April 2011

Fifth graders Play Green and win a party with an Astro.

They were more than willing to share what exactly they did to earn the title “Greenest Classroom,” but the fifth-graders at Heritage Elementary School in Deer Park also had some other pressing business to tend to with third baseman Chris Johnson.

They had questions. Lots and lots of questions. And, as typical fifth-graders go, their responses to the answers were endearingly predictable. The boys cheered when Johnson confirmed that yes, he likes to play video games, and the girls squealed when he also confirmed that no, he is not married.

Other questions: Is it fun being famous? (“It’s awesome. To be able to come here and meet you guys is huge for me.”) Did you come over here in a limo? (“No.”) Can we take a ride in the limo? (“Yes, if I had one with me.”) Do you recycle? (“Of course!”) Who do you look up to? (“My mom.”)

(Watch the video here)

Johnson spent an hour or so with this class from Heritage Elementary, the Grand Prize winners of the Astros Greenest Classroom online contest. Teachers and students were invited to submit an essay that demonstrated what their classroom was doing to be green. The winning class received the special player visit, 100 tickets to Friday’s game and recognition on the field prior to the game.

Johnson began his visit by reading “Curious George Plants a Tree” and later presented an autographed copy for each kid. The kids in turn explained to Johnson and radio announcer Dave Raymond, the emcee of the event, what they did to earn the title of Greenest Classroom: they recycled cans, refilled water bottles for multiple use, used both sides of scratch paper and — once a quarter — walked the grounds of the school to see who can pick up the most litter (boys against girls).

The visit was part of the Astros Play Green® in Education school initiative, designed to teach students at an early age about the environment and conservation to assist them in building a lifetime of responsible actions that make a positive difference.

The program was named a 2010 Mayor’s Outstanding Proud Partner Award winner in recognition of the Astros efforts to both teach and raise conservation awareness to young students in a compelling, entertaining and knowledge-retaining manner.

In addition to meeting a big league ballplayer and celebrating their Green win, the kids were also were given sage words of advice that any 10-year-old would take to heart.

“We believe in recycling and taking care of the planet,” Raymond said. “You are motivated, intelligent kids. Maybe one thing I can give to you today is if you really want to excel, if you reeeeeally want to get somewhere…listen to baseball on the radio.”

And with that, let’s take a look at images from the event:

The kids were excited to see CJ, but when Junction Jack walked in the room, all eyes turned to him. That usually happens when kids are around (Didn't hurt that Junction was passing out free green hats).

CJ, Raymond, and the winning 5th graders from Heritage Elementary.

CJ reads "Curous George Plants a Tree" to the class.

Junction Jack passes the time by checking out library books.

Each kid received a copy of the Curious George book, autographed and handed out by Johnson.

High fives all around

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Astros lineup 4/29 vs. Brewers. Roof open. First pitch 7:05 CT

Astros lineup 4/28 vs. Cardinals. Roof open. First pitch 7:05 CT

Hunter at Habitat, Clint’s Crew, and Astros Play Green.

There are a lot of great things about Habitat for Humanity — obviously, providing permanent homes for people who otherwise cannot afford them is at the top of the list. But for the volunteers, it has to be doubly rewarding to actually help build those homes and see the finished product come to life, just as the recipients of this great cause are ready to move into their new digs.

The Astros have been working with Habitat for Humanity for four years and have made it a staple among a myriad of projects they take on during Play Green week. On Wednesday, dozens of front office personnel from both the Astros and FS Houston, along with Play Green ambassador Hunter Pence, gathered at the site of the newest Habitat home for some good old fashioned hard labor.

The house is completely “green,” meaning it’s environmentally sound from top to bottom, inside out. Several green features include vinyl, low E, double pane windows with a sunglass tint, 5/8” roof decking with a radiant barrier coating, high rating 16 SEER, 2.5 ton cooling system with 95 AFUE furnace and the entire home is wrapped in 7/16” OSB sheathing then covered with a 3/4” sheet of Dow high-performance Energy Star rated underlayment.

In other words, the new tenants will be in extremely comfortable surroundings while saving money and energy, too.

Pence, having spent multiple seasons as a Play Green ambassador, grabbed a hammer and nails and got to work.

