutes after the players hit the fields for stretching, which Brad Mills says will begin at 9:30 a.m.) I’ve been calling Castro the “future Astro,” but you have to wonder if that future just might arrive sooner than later (like, say, April 5 vs. the Giants).

Castro’s clearly ready for that line of questioning. He wore a hint of a grin when asked about it before the luncheon hosted by the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks, and it’s nice to see him take the speculation in stride.

“It’s definitely something I’ve thought about, obviously,” he said. “I’m very excited about it. But when I do get there and the time comes, it’s about producing on the field. I’ll get my work in, prepare myself to do that and hopefully I’ll be ready. That’s the main thing I’ll have my mind on — just playing.”

In the meantime, it was nice catching up with Castro on the very last day of the nine-day, 15-city, umpteen-mile caravan jaunt that has now drawn to a close. The traveling party — Larry Dierker, Milo Hamilton, Castro and Hunter Pence – visited southeastern Texas, where they visited Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, greeted fans associated with the Double-A Hooks and mingled with kids from the Boys & Girls Club in Victoria. 

Enjoy the images, including a few from Wednesday’s trip to the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

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Driscoll Children’s Hospital

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Castro chats with Milo Hamilton during the Corpus Christi luncheon presentation.

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Castro, Pence sign autographs in Corpus.

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Pence took the young fans a bit off guard with his constant barrage of questions: “Did you have a good day at school today? Did you learn anything? How was recess?” This whole visit was a surprise for the kids at the Boys & Girls Club, so needless to say, most answers were in the form of wide-eyed, gaping nods.  

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Most of the kids loosened up by the end of the visit, however.

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One day earlier, another caravan traveling party wrapped up its three-day jaunt through Central Texas with a visit with soldiers at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. Most of the patients there have lost limbs — mostly legs. Our guys didn’t know what to expect when they entered the facility, but it took no time at all before the conversations flowed freely. It was one of the few stops we made that when it was time to leave, no one wanted to.

Below: Matt Lindstrom 

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Bud Norris

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Lindstrom

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Group shot with Bagwell

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I love this one…Bagwell was asking so many questions that finally the young man just took off the prosthetic leg and handed it to him.

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One last group shot before we left.

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Central Texas Caravan, Day Two.

The Astros are currently in the midst of a nine-day caravan schedule that has them visiting more than a dozen cities, during which they stop by schools, sporting goods stores and other area stopping points.

No visits are more important, however, than the hospital visits, especially when children are involved.

The Astros spent about an hour and a half at the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas on Tuesday, but everyone agreed that it probably should have lasted longer. It’s heartbreaking to see what these kids are going through, but heartwarming to see their faces light up when ballplayers walk into the room. It’s especially entertaining to watch a youngster as it dawns on him that yes, that was really Jeff Bagwell who shook his hand and introduced himself.  

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Other news and notes in Astroland:

Bud Norris loves the big leagues, but he still reflects fondly upon his Minor League years, especially when one certain special assistant to the general manager would roll through town for a couple of days.

“We’d see Bagwell lurking around, trying not to be noticed,” Norris said. “But as soon as we saw him, we knew: We were going to get a good dinner that night.”
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Speaking of Bagwell, he’s ready to go under the knife for another shoulder surgery, scheduled for Monday in Scottsdale, AZ.

He’s hoping to alleviate a lot of the pain that has not only returned, but appears to be getting worse.

The procedure will involve shaving the ball of his shoulder down to a perfect circle, drilling a hole in the middle and sticking a metal half-ball on top of it.

“They go into my shoulder and open it up — it won’t be arthroscopic, Bagwell said. “It’s actual surgery. They’ll take out all my bone spurs, there’s one big one in there that we’ve known about for a while.”

Read the full story, which includes more Bagwell insight, here.

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Park Patrol tryouts are scheduled for Feb. 5 from 4 to 7 p.m. CT and Feb. 6 from 9 a.m. to noon at Union Station. You might remember that the Park Patrol is an interactive squad that performs various home game duties, including t-shirt launches, prize giveaways and trivia contests while performing dance routines and “skits” with the Team Mascot.

