February 2010

Touching base with Brad Arnsberg.

Every Friday through Spring Training, we’ll run a feature called “Touching Base.” This is an effort to let the fans get to know the Major League coaching staff, from the four newcomers – Brad Arnsberg, Bobby Meacham, Al Pedrique and Jamie Quirk — to the two returnees — Sean Berry and Dave Clark.

We hope this gives you insight to what coaches do every day. Their duties extend far beyond what you see them do on a field once the game starts. First up: pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.

(Check out our one-on-one video interview with Arnsberg here.)

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Brad Arnsberg’s hiring by the Astros drew somewhat of an uproar — not by Houston fans, but by Toronto fans, who were none too happy to see their pitching coach plucked away by another Major League team.

Arnsberg, who enters his 10th season as a Major League coach, was one of four new coaches hired by the Astros during the past offseason. To the casual Astros fan, the news wasn’t terribly jarring — Arnsberg is an experienced coach with an impressive resume, but beyond that, coaching hires just don’t garner that much attention.

But as the reports slowly trickled out of Toronto, it became obvious the Astros pulled off a steal. Arnsberg’s departure from the Blue Jays, one year before his contract expired, was reportedly somewhat unceremonious, but initially, it surprised the Astros that he was even available. Turns out, it was perfect timing for what the Astros and Arnsberg hope will be a long partnership between a veteran pitching coach and a team that spent last offseason revamping its staff and looking for a new start after four non-playoff seasons.

Toronto media portrayed Arnsberg as loyal and as someone who makes no apologies for backing his pitchers 100 percent of the time, no matter what. Perhaps this didn’t sit well with some of the higher-ups working for his former employers, but don’t bother “Arnie” with such speculation. He’s not a politician. He’s a coach who is protective of his pitchers, who believes in them and who gives them his time and his ear.

“Arnie” likes to talk, but he also is a keen listener. A casual conversation with Brett Myers while walking off the field after a workout one day early in Spring Training turned into an hour-long session. Same goes for the brief stop he made at Roy Oswalt’s locker the next day. Forty-five minutes later, the exchange was still going.

Arnsberg’s Spring Training work day starts at 5 a.m. and ends 11 or 12 hours later. He has charts to study, data to input, schedules to organize. When he was hired, the Astros’ video coordinator, Jim Summers, sent Arnsberg a hard drive of every game the Astros played last year, and he got to work, studying deliveries and pitching motions in a cram session if sorts as he prepared to begin a new Spring Training with a brand new set of students.

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“My early days here, it’s more about putting the name with the face and putting a face with the delivery I’ve seen,” Arnsberg said. “Mostly just get my feet on the ground and get to know the guys and start to build the pitcher-coach-pitcher bond with the group. I try to establish that real family feel early in camp. I try to go out of my way to get all 28, 29 guys into games as early as possible.”

The early days of Spring Training are spent getting back into routines, building up arm strength and retraining the brain to remember the little things — signs, bunt plays…strategic elements that can make or break a team over the course of a season.

“Right now, it’s Baseball 101, baseball awareness,” Arnsberg said. “Jam sessions on the mound. Most guys are rotating through skill work, doing more mind work and trying to stay ahead of the game. Knowing bunt plays, knowing our signs from the catchers as far as pickoffs and pitch-outs. Knowing when our catcher is throwing through to second base rather than coming up and throwing to third. Those kinds of things to stay a step ahead.”

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Arnsberg has put in 27 years in the game as both a pitcher and a coach. He was the Yankees’ first-round Draft pick in 1983 and played six years in the big leagues — two for the Yankees (1986-87), three for the Rangers (1989-91) and one for the Indians (1992).

He began his coaching career in 1994, spending one season as a player-coach with the Wei-Chen Dragons of the Taiwan Professional Baseball League. He then served two years at the pitching coach for the Rangers’ Class A club in Charleston before moving up to Double-A Tulsa for two seasons. Following the ’98 season, he was promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where the Redhawks won the Eastern Division title in the Pacific Coast League.

