May 2010

Our Latin American Home is open for business. Moises Alou says hello.

Dorm rooms, computer rooms, English classes and a mess hall. This sounds a lot like college life, with one exception — in college, athletics are an elective. Here, they’re the focus.

The Astros officially opened their brand new Latin American Home in the Dominican Republic on Monday, a ceremony attended by a large portion of the front office staff, including owner Drayton McLane, general manager Ed Wade and president of baseball operations Tal Smith.

Such facilities in the past have been called “academies,” but the newly coined phrase “home” is probably more appropriate, considering Latin American ballplayers don’t come here only to hone their baseball skills. They also learn to get along in a country they hope to someday call home — the United States, “home” to Major League Baseball.

The Astros’ nine-person traveling party was given a grand tour of the new facility, which houses approximately 35 players and, if all goes as planned, will provide a bridge between two areas rich with baseball talent and the big leagues. Players living at the Latin American Home are from the Dominican and Venezuela and were signed as teenagers. The majority of the roster consists of talent no older than age 20.

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Ed Wade addresses players in the clubhouse. His comments were interpreted by Felix Francisco.

They’ll play baseball approximately 10 months out of the year, and along the way, they’ll learn life skills during extensive English lessons that take place in both classrooms and a state-of-the-art computer lab.

Dorm rooms line the top floor of the facility. There are 16 player rooms, with four players bunking per room. The computer room has 15 work stations and internet access, and will help to enhance learning, English-speaking skills while also giving often homesick players an easy way to communicate with their families.

Computer lab

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Wade in a dorm room.

The complex consists of 2 1/2 fields and is located a half-mile from the new Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles facilities. Those fields are located in close proximity to dozens of other academies opened in recent years by nearly every big league club.

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After receiving the grand tour from Astros Player Development Coordinator Allen Rowin, McLane was duly impressed with the state-of-the-art facility.

“I’m overwhelmed,” McLane said. “I’d seen pictures, I saw the plans a year and a half ago and it turned out much better than I even anticipated. It’s a credit to the construction industry here in the Dominican that they can accomplish this in such a short period of time and of the high quality that it is.”

Several Dominican dignitaries attended the ceremony, including Minister of Sports Felipe Payano. Former Astro Moises Alou, who enjoyed tremendous success during his four years with the club and who is one of the best players to come from the Dominican Republic, was also present.

Moises Alou, Astros head of security Angel Zayas and Asst. GM Dave Gottfried 

Another special surprise was the appearance of Epy Guererro, best-known for being the pioneer of Astros Dominican scouting several decades ago and who signed Cesar Cedeno in the 1960s.

The months-long planning process to get to this day was largely due to the work of Rowin, Julio Linares (long-time special assistant) and Felix Francisco, the club’s Director of Latin American Scouting. The process to open the facility began about two years ago, when the Astros decided to close their Venezuelan Academy, upgrade their facility in the Dominican and start a Gulf Coast team in the States.

The goal? Sign better players, bring them to the States when they’re still young and accelerate their path to the big leagues. The more advanced Dominican players will go straight to the GCL, where they’ll find a more even competition level and won’t be pushed to the next level in Greeneville before they’re ready.

The Astros found that players who “graduated” from the Venezuelan Academy were more prepared for life in the States than others who did not. Now players will converge together in the Dominican to start the process in a brand-new facility that offers the comforts of home with top-notch baseball instruction.

“I think it’s an attraction to get more players into our organization, because the new facility plays a role in it,” Wade said. “But once they get here, the fact that we have 2 1/2 fields to work on from a physical standpoint is very important, but also from the standpoint of nutrition, English classes and everything involved trying to create a whole person from the kids that are here, we’ve got everything right here.”

More images from the facility:

The building includes replica championship banners that hang at Minute Maid Park.

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The lunchroom.

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Players can relax in this gameroom.

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Ceremonial first pitch: Felipe Payano, Drayton McLane.

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Ribbon cutting: Wade, McLane, Payano, Francisco.

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Behind every good man is a woman rolling her eyes. Astros wives are ready to dish.

The term “baseball wives” doesn’t always garner a positive reaction, given the general stereotypes that often follow women who are married to privileged athletes. But the truth is, most wives of ballplayers are dynamic, educated and interesting in their own right.

We’ve got a good group of Astros wives on the team this year, and three of them have agreed to participate in a seminar titled “Behind Every Man…” before Friday’s game against the Padres.

