March 2010

Astros baseball 101: Cramming for a new season.

After Brad Mills was hired to be the Astros’ new manager last October, he had just a few months to acquaint himself with a brand new organization, one he had barely crossed paths with during the previous six years that he spent with the Red Sox. Other than one series in Houston a couple of years ago, the Astros were a team pretty foreign to the Red Sox. The two teams hadn’t as much as faced each other in a Spring Training game.

Mills’ first order of business was to get to know his new club top to bottom, inside and out. To do so, he watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 to 130 Astros games from the 2009 season, all from his home computer.

Accessing his MLB.tv account, Mills woke up early every morning, as he always does, and got to work. He has a big screen TV hooked up to his computer, and he watched around three games a day, each taking around an hour and a half (since he was watching sans commercials).

The objective?

“To see exactly what was happening,” Mills said. “If I didn’t want to watch a particular player, I would look at streaks they had. Maybe they lost five or six in a row, or won five or six. Why did they win or lose five or six in a row? What exactly was happening? When they won, was the pitching all that much better for those streaks, or did they have some guys coming through swinging the bats more? Did they run a little more?”

And when the Astros lost a bunch, Mills also wanted to know why. Errors? Or something else?

Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg had a similar task when he was hired away from the Blue Jays soon after Mills was named manager. Arnsberg didn’t watch every game, but the team sent him a hard drive containing every appearance by Astros pitchers last year so that he could familiarize himself with their deliveries before Spring Training started.

“You’re trying to learn 27 new names and learn them as quickly as I can,” Arnsberg said. “I read all their bios and I knew about their pasts, but it was mostly about watching deliveries. I jotted down some notes and maybe things that if there were problems, I could try to help them right out of the chute rather than having to wait two or three weeks into Spring Training before I could approach them. I was just trying to get ahead of the game.”

Spring Training is almost over, and while none of us have any idea how the season will play out, there is one thing I am certain of: this team will be ready to play every single time it steps onto the field. You might think I’m just stating the obvious — after all, aren’t teams always ready to play? The answer is, simply, no.

Last year, I wrote that the Astros played 162 games in 2009 and rarely were they the most prepared of the two teams to take the field. From the stands, baseball can look like a pretty simple game. But there is a ton of preparation required, and it starts with the manager and his coaching staff.

Focus was stressed more this spring than any other I can remember. Mental and physical mistakes on the basepaths were addressed. Same goes for fielding deficiencies. And the players were reminded, constantly, that there is work to be done and that’s where the focus needs to be.

During one of Mills’ recent preworkout chats with the team, he said he understood camp was coming to a close and that players have families to tend to, living arrangements to be made and other elements that can, understandably, be distracting this time of year. But he commended them on maintaining their focus, working hard all spring and asked that they continue to do so.

And the players appear to be responding, favorably.

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Touching base with Jamie Quirk.

Every Friday through Spring Training, we’re running a feature called “Touching Base” in an effort to let the fans get to know the Major League coaching staff, from the four newcomers to the two returnees.

Coaches duties extend far beyond what you see them do on a field once the game starts, and we hope this gives you a little insight into what they do from day to day.

We started with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, followed by hitting coach Sean Berry, bench coach Al Pedrique and first base coach Bobby Meacham.

This week, we spotlight bench coach Jamie Quirk.

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

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While most coaching titles are pretty self-explanatory — hitting coaches obviously work with hitters, pitching coaches with pitchers, and on and on — the title of “bullpen coach” is a little more ambiguous.

Yes, the bullpen coach can be found in the bullpen during games, but that’s only part of it. The bullpen coach is also in charge of the catchers, and in the Astros’ situation, that job is of the utmost importance this season.

The most compelling competition this spring has arguably been between the Astros’ two young catchers, J.R. Towles and Jason Castro. As bullpen coach, Jamie Quirk, who was the third base coach for the U.S. World team that Castro played for last September, has worked extensively with the two starting hopefuls in addition to Humberto Quintero, who is ticketed as the backup to whomever eventually wins the top job.

Towles appears to be just a hair ahead of Castro on the depth chart, but with final decisions not expected for at least another week, the battle continues. And from Quirk’s viewpoint, there’s nothing healthier for a ballplayer than to go head -to-head with a teammate in search of a job.

“Competition is the best thing going,” Quirk said. “You always want somebody pushing you. Hopefully, it makes you better.”