Arnsberg split the 2000 season in two coaching capacities for the Expos, first as bullpen coach and then as pitching coach. He was named pitching coach for the Florida Marlins in 2002 and served in that capacity until May of 2003, when he and manager Jeff Torborg were dismissed.

In 2004, Arnsberg joined the Blue Jays organization as its Triple-A pitching coach and was promoted after that season to the big leagues. He served as Toronto’s pitching coach for six seasons until accepting the job with the Astros last October.

One of his first orders of business is to figure out a reasonable schedule that will allow all 29 pitchers in camp to receive playing time once the Grapefruit League games start next Thursday.

This is no easy task — spring camps are big, and innings are sparse. It’s up to the pitching coach and manager to figure out how and where everyone fits.

“I went to camps when I was younger where I didn’t even see Spring Training innings and I kind of went backward,” he said. “I need to make sure their feet are on the ground and know that they’re wanted and needed.”

Just the facts: Brad Arnsberg
Born
: Seattle, WA
Resides: Arlington, Texas
Age: 46
Drafted: First round by the Yankees in 1983.
Major League debut: September 6, 1986
Final game: April 23, 1992
Began his coaching career in 1994
Hobbies
: Fishing, hunting, motorcycle riding (He owns a Harley).
Something you didn’t know: He loves watching the Winter Olympics. Favorite event? Ice Dancing.

 

Photo Day…somewhat of a pain, but necessary.

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One of the less popular annual rites of spring is an exercise known as Photo Day. It’s a 90-minute process that starts in the wee hours of the morning, around 7 a.m., involves everyone in uniform, and requires smiling and posing for at least a dozen cameras.

Every team has Photo Day during Spring Training, and the dates are arranged in such a way that allows the photographers to hop from camp to camp without any scheduling conflicts. In attendance of Photo Day in Kissimmee on Thursday were photographers from seven outlets: MLB Photos, Photo File, Getty Images, Baseball Digest, Associated Press, Baseball America and TOPPS. The Astros also hire a local photographer to participate.

Players are given a regular-season cap and directed to the large meeting room on the second floor, above the clubhouse. That’s where half the photographers are set up — the other half are outside on the balcony that overlooks the main field.

One major, extremely important, essential part of Photo Day is keeping track of who players are. This sounds simple enough, but when you’ve got 55 players and about a dozen coaches coming through, documenting who’s who is vital. To do this, players are handed an 8×10 sheet of paper with their name on it. When they go station to station, the first picture taken is of them holding up their nametag. These aren’t used for anything except identification.

The importance of this step in the process gets lost among some of the players who don’t quite understand why teams have photo day and where the photos are used. The headshots you see on the JumboTron when the player comes to bat? Taken on Photo Day. Same goes for the head shots you see in newspapers, the poses you see on baseball cards, the mug shots in game programs and in media guides…all taken on Photo Day.

A few years ago, two Marlins players — Reggie Abercrombie and Hanley Ramirez — thought it would be fun to switch name tags during Photo Day. Reggie was Hanley and Hanley was Reggie, and the two got a good laugh from the experience.

Abercrombie probably didn’t find it so funny when a handful of the road ballparks he visited had Ramirez’s picture up on the scoreboard when he came to bat. He also was somewhat perplexed when Ramirez’s photo was placed on his bio in the Astros media guide in 2008, the year the Astros had picked up Abercrombie off waivers from the Marlins.

After it was explained to him, he had a better understanding of what Photo Day is, and why it’s necessary to follow instructions.

Geoff Blum sips coffee and waits for Bud Norris to move on to the next station.  

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Sammy Gervacio.

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Tommy Manzella.

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Chris Johnson.

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On a compeltely unrelated note…mystery solved: Jeff Bagwell indeed made it through his shoulder surgery OK, and yep, his arm is still attached:

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Other than fretting that he can’t work out for at least six weeks, which is driving him completely nuts, he appears to be recovering well. It’ll be a while before he feels normal again, but I think he’s glad he had the procedure.

Bagwell was passing through town briefly on Wednesday. He’ll be back next week for a longer period of time and will work mostly with the Minor League players.