The seminar, part of the week-long Pink in the Park celebration, will take place in the Union Station Atrium (near Lefty’s) from 6-6:30 p.m. CT and will feature Morgan Keppinger, Pamela Michaels and Michelle Quintero. Sunny 99.1′s Dana Tyson will host the session, and later, she’ll be in the View Deck I seating section, where specially-priced tickets are being sold for $9.91.

But wait…there’s more! We’re hosting two seminars during that hour. The second will feature women from the front office in a session named “Women in Baseball,” hosted by FS Houston’s Patti Smith. I’ll be participating that roundtable discussion, which will also take place in the Union Station atrium, from 6:30 to 7. Please stop by! (I’m begging you).

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Rookie ballplayers aren’t the only ones hazed during their first year in the big leagues. Clubhouse kids are also the target of a little humorous humiliation, and while year after year you hear of the same tricks played on these poor guys, it never seems to get old.

Some of the more well-known tricks: sending a batboy to the boiler room to get a bucket of steam…sending them on a wild goose chase looking for the keys to the batter’s box…that kind of stuff. On Thursday, the Astros were initiating a new clubhouse worker and the poor kid spent part of his afternoon searching for two items:

1) A bucket of curveballs
2) Laces for the left shoe (apparently, Dennis only had right shoelaces).

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Scoring change

You know things aren’t going well for the Astros when even the few hits they have gotten this lately are taken away from them…two weeks later.

The scenario: April 23 against the Pirates. Sixth inning. No outs, Astros up 1-0. With Michael Bourn on first, Jeff Keppinger bunted and reached safely due to an errant throw by the third baseman. Keppinger ended up on second and Bourn was safe at third.

The official scorer ruled the play a base hit and an E5. The Astros scored three runs that inning — all earned and charged to the pitcher.

The Pirates appealed the ruling, and the league eventually overturned the scorer’s decision. The committee that reviewed the play decided that a base hit and E5 was incorrect and that giving Keppinger a sac hit with an E5 would also be incorrect.

Instead, the play was changed to a straight E5, which does two things: takes a hit away from Keppinger, and turns all of the runs scored that inning into unearned runs.

Keppinger disagrees with the ruling, arguing that he should have, at the very least, been awarded a sacrifice bunt.

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Feeeeeeeeeel the hits. Seeeeeeeeeee the ball.

The Astros’ clubhouse prior to their game on Wednesday reminded me less of a big league locker room and more of those swanky, dimly-lit nightclubs I avoided like the plague in my 20s.

As soon as batting practice ended, the players retreated to the clubhouse, where the lights were lowered and the stereo was pumped up…to Enya, that new-age group from the 1990s that no sane Major League player would want to listen to. Unless, of course, that Major League team was trying to end a horrific losing streak and find some sort of life in their slumbering bats.

The song “Orinoco Flow” probably doesn’t ring a bell, but it’s mistakenly referred to as “Sail Away, Sail Away, Sail Away.” This video will probably jog the memory.

Were the Astros looking for homers? Nah. Clutch base hits? Not so much.

“Think passed ball with Bournie on third,” Geoff Blum bellowed. “Balk. Error. Negatives are positives.”

Turns out, it was a clutch hit that won the game, but from an unlikely suspect — homerless Carlos Lee, who belted a two-run walkoff shot to the Crawford Boxes that gave the Astros a 4-2 victory.

Following four songs by Enya, during which time I felt myself nodding off (and not just because of the allergy medicine I pumped myself with before arriving to work), the tunes changed over to Metallica and then Alabama. But something tells me we’ll be hearing Enya again on Thursday. I’m hoping for Johnny Cash.

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Turning back the clock again, sort of.

The live organist who played during the Turn Back the Clock Day last month was such a big hit  that the Astros have decided to make it a regular Sunday feature.

They’ll use the same Vintage Hammond Organ that they used during Turn Back the Clock Night, and the organist for the remainder of the season will be Jim Connors. Jim played in the Dome from 1984-1987 and was a referral from Brian Granquist, who played on the Turn Back the Clock Day.

Jim was Brian’s predecessor back in the day.

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Calling all college students

When I was in college, I was recommended by my journalism professor for an internship with the Reds, and as excited as I was to apply, I was slightly disheartened that I couldn’t get past the switchboard ladies to actually speak to someone who was making the decisions.

Back then, of course, there was no internet. These days, the process is a lot easier and the opportunities have improved 100-fold.

