June 2010

Why is this man smiling?

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The running joke about Lance Berkman — actually, it’s not a joke, come to think of it — is that he loves Texas so much he really prefers to never leave the state unless he absolutely has to.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but there’s little question about Berkman’s emotional attachment to his home state. He loves Texas, loves being in Texas and prefers to be home in Texas rather than out of town, no matter how nice the city where he’s traveling might be.

But as we know, Berkman’s job takes him on the road quite a bit, so staying within the friendly confines of the Texas State lines 365 days a year isn’t an option. Astros road trips are all pretty much the same to him, but there are a few road ballparks he likes more than others. In those terms, count Milwaukee as one of his preferred destinations.

If you talk to media people and broadcasters about their favorite cities to visit when the team travels, the conversation invariably centers around hotels, press boxes and press box food. For players, the needs are about the same — all you have to do is swap out “press box” for “clubhouse.”

Restaurants, night life and shopping are all well and good, but during the grind of a long season, ballplayers like to keep things simple. Give ‘em a visiting clubhouse with a comfortable couch, a large movie selection and a decent postgame spread, and, for the most part, they’re happy.

That’s why players like coming to Milwaukee. The facility is first rate and the sprawling clubhouse provides a comfortable place to hang out in the hours leading up to gametime.

And the logistics could not be better. In most ballparks, the clubhouse and the dugout are connected by a long tunnel that winds around and may or may not involve a stairwell. Regardless, there is usually a short walk involved. In Milwaukee, the door to the clubhouse literally opens right into the dugout. This makes is convenient for players to go back and forth during batting practice and games without having to worry about missing anything.

“In terms of the position to the dugout and the amenities, I think it’s the best clubhouse in the National League,” Berkman said.

(Watch the full behind-the-scenes clubhouse tour and the Berkman interview here)

Night games begin around 7 p.m., but many members of a Major League traveling party will start rolling in as early as noon. Those hours are usually exclusive to the coaching staff and manager, but plenty of players are arrive early as well.

Typically, players start to make their way to the ballpark around 2 or so, but in cities where there’s not much to do (Milwaukee would be one of those cities), players might arrive even earlier. The might want to look at film or take in some early hitting, or they simply might be going a little stir crazy in their hotel rooms.

When you have the plush surroundings of the visitors’ clubhouse at Miller Park at your disposal, why not hang out there instead?

Berkman doesn’t normally go to ballparks early, but he’d probably concede that Milwaukee is one place that’s far more appealing than his hotel room. And the food’s pretty good, too.

“The postgame spread — after the game you’re at the mercy of the clubhouse guys,” Berkman said. “You want a place that feeds you well. A lot of guys are into things like movies, and games. This place has plenty of movies and games. If you wanted to come here at noon, you can eat lunch and watch a movie before batting practice. If you took a poll of most players, this would rate really high just in terms of amenities in the National League.”

It’s hard to describe without visuals, so when the team was on the field taking batting practice, I snuck in to take some video footage of the clubhouse.

Here’s what we’re talking about:

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Hands down, the best couches in the league. Berkman: “You’ve got to stay away from those as much as possible because you don’t want to get yourself into a comatose state before the game.” (Feel free to fire away with the snarky comments. Yes, I am aware of the Astros’ position in the NL Central standings.)

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My favorite road ballparks? Good question.

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Through the course of the season, I’m asked probably a dozen or so times which road trips I look forward to taking more than any other. That sounds like a simple enough question, but the answer is more complicated than you might think.

If you’re asking what my favorite city is to visit, I’d say New York, which ironically enough might be one of my least favorite cities to be in when I’m working. For baseball purposes, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather be in Pittsburgh. More on that later.

For this particular blog, I’m going to keep it simple and list my top five road cities based on all of the criteria — the city, the ballpark, the surroundings and the overall experience. After that, I’ll list my favorite road cities for work-only purposes and I think you’ll be surprised how much it differs from the first one.

5. San Diego
The eyesore that was Qualcomm Stadium is but a distant memory now that the Padres have sparkling PETCO Park to show off 81 days a year. A city as beautiful as San Diego needs its sports facilities to live up to equal standards, and PETCO certainly does. The ballpark has first-rate facilities for players, media and fans, and its location in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter leaves plenty of options for establishments to wind down once the game is over.

From a culinary perspective, the ballpark experience is also a lot more pleasant than others. PETCO is one of the few ballparks where there are a lot of healthy options that stray far from the standard hot dog and popcorn fare. A must-taste: the fish tacos.