Park Patrol members will perform these tasks LIVE in the stands, on ballpark concourses and will be featured on the stadium videoboard. They will also make appearances at season ticket holder events, Astros in Action Foundation events, and any approved event in connection with the Houston Astros.

To be considered for the Astros Park Patrol, please contact by phone or through e-mail to Dukeman Productions at 713-838-9855 or Kevin@dukemanproductions.com.

For more information, check out the Park Patrol page on Astros.com.

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Catching up after a busy week, while getting ready for another one.

Some observations after Week One of caravan season…

1. I think you’re going to really like Brad Mills. He smart, passionate about baseball and while he’s technically a “rookie” manager, he has plenty of leadership experience, having managed 11 years in the Minor Leagues and coached 11 years in the big leagues. He spent the last six years as Terry Francona’s bench coach and earned two World Series rings in the process. I believe that counts for something — a lot, actually.

Mills feels very strongly that there is a correct way to conduct yourself when you are a Major League ballplayer. He believes in the importance of the veteran players passing along that knowledge to the young players, and he also believes in every player taking the field with absolutely no confusion about what is expected. 

I swore I wasn’t going to make any sweeping proclamations about someone taking over a high position with the organization, based on some of my past observations over the last eight-plus years that I now have deemed cringe-worthy (“So-and-so’s GREAT! Capable! Approachable!” Only to find out that well, no, that wasn’t the case. At all.) But I spent a full week around Mills, first in Temple and then in Houston, where we had plenty of time to chat during the long drives to and from about a dozen caravan stops. And I have to say, with no hesitation, Mills clearly gets it.

I walked away from the caravan week with a strong feeling that the clubhouse culture is going to change dramatically soon after Spring Training begins. Toward the end of 2009, there was a feeling of defeat that I have never, ever seen from a Houston club, even in the down years. I don’t know Mills that well yet, but I just cannot envision him putting up with any sort of defeatist attitude from the players.

Plus, he’s a warm-weather kind of guy. He called Francona, who lives year-round in Boston, yesterday to let him know “It’s 75 degrees here and there is not a cloud in the sky.” Just wait until he manages 81 home games without a single rain delay. he’ll feel like he hit the lotto.

2. Of all of the recipients of the Darryl Kile Award over the years, Brian Moehler just might fit the description better than anyone. The award goes to someone who, among other things, is a great teammate who puts the team before any personal agenda.

On our way to a caravan stop on Wednesday, Moehler brought up what a fantastic signing Brett Myers is and how much it improved the Astros chances to be competitive in 2010.

Now, Myers just might have knocked Moehler out of the starting rotation mix and bump him to the ‘pen. That is of little concern to Moehler. The only thing that matters to him is winning, and Myers increases the Astros’ chances to do just that. If it means taking a lesser role on the team, then, in Moehler’s view, so be it.

3. Pitchers and catchers work out in less than a month. The first full-squad workout will take place a few days after that. Here’s what intrigues me the most:

* Jason Castro’s chances to make the team as the front-line catcher right out of the chute. I’m sensing that the club would like for it to happen, but is hesitant to put that much pressure on the kid. Someone brought up a good point — Castro needs to concentrate on his work behind the plate, handling a pitching staff, learning opposing hitters, etc…yet, his odds to make the club will largely depend on how well he hits in March. Is that fair?

* Roy Oswalt’s back: He’s changed up his conditioning routine, cutting back on running and concentrating more on core-strengthening. He said he’ll be ready when the bell rings, but keep in mind that for a player, that bell rings on Opening Day, not the Grapefruit League opener. So don’t expect miracles on March 4.

* Who gets the Opening Day start. If Opening Day honors go to the starting pitcher who had the best year in the previous season, then Wandy Rodriguez getting the ball is a no-brainer. But I’ve come across a couple of people who think there’s an argument to be made for Oswalt, the team’s unmatched ace almost a full decade. If you were Mills, who would you appoint?

In the meantime, here are some shots from the locally-based caravan stops from the last couple of days, plus the baseball dinner…enjoy.

