July 2011

Astros lineup 7/26 at Cardinals. First pitch 7:15 CT

Mickey Mouse. Ted Williams. Amanda Hugginkiss. For traveling ballplayers, it’s all about the alias.

Back in the old days — and by old, I mean 12 years ago — hotel phones were a vital part of doing our jobs when on the road with the Astros. It seems unbelievably antiquated now, considering today you can be in the middle of pretty much nowhere and still be able to answer emails, call your mom and tweet your constituents needing nothing more than a hand-held device.

But in the late 1990s and earlier, the media relations rep on the road with the team relied heavily on the hotel phone — it was how local reporters called to set up interviews with players and how we could call back to the offices in Houston. Basically, if you wanted to be found, you were bound to your hotel room.

Most of the dealings with players took place at the ballpark, but there were always emergencies and exceptions when a player needed to be called in his room. Enter the rooming list — a one-sheet rundown detailing every member of the traveling party, and what room he was occupying.

Seems simple enough, sure, if not for one small hitch — typically, half the team used aliases on the road. This was common  practice back then and continues to this day. Understandable, given the overzealous nature of a portion of every fan base.

So during my PR years, upon arriving to my hotel room in a new city, the first thing I’d do was sit down with the rooming list and piece together who was who.

Some players selected the names they wanted to use. Others left it up to the traveling secretary to pick one for him. One player used his first name and his wife’s last name. Another opted to go under the name of his favorite race car driver. One went by the name of a part-time custodial worker at the Astros’ spring complex in Kissimmee.

Usually, players used the same alias year after year, but some changed with every season, mainly because of — what else? — superstition. Jeff Bagwell was a notorious name-changer, citing “not a good enough year” the previous season as reason for switching things up.

Carl Everett used the name Rod Stewart during his tenure with the Astros. This worked well for him, with the exception of one trip to Pittsburgh when the actual Rod Stewart was headlining in town the same time the Astros were there. Wouldn’t you know, Stewart was also staying at the same hotel as the Astros — under an alias, of course. So when adoring fans called the hotel looking for Rod Stewart, guess where the calls were directed?

Sometimes, the rooming sheet identified the players by last name and then first initial. I once asked Roy Oswalt, “what’s the ‘T’ stand for?” “The,” he grunted. Other times, the list would include the full last name and full first name: Doo, Scooby; Fudd, Elmer; Kangaroo, Captain.

(A writer friend who covered another team once told me one player used different characters from the Brady Bunch, but he’d often forgot to tell his wife when he’d switch. Many times, she’d be on the phone with the hotel operator asking for “Greg Brady? Carol Brady? Marcia Brady? Tiger?”)

Billy Wagner was the last of the Astros’ superstar players of yesteryear to start going under an alias (Moises Alou, also a huge star at the time, always opted to use his real name). Wags only had a few years in the big leagues and although he had established himself as one of the league’s top closers, he didn’t think it was necessary to go under an assumed name on the road. That all ended when a local radio station in Florida called him at 8 a.m. to ask him to go on their morning show. The next day, Wags took an alias.

Nowadays, I rarely look at the rooming list. There’s no reason to, really. If I need a player, I’ll text him. Life on the road today is better and easier. And it offers a lot more freedom, because you can get out a little during the day and, thanks to the smart phone, still be locked in to what’s going on and available for whomever wants to find you.

There’s very little to miss about the old days, when cell phones were a novelty and you needed a phone line to access the Internet. But there’s something sweetly innocent about the old days, when calling Minnie Mouse and Ronald Reagan wasn’t a prank — it was simply a normal part of life on the road in the big leagues.

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Times are tough for the Astros these days, but there are always a few notables and photos:

* Jose Altuve has hit safely in all five games he’s played in for the Astros. He logged his first multi-hit game against the Cardinals on Monday, going 3-for-4 with two doubles.

* Humberto Quintero hits well at Busch Stadium. He has 14 career hits here, good for a .341 batting average.

* Michael Bourn extended his hitting streak to 10 games, two shy of his season-high.

* Carlos Lee has faced P.J. Walters twice in his career, and twice, he’s hit grand slams.

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Some images from batting practice in “the Loo”…

Jose Altuve and Michael Bourn, around the cage.

Bourn, Humberto Quintero

Carlos Corporan, Angel Sanchez warming up

Carlos Lee warming up

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Astros lineup 7/25 at Cardinals. First pitch 7:15 CT

In our Bizzaro World, the Hooks have all the power.

Power hitting has eluded the Astros for most of the season, so much that until Clint Barmes knocked one into the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field on Sunday, the Astros were mired in a string of 27 straight hits that counted for nothing more than singles.

