Over 22 years, the “Black Ties and Baseball Caps” gala has raised millions for abused women and children.
Since the Astros began hosting the Black Ties and Baseball Caps Gala 22 years ago, they have raised over $4 million for the Houston Area Women’s Center, which provides a safe haven for abused women and children.
The annual black-tie soiree, titled “A Night of New Beginnings,” took place on Thursday on the field at Minute Maid Park, and nearly every member of the team and coaching staff was in attendance. A live auction featured some whopping prizes, including a two-night stay at the famed Four Diamond Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, a nine-guest dinner, prepared by celebrity chef Bryan Caswell on the roof deck of Union Station with Mark and Mary Catherine Melancon, a VIP trip for four to Aspen and a fishing and horseback riding trip to Panama, hosted by Carlos and Mary Lee at their ranch.
The silent auction offered dozens of items — autographed jerseys, game-used bats and photos, wine dinners, jewelry…you name it, it was up for bid at the Wives Gala.
The night also featured a special appearance by legendary comedian Rich Little, a personal friend of gala coordinator Judy Nichols.
The gala was co-chaired by Summer Barmes and Mary Catherine Melancon with assistance from auction chairperson Michelle Quintero. Milo Hamilton served as the Master of Ceremonies, with Stephen Lewis (the guy who looks like Rick Perry) stepping in as the auctioneer.
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Jonathan Singleton has drawn plenty of comparisons to Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. That’s high compliment, to be sure, but somewhat problematic if you’re being compared to Howard AND you’re a first baseman in the Phillies organization.
That was Singleton’s plight when he was selected in the eighth round of the draft two years ago. A slugging first baseman, the Phillies envisioned him as a Howard-type. The same Howard who signed a three-year extension in 2009, the year Singleton was drafted, and the same Howard who then extracted a five-year extension that will keep him in a Phillies uniform — at first base — through 2016, and possibly 2017.
So the Phillies did what the Astros had done more than 10 years earlier when they drafted first baseman Lance Berkman, even though they had Jeff Bagwell locked up for years — they moved Singleton to the outfield after his first year of professional baseball. Singleton played left field in Instructional League and started 2011 there as well.
That experiment didn’t last long. Singleton’s batting average started to dip and the Phillies suspected that as a result of being outside of his comfort zone, he was starting to press offensively. By June, Singleton was back at first base. Two months later, he was still at first base — but no longer as a Phillies prospect.
Considered one of two prizes of the five-player trade that sent Hunter Pence to Philadelphia just before the July 31 traded deadline (pitcher Jared Cossart being the other), the 19-year-old Singleton was assigned to the Astros’ High-A affiliate in Lancaster, Calif., where he is playing first base. There will be no further talk of moving to the outfield.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Singleton is hitting .333 with six doubles, one triple two home runs and six RBIs over 16 games with Lancaster. Other than being somewhat happy to be in closer proximity to his hometown of Long Beach, Singleton appears to be unfazed by being uprooted from one organization to another and, in some ways, to be starting over.
“It’s different,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But you just go into it with open eyes. That’s the only way you can go into it.”
Major League players aspire to be in organizations with a history of winning and a chance to go to the World Series, but the perspective of a Minor League prospect is often quite the opposite. Powerhouse organizations often are two or three deep at each position and young budding stars can find themselves blocked.
If you talked to any of the 10 prospects the Astros landed in the last several weeks in the Pence, Jeff Keppinger and Michael Bourn trades, you’d likely hear more optimism than grumbling to be joining an organization that, barring an unprecedented surge in the last five weeks, is destined for 100 losses from its big league team.
The Astros are rebuilding, and they have very few long-term commitments at any position. The opportunity is there, and the Minor League players coming through the system are well-aware that their chances to get to the big leagues quickly increases ten-fold in an organization such as the Astros.
There’s no timetable for any of the Astros’ prospects. They will dictate their ETA by how they perform in the next year or two. But for a 21- or 22-year-old budding prospect, Houston can be viewed a realistic landing spot.
The Astros’ recent youth movement is, obviously, a hot topic throughout their Minor League system. Every player asked has admitted it’s impossible not to have noticed what’s been happening in Houston lately and even harder not to get a little excited about the possibilities. Especially for those who just played on the same team with Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez not even a month ago.