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Quirk (shown above, with Towles) spends the majority of time with the catchers during Spring Training, but once the regular season starts, he’ll have plenty of face time with the pitchers as well. He and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg work closely to ensure the pitching staff is well-prepared, and it’s Quirk’s responsibility to give a reliever last-minute, pertinent information before he runs in from the bullpen.

Who is the pitcher going to face? How should he attack the hitter? How many runners are on base?

“While he’s getting loose and getting himself mentally ready to go in, I’ll just kind of guide him along,” Quirk said. “I mainly stay out of his way — his job is to get ready and focus and go into the game. That’s one of my jobs, to get to know these guys as the season starts, what they like to hear, what they don’t like to hear and then we go from there.”

 

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It’s probably only fitting that Quirk has a plentiful list of duties as the Astros’ bullpen coach, considering he played just about every position during his 18-year playing career and has had a myriad of coaching jobs that has spanned 15 years and included stops with several different teams.

He was a catcher (525 games), a third baseman (118 games), a shortstop (22), a first baseman (43), an outfielder (34) a designated hitter (88) and a second baseman (1). Post playing career, Quirk has been a bullpen coach, a bench coach and a manager for 16 games, twice having filled in for managers during suspensions.

Once Brad Mills was hired to be the Astros’ manager last October, he and general manager Ed Wade moved quickly to fill the four vacancies on the coaching staff. Arnsberg was hired as pitching coach and Bobby Meacham was targeted as the first base coach, while Al Pedrique, who had interviewed for the managerial job, was named bench coach. Quirk was the final hire to round out the staff of six.

Quirk spent the 2009 season as a professional scout for the Reds after working for six seasons as the Rockies’ bench coach, all under manager Clint Hurdle. He began his Major League coaching career in 1994, serving as bullpen coach for the Kansas City Royals. After two seasons as their bullpen coach, he became the Royals bench coach, a position he would hold for five seasons from 1996-01.

Quirk made his big league debut with the Royals in 1975 at the age of 20, and over an 18-year career, he compiled a .240 career average with 43 home runs and 247 RBIs. He for eight different teams, including the 1985 World Champion Royals and the 1990 American League Champion Oakland A’s.

He’s probably remembered mostly as a catcher, but Quirk has a much broader recollection. Versatility gave him longevity as a player, and the same formula seems to be working for him in the coaching ranks.

“I became a utility guy, then I learned catching after about five years in Major Leagues,” he said. “I have played everywhere but pitcher and center field in a Major League game. That has definitely helped me as a coach. I don’t think of myself as just a catching guy.”

Just the facts: Jamie Quirk
Born
: Whittier, CA
Resides: Kansas City, MO
Age: 55
Drafted: First round by the Kansas City Royals in 1972.
Major League debut: September 4, 1975
Final game: October 4, 1992
Hobbies: “Golf, even though I don’t play much during the season.”
Something you might not know: He was part of the first “all Q” battery in Major League history. He and pitcher Dan Quisenberry were Royals teammates from 1979-82 and 1985-87. They held the distinction of being the only all Q battery until a few years ago when Humberto Quintero and Chad Qualls paired up during several Astros games.  

Thursday roundup: injury updates, Bagwell recap, and photos.

Notes from a Thursday morning in Clearwater, where the Astros and Phillies met for the first time this spring:

* Manager Brad Mills said he expects Michael Bourn to be the first of the Astros’ injured players to return to action. We could see Bourn, who’s been out with an oblique strain, play as early as this weekend.

* Mills said Lance Berkman is “feeling good. He had a real good day (Wednesday).” Mills identified this weekend as being a crucial time for the Puma, “to see if the knee keeps not swelling as much. This weekend is going to tell us a lot.” Berkman has been sidelined for most of Spring Training after undergoing a knee procedure.

* Brett Myers said he “felt something” –a  pinch in the groin area — while covering first during his start against the Phillies on Thursday. He threw one warmup pitch and walked off the mound, figuring it made no sense to push himself and risk aggravating what he characterized as a minor injury.

“I didn’t want to take a chance,” Myers said, referring to the mild left groin strain that ended his outing with one out in the sixth. “We’ll just see how it is tomorrow. It wasn’t painful to where I said, “Oh…this is serious.”

Mills sounded optimistic after the game as well.

“He was able to at least move and go through the motion to the plate, which tells me it’s minimal,” he said.