4. Pittsburgh
Nope, I’m not kidding. Sure, the weather leaves a lot to be desired in April, May and September and most years, the Astros will have a doubleheader sometime in the second half, to make up for a rain or snow out early in the season. But when I think of the best trips for baseball, Pittsburgh’s right up there near the top of the list.

First of all, PNC Park is gorgeous. Empty most nights, but nonetheless, breathtaking. The Pirates have a rich history, one of the best in baseball, and they did a good job showcasing it when they opened their ballpark a little less than a decade ago. Walking around PNC Park is like walking through a museum, with the statues of Willie Stargel and Roberto Clemente as the center pieces.

The press box is the only main drawback, because it’s at the very top of the stadium and you lose all sense of depth perception when you’re watching a game from that high up. Every pop up to the second baseman looks like a home run, and I’m fairly certain when our broadcasters see that I listed Pittsburgh as one of my favorite baseball stops, they’re going to wonder if someone slipped a mickey in my Mountain Dew. I do admit that the vantage point there is terrible, but a few times a year, it doesn’t really bother me that much. But I see where the broadcasters are coming from. Writing about a game is one thing. Describing the action as it happens is quite another.

Still, even though the Pirates’ fanbase dwindles a little more with every losing season, Pittsburgh is a great sports town and its facilities are all first-rate. There’s a nice little pocket of nightlife around the ballpark as well, which adds to the all-encompassing baseball experience.

3. San Francisco
I blogged about this a lot when we played there last month, but any list of top baseball cities to visit would be incomplete without mentioning San Francisco. It’s hard to top any ballpark that sits on water, and the view of the bay beyond the outfield at AT&T Park is alone worth the price of admission.

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The seating area seems more intimate than a lot of the other ballparks, and like Denver, the higher you go in the stands, the better the scenery. The Giants draw great crowds every night and there are lots of fun places to go around the ballpark when the game’s over, making this one of baseball’s best attractions.

The working conditions are just so-so — the press box is somewhat cramped and you feel like salmon swimming upstream when walking against the flow of fans while trying to get to the clubhouse after the game. But these are minor inconveniences that don’t really matter from a big-picture standpoint. San Francisco has always been, and will continue to be, one of my favorite stopping points during the season.

2. Chicago
Several years ago, I was at dinner with a bunch of my MLB.com colleagues and we got on the subject of road ballparks. Wrigley Field (shown at the top of the blog) came up and one reporter said, “Ugh. That place is such a dump.”

I cringed at the comment, even though in a lot of ways, he’s right. Wrigley is old, run down and as we’ve seen over the last several years, parts of it were, or are currently in, the process of falling apart. All true. But Wrigley to me is a little slice of baseball heaven, a place so historical in nature that you have to appreciate that little has changed over the course of the nearly 100 years it’s been around.

Sure, you have to dodge a few dozen smashed hot dog buns when you walk down the concourse, and it’s hard to escape the smell of stale beer that resonates from all points of the ballpark. But that’s a small price to pay for the overall Wrigley experience. It’s a simple place — no Jumbotron, no between-inning promotions, no ear-splitting loudspeakers blaring “Charge!” 97 times a day. It’s just an organ, the game, and the roof-topped surroundings, and it’s pretty spectacular.

But I have to add, from a working standpoint, it’s the pits. Going to and from the press box involves walking up and down about a half-dozen ramps, and reporters have to muscle their way through largely inebriated crowds to get to the clubhouse for postgame work. Because the press box is located at the top of the ballpark and there are no elevators, reporters have to begin their journey downward long before the game is over. If they wait until the end, they have no chance of making it to the clubhouse on time.

This can be problematic with the way games are covered these days. In my years as a reporter for MLB.com, I had to file a four-to-six paragraph game story immediately after the last out was made that would carry the site until I could write a full report later. At Wrigley, I’d file my initial game story at the top of the ninth when the Astros were losing, or just before the bottom of the inning when they were winning, and then begin my journey to the clubhouse.

This was all well and good as long as there wasn’t a scoring change, in which case I’d have to dart back up to the press box and rewrite the game story (this isn’t so much of a problem now with Blackberrys and iPhones.) I remember one particular instance in 2005 when Jeff Bagwell had just come off the DL and was added to the roster in September. The Astros were down by a run in the ninth and with a runner on, he came in to pinch-hit. He sent a fly ball pretty deep to right field and I was torn — I really, really wanted him to get the home run but if he did, I was really, really in big trouble. The ball died at the warning track and the game ended, and I remember feeling sad for Jeff’s sake but relieved for my sake.

