August 2011

Astros lineup 8/7 vs. Brewers. First pitch 1:05 p.m. CT

Saturday roundup: gifts, scholarships and honoring Brownie.

The crowd braving 100-degree temperatures on Saturday, while waiting for the gates to open, probably wasn’t expecting a healthy portion of the Astros’ roster to come barreling out of the doors near the Texas Avenue entrance. Count Buddy Lamothe as one of the surprised fans who got an eyeful as Ed Wade, Brad Mills and several Astros players made a beeline from the Diamond Club entrance over to the wheelchair-bound pitcher and his family.

Lamothe, the pitcher who was paralyzed in a diving accident shortly before he was drafted by the Astros in June, barely noticed the van that was parked nearby. That is, until Wade informed him that the van was for him. The wheelchair accessible vehicle was a gift to Lamothe, courtesy Drayton McLane and the Astros in Action Foundation.


As Brian McTaggart writes, the gift presented to Lamothe, whom the Astros selected in the 40th round of the First-Year Player Draft out of San Jacinto College in Houston earlier this year, came a complete surprise.

“It’s hard to actually make me surprised, but this one got to me,” Lamothe said.

In addition to Wade and Mills, players Clint Barmes, David Carpenter, Mark Melancon, Sergio Escalona, Fernando Rodriguez and Bud Norris were also on hand to help with the presentation.


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Philanthropy and random acts of kindness were popular topic on Saturday. Astros television announcer Bill Brown spoke on those very topics when he was honored by the Texas Italian-American Sports Foundation at its annual scholarship awards luncheon at Damian’s Cucina.

The TIASF salutes a different pillar of the community every year and this time around it selected Brownie, who is celebrating his 25th year in the booth as one of the broadcasting voices of the Astros.


Brownie noted the Astros’ relentless presence on the Houston charity scene, whether it’s the donation of money or simply meeting young people and encouraging them to strive to get their educations and become leaders in their own right.

The TSIAF handed out more than $17,000 in scholarship money at the luncheon to Houston kids heading to college.  Five Astros players helped hand out the checks — Carpenter, Melancon, Barmes, Jordan Lyles and Brian Bogusevic.

Bob Aspromonte, pictured here with emcee Milo Hamilton, was one of the original Colt .45s and later was tabbed "Aspro the Astro." He is still active in the Houston community and supports many Astros-related events.

Barmes, Melancon, handed out scholarship checks to soon-to-be college athletes.

David Carpenter during the check presentation.

Brian Bogusevic.

 

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Astros lineup 8/6 vs. Brewers. First pitch 6:05 p.m. CT

Friday Night Notes: Social Media Night, ballpark food and Buddies Club party.


Tickets are now on sale for our next Social Media Night, which will take place Aug. 20 on the Budweiser Patio and will feature our special guest, second baseman Jose Altuve (who, incidentally, tweets in two languages).

Tickets cost $45 and can be purchased by clicking here. The event includes a game ticket in the Bud Patio, dinner, dessert, t-shirt, ballpark tour and batting practice viewing. We’ll also hold our Twitter trivia contest, which will take place from 5 to 5:15 p.m., at which time Altuve will be on hand to give out the prizes (we’ll have a dozen signed Altuve baseballs for distribution).

But wait! There’s more. We’re adding a new element for our Aug. 20 event. As soon as everyone is assembled in the patio, we’ll throw everyone’s name into a hat and draw one from the pile, raffle-style. 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. As you know, Jeff Bagwell does Saturday home games in the booth as well, so assuming he’s working that night, this could be the best $45 you’ll ever spend.

(Whoever wins will be permitted to bring one person with them to the booth, as long as they are also a Social Media Night attendee.)

The Aug. 20 event will be the fifth Social Media Night of 2011. The final one will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24.

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The good folks at ARAMARK were kind enough to offer us a mini-tour of a few food items that are new to the Minute Maid Park concourse menu this month. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that we love food — sampling it, and writing about it. And finishing the samples when we’re done writing.

With that, we introduce to you the Blue Dog: a hot dog topped with bacon, bleu cheese, and roasted red pepper:


Normally I don’t do bleu cheese, but I decided, in the name of integrity and research, I’d give it a go and see what happens. Turns out, bleu cheese in very small doses isn’t too bad. And the dog was delicious.