Craig Biggio mingles with residents of the Brookwood Community.

Bill Brown, Mills, Biggio and Moehler (hidden behind Brownie) begin the presentation at Brookwood.

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Junction Jack, Moehler and Biggio play an abbreviated game of baseball at Brookwood. I think Moehler struck out Biggio here.

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Then it was off to Katy Jr. High…

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Later that night, at the baseball banquet…

MVP Michael Bourn, conducting his 1,000th interview of the week (or at least it seemed that way).

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Bourn signed a few autographs for some young admirers.

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 Rookie of the Year Jeff Fulchino and his wife, Carrie.

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Darryl Kile Award recipient Moehler, and his wife, Dee.

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Bourn, Wandy, Moehler, listening intently to seating instructions before heading to the main banquet room.

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The next day, the caravan resumed with a trip to Methodist Hospital…

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…Pearland High School..

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…and a Grand Slam for Youth Baseball Little League sign-up rally.

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Meeting special people on a special day.

Meet Tyran.

This young man was one of many patients the Astros met during their visit to Scott and White Hospital during the final caravan day through Temple, Texas on Wednesday. He was timid at first, but thanks to a very congenial Michael Bourn, it took no time at all for Tyran to relax with our players and enjoy the company.

Tyran’s mother sat back and marveled at how happy Tyran was with the lavish attention everyone — Bourn, J.R. Towles, Brad Mills and bullpen assistant Javier Bracamonte — heaped upon this young man, and it was yet another reminder how little ballplayers have to do to make someone’s day and positively affect a young life.

The players carry autograph cards with them on these caravan trips and hand them out to anyone who wants one, and soon, Tyran had a stack of mementos. It was touching enough just watching the scene unfold, but it was Tyran’s mother’s words at the end of the visit that really moved me.

“I’m his foster parent, and we just got him,” she said. “I haven’t even been able to bring him home yet. I was wondering how I was going to decorate his room when it was time.”

Pointing to the stack of autograph cards, she said, “Now, I know exactly how to decorate his room.”

The compassion people carry with them — they’re truly angels on earth — never ceases to amaze me. Parents come in all forms, as do those who dedicate their lives to caring for people who are dealt a terrible hand in life. The hospital workers at Scott and White who escort us through the hospital every year had a gut-wrenching hour just before we arrived — they lost a young patient to whom they had grown incredibly attached. “We’ve had a terrible day,” one woman said tearfully. “Please bear with us.” Then she gathered herself, put on a smile, and walked us into every patient’s room with the same unbridled enthusiasm.

Yes, we look at baseball players as heroes, but let’s not forget the everyday folks who do absolutely extraordinary things. When you work in sports, you’re reminded of this practically every day. Wednesday was one of those days.

 

Tyran could not take his eyes off Bourn, and I think Mike became pretty attached as well.  

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 The group with more patients at Scott and White.

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A difficult day for those who work at Scott and White. Yet they still made the day special for dozens.

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A few patients’ rooms were off limits because the kids were too sick, but others were inhabitable only if the guests wore masks and gowns. Here’s Bourn getting suited up. I posted another shot on Twitter.

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After the hospital visit, we had a major change of pace…lunch at the Temple Lions Club. This is always a raucous hour attended by Drayton McLane and a few dozen locals. An auctioneer raffles off a handful of Astros goodies…signed bats, balls…and a Milo bobblehead!

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Then it was off to Yoe High School, the alma mater of one Drayton McLane.

After the autograph session following the assembly…it was time to head back to Houston.

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Random thoughts and tidbits while riding on the bus

We just finished up breakfast with baseball and softball players from Mary Hardin-Baylor and we’re on our way to an assembly at Shoemaker High School. I’ll post pictures from the entire day’s events later today, but in the meantime, here are some unrelated tidbits to chew on:

* Chatting with bullpen assistant Javier Bracamonte during breakfast produced this nugget: Miguel Tejada is currently in Haiti, assisting with relief efforts to help those affected by the earthquake in Port Au Prince. Tejada leased two 18-wheelers from the Dominican Republic and shipped food, water and clothing to the devastated city. That Tejada did this is not at all surprising; in fact, I would have been more surprised had his name not come up while talking about assisting those in need in a desperate time.