Anyway, back on topic, Wrigley is not ideal for the working stiff, and the players are packed in like sardines in the tiny, cramped clubhouse. But who cares? Chicago is a wonderful, vibrant city and Wrigley is simply one of the best places on earth. I wouldn’t trade those treks up and down those ramps for anything.

1. Denver
Truthfully, I probably look forward to the trips to Chicago more than any other city. But the Rockies trip is, in many ways, in a category all its own. Why? Because the people who work there are just so darned nice.

Through the eight years that I traveled on my own as a beat reporter, I always knew the Coors Field experience would be completely void of any stresses for the simple fact that the people who work there are the most helpful and friendliest in the league.

Visitors are treated as welcomed guests from the moment they pull up to the entrance to the moment they walk out at the end of the night. Everywhere you turn, a friendly stadium employee is ready to point you in the right direction or give you a simple greeting. You’d be surprised how stressful the mere act of parking a car can be at some of these ballparks. Invariably, asking where you should park will give you more blank (and occasionally, hostile) stares than helpful answers. Not at Coors Field. They’re there simply to assist.

Coors Field is one of the older stadiums in the “new stadium” era, and it’s one of the best. It’s pretty easy to navigate from the field to the dugout to the clubhouse to the press box, and even though the ballpark’s been around for a while, everything still looks brand new. The press box is comfortable and spacious, as is the visiting clubhouse, and while you can’t see the true beauty of the city from the lower seats, the view is still a pretty one. Teams that are located in the really visually-pleasing cities have an advantage in that the higher the seats are, the better the view is. So really, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

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And now…the real list

With all of that said, from purely a work standpoint, my criteria for what makes a good baseball trip is much simpler. It’s so simple that it’s laughable.

After 13 years of being on the road every other week for the better part of six months every year, here’s all I really need:

1. A ballpark that is in walking distance of the hotel.
2. A place in walking distance of the hotel to get a hot cup of coffee and a bagel in the morning.
3. A place near the hotel that stays open late enough to get a cold beverage after the game.
4. A hotel room that gets good reception and doesn’t interfere with my wireless card.

Yep, that’s it. For a vacation, I’d go to New York. For a baseball roadie, give me St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati any day. Guess I’m in the right division.

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Back to the National League

No one was sad to say goodbye to Arlington or the Rangers on Sunday, for many reasons. First, the obvious — the Rangers took two of three and tore into Astros pitchers in the two games they did win. Second, it’s just really, really hot there, even at night. And third, it’s enough already with the four-hour American League-style games.

On to Milwaukee. But first, some images from a steamy Sunday in Arlington:

The sign said, “No. 9’s No. 1 fan.” I felt kind of bad for her that Pence wasn’t in the lineup for the game.

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Jason Castro.

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Castro, Humberto Quintero.

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Chris Johnson, Pedro Feliz

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Carlos Lee, Brad Mills.

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Wilton Lopez signs autographs.

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Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

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Astros sign their second-rounder, and send him to Greeneville.

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The Astros’ farm system added another young and promising arm, in the wake of the news that the team signed its second-round Draft pick, right-hander Vincent Velasquez.

The 6-foot-3, 185-pound recent high school graduate turned 18 the day after the Draft and will head to Greeneville to join the Astros’ Rookie League team.

Velasquez, a native of Pomona, CA, signed his contract Friday at Minute Maid Park with his parents, Juanita and Leonard, at his side. Most draftees have to have their parents present, because players who are not yet 21 (which accounts for the majority of the draftees) have to have a parent co-sign the contract.

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Vincent Velasquez with his parents, Juanita and Leonard

A few stats: Velasquez, the 58th overall pick in this year’s Draft, recorded a 5-1 record and a 1.70 ERA over 10 games (nine starts) for Garey High School in 2010. He walked five and struck out 60 and recorded two complete games.

Velasquez pitched in the 2010 Southern California Invitational Showcase, held at Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, CA. He’s a three-time All-Mt. Baldy League First-Team Infielder and was his club’s Most Valuable Player in 2009 as a junior.

He was also 2009 participant in the 17th Annual USA Baseball Tournament of Stars.

Overall, 29 of the 52 players the Astros drafted are now under contract, including 17 players selected in the first 20 rounds.