* Bud Norris, whose schedule was jumbled when he missed a couple of days with a stomach virus, will likely make his next start in a Minor League game. Mills also said that Brian Moehler will start pitching in relief, even though he’ll continue to be stretched out as a starter.

It’s getting to that point of the spring where the rotation and bullpen are taking shape, and innings are getting scarce for the bubble guys. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that Felipe Paulino has the edge on Moehler for the fifth starter spot (if they indeed start the season with five starters and not four, which they could do with the early off days). That has yet to be announced, but I would believe that if Paulino has one more outing like the one he had in Bradenton the other day, he’s as good as in.

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After more than four months of “Astroline,” the weekly radio show as signed off for another season. The last show took place Wednesday night at the ESPN Club on the Disney Boardwalk, and as expected, Jeff Bagwell’s appearance caused chaos (the good kind) and a packed house.

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I had to laugh, because most of the calls that came in were more of the “I love you, man” variety and less about actually asking a question. Between the callers and Milo Hamilton heaping accolades and praise on the legendary first baseman, Bagwell barely noticed me mouthing “overrated” from the other side of the table.

I kid. Bags was his usual congenial self and graciously signed autographs for the long line of fans that formed long before he arrived. He also gave some pretty insightful answers to questions from both our Tweeps and the live audience at the ESPN Club.

On if he’s thought about being up for Hall of Fame election next year:

“The only reason I know it’s coming up is because I do read a few things here and there. I’ll stand by what I’ve always said. If I get into the Hall of Fame I’d be very, very privileged. It’s the greatest individual accomplishment you can receive in this game. But more important to me are the text messages and phone calls I get from ex-teammates. I hope I was a better teammate than I was a player. That means more to me than anything — the relationships I’ve had in baseball, the friends I’ve made mean more to me than the Hall of Fame. All that matters to me was what my teammates thought of me.

“My two children — their godparents are Dominican (Moises and Austria Alou). Where else does that happen? That’s what’s amazing about the game of baseball.”

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On if there are ever times where he misses playing:

“I miss it, but my last 3 1/2 years, it was more like a job than it was having so much fun. The good news we were winning so that was fun. But it was hard, going out there every night (with a bad shoulder) and thinking, ‘you’ve got to throw this thing?’ That took a little bit out of me.

“I’ll put it this way — I miss being good. I don’t miss being bad, I don’t miss being hurt. I had a lot of fun in ’94 (laughs). (The later years) took a little bit of fun out of the game.”

On if he’d get into full-time coaching:

“Not now. My two kids (ages 9 and 7), there’s no chance they would let me go for that long. Those coaches, they put in so much time. They get to the ballpark at 11 (a.m.) and leave at 11 at night. I would never see my children. At this point, it does not work.

“That said, as everyone has told me, when the kids are 13, 15 years old, they’re going to say, ‘Dad, you’re not that cool and I don’t want to hang out with you anymore.’ Then, we’ll see.”

On his most memorable moment in the big leagues:

“Probably my first big league game, in 1991 in Cincinnati. The Reds were coming off a World Series win and the place was literally shaking. The fans were going crazy. I was nervous. But it was a big day for me, because I finally knew I had actually made it to the big leagues.”

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We’re heading back to Houston in exactly a week, but first, there are some more Grapefruit League games to play. Sights from batting practice in Clearwater Thursday:

You’ve probably noticed there are quite a few former Phillies playing for the Astros these days, such as third baseman Pedro Feliz, who drew quite a bit of attention from the Philly media.

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Brett Myers caught up with ex-teammates before facing them a couple of hours later.

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Feliz and Hunter Pence sign autographs,.

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Jason Michaels, another phormer Phillie.

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Where were you in 1965? Astros are Turning Back the Clock.

How many times have you had to listen to a parent or grandparent reminisce about the “good old days,” when you could buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of gas for around the same low, low price of five cents?

Every time I spend two bucks at Starbucks for one lousy cup of coffee, I think about how it’s probably good my late grandfather isn’t around to witness this, considering in his day, a bottomless cup o’ Joe at Frisch’s Big Boy was right around 35 cents, including tip.

But if Gramps was around today, he’d surely want to head to Minute Maid Park on April 10, when the Astros and Phillies will be partying like it’s 1965 — quite literally. Select tickets will to cost as much as they did 45 years ago, and hot dogs and cokes will be offered at a drastically reduced price as well.