The Astros employ dozens of interns every year and are currently filling openings for their fall internships. Those who participate in this hands-on experience will be more prepared for a career in sports. Trust me, it’s the single best way to break into the business.

For more information on the program, including the scholarship and steps to apply, please visit www.astros.com/internships.

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Astros frustrated? You bet. Giving up? Not a chance.

So, you’re probably wondering if the Astros are hitting desperation mode. You’re picturing them sitting at their lockers, head in hands, mulling over the first 25 games and wondering how things have gone so wrong.

If, if, if. If Lance Berkman hadn’t started the season on the DL. If the middle of the order was producing. If the younger starters weren’t going through the expected growing pains.

Are they mad? Yes. Frustrated? You bet. Baseball might be a kid’s game, but Major League Baseball is big business. Professional pride drives players to give everything they have, night after night. They’re upset with how things are going so far, and they’re a bit shell-shocked at the record. A bad start? Again? Really?

But while clutch hits have eluded them, determination has not. Confidence hasn’t waned either. Believe it or not, the talk in the clubhouse after the game wasn’t how bad the team is, but how much they’re looking forward to that moment when things finally start turning. They’re waiting. Patiently? Maybe not. But they still feel they can pull this thing together.

Michael Bourn summed it up nicely while sitting at his locker, besieged by local reporters. He was asked if it was just a matter of finally getting that big breakout inning that will make everyone relax a little.

“Anything can make somebody start hitting,” Bourn said. “One big inning, one big game. It’s not about getting hot, it’s about being consistent. We know what we can do. We’re just scraping to score some runs.”

They know where they stand, both in the division and on the stat sheets. They’re in last place, and their offensive numbers — hits, runs, home runs, RBIs — are the lowest in the league. It’s inexplicable that Lee, Berkman and Pence are all struggling at the same time. But they’re determined to turn it around. When that happens, no one knows. So we wait. Some more patiently than others.

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I don’t want to say “It’s about time,” but whenever I cover one of the many charity golf tournaments the Astros are affiliated with, I always wonder why there aren’t more women participating.

This was not an issue on Monday at Redstone Golf Club, where dozens of women hit the greens for the first-ever Astros Pink in the Park Tee Time Ladies Golf Outing. Benefitting breast cancer research and sponsored by Minute Maid, the ladies-only tournament ended with a luncheon and awards ceremony and drew an impressive number of patrons, including several women from the Astros front office.

Some pictures from the event:

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Morgan Keppinger, married to infielder Jeff Keppinger, talks with FS Houston’s Patti Smith.

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The tournament began the Astros’ week-long salute to moms and breast cancer research. Minute Maid Park is adorned with pink ribbons everywhere — on the tops of the dugouts, the train and banners and signs. The Astros star on the wall behind home plate is also pink.

Keeping with the Pink theme, the Astros are hosting a new event this year: Wine and Cheese Night. It will take place Saturday (May 8) in the Union Station Lobby and will feature master Sommelier Guy Stout. Ticket packages are available for $40 or $60 and include a game ticket, event ticket (two wine pours, wine class, and wine charm). A portion of the proceeds from the event and from a special silent auction will benefit breast cancer research.

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Losses happen. Unacceptable losses? Different story.

When the Astros lost their first eight games to start the season, I heard from many of you who were wondering why Brad Mills wasn’t turning over postgame spreads and screaming at his players to be better.

I wholly disagreed with this, for one reason: the Astros were playing hard, they were playing good defense and they were focused. They just weren’t winning any games.

Mills isn’t the type to scream and throw things (thank goodness), but he knows the right time to admonish the team. And Saturday was a perfect example of when a collectively poor performance needs to be addressed.

The Astros, quite simply, played a bad baseball game on Saturday. It wasn’t just that they lost by nine runs. It’s how they did it. Bad defense. Bad baserunning. Seemingly, a team-wide lack of focus.

That’s when you talk to your club. What Mills said behind closed doors will remain there, but he worded it perfectly when relaying the session to the media.

“What I said in there needs to stay in here,” he said. “You go through times like this, games like this, where guys lose an understanding of how good they are and what they’re capable of. I wanted to reinforce that to them a little bit.”

This goes back to that one buzz word: focus. Its absence was obvious to everyone, whether you were in the dugout, the stands, the press box or watching and listening from home. Lack of focus translates into bad losses, and we all saw it Saturday. The outcome of Sunday’s game is anyone’s guess, but I’m betting the effort will be better.

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