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Player voting begins

All-Star balloting for fans began online and in stadiums a couple of months ago, but on Friday, the voting opened up to the players.

Managers, coaches and all 25-man roster players, including players on the disabled list, are invited to cast their votes, which carry more weight than either the fans or the All-Star manager. Players will select 16 for each team, while fans select only eight and managers nine. Last year, the players voted in Hunter Pence and Miguel Tejada.

Players will select a total of eight pitchers and eight position players. They’re asked to vote for a total of five starting pitchers and three relievers.

Additionally, In April, Major League Baseball announced several rules changes for the All-Star Game. Rosters expanded from 33 to 34, and each manager may designate a position player who will be eligible for re-entry into the game if the last position player at any position is injured. Managers may also allow a player to re-enter the game to replace a catcher who was injured.

The designated hitter will be used in all games, regardless of what ballpark the game is being played in. Also, pitchers who start on the Sunday before the All-Star break are not eligible to appear in the game. They’ll be recognized as All-Stars but will be replaced on the roster.

Castro passes first test with a good night behind, and at, the plate.

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A lot of emphasis is placed on what happens during Spring Training, because with five months of nothingness leading up to report day, it’s the only thing available to us to make observations and judgments.

There’s always anticipation to see who makes the coveted Opening Day roster, but while only 25 players can make that first team, inevitably, as the season progresses, many, many players who are cut during the spring show up in the big leagues at some point.

Three months ago, J.R. Towles beat out Jason Castro for the front-line catching job. But today, Towles is with the Double-A team and Castro is an Astro. As far as debuts go, Castro gets an A-plus.

Castro singled in his very first Major League at-bat and threw out two would-be base stealers, but it’s not just his basic stats that were impressive. It’s how he handled himself amid the hoopla that is unavoidable when a former No. 1 Draft picks shows up in the big leagues for the first time.

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The Astros called up three from Round Rock, but taking nothing away from Chris Johnson and Jason Bourgeois, the lion’s share of the media attention was directed toward Castro, the Stanford-educated catcher whom the Astros are hoping can fill a void that has remained empty since the departure of the defensively-savvy Brad Ausmus.

Castro handled the media crush with the ease of a veteran. He spoke with an even tone, answered the questions concisely and calmly and seemed completely comfortable with the attention. He also appeared to be focused when he took the field, and while I’m sure he had quite the adrenaline rush going, he didn’t lose focus.

No one knows how Castro will fare over the long haul and we have to be careful not to put too much emphasis on one game. But singling off one of the best pitchers in the game and throwing two lasers to second base is a pretty good way to start a career.

Images from Tuesday at Minute Maid Park:

Jason Bourgeois will serve as a backup outfielder, in the same capacity as Cory Sullivan. Bourgeois was Round Rock’s most consistent hitter this year.

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The good thing about the young prospects being in big league camp during Spring Training is the familiarity they have with the Major League coaching staff. Castro was reunited with bullpen coach Jamie Quirk, who worked with the catchers all spring.

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Before Tuesday’s game, manager Brad Mills told Pedro Feliz that Chris Johnson, seen below, will take over the main starting duties at third base.

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Hunter Pence chats with Michael Bourn around the cage during batting practice.

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A familiar sight: Pence signing autographs.

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Bourn and Berkman during BP.

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A day in the life of a high draft pick. Just call him “Folty.”

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This is how Mike Foltynewicz ended his day at Minute Maid Park. But before he could get to this point, he had a flurry of activities waiting for him, including signing his name a few dozen times, thus officially signaling the beginning his Astros career.

Foltynewicz (pronounced Fol-ten-EH-vich), the Astros’ second pick in the first round and the 19th pick overall in this year’s Draft, will head to Greeneville on Saturday to join the club’s Rookie League team.

He spent Friday afternoon at Minute Maid Park with his parents, Gary and Cindy, plowing through several steps every high draft pick goes through once a contract is agreed upon.

The 18-year-old was poised and calm as he went from station to station and met a slew of people, from front office staffers to Astros players to pitching coach Brad Arnsberg to manager Brad Mills. As he toured the clubhouse, Foltynewicz looked impressed but not overwhelmed and appeared to be unfazed by his surroundings as he warmed up in the outfield with Arnsberg in anticipation of throwing his first professional bullpen session.

A pictorial look of Foltynewicz’s day at the yard:

First order of business, of course, was signing on the dotted line. Signing a professional baseball contract is sort of like closing on a house — dozens and dozens of papers to sign.  