Such a drought of both extra-base hits and wins can cause a blogger’s mind, on the 101st game of the season, to drift. Sunday’s game with the Cubs seemed as good as any to check out of what was happening at Wrigley and in on the Astros’ farm system, starting with Corpus Christi, where a huge contingent of true prospects have been residing for the better part of six weeks. (As I write this, Carlos Lee just put an end to my constant whining to my BFF Brian McTaggart about the Astros’ seeming inability to hit home runs with a timely two-run dinger in the eighth.)

Turns out, the Double-A club is the Bizzaro World counterpart of your Astros — as the season progresses, more and more Hooks players are tearing the cover off the ball. And they’re winning some games, too.

After starting the season 25-47, Corpus Christi picked up the pace a bit, going .500 (14-14) since June 24. This is partly due to improved pitching, but the infusion of several hitting prospects who could be on the fast track to the big leagues (including Jose Altuve, who was called up to the big leagues last week) helps as well.

Through Saturday’s game, the Hooks had homered in 18 of their past 21 games, hitting 33 home runs over that stretch. On Friday, four Hooks players homered — Jimmy Paredes, Kody Hinze, Chris Wallace and Jonathan Villar. The next night, Villar and Hinze homered again.

Hinze, who was promoted from High-A Lancaster to Corpus a couple of weeks ago, has hit .370 over 15 games for the Hooks. Eight of the first baseman’s 20 hits were for extra bases — four doubles and four homers.

Left fielder J.D. Martinez continues to maintain a very steady batting average, hitting .332 with 11 homers and 65 RBIs for the Hooks. Despite going 0-for-4 on both Friday and Saturday, Martinez is batting .314 (11-for-35) with nine RBIs in his past 10 games.

Jacob Goebbert — that outfielder that insiders in Corpus feel isn’t getting enough attention by those of us in Houston — continues to hit as well. Overall, he’s batting .314, and in his last 10 games, he’s compiled a .361 average, logging 13 hits in 36 at-bats.

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On the pitching side, I’m intrigued by right-hander Henry Sosa, one of the pitchers the Astros acquired from the Giants in the Jeff Keppinger trade. In his first appearance after the trade for the Hooks, he threw seven shutout innings in a 6-0 win over Midland.

After picking the brain of a spy or two out in the Bay Area, I’m thinking he might have a chance to eventually help the Astros. Sosa was once one of the brightest young prospects in the Giants’ system, but an array of injury problems — chest, elbow, etc. — slowed his development.

Sosa apparently behaved erratically at times and it is believe he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his teammates. The feeling is this might be a perfect change-of-scenery scenario for Sosa, who might respond favorably to a new organization and a clean slate.

There are no guarantees, of course, but Sosa, who, according to one Giants observer “throws the heck out of the ball,” might be one to keep an eye on as the Astros move forward.

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Astros lineup 7/24 at Cubs. First pitch 1:20 CT

Astros lineup 7/23 at Cubs. First pitch 12:05 p.m. CT

Notes from Chicago: Altuve’s on Twitter, Keppinger’s whirlwind week and Curbing our Enthusiasm in the press box.

A few notes and observations from steamy Chicago, where we’re chuckling, just a little bit, at the masses freaking out over the current “heat emergency.” (In Houston, we just call it Friday)…

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Jose Altuve, fluent in English and Spanish, has recently taken to Twitter, where he is sharing his thoughts and observations in both languages. His Twitter name is @josealtuve27.

You can probably decipher from his recent tweets that he’s pretty thrilled to be here. Brian McTaggart captured Altuve’s first impression of Wrigley Field with this Twitpic.

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Jeff Keppinger’s whirlwind couple of days will become even zanier early next week when his new team hits the East Coast on its next road trip.

The San Francisco Giants, winners of last year’s World Series, will travel to the White House on Monday to meet President Barack Obama. Keppinger watched the World Series from home last year after completing an injury-riddled season with the Astros, but due to the recent trade that sent him to the world champs, the second baseman is now a part of the “in” crowd.

The Giants had hoped to make their White House visit during their trip to play the Nationals at the end of April, but White House officials told the team that the president was unavailable. Turns out, Obama and his staff were preoccupied with the pending killing of Osama Bin Laden, which was carried out on May 1.

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Speaking of being pre-tty, pre-tty, pre-tty happy, Friday was a hugely significant day for a few of us in the press box — namely, Jim Deshaies, Dave Raymond and myself.

We’re all big fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO series created by and starring Larry David. This show is pretty much “Seinfeld” on steroids — an over-the-top, cable-only version of the popular 1990s sitcom (which was, incidentally, also created by David).