* Michael Bourn was asked by a student-athlete about significant moments in his career. Bourn pointed to his rookie season with the Phillies, during a game against the Astros in Houston. He was called on to pinch-run, and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel told him he didn’t want to see him on first base for more than one pitch. “Bad idea,” Bourn recalled. “I was way too hyper.” Meanwhile, the always chatty Astros first baseman, Lance Berkman, said to Bourn, “You’re going to try to steal, aren’t you?” Bourn acted like he didn’t hear him. Three seconds later, “I’m picked off,” Bourn recalled. “And out of the game.”

* Today is Brad Mills’ birthday. He started the day with a 4 a.m. workout — not because he’s such the early riser, but because he basically woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep. He’ll spend the big 5-3 with 13 hours of caravan stops. Fortunately he’ll have a hearty birthday dinner tonight at Drayton McLane’s annual barbecue in Temple, which will be attended by plenty of Astros favorites, past and present: Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Bud Norris, Doug Brocail, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. (Look out Puma, I’m bringing the camera.) .

Milo, Norris on Astroline together. But only one is the King of Baseball.

Bud Norris has been through a full Major League Spring Training with the Astros, but this year, things will be decidedly different for the 24-year-old right-hander.

A year ago, the California-born Norris, who recently bought a townhouse in Houston, was considered by the front office as a possible future closer. Heading into 2010, however, he’ll be looked at to fill a dire need in a rotation that has a few options but could certainly use a young arm.

He spent two months in the big leagues in 2009 and was shut down with only one or two starts remaining in the season, not because of injury, but because the club is looking for long-term preservation instead of short-term results.

“(General manager Ed (Wade) and (former manager Cecil Cooper) decided it was for the best,” Norris said during his recent appearance on Astroline, the club’s weekly radio show. “I dealt with my workload. My body was getting tired, but it was definitely for precautionary reasons. I wanted to be out there with my teammates and helping them, but at the same token, I knew that for the future, it was something that was needed.”

Norris was Milo Hamilton’s guest on Astroline, which airs every Wednesday on KTRH 740 a.m. and on astros.com and takes place live at Sherlock’s Baker St. Pub on West Gray in Houston. Little did we know, a fun sideshow unfolded at the same time, thanks to Hamilton’s recent honor at the Winter Meetings as the “King of Baseball.” He was given a trophy, in addition to the full King garb — cape, crown and scepter. Enjoy the imagery.

(Programming note — next week’s Astroline guest will be Geoff Blum, followed by Craig Biggio on Jan. 27 and Michael Bourn on Feb. 4)

King Milo and Bud Norris

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Bud signed autographs during commercial breaks.

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Getting ready to go on the air

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On the air

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Milo’s garb even attracted the local news…

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…not to mention the fans!  

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Myers takes over No. 3 starter spot on depth chart.

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Brett Myers was adamant during his introductory press conference on Tuesday that he was taking nothing for granted, and that he will be trying out for a rotation spot just like everyone else.

But it’s safe to say that Myers, who signed a deal worth a guaranteed $3.1 million for 2010, with a mutual option for ’11 worth $8 million (a buyout is worth $2 million), was not brought to the Astros with an off chance to crack the starting five. Myers is here because he not only fills a big hole in the Astros’ rotation, but he can, based on history, contribute the number of innings that earns pitchers “workhorse” status.

Still, I do admire his humility. “I’m going to have to earn that spot,” he said. “It’s always been that way. I’ve always liked a fight, liked a challenge. This is no different.”

Assistant GM Dave Gottfried, who helped complete the Myers signing and was pinch-hitting for the absent Ed Wade, was a little more pointed with his view of where Myers fits in.

“We have Roy (Oswalt) and Wandy (Rodriguez), and he’ll slot in after that,” Gottfried said. (Wade is in Phoenix for MLB meetings, by the way.) “He’ll push the young guys and it would be great if he pushes Roy and Wandy too. The rotation just got a whole lot better.”