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Scouting director/Asst GM Bobby Heck and Foltynewicz sort of look like they’re taking their SAT’s here.

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Before the official press conference, Mike posed for some pictures for his parents’ collection.

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Then it was off to the clubhouse for a tour. Heck showed Mike every part of the lockerroom except for the training room. “You don’t need to even think about going in there,” Heck said. (The training room, obviously, is mostly occupied by guys nursing aches and pains and injuries).

Here Foltynewicz is meeting Mills for the first time.

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Next up, press conference. The kid looked at ease as he answered questions from about a dozen members of the media. Heck is to the right.

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Pround parents Gary and Cindy watch from the front row.

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After the formal part of the presser, reporters like to get one-on-one interviews for a more personal touch.

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Now that the hard part was over, it was time to suit up and head to the field. Mike threw a short side session in the bullpen, where Arnsberg and Mills could get a close up look at him. Here he is stretching and conversing with Arnsberg.

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Last stop…the bullpen. Next stop: Greeneville.

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To reverse or not reverse. That is the question.

The issue a few Astros had with the call that the umpires reversed Thursday in Kansas City wasn’t as much about whether the call was right or wrong as much as it was about the fact that the umpires decided to reverse it at all.

The replay showed that Geoff Blum clearly did not catch Yuniesky Betancourt’s line drive before it hit the ground, which Blum acknowledged after the game. So in the end, the umpires did get the call right. The Astros simply want to know why umpires are overturning these types of calls, when usually the call stands, even when the umpires later acknowledge they got it wrong.

“There’s just no precedent for it, to reverse a call like that,” manager Brad Mills said. “It opens up a huge can of worms.”

With Mike Aviles on second, Blum fielded Betancourt’s liner on an almost imperceptible bounce and squared to throw to first. But he heard the “out” call by second base umpire Mike Everitt and realized he had a chance to pull off the double play. So he tagged second, seemingly doubling off Aviles for the inning-ending double play.

Royals manager Ned Yost argued, and at first, it appeared that the umpires were going to let the call stand. But then they got together, talked it over, and before long, crew chief Tim McClelland was in a lengthy conversation with Mills. You could tell by Mills’ reaction — he was growing more agitated by the second — that the umpires had indeed reversed the call.

That forced the Astros to come back out of the dugout and resume their positions. The reversed call didn’t appear to faze starting pitcher Brett Myers, who quickly retired the final batter to really end the inning.

Later, Myers wondered why umpires can reverse certain calls, and yet let others stand. Inevitably, the blown call that infamously ruined Armando Galarraga’s perfect game a few weeks ago in Detroit came up.

“It’s the darndest thing I’ve ever seen,” Myers said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in baseball. If that’s the case, and they can overturn calls like that, I think they should overturn Galarraga’s no-hitter. They should overturn it right there, his perfect game. If that’s what we’re starting to do and the umpire makes a mistake, then we have to live with it.”

Blum was probably the most diplomatic about the situation. As soon as reporters walked up he announced, “I didn’t catch the ball.” He then went on to explain what he was thinking when he heard the “out” call from the ump:

“I looked up and saw the runner stop, so I was thinking about going to third. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw there was no call. I looked at the second base umpire, he made the out call, I went to second base. Tried to play it off. It almost worked.”

Was it unfair to reverse the call?

“Knowing I didn’t catch the ball…there’s plenty of calls in baseball — phantom double plays, swipe tags, things like that. In defense of the umpires, they eventually made the right call. That’s what it’s about, the integrity of the game and making the right call. It’s just unfortunate we had to come back out of the dugout after going back inside. I think that’s what bugged Brett a little more than anything.”

What also irked the Astros was the assumption by the umpires that Blum’s play would have been to first. What if he had decided to go to third? When the inning resumed, the runner went back to third, with first and second empty. That was potentially a more difficult situation for the Astros to work through, which, to some, didn’t seem quite fair.

The play didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but it made for some interesting postgame conversation.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: a true national treasure.

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Since Interleague Play began in 1997, the Astros have played quite a few series with the Royals, including many in Kansas City. Every time we’re scheduled to make a trip here, I’ll hear from friends or fans who will sort of roll their eyes and say something along the lines of “too bad. Not a real exciting city, huh?”

Quite the contrary. Kansas City is a fantastic town, one that has a rich baseball tradition, a gorgeous ballpark and dozens of pockets around the city that are not only fun to explore, but educational, too.