Anyhoo, Curb is funny, outrageous, offensive and at times completely inappropriate. In other words, it’s fantastic. The show revolves around the bumbling but lovable David, his wife/ex-wife Cheryl, his agent Jeff Greene and Jeff’s wife, the foul-mouthed show-stealer Susie.

On a typical Astros charter flight, you can find Dave, JD and I all sitting in different rows, all watching different episodes of “Curb” on our computers/portable DVD players, all laughing hysterically. Books, iPods and direct TV are all fine ways to pass the time on flights, but for the three of us, there’s really no better way to get through a two-plus hour flight than four or more episodes of “Curb.”

The character of Jeff Greene is played by actor/comedian Jeff Garlin, and you can imagine our delight when we found out he was singing “Take Me Out” during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field on Friday. With our broadcasters busy broadcasting, I was nominated to intercept the burly actor and ask him to pose for a picture. Garlin was more than happy to oblige and offered to meet up after the seventh, when he was done with his interview with the Cubs TV announcers.

We all met in the hallway, and after JD introduced himself, Garlin, in his booming voice, said “Jim! We’ve met before!” Garlin, a Chicago native, proceeded to remind JD that they hung out at the Improv in Chicago in 1992, when JD was in town as a member of the San Diego Padres. Not only did Garlin remember that night, he rattled off the names of JD’s teammates who were also in attendance — namely, Larry Andersen and Rich Rodriguez.

To put it mildly, JD was slightly taken off guard. He vaguely remembers that night at the Improv, but has no recollection of who was there. Apparently, the night had a more lasting impression on the famous comedian who was, 19 years ago, slightly less well-known.

JD didn't realize his first meeting with Garlin was actually his second.

J.D., Garlin, Raymond

J.D. told Garlin we're "Curb Your Enthusiasm Groupies." Pretty accurate.

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Astros lineup 7/22 at Cubs. First pitch 1:20 CT

Midday blog: Pence reaches out to three kids dealt a horrible hand.

A good portion of the Houston community, including several of its highest-profile athletes, have rallied around three local kids who recently suffered an unspeakably horrific tragedy — one that left them with serious physical ailments and killed both of their parents.

The Berry kids — Peter, Aaron and Willa, all under the age of 10, were in the car when a collision killed their parents, Joshua and Robin. The accident left the two boys paralyzed from the waist down.

According to this CultureMap report, a slew of Houston athletes have visited Peter and Aaron, both avid sports fans, at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. (Willa has since been treated and released.)

Among the athletes was Hunter Pence, who according to the Jewish-Herald Voice, spent time with the boys and offered words of encouragement, along with plenty of signed mementos.

“I believe strongly that you’re going to be able to pull through this,” Pence told Aaron. “You’re an inspiration to a lot of people. We’re all looking up to you –- you fight to get better and find a way to overcome this. There’s a lot of people praying for you, including me.”

Pence played Xbox with Peter for more than a half-hour and exchanged emails with him, according to the Herald-Voice.

“Everyone’s thoughts are with you guys,” he told Peter. “You’re going through one of the toughest things and you’re going to need to be stronger than anyone I’ve ever met. I think that you and your whole family are going to inspire a lot of people. And ultimately, I look up to you.

“I wish you the best of luck and I want you to keep that motivation your whole life. Everyone’s got your back – the whole community – you have so many people supporting you. There’s a lot of love. Everyday, believe that you’re going to get better,” he said.
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David Fantin, founder of Global Sports Foundation, was selected as the Astros’ Hometown Hero this month and was honored during a pregame ceremony before Wednesday’s game.

Fantin is the organizer and host of the second annual Midnight Madness Marathon Charity Baseball Game on Friday (July 22) at Faith West Academy in Katy.

Joining Fantin on the field was nine-year-old Ariel Leal, who has brain cancer and is undergoing treatment at Texas Children’s Hospital. The proceeds from the charity baseball game will go toward her family and help with living and medical expenses.

To learn more about David Fantin’s foundation, the baseball charity marathon game, or to donate, visit http://www.globalsportsfoundation.org.

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Keeping with the theme of helping those in need, the folks at nationalhittingcontest.com are conducting an ongoing fundraiser for Buddy Lamothe and two other similarly injured college baseball players.

One hundred percent of funds raised by individuals, teams, schools, fraternities, sororities, sports associations, church youth groups or businesses go directly to the families. People who would like to participate in the challenge are encouraged to contact info@NationalHittingContest.com.

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Astros lineup 7/20 vs. Nationals. 2b Altuve will make his Major League debut. First pitch 1:05 p.m. CT

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