October 2011

The Rangers are saying all the right things. But how are they, really?

Even though water cooler chats have been phased out, thanks to modern technology that now allows for us to “talk” without actually having to speak face-to-face, I’m guessing that work productivity still hit an all-time low this morning.

Facebook and the Twitterverse — our modern-day variations of the antiquated “water cooler” talk, has been abuzz for about 17 hours and counting, ever since Game 6 of the World Series began as an embarrassing series of defensive blunders on both sides and transformed to quite possibly the greatest Game 6 in history.

As I watched the Rangers come within a strike from winning the World Series over and over again, only to lose, I couldn’t help but harken back to Game 5 of the NLCS in 2005, when the Astros were within a strike of winning the pennant before Albert Pujols hit the home run off Brad Lidge.

I’m not bringing this up with intentions of punching Astros fans in the stomach, again. And that game bears very little significance to last night’s, except for the fact in both cases, the team closest to the finish line blew the lead and eventually, lost the game.

No, I bring it up because I found what happened after that game in ’05 somewhat fascinating. The overall attitude among the players was pretty positive, as the Astros still had a 3-2 lead in the series. But there was still a somewhat sick feeling that everyone was trying to ignore but couldn’t deny was very much a real thing.

I remember asking a member of the support staff before Game 6 in St. Louis, “So, I’m assuming everyone’s still staying pretty loose through all of this, right?”  This person gave me a one-word, flat answer: “No.”

I also recall a weary-looking Lance Berkman walking onto the field from the dugout for batting practice and saying to a couple of us, “If we don’t end up winning the pennant, I might retire.”

I doubt Puma was serious, but we’ll never know, because the Astros, behind an absolutely dominant performance by Roy Oswalt, indeed won the pennant. But there was anxiety among the players and staff, even if most wouldn’t acknowledge it out loud.

It makes me wonder about the Rangers’ mental state heading into tonight’s Game 7. I’m really not a believer in momentum — after all, in ’05, the Cardinals had all the momentum in the world and it didn’t matter, because Oswalt pitched the game of his life. But tonight the Cardinals will be playing in front of their hometown crowd, less than 24 hours removed from receiving some unbelievable heroics from their hitters.

I can’t help thinking the Cardinals, who weren’t supposed to win the Wild Card, were most definitely not supposed to beat the Phillies in the Division Series, had little chance to top the powerful Brewers in the NLCS and were clearly the inferior team of the two playing in this year’s Fall Classic, might actually pull this one out.

I can’t wait to find out how this one ends.

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As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, let’s not forget about the lovable old catcher. (No, not Ausmus.)

One of the more enjoyable parts of Spring Training has nothing to do with watching hitters knock the cobwebs off their bats or pitchers shake off the rust as they get back into the groove after a nice restful offseason.

No, one of my favorite parts of Spring Training occurs when I pass by the equipment manager’s office and see a robust 40-something, graying-around-the-temples ex-catcher who never misses an opportunity to visit old Astros friends.

It’s hard to not notice former catcher Tony Eusebio these days, partly because of his healthy girth and partly because of his booming voice, both of which are easily identifiable when he makes his yearly visit to the Astros’ spring complex in Kissimmee. He settled in Kissimmee after he retired, as did a few other former Astros, so it’s easy for Eusebio, one of the team’s most well-liked players in the 1990s, to pop in.

If I'm writing about Eusebio, why am I posting a picture of Adam Everett and Scott Servias, you ask? Look closer, far right. And thus concludes the presentation of my entire vast collection of Tony Eusebio photos.

Admittedly, I don’t think a lot about Eusebio, affectionately nicknamed “Soobie,” or, even more appropriately, “Wheels,” during the forty-some weeks that I do not spend in glorious Kissimmee every year. But recently, the old catcher (and by old, I actually mean ageless — literally. A running joke back in the day was that Soobie actually got younger in the media guide every year) came back to the forefront when we posed the question on Twitter a couple of weeks ago: Who would you like to see throw out of ceremonial first pitch next year during the Astros’ season-long celebration of their 50th anniversary?

We were flooded with responses. The poll is unscientific, putting it mildly, but I think I can safely say that anyone who had any sort of impact on this team in the last 50 years — from Denny Walling to Willy Taveras — was mentioned by one or more Tweeps.

I don’t want to say that he generated more responses than Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio — that would be silly, and disingenuous — but clearly, you haven’t forgotten about Tony Eusebio. At the very minimum, every third or fourth response included a Soobie reference of some kind.