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The ESPN Baseball Tonight “Bus Tour” will be in Astros Spring Training camp Friday (Feb. 26) as part of their Florida Spring Training tour from Feb. 18-March 5. The crew will be doing live shots for SportsCenter, ESPNEWS and Baseball Tonight at the Osceola County Stadium complex throughout the day and features Astros players as guests.

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First team meeting

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Once everyone was present and accounted for in the home clubhouse Wednesday morning in Kissimmee, the team gathered for its annual introductory team meeting, during which three key figures addressed the club: owner Drayton McLane, general manager Ed Wade and manager Brad Mills.

McLane spoke of leadership, accountability, hard work and…you guessed it…the “c” word.

“Those that have known me before,” McLane said, “Have I ever talked about being a champion?”

Wade spoke passionately about the new coaching staff and about Mills, Wade’s first major on-field hire since he became GM in September of 2007.

As he introduced the athletic trainers, instructors, special assistants and coaches, Wade also mentioned the years of baseball service time each individual had accrued over the years.

For example, the big league staff was presented as: Brad Arnsberg, 27 years. Sean Berry, 24 years. Dave Clark, 27 years. Bobby Meacham, 30 years. Al Pedrique, 32 years. Jamie Quirk, 38 years. Brad Mills, 31 years.

“That’s 209 years, an average of almost 30 years a man,” Wade said, adding that of the 29 members of the Spring Training field staff this year, they have acquired a total of 896 years of service time.

“There are a lot of things to draw upon,” Wade said. “And shame on you, shame on us, if we don’t take advantage of it.”

Watch the video, posted here.

Puma looks the same, which is a good thing.

I posted pictures on the Astros Facebook page and my Twitter page Wednesday morning from the first full squad workout, and sure enough, it took only about five minutes before the same questions to emerge:

“Has Berkman lost weight?”

Now, I admit I asked him the same thing when I saw him in January on a caravan stop. Actually, to me, he simply looked like he was in great shape — slim, strong and healthy. Contrary to the public’s perception, however, this is how he looks most of the time. I’m sure he has a weight fluctuation through the season, as most people do over a seven-month span, but for the most part, Puma is NOT what so many fans have labeled him as — plump, and out of shape.

Over the years, he’s joked about how his round face perpetuates the misperception, especially when he’s shown on TV. Puma’s “big jowls” are there whether his weight is up or down. For the most part, he looks the same as always — good.

Other items of note:

* Several Astros players will participate in ESPN The Weekend at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando this Saturday and Sunday. Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Berkman will participate in Saturday’s activities while Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee will take part on Sunday afternoon.

* On Wednesday, (March 3), the Astros will play a seven-inning intrasquad game on one of the back practice fields at the Osceola County Stadium complex at 11:00 am (ET). Free and open to the public.

* The Astros will hold a Minor League mini-camp beginning Friday (Feb. 26). A total of 37 Minor Leaguers will participate, including pitchers Brad Dydalewicz, Tanner Buschue, Jordan Lyles and Ross Seaton, infielders Koby Clemens and Jiovanni Mier, and outfielders T.J. Steele and J.B. Shuck.

From Wednesday’s workout:

Puma

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Carlos Lee, Pedro Feliz

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Lee, posing for the cameras.

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Blum, Keppinger, Matsui

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Spring Training locker assignments: who sits where?

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The Astros’ Spring Training locker room is basically sectioned off into two sides — one for the pitchers, and one for the position players. For the most part, they’re placed numerically, with a couple of exceptions.

For as long as I can remember, Roy Oswalt has always had the first locker when you walk into the clubhouse from the main hallway. I never understood why he wanted to a) be that close to people walking in and out and b) make himself that geographically accessible to the media, but I figured he had his reasons.

It dawned on me this morning that his area has a little more leg room than the rest, and considering this is how he passes the time in the early morning hours before workouts start, it makes perfect sense:

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On the other side of the clubhouse, position players are also lined up numerically, for the most part. One exception is this row, which has always been saved for what I like to call the “high rent district.” This year, it’s Berkman, Lee and Feliz. In the past, that row has been occupied by the likes of Bagwell, Biggio, Kent, Ausmus…you get the drift.