The Astros have set aside 1,965 tickets in the View Deck II and Outfield Deck sections that will cost $3.50, the same price of Astrodome tickets for box seats and several upper level sections. This pricing is available only online at astros.com, while supplies last.

If you miss out on the cheapie tickets, you can still enjoy some affordable steamin’ weenies. April 10 will feature Dollar Hot Dogs, compliments of Classic Foods. Those dogs can be washed down with Coca-Cola Classic fountain sodas, which will also cost a buck.

The Astros and Phillies played the first-ever regular-season game at the brand-new sparkling Astrodome on April 12, 1965, and almost exactly 45 years later, both teams will recreate the scene by wearing the uniforms similar to the ones they wore during that historic day when indoor baseball in Houston was born.

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The Astros uniforms will feature the original shooting star jersey top and navy blue cap with orange star. A 1965 replica Astros jersey, sponsored by AT&T, will be given away to the first 10,000 in attendance.

The April 10 game will also include ballpark entertainment features from the ’65 season and a special pregame ceremony featuring several members of the original 1965 Astros team, including Bob Aspromonte, Ronald G. Brand, Danny Coombs, Larry Dierker, Mike White and Jimmy Wynn, as well as former Astros radio broadcaster Gene Elston. Some of those returning members from the historic team will also sign autographs at Minute Maid Park prior to the game.

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On Blum, Puma and Opening Day.

Geoff Blum’s most valuable contribution to the Astros is his ability to play anywhere in the infield, and that skill will definitely be tested from now until Opening Day, and possibly beyond.

Blum was earmarked to start at first base in case Lance Berkman’s knee wasn’t quite ready for game action when the season opens on April 5, but he also will see some playing time at shortstop this spring while Tommy Manzella is sidelined with a quad strain. Blum’s versatility is no doubt an asset, but unfortunately, he can only play one position at a time. I figured he was probably best suited for first base, but after he made a couple of impressive plays at short against the Cardinals on Monday, I’m starting to rethink it.

Blum has played in 190 games in his career at short, so it’s not as if he doesn’t have experience in that area. Although the bulk of that playing time came earlier in his career, the 36-year-old seems unfazed at the idea of moving around the infield to fill in where needed, if needed, the first week of the season.

Blum is also fantastically self-depricating and always finds a unique way to sum up his day — and sometimes, his career — with a few PumaOneLiners.

Of his performance at short on Monday: “I’d like to say it’s like riding a bike, but I’m way too old to be riding bikes.”

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Speaking of the Puma, manager Brad Mills talked to Berkman around lunchtime on Monday and was pleased to hear that the first baseman’s knee is feeling “a lot better.” I saw Berkman briefly in the morning and he appeared to be walking better, so that’s encouraging. However, the news that he recently he had more fluid drained from his knee is not so encouraging, and while I’m fairly confident that he’ll play the majority of games this season, I have serious doubts that he’ll be ready Opening Day.

No one wants to see Puma start the year on the disabled list, but if he did, he’d only be required to miss four games. Teams can start the DL clock on March 26, and because the Major League Baseball season technically starts Sunday, April 4 and the Astros have an offday after their first three games, Berkman will have served the entire 15-day stint by April 9, which would make him eligible to play in the second game of the Phillies series on April 10.

With that in mind, taking things a little slower with Puma doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

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The Astros are celebrating their 45th anniversary this year, and as was the case in 1965 when they opened the Astrodome, NASA will play a big role in officially opening the new season.

On Opening Day, approximately 40 NASA employees will carry an oversized American flag onto the field, representing all of their colleagues at the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake. The game’s ceremonial first pitches will be thrown out by members of an upcoming NASA space shuttle mission, recreating the inaugural ceremonial first pitch at the Astrodome in April 1965 thrown by 22 Mercury astronauts.

A group of retired U.S. Navy Seals will parachute into Minute Maid Park and deliver the first pitch baseballs.

The national anthem will be sung by Texas Country Music artist Jack Ingram. A Houston-area native, Ingram has won multiple awards including the 2008 Academy of Country Music Top New Male Vocalist Award.

The first 40,000 fans will receive a 2010 schedule magnet, courtesy of Continental Airlines. Opening Day is not yet sold out.

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Images from a windy Monday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium:

Pregame chuckles: Jeff Keppinger, Chris Johnson, Bobby Meacham

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 Hunter Pence, Blum

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Pence

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Tommy Manzella, Dave Clark

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Sean Berry and Jamie Quirk catch up with St. Louis hitting coach Mark McGwire.