And why not? Tough Tony was the perfect backup backstop during his time in Houston from 1994-2001, a great teammate who was as reliable as your dad’s slippers. As a part-time player in 2000, he strung together a then club-record 24-game hitting streak that took nearly as long, in days, as Joe DiMaggio needed to set the all-time record of 56 games in 1941.

In 1997, Eusebio pulled off the improbable by stealing a base during the Division Series. In 296 career Major League games before then, Eusebio had exactly zero stolen bases.

Asked about it after the game, he shrugged and said simply, “Soobie likes to run.”

We’re still in the planning stages of our 50th anniversary celebration, but it’s never too early to hear from you on this topic. So I ask you: Who would you most like to see throw out a ceremonial first pitch next year?

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Hellllooooooooo? Anyone there? A look back at bullpen phone controversy, Astros-style.

I don’t have official documentation to confirm, but I think we can safely say that never before has a bullpen phone played such a prominent role in a World Series than it did during Game 5 Monday night.

I admit that I did initially believe Tony La Russa’s explanation of the Cardinals’ complete communication breakdown, but after reading through this compact writeup documenting most national writers calling…well, “bull feathers” on the Cardinals manager, I’m not exactly sure what to think.

I was still mulling this over while driving into work this morning, when my mind shifted to two incidents from the past when your Astros were involved with news-making incidents involving phones. One was somewhat controversial and one was just purely entertaining. Both centered around former manager Phil Garner, which basically means I’ve had plenty of chuckles looking back at the memories.

Anyone remember Bobby Cox formally protesting Game 2 of the Division Series between the Astros and Braves in 2004? In the seventh inning, with Roy Oswalt on the mount, Garner walked out of the dugout to tell home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi that the phone connecting the dugout to the bullpen was not working.

Brandon Backe raced down to the bullpen to inform bullpen coach Mark Bailey which reliever Garner wanted to come in to pitch. Cox, unhappy with the delay of the game, informed the umpire he was officially protesting, contending Garner fabricated the story about the bullpen phone not working in order to give Brad Lidge more time to warm up.

The issue became irrelevant when the Braves later rallied and won the game. Still, what I best remember about the incident is that it lingered for a couple of days, mainly because Garner kept bringing it up and stoking the proverbial fires. Garner was a fierce competitor and wasn’t afraid to display a little emotion during important games. He also loved to argue, which is why he never met a good, juicy controversy he didn’t like to tackle head-on. This one was perfect for him.

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The other phone incident wasn’t remotely controversial and barely made it into my game coverage as more than a mere footnote. But it’s a great memory because, again, Garner made it a lot more interesting than it really was.

That was one of Garner’s most endearing qualities. His thought processes stretched in dozens of different directions, yet he could compartmentalize better than anyone. When the Astros were 15-30 to start the 2005 season, during our pregame media sessions, Garner mostly just grumbled about the oil and gas industry. He’d jumble names when talking about his own players, which paved the way for new, fresh pitchers such as Queeler (Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler) and Nueve (Fernando Nieve). He’d give his mind a break from baseball by watching the Lifetime Movie Network in the hours leading up to game time (“Watch,” he said to us as we filed into his office before a game in Cincinnati. “They’re going to take her baby away.”)

Anyhoo, in 2006 at Wrigley Field, the Cubs replaced their old, traditional bullpen phones with Motorola wireless handsets. It was the first wireless communications system to be used in a Major League game. The new bullpen phones vibrated and produced a constant ring until it was answered or the caller ended the call. To speak, the manager or coach pressed the Push to Talk button.

Representatives from Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame were in attendance to witness the first wireless call to the bullpen (yes, really. I  can’t make this stuff up). It was just a matter of which manager — Garner or Cubs skipper Dusty Baker — would make that first call. Garner, never one to deflect the attention from himself, made sure he was the one going to Cooperstown, so to speak.

Just after the first pitch of the game was tossed, Garner grabbed the wireless handset and rung down to pitching coach Jim Hickey. The first words spoken during this momentous occasion?

“One small step for technology,” Hickey said. “One giant leap for Major League Baseball.”

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Astros Winter Ball update, Oct. 24.

Several Astros Major and Minor League players are continuing to hone their skills by playing Winter Ball this offseason. Courtesy of the Astros’ media relations staff, here’s a brief update:

Dominican Winter League

Licey 11, Aguilas 6
Dodgers outfielder Jerry Sands and Reds infielder Juan Francisco knocked in two runs apiece for the Tigres. Both players doubled and and scored in a decisive six-run seventh inning. Major League veterans Anderson Hernandez and Rene Rivera combined for six hits for Licey, while Rockies catching prospect Wilin Rosario went 2-for-3 with a homer and three RBIs.