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Hunter Pence’s locker, and Hunter Pence.

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Bud Norris‘ locker is right next to Oswalt’s, which should make for some interesting dialogue as the spring wears on. Oswalt is a man of few words, and Norris…well, let’s say he’s a very conversational young chap.

That’s not to say Oswalt doesn’t have his chatty moments. He’s come a long way since his rookie year in 2001, a time that I refer to as his “deer in the headlights” phase. Players are usually unpolished when they get to the big leagues, and Roy was no exception. Who can forget the night he set the club rookie win record? With about eight cameras in his face, Roy was asked how it felt to pass Jim Deshaies for the rookie record. Oswalt: “Who’s Jim Deshaies?” J.D., who was standing nearby: “Guess I should probably introduce myself.”

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Other camp observations:

General manager Ed Wade is looking forward to watching Tommy Manzella man the shortstop position this year. Because Wade has been with the Astros only about two years, he’s had to rely on his staff to give their insight as to Manzella’s development.

“Our guys say he’s a tick above average in range, a tick above average in hands, and has an average arm,” Wade said. But the real selling point was this: “They said, if you had to get one more out in the ninth inning, you want the ball hit to Tommy Manzella,” Wade said. “I was told he’s been ready for about two years to play defensively in the big leagues. He definitely gives us solid range and a good arm. We’re going to miss Miggy (Miguel Tejada), but our range has improved with Tommy.”

Someone asked me what young player I’m most intrigued by this spring, and while Jason Castro is still first on my list, Manzella is a close second. I really wish Manzella had been given more playing time after he was called up last September, but I have to assume we’ll be watching him regularly when the Grapefruit League season starts next week.

One thing I like about spring games is watching the young guys play. They’re fast and have something to prove, so they really pour their energies into the games, whereas the veterans take is slower, knowing Spring Training is a time to get back in the swing of things without having to worry about winning or losing a job.

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I always consider the final day before position players arrive to Spring Training as the calm before the storm. Although plenty of position guys — about half of the squad — have already shown up and are working out regularly, they don’t hit the fields with the rest of the team until the first official workout, scheduled for Wednesday.

I anticipate a pretty busy morning, which will include (not necessarily in this order): a team-only meeting with manager Brad Mills, who will address his new club for the first time; a more expansive team meeting, which include a few words from owner Drayton McLane; and a media crush at the locker of one Lance Berkman, who apparently was due to arrive in Kissimmee at 5:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday. (Not sure why this mattered but it was reported as such by the Twitteratzi).

***UPDATE:*** Puma sighting at 5:30…right on time. Spring has officially sprung.

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And finally, good luck and congrats to Aaron Boooooooone, who is officially retired and has joined ESPN’s Baseball Tonight crew.

 

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Ballplayers acting out (literally).

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Funny skits and “getting to know you” bits that are played on the scoreboards in between innings have become such a part of today’s Major League Baseball experience that it’s easy to take them for granted.

The process to put it all together, however, is no easy task. It takes incredible organization on the part of the ballpark entertainment crew, considering it has dozens of players and staff to involve in the process and has to get a season’s-worth of content filmed over a span of less than two weeks.

The Astros’ Ballpark Entertainment department is currently in the process of filming several features for the 2010 season: “Fact or Fiction,” “A Closer Look,” “Think Tank,” “Little League Memories” and “Guess the Flick.” Between now and the first couple of days of March, the staff will have recorded spots with every player who is either guaranteed a spot on the 25-man roster or has a chance to make the club this year.

“Fact or Fiction” involves the player making a statement, and then the crowd has to decide if it’s true or not.

“A Closer Look” focuses on things we might not already know about the player — what was his first job? What sport was he good at growing up besides baseball? What movie star do people think he looks like? The final product will include funny motion graphics to illustrate the answers.

“Think Tank” pairs up teammates, who engage in a Q&A word association.

“Guess the Flick” involves playing a scene from a well-known movie, and inserting the player into the scene.

Brian Moehler, Bud Norris and Jeff Fulchino filmed their segments on Monday, and we snuck into the room to get some raw video footage of our own, to share with you. Moehler was hilarious — he acted out a scene from “Dumb and Dumber” and even though I’ve known him for quite a few years, this is the first time I’ve ever heard him get loud. Check out the video to see for yourself.