On Tuesday, a group of us hopped into a couple of cabs and headed to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I’ve been wanting to check it out for years but never made it there during my prior visits. Ten minutes into the tour, I knew it was well worth the wait.

The Negro Leagues were, and are, a huge part of this country’s baseball history. The circumstances under which the league was created are shameful, considering racism prevented African-American players from playing professionally with white players, which forced them to form their own league. But the byproduct of that bigotry — the Negro National League — produced some of the greatest players in baseball history, not to mention powerful legacies that have not been forgotten even though the League disbanded more than a half-century ago.

Normally, the Museum does not permit picture-taking, but the staff was nice enough to make an exception for our group so that we could share it with you. Thanks to Vice President of Curatorial Services Raymond Doswell for giving his time and granting interviews for me, FS Houston’s Greg Lucas and radio announcer Brett Dolan.

While I couldn’t capture everything at the Museum, I hope you’ll enjoy this modest sampling. And if you’re ever in Kansas City, do yourself a favor and set aside a couple of hours to tour the Negro League Baseball Museum. It’s worth the trip.

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The Museum is located in the 18th & Vine historic district that was the center for black culture and life in Kansas City from the late 1880s to 1960s. The area was once considered a hub for homeowners, businesses, jazz music and baseball enthusiasts.

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Rube Foster, a native of Calvert, Texas and the former player, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants, is known as  the “Father of Black Baseball.”

He formed the National Negro League in 1920, during a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City. The Negro League Museum, a 10,000 square foot shrine to the league, stands only a block or two from that YMCA. 

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In 1929, Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson mortgaged his property and borrowed to build baseball’s first functional lighting system to facilitate night ball games. Wilkinson sensed that because working people, black and white, were unable to come to games during weekdays, night baseball would increase attendance. He was right. Night ball consistently drew full houses.

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(The Major Leagues caught onto night baseball five years later. On May 23, 1935, the Reds and Cardinals played the first Major League night game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.)

This is the first Negro Leagues game sweater, from 1924. The Eastern Colored League Hilldale club of Philadelphia played the Kansas City Monarchs, and the Hilldale team had special navy sweaters made to wear for the series. It’s the oldest known clothing item from the Negro Leagues.

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Most of the quotes pulled out of magazine and newspaper articles that are now on display need no explanation. It’s equal parts sad and despicable how these players were treated as they barnstormed from city to city.

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A Kansas City Monarchs uniform.

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Satchel Paige’s emergence onto the scene brought a charisma that was brand new to the now-thriving Negro Leagues in the mid-1930s. Known as the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, Paige once strung together 64 scoreless innings, won 21 in a row and compiled a 31-4 record in 1933. A true showman with a personality that engaged all fans, black and white, Paige reached the Major Leagues in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers.

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Larry Doby became the first black player to play in the American League, 11 weeks after Robinson debuted with the Dodgers.

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The famous picture of Robinson signing his first Major League contract, with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey.

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The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum would not be complete without a tribute to the Negro Leagues greatest ambassador, former Kansas City Monarch first baseman and manager Buck O’Neil. No one created more awareness about the Negro Leagues than this gentleman, and thousands of baseball fans who otherwise might have paid little attention to this part of history have instead found it fascinating. O’Neil made us appreciate the Negro Leagues and prompted us to want to learn more.

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The fact that O’Neil is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a sore subject with me. If your Hall of Fame eligiblity is based on contributions to the game, then O’Neil’s exclusion is a true travesty. I’ll stop there. It’s been such a pleasant experience and I’d hate to end this blog with my head exploding.

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Yankee Stadium: As good as advertised.

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Television announcer Bill Brown summed it up nicely when I asked him what he thought of the new Yankee Stadium before Friday’s game:

“The concourses are wide, the field looks great, the access is wonderful. For $1.3 billion, it should be.”

And it is. The ballpark is gorgeous, worth every penny, whether you’re looking at it from a fan’s perspective or from a player’s perspective behind the scenes. Upon first glance, it reminds you a lot of the old Yankee Stadium, only (obviously) more modern. The white facades that were such a part of the old place have been resurrected in the new. And since it’s less than two years old, it’s still sparkling clean.

Enjoy the images, as well as the video we captured from the new ballpark

Blum, Keppinger, Pence

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The famous Lou Gehrig speech…this picture hangs near one of the main entrances at Yankee Stadium.