(Extreme Hot Dog locations: Sections 125, 154, 427)

Next, we tasted the Chicken Bacon Ranch Nachos: Chips topped with grilled chicken, bacon and a ranch cheese sauce.

This was my favorite of the non-dessert options (more on that in a minute). The ranch cheese sauce pulled the whole dish together, and it  was nice to see that they didn’t skimp on the chicken — there was plenty, even as we neared the bottom of the platter.

(Kickin’ Nachos locations: Sections 114, 427)

And now for dessert…we sampled two new kinds of Blue Bell: Birthday Cake, and Krazy Kookie Dough.

As ARAMARK’S Jason Huff handed over the helmet containing the two scoops, he said, “I have to warn you. The Krazy Kookie Dough is really sweet.” My reply: “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” Indeed, the Kookie Dough is rich, sweet and fantastic. Perhaps for most people, one small scoop would have been enough. Fortunately I’m not most people. I crushed both scoops in less than 20 minutes (with a little help from Twintern Rachel Frey — but not much).

(Blue Bell locations: Sections 116, 127, 151, 414, 423, 431)

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The Astros held their annual Buddies Kids Club members-only autograph party on Friday and offered autograph sessions with seven players: Altuve, Clint Barmes, Carlos Corporan, Matt Downs, Jimmy Paredes, Jordan Lyles, Mark Melancon and Humberto Quintero. The players signed for about 90 minutes as part of a two-hour party that included dugout visits, games and other activities.

Barmes, Paredes

Melancon, Downs

The Coca-Cola Astros Buddies Kids Club is a club for the team’s youngest fans, 14 and under. For an annual membership fee of only $15, members receive numerous benefits:

* $64 coupon for four Astros tickets on pre-selected Buddies game dates
* Insulated lunch bag
* Astros Buddies Club collectible baseball cap
* Members-only autograph party at Minute Maid Park on August 5
* Opportunity to win autographed baseballs in monthly drawings
* Opportunity to participate in Astros Buddies Behind-The-Scenes Day
* Two newsletters
* Astros Buddies Coupon Book for special experiences and offers
* Membership card
* Front-of-the-line privileges for Run The Bases
* Favorite player photo card
* Astros sticker

Memberships are available online at http://www.astros.com/buddies, by calling the Astros Community Affairs department at 713-259-8000 or by visiting the Community Clubhouse located by section 107 on Astros Buddies game days and during most weekend dates.

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Astros lineup 8/5 vs. Brewers. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

J.D. Martinez exchanges bat for ball, and everyone goes home happy.

Edgar Cuevas and his friends arrived a little late to Minute Maid Park, so they were not yet settled in their seats when J.D. Martinez came to the plate in the bottom of the first.

Sometimes tardiness pays off. Cuevas watched through one of the oval openings along the walkway above left-center, saw Martinez take a mighty swing, heard the crack of the bat and knew immediately the ball might be headed his way.

“I went for it,” Cuevas said.

And he caught the ball. In an instant, he found himself besieged by friendly workers from guest services, whose job it is to make sure players who hit milestone home runs have a chance to get the ball back. They had no problem negotiating with Cuevas, who was more than happy to give up the ball in exchange for a signed bat from Martinez.

A meeting took place outside the Astros clubhouse following the game. Martinez offered a new bat, but Cuevas politely indicated he’d rather have one that was game-used. No problem, Martinez said, darting back to the clubhouse. Soon, he emerged with a different bat, signed it, posed for a dozen or so pictures and thanked Cuevas for his kindness.

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Houston Youth are ‘Bourn to Wynn.’

By Rachel Frey

The “Bourn to Wynn” three-day leadership program began with a slightly different start than originally planned.

As the participants knew, Michael Bourn, who helped create this program, was traded on Sunday to Atlanta. Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, who also helped found this program, helped kick it off on Monday by talking about the qualities good leaders exhibit in their lives. Wynn was joined by Guest Host Madd Hatta from Houston’s 97.9 The Box, who helps facilitate each day’s activities.

“Bourn to Wynn is about dealing with adversity, and overcoming that adversity,” said Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy Director Darryl Wade.

After Wynn spoke, Astros Assistant Director of Media Relations Sally Gunter and KHOU sportscaster Butch Alsandor talked about how their jobs fit together. Gunter showed the participants the products that  media relations puts out, such as media guides, game notes, and the monthly magazine. She also explained how media relations staff schedules interviews with the team for journalists.