Moehler also reveals which celebrity people think he looks like, who his most annoying teammate is (I don’t want to name names, but it rhymes with Plum) and that he went to high school with Molly Ringwald (or did he? That’s for you to decide when you play “Fact or Fiction.”)

The Astros ballpark crew — Kirby Kander, Senior Director of Creative Services, Brock Jessel, Director of Ballpark Entertainment, and Joey Graham, Production Coordinator, recently received two Golden Matrix Awards for the 2009 season, including the Best Overall Video Display Award (Best Show in Baseball). This is the fifth consecutive season they’ve won the award, something no other professional sports team has done. Kander, Jessel and Graham also won the Best Interactive In-game Feature for their Guess the Flick segments.

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Here are some images from Monday’s shoot, plus a few from the second full day of pitchers and catchers workouts at Osceola County Stadium:

Moehler, talking about Brett Favre and Molly Ringwald.

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Norris and Fulchino, being prepped on their video segment.

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Fulchino, Mills, Oswalt, Lindstrom.

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Byrdak, Wandy throw side sessions.

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Catchers lined up, catching the side sessions.

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Oswalt throws side session, with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg watching closely.

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Lots of position players showed up to work out, even though they don’t have to official report until Wednesday. Here we have Michael Bourn…

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Hunter Pence…

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Tommy Manzella.

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Photo albums, videos, and you.

“Social media” is a relatively new term, but it’s quickly changing the way companies do business. In sports, social media is opening up all kinds of new avenues for teams to directly communicate with their fans. With Spring Training upon us, there is no better time for Major League Baseball — and more specifically, your Houston Astros — to bring you every nugget of what is going on, through articles, pictures, videos, blogs and Twitter updates.

If you haven’t joined the Astros Facebook page, I invite you to do so. We’re posting daily photo albums from camp in an effort to give you the fly-on-the-wall perspective that is now available with a simple click of the mouse. All blogs, as well as Brian McTaggart’s outstanding mlb.com coverage, can be found there.

We’re also posting daily videos, which live on both the homepage of astros.com and a special video section which you can find here. Those videos are also linked to my Footnotes page, which is a landing page that includes blogs, videos and links to my Twitter account.

So far, we’ve posted a Roy Oswalt interview, two workout videos, a Brad Mills segment and footage from Drayton McLane’s announcement of Ed Wade’s contract extension. You’ll also find archived segments from the Astros’ recent offseason caravans.

Our goal is to bring you close to the action, even if you can’t be there in person. We have a ton of new faces in camp this year, so there’s no better time to start getting to know the new Astros, as well as say hello to old friends.

Enjoy!

Tim Byrdak, Jeff Fulchino

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Roy Oswalt

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Oswalt practices fielding grounders back to the mound. That’s Jose Cruuuuz at first base. 

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Bud Norris, Brian Moehler throw bullpens.

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Felipe Paulino throws a bullpen (with the Astros braintrust watching from behind). 

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Catchers Humberto Quintero and Jason Castro.

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It’s like the first day of school, only better.

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Pitchers and catchers began slowly trickling into the Astros’ spring complex as far back as last week, but Saturday was the big day — everyone had to be accounted for, in uniform and ready for the first official workout of 2010.

It really is, in some ways, reminiscent of the first day of school: you see some people you know, a few who you don’t, and it’s always nice to reconnect with those who you haven’t seen in many months.

Astros pitchers and catchers took physicals, unpacked their lockers and spent 2 1/2 hours on the backfields Saturday morning to begin the 41-day process to get ready for the regular season. New bullpen coach Jamie Quirk began to get acquainted with the catchers, new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg met his full staff for the first time and first base coach Bobby Meacham gave several tutorials about the importance of successfully bunting.

Manager Brad Mills (pictured above) looked at ease through the process, although I have to assume he was (understandably) feeling a little jittery. While addressing the media, he worked hard to deflect the attention away from himself and toward the business on the field, but seeing he’s a first-year manager taking over a team that desperately needed a clean start, Mills had no choice but to talk briefly about what appears to be his least favorite topic — himself.