“It’s about going out and doing something good for nature and for Mother Earth,” he said. “You have to take care of everything. It’s something I take a little pride in. I was just raised that way. It’s our responsibility to recycle and leave this (world) in good condition.”

Of his building skills, Pence said: “I need more practice. But I have done quite a bit of similar work. I have had my days of shoveling and hammering.”

Photos from the event:

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Clint Barmes is new to the Astros this year, but it took no time for him to join in the club’s community efforts with a brand new program — Clint’s Crew.

The goal is to treat kids in Houston to a unique and memorable Astros experience. Once a month, on a Friday, a group of kids and their chaperones are welcomed to Minute Maid Park and given the unique opportunity to watch batting practice on the field and meet the Astros shortstop.

The group is given 20 tickets to the game, purchased by Barmes, with each one loaded with $10 that can be used to purchase food, beverages or other merchandise at most concession stands and retail locations throughout the ballpark.  In addition, everyone in the group receives a Clint’s Crew drawstring bag filled with Astros goodies.

The first Clint’s Crew group is from Special Olympics Texas.

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And finally, images from Minute Maid Park, where the Astros are 1-1 heading into the series finale Thursday:

The media crush, Berkman's first day in town as a Cardinal.

Captured on FS Houston...friends with differing opinions. Patti Smith got to the bottom of the issue.

Craig Biggio stopped by batting practice...he's seen here chatting with Michael Bourn.

Bourn, preparing to take BP.

Biggio, JR Towles, Brad Mills, Jamie Quirk.

Brett Wallace, Chris Johnson, Matt Downs, Brian Bogusevic.

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Astros lineup 4/27 vs. Cardinals. Roof open. First pitch 7:05 CT.

So Berkman’s back in town. Hadn’t you heard?

Everyone seems to be putting in his or her two cents about Lance Berkman’s return to Minute Maid Park tonight, a return that features a much leaner, more svelte Puma than we saw when he played his last game here last July. So I thought I’d ring in with a couple of observations as we anxiously await Berkman’s first at-bat as a visiting player.

Without a doubt, Berkman has gotten himself into some kind of fantastic shape. When I saw him at Spring Training, he looked exactly how I had heard he looked — toned up, slimmed down and looking great. He looked like he did in 2005 when he was rehabbing from surgery after tearing up his knee during that flag football game. This should come as no surprise, considering the reports we read out of St. Louis that he hired a personal trainer and was working tirelessly to get ready for a season that, in many ways, is make-or-break for the Puma. He’s one of two things: old, and done as a productive player, or aging, but still effective, with a couple of good years left in him.

I’ll be honest. Watching a decline two-and-a-half years in the making — his numbers started drooping toward the end of 2008 and continued a downward spiral through 2009 and 2010 — I figured he was pretty much finished. He’s 35, he played his entire career free of PEDs and peppy pills, and well, this is what naturally happens when a clean player hits his mid-30s.

But three weeks into the season as a Cardinals outfielder, Berkman is not tearing up his knee, as I predicted, but rather tearing up the league, with his bat. He’s not getting a hit every time he steps to the plate, but it sure seems like it, judging from the numbers he’s produced so far.

Some of you are mad. Some are exasperated. I’ve heard more than once, “Well, geez, why didn’t he hire a personal trainer and get into that kind of shape when he was playing for the Astros?” Your sentiments are not, by any means, completely unjustified. But I also think we need to look at a bigger picture that examine why he’s doing what he’s doing now and why he wasn’t, say, last year.

I’ve always been a defender of the Puma when it comes to his physical conditioning. He was, contrary to popular belief, in good shape when he played here. He spent more time in the weight room than he let on and he wasn’t some jolly fat guy sitting around eating Twinkies in his spare time. Was he a gym rat? Heck, no. But he was a good athlete, in fine shape, and he did what he needed to do to properly prepare for each season.

There were a few things working against him in the last couple of years. First, his knee issues were worse than he ever let on, and it would have been easy for him to explain that side of it while the writers pontificated about him not being good any more because he was seemingly old, and done. Instead, he took the high road and kept quiet.