I spoke with Wade on Monday about Myers and the rotation in general, and it’s clear that Bud Norris, Brian Moehler and Felipe Paulino will compete for the last two spots. Other suitors for starting jobs include Yorman Bazardo, Wesley Wright and Wilton Lopez.

Wade mentioned that he spoke with Moehler the night they signed Myers, and assured Moehler that nothing was set in stone and that he had not even begun talking with manager Brad Mills and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg about the makeup of the rotation for 2010.

Moehler, as expected, was not upset with the Myers signing. The exact opposite, in fact.

“He said he just wants to win, and that Myers make us a better team,” Wade said.

If Moehler is not one of the starting five, he’ll move to the ‘pen, where he can offer his versatility as a middle and long reliever.

Some random shots from Tuesday’s press conference, introducing Myers:

Myers with Asst. GM Dave Gottfried.

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Tal Smith, Myers, Gottfried

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After the formal introduction, Myers granted more personal interviews with reporters.

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Crowd shot…media and front office. In the front you can spot Asst. GMs Ricky Bennett (left) and Bobby Heck (right) with Myers’ wife, Kim, sitting in between them.

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Lots of photographers at this press conference.

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Astros caravan schedule, by the numbers. See new Astros, retired Astros, favorite Astros.

The 2010 caravan schedule is posted, which you can find by clicking here. In the meantime, I thought I’d break the schedule down in a tidy “by the numbers” style…

12: current players signing free autographs during the caravan:
Wesley Wright
Michael Bourn
Geoff Blum
Pedro Feliz
Lance Berkman
Brian Moehler
Jeff Fulchino
Roy Oswalt
Matt Lindstrom
Bud Norris

Jason Castro
Hunter Pence

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3: Retired numbers making caravan appearances:
Jeff Bagwell
Jimmy Wynn
Larry Dierker

10: Cities the caravan will visit where players will be signing autographs:
Houston
Temple
Cypress
Webster
Katy
Sugar Land
Waco
Round Rock
San Antonio
Victoria

(The Astros will be stopping in Corpus Christi for a luncheon at Whataburger Field and a hospital visit, but they do not have a public appearance scheduled).

5: Broadcasters:
Jim Deshaies
Bill Brown
Milo Hamilton
Brett Dolan
Dave Raymond

1: Manager
Brad Mills

12: Autograph sessions
Most will take place at Academy Sports & Outdoors. The crew will be signing at City Hall in Houston on Jan. 18, at the Temple Mall on Jan. 20 and at HEB in San Antonio on Jan. 27. (Please check the schedule for locations and times).

Renew your season tickets, hang out with Brownie and J.D.

The season of gifting and re-gifting is behind us, but apparently, the Astros are still in the mood to give things away.

They’re offering new incentives for you to renew your season tickets sooner than later, and judging from the quality of the items they’re raffling off, they’re ready to pay up in exchange for the simple act of, well, paying up.

All full-season ticket and 27-game mini-plan account holders who renew, or anyone purchasing a full-season ticket package or 27-game mini package will automatically be entered into daily drawings to win one of 20  pretty heavy-duty prizes.

Perusing through the list, here are my personal favorites:

Meet and greet with a player on the field before a game
A clubhouse tour and meet and greet with manager Brad Mills
A Jeff Bagwell autographed bat

And, the best one (in my humble opinion):
Sit for an inning in the TV booth with two of my favorite people, broadcasters Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies.

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The drawing started Monday and runs weekdays through Jan. 29, and if you’ve already renewed (even before the contest started), you’re automatically entered. If you haven’t renewed, you’ll be eligible for all remaining drawings as soon as you do so.

Click here for more details and a full listing of prizes, which includes sitting in the press box for three innings, watching a game with 12 friends and Jimmy Wynn from one of the suites, and sitting on the field for one of the Friday Night Fireworks displays (presumably, you’ll be near the many players who bring their kids onto the field for fireworks nights).

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