Jio Mier, the Astros’ No. 1 pick in 2009 and Lancaster’s starting shortstop, is paying close attention. He lived with Martinez during Spring Training this year, and he talks to Altuve four or five times a week. Needless to say, Mier is hoping to join his friends in the big leagues sooner than later.
“There is no bigger motivator,” Mier said. “Everyone wants to make the big leagues. It’s everyone’s dream. They’re living it out and I couldn’t be more happy for them.”
Mier’s game is his defense, so he won’t have to necessarily tear the cover off the ball in order to get a call to the big leagues. He realizes, however, that a .200 batting average isn’t going to cut it. He was hitting .245 over 57 games in Lexington when he was bumped up to Lancaster, and through Tuesday’s game, he was batting .199 over 38 games for the JetHawks.
Mier admitted he’s feeling “off.”
“You just lose a feel for what you’re doing,” he said. “When you’re going good, you don’t know what you’re doing right. You’re just out there and not worrying about anything. That’s what I’ve been trying to do the last couple of games. I’ve seen a difference the last week, my at-bats, and what I’ve been doing.”
Mier has made sure to not let his defense suffer while his bat is causing him fits.
“I’m a shortstop for a reason,” he said. “I love to play defense, make the plays. But I don’t want to be labeled as a defensive guy, so I work on hitting. Would I love to hit .300? Yea. Everybody does. But they want my defense more than anything. But I love hitting and I want to succeed at it.”
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The Astros’ Major League roster has gotten considerably younger in the last two years, having shaved more than six years off the overall average age since it was deemed the oldest team in the big leagues in 2009.
The Minor League system has also gotten younger in recent years. The organization’s overall philosophy is to take the best player available in the draft, but it’s also clear that the club has leaned heavily toward the high school athlete. In the lower levels of the Minor Leagues, many players are 19 and 20 years old and only a couple of years out of high school.
One of those prospects is right-handed pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, the ace of the Class A Lexington Legends staff whom the Astros are hoping will someday fill the same role at the big league level.
Foltynewicz (pronounced fol-ten-EH-vich) is 19 years old. He’ll turn 20 in October, and by that time he will have two years of pro ball under his belt. He was the club’s second first-round pick (19th overall) in 2010 after starring for his Minooka Community High School in Minooka, Illinois, and he began his career last year for the Rookie League Greeneville team.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and the 6-foot-4 Foltynewicz felt the challenge of pro ball immediately, when he had to get used to the higher quality of hitters he was facing.
“In high school, I could be it blow them at 90 miles an hour,” he said. “Up here, it’s all about location now. In high school, I was just trying to throw the ball, and hopefully they’d swing. Now you have to work on your command. Off-speed pitches are the key, too. You have to throw all of them for strikes. The hitters are a lot better here.”
Foltynewicz throws three main pitches — a four-seam fastball, curveball and changeup. Under the tutelage of Lexington pitching coach (and former Astros reliever) Dave Borkowski, Foltynewicz removed the two-seam fastball from his repertoire, mainly, according to Borkowski, because he was trying too much to manipulate it — “create it,” if you will — instead of just letting it go and have natural movement.
The changeup is a work in progress, and both Foltynewicz and Borkowski agree it’s becoming a very good pitch for the right-hander. The changeup is largely a mental pitch, with the biggest hurdle simply trusting the grip, letting it go and throwing it like a fastball. Foltynewicz’s approach toward pitching in general – “He’s got that cockiness on the mound that you like to see. It’s my mound, my game, I’m going to take it to you,” said Borkowski — has made learning the changeup a rather seamless process.
“It’s coming along great, actually,” Foltynewicz said. “I didn’t use it in high school a lot. I had the curveball and slider working well so I didn’t need it much. Up here, it’s a great pitch to use. I worked on it a lot during Spring Training and it’s really coming along great since then. I have to get a little better control of it and I’ll be OK.”
Foltynewicz draws comparisons to Jordan Lyles by those who have watched both pitch extensively in the Minor Leagues. Lyles, the club’s supplemental round pick (38th overall) in the 2009 draft, debuted for the Astros earlier this year at the age of 20.
What do the two have most in common? Confidence.
“When you see them, they look like big leaguers,” Legends manager Rodney Linares said. “Not a lot of guys have that.”
Nor do they have Foltynewicz’s fastball, which clocks in regularly in the mid-90s.