Alsandor told about how he uses the information Gunter and the media relations staff send out to create each night’s newscast. Gunter and Alsandor also went on to talk about the paths they’ve taken to get to where they currently are, including explaining how important education and internships are.

Jason Bourgeois joined the program on day two to step in for Michael. As a fellow Houston native, he related well to the participants. He told them about how diligence has positively affected his career. He spent 9 years in the minor leagues, and kept working to earn a full-time spot on a Major League roster. Each offseason, he spends time in the Mexican Pacific League’s winter baseball league to keep practicing and getting better. Bourgeois believes that time has helped maintain his skill level through the off-season. He gives up a lot of time he could be spending with his family to become a better baseball player.

Jennifer Germer, Vice President of Marketing and Ticket Sales, Clint Pasche, Director of Marketing, Kirby Kander, Senior Director of Creative Services, and Brock Jessel, Director of Ballpark Entertainment, joined the youth to share what they do each day at work, and how they got there.  The students were really excited to meet the people who create the bobbleheads (Germer & Pasche), and were excited by the video clips Kander and Jessel brought.  The students asked them many questions, including how did bothdepartments dealt with the changes brought on by the trades.  The staff members told them about some of the changes they made and how they always try to focus on promoting the whole team, and not just players in case something like this happens.

Wednesday’s session focused on setting goals and putting a road map to success into action. Bourgeois, Wynn and Madd Hatta were on hand to lend their experience to the participants.  Head Trainer Nate Lucero joined them on the fields for some stretching and baseball instruction.

Each youth receives a Bourn to Wynn student booklet, T-shirt, poster, certificate, Astros baseball cap, Michael Bourn two-time Gold Glove bobblehead, and a baseball signed by both Bourn and Wynn.  The youths will be recognized before the Astros-Brewers game on Saturday, August 6, at Minute Maid Park with Jason and Jimmy alongside them.

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Astros lineup 8/3 vs. Reds. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

One week and three trades later, what do the Astros have? A plan for the future.

When I first got here in 1997, I heard a lot about the 1991 club — a team full of so-called no-names whose average age was around 24 and whose star power packed as much punch as Marie Osmond at a Harley-Davidson convention.

The Astros had just made several moves to get the team younger, and presumably, cheaper. The most famous move was the one that send slugger Glenn Davis to Baltimore for three players no one had heard of — Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling.

That was also the year third baseman Jeff Bagwell, acquired the prior year by the Astros in a hugely unpopular trade that sent fan favorite Larry Andersen to Boston, went from having no shot to make the team out of Spring Training to becoming the Opening Day first baseman (and, later, Rookie of the Year).

That team, whose members also included Craig Biggio (first rounder, 1987); Luis Gonzalez (fourth rounder, 1988) and Darryl Kile, (30th rounder, 1987), went 65-97 that year, tying the club record for losses. Then things got markedly better. In ’92, they were 81-81; in ’93, 85-77; ’94, 66-49 (the strike year); ’95, 76-68; ’96, 82-80. They then won three division titles in a row — 1997, with 84 wins, ’98 with 102 wins and ’99 with 97 wins.

From the time that they won their first Central Division title to the end of 2006, the Astros were non-contenders exactly once — in 2000, when they moved to the new ballpark and a large contingent of the pitchers they brought over from the Dome decided they couldn’t pitch in the new digs (and they were right).

That’s nine contending years in 10 seasons; more if you consider the years just before they started winning division titles. And right in the middle of that run, in 2001, they were named by four major publications as the Organization of the Year.

That means across the board, they were deemed as having the very best Minor League system of all 30 teams. These two elements are not mutually exclusive. You cannot win consistently on the big league level without a good farm system, unless your payroll is north of $200 million — and even then, you still have to be able to produce some of your own talent to lay a foundation that can be fortified later with big-ticket free agents.

The erosion of the Astros’ farm system happened slowly, but in spectacular fashion. A few factors helped push things along. They lost their first-round draft picks in 2003 and 2004 because of the signings of free agents Jeff Kent and Andy Pettitte, respectively. I remember calling Gerry Hunsicker in ’04 to do my annual draft preview and said, “Are you concerned about losing your first rounder a second year in a row?” His answer: “It’s killing us.”