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J.R. Towles.

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Oswalt and Opening Day go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

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Judging from my conversations with people who closely follow the Astros, I clearly was one of the few who thought Wandy Rodriguez might be awarded the Opening Day start this year.

I was basing this solely on conclusions I drew from past years. When I got here in 1997, Shane Reynolds was in the midst of what would be a five-year stretch of consecutive Opening Day starts. He made his first in 1996 and his last in 2000, after which he was unseated by a young Scott Elarton.

The decision to start Elarton in ’01 was based solely on his performance in 2000. He won 17 games in a terrible season for the team, while Reynolds pitched only about a half-season until back problems shut him down.

That call by Larry Dierker made perfect sense, assuming he was awarding the Opening Day start to the pitcher who most deserved it, based on the prior season.

In ’02, Wade Miller got the Opening Day nod. Again, Miller’s ’01 season was better than any of his rotation mates by a large margin. He was 16-8 with a 3.40 ERA and proved himself a workhorse, piling up 212 innings.

That was the last time someone not named Roy Oswalt started on Opening Day for the Astros. Oswalt will pitch his club-record eighth opener on April 5, and I admit, there’s something that just feels right about that.

But a couple of months ago when we were still deep in the offseason, I just assumed Rodriguez would be in line to start the opener. Every Opening Day starter over the 13 years I’ve been around this team got that start based on his performance the prior year, so why not this time?  Wandy led the team with 14 wins and had an ERA of 3.02 and was named the club’s Pitcher of the Year. Roy was sidelined for a spell with back problems and compiled just eight wins (a number that could partially be explained by the record-setting 16 no-decisions he received.)

I figured the only thing that might prevent Wandy from receiving the Opening Day start was the fact that he’s left-handed, and managers generally like to put their lefties in between right-handers instead of have them at the top of the rotation.

Turns out, Wandy will fall in line after Oswalt, but not necessarily because of the lefty-righty theory. Simply put, Oswalt has been the ace of this staff for nearly a decade and that means a lot to the organization. It specifically carries a lot of weight with manager Brad Mills, and as long as Oswalt showed he was healthy this spring and stayed on schedule without any setbacks, Mills had no doubt about who would start Opening Day.

(Watch Mills and Oswalt discuss Opening Day here.) 

When Mills reset the rotation after the off day earlier this week, he flip-flopped Roy and Wandy so that Roy would be on schedule to start April 5.

I like the decision. It’ll be Oswalt vs. Tim Lincecum on Opening Day, and anything else just wouldn’t have felt right. I just wonder why it took me longer than everyone else to realize it.

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Images from a busy day in Kissimmee on Saturday (it’s always slightly chaotic when the Yankees come to town):

Coach Biggio hits fungos during morning drills:

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Carlos Lee,Pedro Feliz during batting practice.

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Felipe Paulino and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.

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Oswalt and Berkman during the anthem.

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View from above…record crowd for Astros vs. Yankees.

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Touching base with Bobby Meacham.

Every Friday through Spring Training, we’re running a feature called “Touching Base” in an effort to let the fans get to know the Major League coaching staff, from the four newcomers to the two returnees.

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.

We started with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, followed by hitting coach Sean Berry and bench coach Al Pedrique.

This week, we spotlight first base coach Bobby Meacham.

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

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Base coaches generally go unnoticed by the viewing public over a course of a season, partly because what they do while in the public spotlight appears to be pretty basic. 

They stand at their posts and play a necessary role in directing traffic, but that’s hardly the only duties they have as members of a Major League coaching staff. Their duties extend far beyond what we see them do on the field. It’s just that most of it is executed behind the scenes.

Yes, a first base coach has the basic responsibilities that we see every day — he reminds the runner how many outs are in the inning when he reaches base and gives the warning signal when a pickoff attempt is about to be made — but what else does he do?

Try keeping track of Astros first base coach Bobby Meacham for a few days. He’s everywhere. He’s constantly on the go, teaching, advising and reminding the players that bunting and smart baserunning can make or break a team over the course of a season.

He calls bunting “kind of a lost art in baseball these days,” but doesn’t believe it has to be that way. The former Yankees infielder was asked to bunt plenty of times during his six seasons in the big leagues, and he understands how detrimental a lack of ability in that area can be if not properly executed.