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The view from the visitors dugout.

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Jason Michaels, Jeff Keppinger.

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Carlos Lee.

 

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Roy Oswalt, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. And Chris Sampson.

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An outside view of the entrance at Yankee Stadium.

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A shot of the press box. You’ll notice Astros writers Brian McTaggart and Bernardo Fallas.

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It’s slightly ironic that the Astros are making their first trip to the Yankees’ new stadium this weekend, considering their first and only trip to the old one was this same weekend seven years ago.

Friday marked the seven-year anniversary of the six-pitcher no-hitter the Astros completed against the Yankees. The game that was historical on many levels and hysterical on still more, considering before it had even ended, speculation that George Steinbrenner was going to fire the hitting coach had already circulated around the press box and on the radio airwaves. Only in New York.

Three things stand out to me about that night more than any other:
1) Jeff Kent did not know it was a no-hitter until Billy Wagner told him once the last out was made. Kent, not exactly Mr. Congeniality to begin with, looked at Wags with an expression that was a combination of surprise, confusion and disapproval. Why in the world would Wagner pound his glove and then raise his fist in the air after closing out one of hundreds of games he’d appeared in by now? Kent: “What the heck are you doing?” Wags: “Dude. We just no-hit the Yankees.” Kent, breaking into huge grin: “Really?”

2) Octavio Dotel recorded four strikeouts during his inning of work, after one batter had reached on a wild pitch.

3) That night, Brad Lidge schooled some of his teammates on the historical meaning of what had just transpired. Lidge, a history buff, already knew plenty of obscure stats that put the no-hitter in perspective. The next day, he arrived with five or six more facts about the no-hitter that no one knew before. The guy was a walking encyclopedia. 

That brings us to the cool tidbit of the day, courtesy of media relations All-Star Sally Gunter: Two of the six Astros pitchers to contribute to the no-hitter seven seasons ago were in attendance at Friday’s game. Roy Oswalt was in the Astros dugout while former Astro Pete Munro (a native New Yorker) watched the game from the stands.

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Back to 2010…random tidbits from the pregame session with Brad Mills:

Carlos Lee will likely DH during Saturday’s game. A lot of you asked, rightfully, why Jason Michaels wasn’t playing left with Lee, with his shaky defense, isn’t DH-ing. Mills said Lee really wanted to play in left for at least the opener but would definitely DH for at least one game this series.

Matt Lindstrom had back spasms was unavailable to pitch during Thursday’s game in Denver. He felt better the next day in New York, but he was again deemed unable to pitch that night (which didn’t matter, since there was no save situation).

Consider Lindstrom day-to-day. Each day, Mills will check with him after he loosens up and throws during batting practice, and his availability will be decided before the game.

Radio announcer Milo Hamilton doesn’t travel with the team, but he makes exceptions when the Astros play in a  new ballpark that he’s never visited. Milo’s broadcast of the Astros-Yankees game on Friday marked the 58th different ballpark he’s called a game from.

More reasons why baseball is not like football.

Through the first two days of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, I’ve heard from a lot of you regarding the Astros’ picks. A lot of you have raised questions as to why they’re drafting certain positions and what that might mean for some of the Astros players on the current Major League roster.

I’ve also heard of some questionable commentary on local radio shows that I find to be somewhat disconcerting. These comments seems to be fueling public confusion about how the team views its current big league players.

Baseball is unique from the other major sports in that it takes, typically, a few years before the draftees can make an impact on the Major League level (Stephen Strasburg, obviously, is the exception). In football and basketball, the returns are immediate. Baseball is a longer process.

The players who the Astros draft this week simply have absolutely nothing to do with the job security of the players currently playing at the big league level.

One talk show host insinuated that the Astros’ decision to draft Delino DeShields Jr. as their first pick somehow indicates Michael Bourn has a limited future with the Astros. This line of thinking is just absurd. First of all, the Astros envision DeShields as a second baseman (although he will play center this year), and even if he was honed as a center fielder, that has absolutely nothing to do with Bourn. DeShields has a lot of development ahead of him before he can think about the big leagues. Bourn is a star whom the Astros are not interested in dealing.

Healthy Major League organizations have deep, deep farm systems. They have several players at each position who could potentially impact the team on the big league level. They go into Spring Training with a log jam all over the field, and several players who are good enough to be on the team aren’t, simply because there are more capable and experienced players ahead of them on the depth chart.