But there were other overriding factors as well. He was a fine professional and a good teammate, but the losing wore on him. He simply became burnt out on being an Astro, and while I’m sure he did everything not to let that affect him when he strode to the plate game after game after deflating game, he was bothered by it. No doubt. He and Roy Oswalt both — after a while, it was pretty clear neither one of them were thrilled to be here. They would admit as much.

Fast forward to the offseason. Berkman needed to find a new team, and the Cardinals came calling. They wanted him, but they wanted him as an outfielder — a position Berkman hadn’t played regularly since he was 28 years old. Seven years and several knee surgeries later, Berkman surely knew he was going to have to do something extra if this was going to work. Being in playing shape to be an outfielder is a lot different than being in playing shape to be a first baseman.

He also realized this was a chance to find out if he still could hit consistently at the Major League level, something even he wasn’t sure about anymore.

So, he hired the trainer. Dropped several pounds. Prepared himself to be an outfielder and prove that he’s still a Major League hitter.  (One of the running jokes in baseball is all of the stories that come out in Spring Training about this 39-year-old or that 17-year veteran coming to camp saying he’s “in the best shape of his life.” Which often translates into “I’m old, I’m slow, and I am desperate to stay in the big leagues for as long as I can, and look how a) great I look b) fast I am and c) hard I’m working!” In Puma’s case, all of the articles written about him were true — he really was in the best shape of his life, or, at least in the last six or so years).

I don’t think that Puma decided to hire the trainer because all of a sudden he cared more about producing for the Cardinals than he did as an Astro. I don’t think he did it to thumb his nose at the Astros, who politely declined his offer to re-sign last offseason. I think he just realized there’s a difference between playing the outfield and playing first base, and he was going to have to do a lot of extra work if his knees were going to have a chance to hold up at this position, at his age. If the Cardinals signed him as a first baseman, I do not believe he would have gone the personal-trainer route.

A byproduct that none of us saw coming was what it did for him at the plate. Two seemingly healthy knees and one slimmed down midriff, and suddenly, he looks like the May of 2008 Puma. Do I fault him for that? No. Do I wish he had had this epiphany in his last couple of years here? Absolutely.

But to assume he didn’t care while he was here and does now, as a Cardinal, is just flat wrong.

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So, while I have your attention, can we talk Play Green?

This week marks the Astros’ annual foray into all things Green at Minute Maid Park, where quickness and efficiency isn’t just how they want to win baseball games — they hope to promote an environmentally-friendly way of life as well.

In honor of Play Green week, the team will wear green Astros caps during Tuesday’s game with the Cardinals. On Wednesday, the Astros and FS Houston will work side-by-side to build a green Habitat for Humanity home. Several green features include vinyl, low E, double pane windows with a sunglass tint, 5/8” roof decking with a radiant barrier coating, high rating 16 SEER, 2.5 ton cooling system with 95 AFUE furnace and the entire home is wrapped in 7/16” OSB sheathing then covered with a 3/4” sheet of Dow high-performance Energy Star rated underlayment.

Play Green® Ambassador Hunter Pence will join the group from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. to help with the building efforts.

On Thursday, the Astros staff, in partnership with Keep Houston Beautiful, will visit the team’s adopted block located less than one mile from Minute Maid Park at McKinney and St. Charles for litter cleanup.  The Astros first adopted the block in 2008, and visit the site regularly to ensure its upkeep.

At the game that night, the Astros will hand out Play Green® Grocery Tote Bags to the first 10,000 fans, courtesy of Methodist Transplant Center.

The Astros will recognize one environmentally friendly classroom on Friday as a reward for Playing Green. Chris Johnson will visit fifth grade students at Heritage Elementary School. The students at this LaPorte ISD school are actively involved in various conservation activities on their campus.  In addition to recycling cans, using scrap paper, and the backs of advertisements for assignments, students keep re-usable water bottles at their desk and once a quarter they walk the grounds and the boys compete against the girls to see who can pick up the most litter.

Johnson’s visit rewards the kids for their Earth-friendly efforts and while there, he will read Curious George Plants a Tree, present the kids with their own autographed copy of the book along with tickets to that evening’s game where they will be recognized in a pre-game ceremony.