“Billy Martin, my manager, always said, ‘If you’re going to make so many outs, I want you to make productive outs,” Meacham said. “Making outs that moves runners, making outs that sacrifice, suicide squeezes…they’ll produce runs somewhere.”

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Meacham, pictured above with Brad Mills and Al Pedrique 

On the defensive side, Meacham is in charge of the infielders. Taking ground balls, practicing double plays and working on backhand moves all fall under his window. He’s also in charge of properly aligning the infielders — in other words, make sure the players are standing where the hitter is most likely to hit the ball. Sounds simple enough, but that exercise requires tons of preparation in studying spray charts, having a general knowledge of the opposing team’s hitters and understanding the infielder’s defensive strengths and weaknesses.

Simply put, it’s Meacham’s responsibility to always be thinking one step ahead of his players.

“These guys are professional, they want to do better,” Meacham said. “They don’t care about the criticism as much as they want to know what we think about it and how they can get better. To teach different things like positioning is important for the infielders. That goes along with the spray charts that we kind of know where players might hit the ball. All of that might add up to less runs here and there that will hopefully help us win ballgames.”

 

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Meacham pictured above with Pedro Feliz, right

Meacham was primarily a shortstop during a Major League career that spanned from 1983-88. Four years after his playing career was finished, he managed in the Royals farm system with the Class A Eugene club before moving to the Rockies’ organization for one season as a coach for the Triple-A team in Colorado Springs.

He then moved on to the Pirates organization, where he coached and managed in the Minor Leagues for the next eight seasons. He managed at Double-A Carolina from 1994-95, was a roving baserunning coach in 1996 and was the Pirates’ roving infield instructor from 1997-01. He managed in the Angels organization at Class A Rancho Cucamonga for three seasons from 2002-04 and was the Rockies’ roving infield instructor. He coached in the big leagues for three seasons, in 2006 (Marlins), ’07 (Padres) and Yankees (’08).

That’s quite an extensive resume, but perhaps no coaching job was more important than the 1993 gig with the Triple-A Rockies. That year, he coached under Brad Mills, who managed that club from 1993-96.

Meacham was hired by the Astros last Oct. 30, less than a week after Mills was introduced as the Astros’ new skipper.

“I knew Brad was interviewing for the Houston job,” Meacham said. “We talked over the years and stayed in touch.

“We have similar philosophies and we talk about the game all the time. Our families exchange Christmas cards and we kept abreast of what’s going on in the game. That came in handy for him when he needed a coach that he could trust and thinks kind of like he does. It worked out well for both of us.”

Just the facts: Bobby Meacham
Born
: Los Angeles, CA
Resides: Littleton, CO
Age: 49
Drafted: Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981.
Major League debut: June 30, 1983
Final game: July 10, 1988
Something you might not know: Attended San Diego State University, where he was a teammate of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and Padres manager Bud Black. Meacham and Gwynn were in the same draft class.

Cruuuuuuuuz checks out his bobblehead.

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Teams have been giving bobbleheads away for the better part of a decade, and while they’re fantastic keepsakes, not all players bear a clear-cut striking resemblance to their bobble likeness. That’s not a knock on the designers. I can’t imagine anything more difficult than trying to match a face with a plastic figurine, especially when the player doesn’t have any unusual or distinctive features, like a goatee (Bagwell), piercing blue eyes (Biggio) or a surfboard (Ausmus).

That said, I was duly impressed with the Jose Cruz bobblehead sample that arrived in Kissimmee a few days ago. It’s one of many items the Astros will be featuring this year as they celebrate their 45th anniversary, and Cheo’s likeness harkens back to the glory days of the mid-1980s when rainbow jerseys weren’t yet retro — they were just simply cool.

The Astros have hosted several throwback days over the years, and the rainbow jerseys have made a handful of random cameo appearances. Every time the team wore them, I could help but notice how silly they looked on everyone — except Cruz. He stood at first base wearing the yellow, orange and red, and it just looked right.

I ran that thought by Cheo: “Everyone else looks dorky, except for you,” I suggested. “I look good in anything,” he answered. (Cheo has a hilarious sense of humor. His initial reaction when he saw his bobblehead? “It looks like chocolate.”)

The Cruz bobblehead will be given out on April 24, the first of four nostalgic figurines saluting 45 years of Astros history. The others include Jimmy Wynn on June 5, Nolan Ryan (June 19) and Mike Scott (July 10).