But if I have to pick a true turning point where things collapsed irreversibly, and caused long-term, long-lasting damage, it’s the 2007 draft. The Astros lost their first TWO picks because of two signings of Type A free agents – Woody Williams, 40 years old and clearly nearing the end of his career, and Carlos Lee, one of the top two sluggers on the free agent market who brought with him a $100 million price tag.

The Astros didn’t have a pick until the third round, and they failed to sign both that pick and their fourth-rounder. It was devastating on all counts — they got absolutely no production from Williams and released him after one season, and they set the farm system back even more by not picking until the third round, and then failing to sign their top selections.

Ed Wade took over that winter, hired Bobby Heck and immediately began the restructuring of the scouting department and farm system. They’ve had some good drafts over the last four years but because of the damage that was already done, in all of the time he has been here Wade never had the luxury of dipping into the Minor Leagues with any regularity when he took to shaping the rosters every offseason. By 2009, the Astros had a $100 million payroll and the oldest team in baseball. In other words, it was a mess.

Clearly, it took a while to get to where the Astros are today. The last week has been difficult for everyone — for the fan base, furious at the front office for trading away their two most famous and productive players, and for the front office, which did the unpopular but correct thing in using its two most valuable pieces to infuse the system with more talent.

It’s been 20 years since that 1991 overhaul, and the Astros have enjoyed some of their greatest seasons during the time in between.  But this is how it works when a team decides it’s time to push the fast-forward button toward respectability. Call it rebuilding, refueling, reloading or restructuring…it all means the same thing. The Astros are going to allot their resources to three elements: Scouting, player development and the draft. If done correctly, it works. But it takes time and there are no shortcuts, nor can you win division titles with smoke and mirrors.

Wade cites baseball as a “cycle” and mentioned the Indians when giving an assessment of where the Astros are in that cycle. The Indians were dominant in the 1990s, but fell on hard times early the next decade and made the move to start the process over again.

“Think about what Cleveland has gone through,” he said. “The era they were in the postseason play almost every year and they had that solid veteran nucleus. And then they had to go and regroup. There were seasons that it was tough for the Indians fans to be at the Jake. And now they’re back in first place. They’re in first place because at some point in time, they made the commitment to try to build that club back up again. That’s where we are in that cycle.”

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More than a few of you have noticed that the players the Astros have recently summoned from the Minor Leagues are coming from Double-A and have asked, “Is our Triple-A team that bad?”

Without a doubt, the majority of the Astros’ talent is at the Double-A level. It’s generally understood that the jump from High A to Double-A is the most telling — it’s where the true weeding-out process takes place. If you’ve made it to Double-A, you can start thinking you have a chance at the big leagues.

Double-A is also more of an immediate path to the big leagues because the playing field is more level. It is, as Wade called it, “peer versus peer.” The players are all young. There are no six-year free agents. No former Major Leaguers taking up playing time, hoping to hang on long enough to get called up.

Double-A is also probably the healthier atmosphere, compared to Triple-A, where the clubhouses are sometimes filled with players with big league service time who believe they should still be there. And they’re occasionally bitter. One reporter who covers a Minor League team said once, “If I was a Triple-A manager, I’d spend all of my time keeping the prospects away from the guys who used to play in the big leagues.”

Double-A clubhouses are comprised largely of players who are all close in age, with no Major League service time, happy to be there and determined to move up. For some teams, it’s the best breeding ground before bringing them to the big stage.

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And now, I will completely contradict everything I just said, because two very highly-regarded prospects — left-hander Dallas Keuchel and outfielder Jacob Goebbert — were recently promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City. The moves were necessitated by the addition of the players the Astros obtained in the trades with Philly and Atlanta. Right-handers Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens and Josh Zeid and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer were all assigned to Corpus, which obviously crowds things a bit. And it suggests that there might actually be depth forming at the higher levels. Whodda thunk it?

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Programming note:

With the recent roster moves, the Astros had to shuffle their player appearance schedule a bit. Their Astros Buddies Party on Friday will now feature Clint Barmes, Humberto Quintero, Mark Melancon, Jordan Lyles, Wilton Lopez and Jose Altuve, all of whom will sign autographs as the annual kids bash.

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Astros lineup 8/2 vs. Reds. First pitch 7:05 p.m.

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