When the Astros’ farm system was rated No. 1 by just about everyone several years ago, they had too many pitchers qualified to make the rotation coming out of Spring Training. There were times I’d look at the spring roster and think, “where are they going to put everyone?” Then, inevitably, there would be injuries, or players who slumped terribly, or supposed up-and-comers who flamed out halfway through the season. And there was usually a stud prospect who was given a shot, and performed well. I remember in 1998, Richard Hidalgo was by far the best outfielder in the organization. And he was shipped to Triple-A before Spring Training ended.

That’s where the Astros are trying to get back to. They appear to be on the right track, but I encourage you to not put too much stock into what positions these young players are being drafted as. Think about it: Lance Berkman was drafted as a first baseman. Even Puma thought he didn’t have much of a chance to be drafted by the Astros because they obviously had a mainstay in Jeff Bagwell at first, and in 1997 he was hands down one of the best first basemen in baseball and in the prime of his career.

So what if the Astros had decided to pass on Puma, because of Bagwell? Instead, they converted Berkman into an outfielder, and he performed a lot better than the club had envisioned. Then he took over at first when Bagwell’s shoulder gave out five years after Berkman was drafted.

In ’97, the Astros drafted the best player available, and that player was Berkman. I think we can agree the returns have been off the charts.

Prospects can change positions. Some of you have noticed the Astros selected several catchers on Tuesday. Those catchers can easily become third basemen, or first basemen, or some other position down the road. They can also become catchers. While we’re all very optimistic about Jason Castro, we don’t know for sure what he’ll be. There are also no guarantees that he won’t get hurt.

Depth. Its importance cannot be underestimated.

And also, keep in mind prospects are extremely valuable to an organization when it needs trade chips to get that one player who can make a difference in a contending season. It’s all about stockpiling, and if the Astros have too many good players at one position, that’s a great problem to have. It’s what got them to the postseason six times in 10 years, and it’s what will get them there again.  

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Astros draft Delino DeShields Jr., and the room celebrates

The Astros picked a second baseman/center fielder as their first pick, and he has a name that many of you have probably heard before. Delino DeShields Jr., son of the 13-year MLB veteran, was selected as the Astros No. 1 pick, eighth overall in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player draft.

A quick scouting report, courtesy of Baseball America:

“In 2005, the most recent year Baseball America conducted its Baseball for the Ages survey, DeShields ranked as the nation’s top 12-year-old, beating out Bryce Harper and A.J. Cole, among others. He has just finished seventh grade.

“DeShields has had an up-and-down high school career that included a modest showing at the East Coast Pro Showcase last summer. His loud tools have helped him leap past his peers and jumped him, for some scouts, to the top of  a deep crop of Georgia prep talent.

“His best tool is his explosive speed, which has jumped up a grade to earn 80s on the 20-80 scale…He showcased electric bat speed and present strength, leading to projections of average power in his future. His swing needs some fine-tuning and his defense in center field is raw. He has enough arm for center, though it’s below-average.”

Here’s the complete story on Astros.com. 

Catch video footage of the entire evening’s events here.

Pictures of the Draft room scene just after DeShields was announced:

Bobby Heck (standing), Ed Wade (front), national cross checker David Post

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Heck and West Coast Supervisor Mark Ross (right)

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Heck on the phone with DeShields immediately after the pick is made, offering congrats.  

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On left, presidents Tal Smith and Pam Gardner.

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On left, Asst. GM Ricky Bennett, with CEO Drayton McLane

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McLane chats with Wade (Heck on left)

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With their second pick, the Astros selected another high school player — Mike Foltynewicz, a hard-throwing right-hander from Minooka High School in Illinois. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound righty has been lauded by Baseball America as “far and away the best pitching prospect in the Upper Midwest.” BA also says Foltynewicz already has an advanced changeup for a high school pitcher, as it features good sink and could become a plus pitch. His fastball apparently ranges between 91 and 94 mph but has touched 96.

The Astros final pick of day One of the Draft is University of Minnesota junior Mike Kvasnicka at No. 33. He was primarily a catcher in college but the Astros plan to convert him to third base.Kvasnicka is a switch-hitter with a “balanced stroke, good power potential and strike-zone discipline,” according to BA. He’s the son of former Twins farmhand Jay Kvasnicka.

After day one was complete, Heck and Wade addressed the media near the offices on the fifth floor of Union Station. The draft continues Tuesday at 11 a.m. CT with rounds 2-30.

Heck

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Wade

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