We staged a photo shoot with Cruz, Lance Berkman and Hunter Pence in order to provide an up-close view of some of the items that will be on display this year. We also shot some video that includes reactions from all three. Trust me, Cruz’s segment alone is worth the click.

Here’s Puma wearing the 45th anniversary cap that will given away on April 9:

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And Pence models the 1965 jersey that will be handed out on April 10. The Astros will also wear that jersey during the game as part of a special “Turn Back the Clock” night. The visiting Phillies will also wear their uniforms from 1965.

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Other anniversary-themed giveaways include schedule magnets (Opening Day), fleece blanket (April 23) and replicas of both the blue and orange caps the Astros wore from 1965-93 (July 9 and July 28).

A complete list of Astros promotional games can be found here. See you at the park!

Random notes on Opening Day, Astroline, old friends, fathers and sons.

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People in baseball like to use the cliche “it ain’t brain surgery,” along with “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” and “that’s baseball” and other well-worn phrases that often make me wish there was a banned cliche list, sort of like the banned substance list that has become a staple in our game.

Anyhoo, “it ain’t brain surgery” is wholly appropriate when breaking down the Opening Day starter pitching conundrum, or lack thereof. After Monday’s offday on Monday, manager Brad Mills reset the rotation so that Roy Oswalt would start the first game back against the Red Sox on Tuesday.

Counting the days and assuming Oswalt will receive his normal four days of rest from here on out, he would be on schedule to start April 5, which just so happens to be Opening Day.

The announcement isn’t official, but, as we’ve already gone over, this ain’t brain surgery. April 5 is shaping up to be a day I’m quite looking forward to, for three reasons:

1) I’ll be watching a game that doesn’t involve the words “Grapefruit” or “split squad” and won’t involve 37 pitching changes (at least let’s hope not);
2) It’ll be a game that actually counts in the National League Central standings;
3) It’ll feature two of the league’s top pitchers: Oswalt, and San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum.

And here’s more good news: there are still tickets available. I think a lot of fans just assume that Opening Day is sold out months in advance, but if you hop on astros.com, I think you’ll find some seats to your liking.

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Arnie on Astroline

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Hopefully by now you’ve caught at least one of the many Brad Arnsberg interviews and videos that have been posted throughout the spring. If you have, you’ve probably noticed the Astros’ new pitching coach is a pretty animated guy. It also takes no time at all to realize he not only has a deep passion for what he does for a living, but he also isn’t afraid to express it.

Arnsberg will talk pitching for a full hour on Wednesday with Milo Hamilton during “Astroline,” the team’s weekly radio show that is winding down another offseason of Hot Stove talk.

The show airs live from the ESPN Club at Disney’s Boardwalk in Orlando at 7 p.m. CT, 8 ET. You can listen on the club’s flagship station, KTRH 740, or streamed live at astros.com. The number to call into the show with questions is 713-212-5874, or you can do it the new-age way and tweet me.

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It was a fun, lively day at Osceola County Stadium on Tuesday, partly because a ton of people from Red Sox Nation showed up to watch their make a rare appearance in Kissimmee. You could say that the two clubs are geographically incompatible given the hundreds of miles between Kissimmee and Fort Myers, but a home-and-home series was irresistible to the schedule-makers who noted the obvious Astros-Red Sox ties.

Mills was Terry Francona’s bench coach for six years in Boston before he was hired to be the Astros’ skipper, but the two actually go all the way back to their college days, when they were teammates at the University of Arizona.

Several prominent Red Sox players, including Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, asked specifically to be on the trip, despite the three-hour bus ride, because they wanted to say hello to “Millsie.” And you could tell throughout the morning that Mills was excited to see his old team. He’s a high-energy guy by nature, but I detected a little extra kick in his step on Tuesday (especially after his current team shut out his former team, 3-0.)

Another interesting storyline involved Astros third baseman Chris Johnson and his dad, Red Sox first base coach Ron Johnson. Francona, working with only a portion of his Major League staff thanks to a split-squad schedule, assigned the elder Johnson to coach third base in this game, so that he could be next to his son.

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“It’s Spring Training, and we’re trying to get some stuff done,” Francona said. “But there is time to realize the human side, and it’ll be fun to watch.”

Chris Johnson maintained a low-key demeanor about his dad’s visit to Kissimmee, but Ron Johnson was the total opposite. He was bursting with both pride and excitement as he talked about coaching next to his son.