Asked when it finally hit him that he was solely in charge of this club, Mills, who spent the last six seasons as Boston’s bench coach, admitted he felt it when he arrived to Kissimmee more than a week ago.

“The first day, I felt it, that’s when it set in,” Mills said. “When I got down here, they gave me a tour of the facility, we had five or six players already here…and that’s when it first hit me.”

A look at Day One, through the camera lens:

Mills, with Oswalt standing to his right, addresses one group of pitchers.

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Mills conducts his daily meeting (the first of two, actually) with the media on the field, while the team stretches. This beats sitting in a stuffy office.  

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Three members of the Spring Training coaching staff: Jose Cruuuuz, Eric Young, Dave Clark.

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Oswalt looks pretty relaxed at the beginning of Spring Training. Wondering how he’ll feel after the 500th “how’s your back?” question.  

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Wandy Rodriguez insisted he had no hard feelings about losing his arbitration hearing a few days ago. “It’s reasonable,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s about the team trying to make its case and me making my case.” Wandy added that his goal is to work hard, do well this year and receive a multi-year deal next year.

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Brad Arnsberg and Brad Mills talk to the pitchers.  

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Running wind sprints following the work out.

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Bud Norris, Brett Myers, Chris Sampson, Tim Byrdak. 

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Jamie Quirk and the catchers.

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Ed Wade and Ricky Bennett. Wade was recently given a two-year contract extension through 2012. Bennett and asst. GMs Dave Gottfried and Bobby Heck were extended through 2011.

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Wade and Drayton talk with the media about Wade’s extension.

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JR Towles signs autographs after the workout.

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 Pre-workout laugh: Mills, Meacham, Al Pedrique.
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Celebrating 45 years of Astros memories. On the docket: Mike Scott bobbleheads.

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Being a baseball history fanatic, I’m glad this season will be one of those milestone years for the Astros. Season-long celebrations keep things interesting, and they bring back a lot of the old players, either in person or in the form of cool promotional giveaways.

The Astros are celebrating their 45th birthday this year, and you can expect a lot of fun days at Minute Maid Park that will include a reintroduction of players from the past and a few turn-back-the-clock activities.

I was 11 years away from arriving to my adopted hometown of Houston in ’86 when Mike Scott threw his division-clinching no-hitter, but I’ve heard so many accounts of that game from people who were there — Jim Deshaies, Milo Hamilton, Bill Brown, Larry Dierker, and on and on — that I almost feel like I do remember it, even though I wasn’t there, wasn’t listening on the radio and didn’t even read about it in the paper the next day.

The first (and only) time I met Scott was in ’04 when he flew to Houston from California to participate in some of the All-Star festivities at the convention center and the ballpark. He was exactly how J.D. described him — laid-back, California-cool, wearing flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt and a half-grin that gave the vibe of someone who enjoys the occasional appearance asked of former players by their former teams, but also of someone who’s happily enjoying retirement, away from the game.

(Side note — In the media dining room at Shea Stadium many years ago, Keith Hernandez, now a Mets broadcaster, spotted Alan Ashby, then an Astros broadcaster, and said, “Come on, Ash, just fess up. Scotty was scuffing the ball, wasn’t he?” Ashby chuckled, but said nothing. J.D., sitting nearby, cracked up.)

Scott will be one of several past Astros legends immortalized in Bobbleland when his likeness will be handed out to the first 10,000 lucky fans on July 10. Other nostalgic bobbleheads on the docket: Jose Cruuuuuuuz (April 24), Jimmy Wynn (June 5) and Nolan Ryan (June 19).

On May 22, the Astros will give away a bobblehead featuring modern-day fan favorite and Gold Glover Michael Bourn.

A sampling of this season’s promotional items was revealed on Monday, when the Astros announced that regular-season individual tickets will go on sale Friday, Feb. 19 at 9 a.m. CT. The first of seven giveaways in April arrives on Opening Day (April 5), with a schedule magnet going to the first 40,000 fans.