“He might be a guy that if he gets it, he might be in the big leagues in a couple years and be a pretty solid starting pitcher,” Linares said. “He’s 19 years old, has a great body, tall…and he’s been durable. He’s pitched a lot and he’s showed he’s durable.”
Linares cautioned against pushing Foltynewicz too quickly, however. In a year when Astros prospects are being fast-tracked to the Majors, Linares hopes the club will exercise restraint when it comes to the club’s top pitching prospect.
“He has all the ability in the world,” Linares said. “Hopefully they take it easy on him and don’t try to jump him so quick. I know Jordan was a bit more mature. Folty’s still a young kid. When you have a chance for a guy to be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the big leagues, that’s pretty good. Do your research and go easy on him.”
Still, there are few doubts that Foltynewicz will eventually end up in Houston’s rotation.
“Absolutely,” Borkowski said. “He has a power arm and two above average off-speed pitches that are only going to keep getting better. He wants to learn, he wants to be that guy in the rotation. He’s a hard worker. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
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We interrupt our ongoing look into the Astros’ farm system for this public service announcement, reminding you about Social Media Night this Saturday (Aug. 20).
This will be the fifth of six Social Media Nights in 2011. The special guest will be second baseman Jose Altuve, who will join us in the Budweiser Patio (behind center field) from 5-5:15 p.m., prior to the 6:05 start time with the Giants. Altuve will hand out autographed baseballs to the Twitter trivia winners and will pose for pictures with the winners as well.
Tickets cost $45 and include a game ticket in the Bud Patio, dinner, t-shirt, ballpark tour and batting practice viewing. And we’ve added one more element to the Social Media Night experience — a free raffle. Once everyone is assembled in their seats on the patio, we’ll throw all of the names into a hat and draw one from the pile. The winner will be whisked off to the press box at some point during the game to watch an inning from the television booth with Brownie and J.D. Jeff Bagwell also does Saturday home games in the booth, so presumably, you’ll be meeting him as well.
We also invite all attendees to take pictures and blog about their experience at Social Media Night, and we will post all entries on Footnotes.
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One thing I did not expect on my recent Minor League tour was how good the food was going to be along the way.
The fare at the Lexington Legends’ ballpark was pretty typical of a baseball stadium — hot dogs, burgers, popcorn, etc. — but the Lancaster experience was something totally unexpected, and totally delicious.
The JetHawks go above and beyond the norm with their concessions. They offer the basics, sure, but the menu extends far beyond these baseball staples.
For the health-conscious, they offer two kinds of wraps — grilled chicken and chicken caesar. For those not quite as worried about their waistlines, the possibilities are limitless. I also heard about two must-haves while I was there. First up: the tri-tip sandwich, which, at this particular venue, can be best described as cubes of beef tenderloin on a bun. Yum.
I thought it best to space out my indulgences over the two-day visit, so I saved the other recommended dish for the second day I was in Lancaster. Introducing Sweet Po-tater Tots with a side of honey mustard. While I can’t stand normal sweet potatoes — just the smell of them makes my stomach turn — for some reason, I love sweet potato fries.
For that reason, I was very much looking forward to tasting the JetHawks’ version, and I wasn’t disappointed. They’re delicious, and the perfect finger food to enjoy at a ballgame.
There was plenty more offered that I did not try, including three types of nachos (loaded, pulled chicken, pulled pork) and the Stealth Burger — a hamburger topped with pulled pork, onion rings and barbecue sauce.
Off site, I enjoyed a huge breakfast at Crazy Otto’s Diner, recommend by Assistant General Manager Dave Gottfried. Otto’s appears to be a popular staple in the quiet town of Lancaster. During breakfast hours, a steady stream of patrons filter in for omeletes that appear to come in two sizes. Technically, those sizes are full and half, but what we are really talking about here is extra-large, and not-quite-as-gargantuan. For example, here’s my “half” size omelete with cheese, onions, bell peppers and mushrooms:
Throw in a bottomless cup of coffee, wireless connections and fantastic service, and you’ve pretty much got a perfect morning scenario in this hot, windy and somewhat sleepy town of Lancaster.
The JetHawks’ ballpark was a lot newer and more sparkly than I expected. It truly is one of the premiere Minor League facilities, as you might be able to tell from the pictures below…
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