Toros 6, Gigantes 5
Blue Jays farmhand Ricardo Nanita homered twice and drove in three runs as the Toros handed the last-place Gigantes their fifth loss in six games. Padres first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Dodgers prospect Alfredo Silverio also went deep for Este, while Texas League All-Star Jimmy Paredes (Astros) went 3-for-4 with a solo shot in a losing cause.

Escogido 13, Aguilas 3
Astros first baseman Brett Wallace slugged a three-run homer in the first inning to send the Leones on their way to the win. Pirates farmhand Starling Marte also had a big day for Escogido, going 3-for-4 with three runs scored and an RBI, while Tigers Minor Leaguer Audy Ciriaco smacked a three-run shot for the Aguilas. Brewers farmhand Sam Narron tossed five shutout innings for his first win.

Venezuelan Winter League

Magallanes 2, Aragua 1
Astros farmhand Sergio Perez struck out nine over five shutout innings, outdueling former Mets Minor Leaguer Jose Sanchez. Pinch-hitter Adonis Garcia launched a solo homer in the ninth and Angels prospect Kole Calhoun was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. Ex-Minor Leaguer Lino Urdaneta earned the win with a scoreless inning.

Zulia 8, Caribes 6
Nationals farmhand Seth Bynum belted a pinch-hit three-run homer and Astros Minor Leaguer Freddy Parejo doubled and knocked in two for the Aguilas. Blue Jays prospect Balbino Fuenmayor and Tigers farhmand Alexis Espinoza went deep for the Caribes. Former big leaguer Marcos Carvajal tossed a scoreless inning for the victory.

Magallanes 5, Lara 4 (11 inn.)
Magallanes rallied with four runs in the seventh to tie the game, then won in 11 innings as Francisco Martinez (Mariners) doubled, moved to third on a Darwin Perez sacrifice bunt, then scored on Astros prospect Jose Altuve’s walk-off single. Martinez and Jesus Flores (Nationals) had three hits apiece for the Navegantes.

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Select Winter Ball stats, through Sunday’s games:

Altuve: .333 (10-for-30)

Bogusevic: .333 (9-for-27)

Paredes: .294 (10-for-34)

Wallace: .240 (6-for-25)

 

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Ballplayers and reporters: can’t we just all get along?

Last night’s postgame situation in the Cardinals’ clubhouse created almost as much news as the actual game itself, which is what happens when the players the media need to talk to cannot be found.

From what I have gathered through various media reports online this morning — and let me be clear, I was not in St. Louis and am not covering any part of the postseason — there was seemingly a divide among Cardinals players after Thursday’s game: those with less than three years of Major League experience who spoke at length with reporters, and those who have a combined 30 or so years of experience and are being paid enough to feed several third-world countries who were not available for postgame comment.

Several reporters lambasted the veteran crew — namely, Albert Pujols, the center of a late-game fielding snafu that allowed the Rangers to take the lead and ultimately led to the series evening at one game apiece. While it’s valid and fair to hold Pujols responsible for not being accountable postgame, the real issue here is not that he wasn’t there to give a few benign quotes. It’s that his younger teammates — most of whom have not been through the postseason, let alone have ever sniffed a World Series before now — were left to carry the media load themselves. And it should have never happened that way.

From a distance, a 25-man roster consists of equal ballplayers, all of whom are contributing to the team in some capacity and who are capable of giving their own insight before and after games. But the dynamics of a baseball team are much more complicated than that. You’ve got your veterans, and you’ve got your “young guys.” The young guys will slowly learn how to handle the media side of this profession. They do so by watching the veterans, and eventually, they themselves become veterans and take what they observed and become fine spokesmen in their own right. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly, during a World Series when the media contingent increases from approximately 10 writers to more than 200 reporters from all over the world, the “kids” aren’t necessarily qualified to speak on behalf of the team, yet, on a stage that large. Especially when having to address a game-changing fielding gaffe committed by the greatest player of this generation.

Let me take a step back for a moment and recall a story I read when Jeff Bagwell retired. The author of the story — I believe it was Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice — told of an incident postgame in the Astros’ clubhouse after an important game. If I remember correctly, it was a regular season game, but it carried a lot of significance for one reason or another. The point is there was three times the number of reporters there for this game, and after it was over, they were all waiting in the clubhouse looking for interviews.

On any given day — and by that, I mean 162 out of 162 game days, Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus were at their lockers in a reasonable amount of time after the game ended, ready to speak on behalf of the team. For whatever reason, on this particular night, the three were elsewhere.