Saturday is Hunter Pence Play Green bobblehead day. The first 10,000 fans will receive the bobbleheads, courtesy of Grand Slam for Youth Baseball.

On Sunday, May 1, the Astros are hosting something new — Bike to the Ballpark. For $10, fans will receive a game ticket, an event packet including a personal bib number and a goodie bag filled with various “green items.” Best of all, each fan registered for the event will get a chance to enter a raffle for a brand new bike, courtesy of Bike Barn. One male and one female bike will be awarded. Also included is a complementary bike inspection at the Astros designated starting location, TC Jester Park in the Heights, along with a bike valet at Minute Maid Park.

A designated starting location at TC Jester Park will be offered for the ride, and is approximately five miles from Minute Maid Park. TC Jester Park is located at 4201 T. C. Jester, Houston, TX 77018. Fans living in the outer suburbs are encouraged to drive to the secure lot at this location, and from there take part in the organized ride into Minute Maid Park. Fans do have the option, however, to bike in from home. Once at Minute Maid Park, your bike will be stored in Parking Lot D with security for the duration of the game.

For full details and a route map, click here. Registration ends on Thursday (April 28).

A backstage look at the booth and the TV truck. The game behind the game.

Working in the baseball industry requires time, patience, a love for the game…and an ability to work in very close quarters with your colleagues without worrying too much about the little things, like personal space and, sometimes, your own sanity.

Whether we’re riding buses, flying on planes, hanging out in the clubhouse, watching batting practice or working in the press box and broadcast booths, there seems to be one standard that remains unchanged. Ten times out of 10, you’re going to be sitting very closely to at least one person, and probably more, and you’d better like each other (or at the very least, pretend to).

That brings us to the TV truck — an 8-by-20 metal box that holds between six to 10 people, dozens of computer screens and carries with it the responsibility of bringing the fans the television broadcast every night. The room is dark. It’s cold. And there’s a flurry of activity among the FS Houston crew — Wave Robinson, the producer, Paul Byckowski, the director, Mike Uggucioni, associate producer in charge of graphics and Jerry Blancas, associate producer in charge of replays and reteases, along with a few local contractors who help with the operation.

(View the full video of our night in the truck here)

Wave Robinson and Paul Byckowski, at the controls

The work begins five or six hours before game time — the crew arrives to the ballpark early afternoon for a night game — but the bulk of the process starts about 45 minutes ahead of first pitch. Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown do two stand-ups — a live shot where they banter back and forth with the studio host in Houston (more often that not, FS Houston’s Kevin Eschenfelder), and they also tape the “open” — the approximately two-minute introduction you see with the two broadcasters just before first pitch.

Preparation is simple: get miked up, run a comb through the hair (obviously, Brownie only), check the teeth for leftovers from dinner (J.D.), say “check check check” into the mikes (both), and off they go. Meanwhile, in the truck, the production crew is watching nearly a dozen monitors that show not only Brownie and J.D., but shots of the crowd, the dugout, the field, the anthem singer, the peppy people throwing t-shirts into the stands, the mascot scaring the kids…if it’s happening inside the ballpark, the cameras are watching, as are the folks in the truck looking for the next interesting angle to bring to the viewing audience.

Brownie and J.D. are great on camera, of course, but they’re highly entertaining off as well. When the mikes aren’t live, their between-inning conversations often filter into the truck. Before Friday’s game, for example, Brownie announced to no one, “I’d like the fans to know Hunter Pence will be hitting three home runs in this game.” Follow up from J.D.: “Oh my goodness. Lindsay Lohan was just sentenced to jail time!”

Brownie and JD, chatting with Kevin in the studio.

On this particular night in Milwaukee, the weather was dreadful — cold and windy accompanied by a torrential downpour for the majority of the game. To be truthful, I was a little nervous to be sitting inside of what equates to a metal box during a thunderstorm, and there were a couple of dicey moments where I wondered if we were about to go airborne, spin around a few hundred times and drop in the middle of Munchkin Land.