The 45th Anniversary celebration begins April 9, when a special, 45th Anniversary Astros cap will be handed out to the first 10,000 fans. The next night (April 10), the first 10,000 fans will receive a commemorative 1965 Astros jersey.

In May, the Astros again will be helping to create awareness about Breast Cancer with a week-long ‘Pink In The Park‘ promotion, which will include a pink cap for the first 10,000 fans on May 7 and a Pink Tote Bag for the first 10,000 fans on May 8 (Mother’s Day). A trendy, Astros laptop computer sleeve will be given for the first time to the first 10,000 fans on May 20.

On Father’s Day (June 20), the first 10,000 men age 15 and older will receive an Astros necktie. On July 28, the Astros will continue in the celebration of the 45th Anniversary with an orange retro cap giveaway for the first 10,000 fans. On August 15, the first 10,000 kids aged 14 and under will receive a school backpack designed with the look of a catcher’s chest protector.

Friday Night Fireworks also return in 2010 as each Friday night home game will be followed by a fireworks display (weather permitting). A full listing of the Astros 2010 promotional schedule will be available online at astros.com when regular season tickets go on sale Friday, and, of course, additional promotional items will be added to the schedule throughout the season.

Other stuff:

* On Feb. 16 and 17, the Astros are offering all full-season and 27-game plan ticket holders the opportunity to purchase individual game tickets online as part of their season-ticket benefits.

*On Feb. 18, all registered users of astros.com will have the opportunity to also purchase individual game tickets online. There is still time for fans to purchase season tickets or register on the website to take advantage of this limited opportunity.

* For the past several seasons, Opening Day has been a quick sellout, and this season figures to be no different. To guarantee a seat for Opening Day right now, fans can purchase a full-season ticket package or the Opening Day 14-Game Flex Plan, which includes tickets to the home opener and home finale as well as 12 games of the purchaser’s choosing, plus an additional bonus game for free. Opening Day tickets can also be purchased now through either the Hunter’s Lodge or All You Can Eat 6-Game Flex Plans.

* Every Sunday home game is a Price Matters Day, where fans can purchase a View Deck II ticket, hot dog, chips and soda for just $10. The All You Can Eat promotion, which has been expanded to include all home games, gives fan the opportunity to enjoy all of their favorite ballpark fare for just $25 per ticket. The You Pick’Em 6-Game Plan, which starts as low as $42 and gives the fans their choice of games (excluding Opening Day), is one of several reasonably-priced flex plans available.

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Love is in the air. Astros wives dish about their hubbies.

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Kory Blum met her future husband, Geoff, while out with friends one night in L.A., and within minutes, both knew they had found “the one.”

Nicole and Roy Oswalt have known each other for most of their lives, but it was a chance meeting at a high school choral competition that sped up the course of their casual friendship.

Nicole Oswalt and Kory Blum spilled the beans about marital bliss in the February edition of Houston Lifestyles & Homes magazine, available in stores around town and online at http://www.houstonlifestyles.com.

The Astros wives were refreshingly candid about what makes their marriage work, and while this might generate some ribbing from their husbands’ teammates when Spring Training starts next week, their words offer a peek into a side of baseball players we normally aren’t privy to.

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 “I have never laughed so hard or been so carefree,” Kory says of her courtship with Geoff. “I loved his easy-going personality, his love of life, and was delighted to find we had dreams of common goals.”

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Writes Nicole: “I could tell at a young age that he would be a good man, hard working, responsible with good morals and values, and he’s never let me down.”

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Sampson’s new pitch: a changeup

Chris Sampson revealed plenty of notable nuggets during his appearance on Astroline Wednesday night, including the news that he’s developed a changeup to add to his repertoire this season.

“It’s been six years coming,” he said. “When I got sent down to Round Rock last year, there as a pitcher on that staff — Roy Corcoran. He had a good changeup. I asked how he held it, played catch with it. It felt comfortable in my hand for the first time in six years. When I throw it right, it’s pretty good.”

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College Classic

Tickets are available for The 2010 Houston College Classic, which will take place at Minute Maid Park from March 5-7. The field of teams includes TCU, Houston, Texas Tech, Missouri, Texas and Rice.