“This morning, I got up around 5:30, and I was the only guy, I guarantee you, that said, “OK! We’re going to Kissimmee today! Three-hour drive! This is great!” Johnson gushed.

Here’s an image of father and son exchanging lineup cards with the umpires:

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Touching base with Al Pedrique.

Every Friday through Spring Training, we’re running 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 to the two returnees.

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.

We started with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, followed by hitting coach Sean Berry. 

 This week, we spotlight bench coach Al Pedrique.

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

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It really all starts in Little League.

The objective, when tutoring eight and 10 year olds, is to keep things interesting, and hold the players’ interest.

In the big leagues, the object of the game is, obviously, winning. But some things never change, and in the early days of Spring Training, coaches make sure to avoid one simple emotion: boredom.

The best way to make morning workouts tedious is to drag the station-to-station drills to a slow crawl. That can often be the case in spring camps, but this year, the Astros’ coaching staff, with the help of bench coach Al Pedrique, has worked hard to make sure to avoid monotony.

How? It’s simple: keep things moving. Get a lot of work done in a short amount of time. Fundamentals — pickoffs, rundowns, hitting the cutoff man, plays at the plate, covering bases, throwing to the right base, and on and on and on — are hugely important over the course of a season. But practicing involves lot of, by definition, going through the motions.

This year, workouts ran like the proverbial well-oiled machine. That’s due in large part to Pedrique, who’s in charge of crafting the entire six-week Spring Training schedule, all the while working side-by-side with new skipper Brad Mills.

“You have to keep things interesting,” Pedrique said. “You don’t want to keep players on the field for more than two hours, or they’ll just start going through the motions. They get bored.”

Pedrique, like the entire coaching staff, starts his workday long before the sun comes up, and he won’t leave the ballpark until late in the afternoon. He works extensively with the players on the field, but in the hours beforehand, he has to make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.

“We have to make sure guys know when they’re traveling, when they’re not traveling,” Pedrique said. “The guys that stay back, they have to know what the program is for the day. A lot of the guys would like to go home early, but still, even when they’re not making the trip, we’ve got something they need to go through, whether it’s a PFP (pitchers fielding practice), throwing the side, hitting and bunting. We’re pretty busy the whole day.”

This is Pedrique’s first year as bench coach, but he has an extensive resume within the Astros’ organization. He first joined the club in 2004, when he began a three-year run as a special assistant to the GM. In 2006, he took over all Latin American operations, including the overseeing of the franchise’s academies as well as the player development and scouting efforts.

He began the 2009 season as the Astros’ Minor League field coordinator but ended it as their third base coach after Dave Clark took over as interim manager in September.

Pedrique also interviewed for the managerial position that eventually went to Mills. The two have spent ample time together this spring, getting to know each other as they prepare to become a one-two dugout punch once the regular season begins.

The getting-to-know-you stage began soon after Mills was hired. They traveled to the Arizona Fall League and participated in several staff meetings as the groundwork was laid for 2010.

“We started going over Spring Training, his ideas and suggestions,” Pedrique said of his new field boss. “For the most part it’s a combo, teamwork, and so far, we feel like we accomplished a lot.”

Mills spent six years as Terry Francona’s bench coach in Boston, so he’s more than familiar with what Pedrique has on his plate this spring. Pedrique spent half of 2004 as Arizona’s manager, so he’s quite well-versed on what Mills is going through now.

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 “We’re trying to get to know each other right now, to get his thoughts and ideas, how he likes to run the game, how he likes to manage, the moves that he likes to make now with the double switch,” Pedrique said of his new field boss. “Basically, I’m trying to keep my eye on the little things, because I know he has a lot of stuff on his mind. He’s thinking two, three days ahead, so I’m sometimes behind him.

“For the most part, I just make sure to pay attention to details. Remind him, ‘this is the fourth inning, the fifth inning, how many at-bats somebody’s going to get, when to pinch-run for somebody.’ Just kind of keep his mind fresh.”

Just the facts: Al Pedrique
Born
: Valencia, VZ
Resides: Tucson, AZ
Age: 49
Drafted: Signed by the New York Mets as an amateur free agent in 1978.
Major League debut: April 14, 1987
Final game: June 21, 1989
First year as a Minor League manager was 1995.
Was a coach for the World Team in the 2003 MLB All-Star Futures Game.
Something you might not know: He managed Roy Oswalt in 1999, with the Astros’ Class A affiliate in Michigan. 

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