But the company I was keeping seemed pretty unfazed by the weather conditions, so I relaxed. There are a few advantages to watching a game from the TV truck: there’s never a dull moment, and therefore, the games — even this four-hour, 14-7 debacle — moved quicker than it does when watching from upstairs. Also, if there’s a controversial play, we can watch five different replays, from 10 different angles. And if the visiting truck doesn’t know what’s going on, it can tap into the home crew and steal some of that footage.

Another treat: commenting, out loud, on the good, the bad and the ridiculous is wholly acceptable. The press box is strictly a no-cheering zone, a professional working environment where outside distractions — i.e. loud opinions — are unwelcome. In the truck, you can let it fly, whether it’s a yelp after a nice play or an “Oh for crying out loud” after something happens that you might not agree with (like manager and pitching coach ejections).

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The television broadcast appears, from the outside, to be a flawless operation. I would imagine doing this more than 150 times a year brings a rhythm and flow to the workday, with every person saddled with one job that has tentacles spreading in dozens of directions.

Robinson and Byckowski sit up front and monitor everything, from the replays to the promos to the flow of the broadcast. Uguccioni has at his fingertips every statistical bit of information available to man, and he instantaneously builds graphics to go with poignant moments in the game. He also gives the countdown when they’re coming out of a commercial break.

Blancas is responsible for the replays, and his eagle eye identifies and captures the most interesting moments in the game that eventually becomes the “Final Take” you see at the end of the game. He has nine or 10 cameras to choose from and his quick hands freezes the moments, stores them in a database and spits them out into one cool video to run when the final out is made.

Our night in the booth, in pictures…

Uggucioni can find any stat, from the obvious to the obscure, with a few mouse clicks.

For some perspective, this is the size of the main part of the truck, front to back.

Jerry Blancas, working his "Final Take" magic.

Wave sat me down in his spot and handed me the headset. I immediately threatened to push every toggle on the keyboard. Just to see if I'd get a reaction. (I did)

Astros lineup 4/24 at Brewers. First pitch 1:10 p.m. CT

A weird, wacky, winning night at Miller Park.

The Astros haven’t won a lot at Miller Park in the last couple of years, but give them credit for making these games, if nothing else, incredibly interesting. And long.

As Brian McTaggart tweeted, the two teams have combined for 36 runs, 60 hits and have played seven hours and 34 minutes of baseball. But unlike the first game of the series when the Astros lost by the proverbial touchdown, Saturday’s game ended with a win, and with a few plays that, to the best of my knowledge, we haven’t seen before.

We know for sure no one has ever witnessed Brett Wallace falling on top of Mark Melancon. It’s possible that we’ve seen a 5-2-6-4-2 double play, but who remembers? And while we fondly remember the Astros turning a triple play back in 2004, that one — turned in Philadelphia, just as the Astros’ 36-10 run to the playoffs had begun — was more about luck and less about a fundamental meltdown on the opponent’s part.

Sometimes, teams lose ugly, as the Astros did on Friday. And sometimes, they can win ugly, too, which appeared to be the case the next night.

“It looked like a bomb went off in the eighth, on both sides,” Mills said. “Bodies laying everywhere.”

Wallace, who got crossed up with Melancon trying to nab the lead runner, simply chalked up the play to two teammates trying to get out of each other’s way. “My path to go to second was the same place as he slid,” Wallace said.

Added Melancon: “He was coming from behind me, from my blind spot. I didn’t see him until later. I had to slide to get out of his way. He turned and pivoted, and that was right where I was.”

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Notes and nuggets as the Astros wrap up their six-game trek to New York and Milwaukee:

* The Astros will go home either 3-3 or 4-2 on the road trip, depending on Sunday’s outcome.

* Carlos Lee has 10 home runs against the Brewers since joining the Astros, and 31 career homers at Miller Park, ninth-most all-time.

* Hunter Pence has at least one RBI in six of his last eight games. All three of his home runs this year have come on the road.

* Brett Myers appears to have picked up where he left off last year, logging at least six innings in all five of his starts this year. * Michael Bourn has an eight-game hitting streak.

* Brandon Lyon blew the save but then saved his win on Saturday, but was credited only with the win, not the save. He also logged his first career base hit and RBI.

Astros lineup 4/23 at Brewers. First pitch 6:10 p.m. CT.

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