Daily admission is $13 or $30 for all three days. Kids ages 4-14 can enter for $6 a day, or $15 for a three-day pass. You can order tickets online by clicking here, or by calling 1-800-ASTROS2.

All dressed up, no place to go.

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We were headed to the airport around 4 p.m. on Monday when we received word that our flight to Waco was called off.

A small contigent of Astros representatives was planning to attend Monday night’s Texas Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Waco, where two Astros — first baseman Lance Berkman and Triple-A pitching coach Burt Hooton – were among 10 honorees who make up the class of 2010.

Bad weather — rain and high winds — changed our plans. We were going to fly up on Drayton’s seven-seater plane, but his pilot thought better of it after assessing the weather conditions.

Apparently, Drayton’s pilot will fly in just about anything, but even he was not comfortable with making the Houston-Waco trip that night. Although I’m disappointed to not be going, my stomach is turning just imagining what a bumpy ride that would have been.

Anyhoo, congratulations to the Big Puma and to Hooton, who was 35-3 with a 1.14 ERA for the University of Texas before winning 151 games in the big leagues.

Puma, as most of us know,  is a five-time All-Star with 313 home runs in his career with the Astros. He’s a native of Waco and a graduate of New Braunfels Canyon High School.

During his three-year baseball career at Rice University (1995-97), Berkman earned first-team All-America honors and in 1997 was named the National College Player of the Year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

He also turns 34 on Wednesday…

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I won’t have any pictures from Monday’s ceremony, obviously, but the canceled trip opens up the perfect opportunity to post some pictures from the “Rain or Shine: How Houston Developed Space City Baseball” exhibit currently on display at the Heritage Society of Houston.

I stopped by the exhibit the night it opened and found it absolutely delightful. On display are memorabilia from every era of Houston baseball, including the years of the Minor League Buffs to the original Colt .45s to the Astros.

I am not originally from here, but I find the history of Houston baseball fascinating. When we closed down the Astrodome in 1999 we immersed ourselves in a season-long historical celebration of the 35 years in the Dome, and from Bob Aspromonte to Jimmy Wynn to Nolan Ryan to Cesar Cedeno to Jose Cruz to Mike Scott to Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, I felt like I came to know dozens of characters and personalities that helped define what this franchise means to this city.

On a recent caravan trip, I told Jim Deshaies that if I could go back in time and join one team in Astros history that I missed (I got here in 1997), it would be the 1986 Astros. These days, you’ll see a bunch of players from that era around the game — Charley Kerfeld, Larry Andersen, Alan Ashby, Billy Hatcher – and I can only imagine just how much fun it was to be around that club. What a year, too: they first hosted the All-Star Game, then clinched the division on a Mike Scott no-hitter before playing some of the most exciting postseason games in team history.

The Heritage Society exhibit, located at 1100 Bagby (near the Hobby Center), offers a nice variety of artifacts to capture a half-century of baseball in Houston, highlighting every era. It’ll be there until April 4, and admission is free. Here’s a sneak peek:

 

The exhibit contains one jersey from every year of baseball in Houston.

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The helmet Chris Burke wore when he hit his game-winning homer in the 18th inning of the NLDS in 2005, and the helmet Brad Ausmus wore when he set an Astros record for games caught.

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Seats from the Astrodome.

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This is the suit and the hat former announcer Gene Elston wore on road trips. Apparently, the entire team was required to wear matching suits, as you’ll see in the next picture.

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I think I’d actually pay money to see Berkman and Michael Bourn wearing the same suit, just for laughs. But what really cracks me up about this picture, more than everyone being dressed alike, is that two of the players are holding guns as props. Let’s see…get off a plane, pull out your gun. Could anything sound more absurd these days?

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This is a piece of the original scoreboard in the Astrodome. Apparently, the lights do indeed still blink.

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This is a 1960s RCA Victor Radio that broadcasted the first game in the Astrodome on April 9, 1965. So cutting edge at the time. Nowadays, you can get any Major League game on any night by simply having the right app on your iphone. (Sigh. I still remember when “apps” meant “appetizers.”)

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