Adam Everett, a young player with very little time in the big leagues, happened to walk over to this locker. And the media pounced. Bagwell soon walked into the locker room and saw Everett, cameras and lights in his face, attempting to speak on a subject he was not particularly equipped to handle.

When the media had cleared, Bagwell went over to Everett and said, “I promise you that will never happen again.” And it didn’t. There was never a time, at any point, where the veteran players left it up to the kids to pontificate after an important game that was drawing a lot of attention, locally or nationally.

This cannot be stated enough — reporters can live with or without quotes from players who were involved in a key play that lost a game. Most are on some kind of deadline, they watched the game and they can use manager quotes and their own commentary to pull together a game story or a sidebar. It’s not the preferred method, but it’s doable. In the spotlight of the World Series, however, with so many reporters needing something, most media will track down someone, anyone, for some insight. If it’s a young player, and he doesn’t know exactly what he should say, so be it.

That’s where the veteran players come in. There’s an old phrase in sports that is somewhat apropos for this situation: act like you’ve been there before. And dealing with the media is part of being a ballplayer. It’s not always enjoyable, but it is indeed part of the job.

And it’s not just the superstars that need to shoulder the load. During a couple of collectively rough stretches by the bullpen in 2006, Russ Springer was constantly at his locker, inviting reporters to come over and talk to him. It took the onus off the others and he spoke on behalf of his group. He did so because he was the oldest, he had been through it before, and as far as he was concerned, this was simply part of his responsibility as a professional.

Additionally, it truly is in the player’s best interest to be available, if only to provide clarification. During my years as a reporter, I can’t count how many times I’d draw my own conclusions during a game only to be given a completely different view of the same exact play after asking the manager and players about it. Reporters — and I’m talking about the beat writers, not the TV people looking for short, painless (and often boring) soundbites — want to get it right. The best way to do it is to ask the player directly for his insight. If he chooses not to offer any, that’s his decision.

Many years ago, an Astros middle reliever was going through a pretty rough stretch and I asked to talk to him about it a couple of different times. He didn’t want to discuss it and I left him alone. Then finally I said, “I have to write about you today. And I am writing about you today. I’d really like for you to participate.” And he did, willingly, understanding that either I was going to draw my own conclusions or I was going to at least get his side of it. And it should come as no surprise that his side of it made a lot more sense than what I had deduced on my own.

In 2005, Brad Lidge stood at his locker for a full 30 minutes after giving up the home run to Pujols during Game 5 of the NLCS and answered the same questions over and over and over again as more waves of reporters made their way through the crowds gathered at his locker. It was an amazing thing to watch. He was so upstanding that at one point one out-of-market reporter said to another, “He doesn’t deserve this.”

Not everyone can be Brad Lidge, or Jeff Bagwell, or Russ Springer. And they don’t have to be. But when veterans don’t take over, they’re not hurting the media. They’re simply doing a disservice to their own teammates.

And that, as they say, is my $.02.

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Trick or Treat with Junction Jack

The Astros are auctioning off an opportunity to take Junction Jack with you while Trick or Treating on Halloween, a first for the Astros’ lovable mascot.

This Halloween, your young fan could Trick or Treat with Junction Jack, who will come to the neighborhood of the winner for a little candy gathering on what is arguably the most fun night of the year for kids.

The auction closes on Thursday (Oct. 20) at 8 p.m. CT. You can put in your bid by clicking here… good luck!

Astros will travel to Corpus Christi April 2 to play the Hooks

On their way back from Spring Training in Kissimmee, Fla., next year, the Astros will make a one-day stop in Corpus Christi, where they will play an exhibition game with the Double-A Hooks.

The game will be played on Monday, April 2 at 6 p.m. CT. Here is the full press release:

CORPUS CHRISTI – The Houston Astros are coming back to town.

And, they’re returning Monday, April 2, three years to the date of their first Corpus Christi appearance, which established a Whataburger Field attendance record with 9,118 patrons.

On that sun-splashed Thursday evening, the Hooks beat their parent club 6-5, the difference a two-run walk-off home run by Brian Esposito.

“On behalf of Ryan-Sanders Baseball, the Hooks and our fans, I want to express deep appreciation to Drayton McLane and the Astros organization for this opportunity,” Hooks Founder and CEO Reid Ryan said. “We are delighted and excited about another great event for Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend as the Astros embark on their 50th anniversary season.”

Said Astros GM Ed Wade: “We value our relationship with the fans in Corpus and with the Ryan-Sanders Baseball group. The exhibition game gives us a chance to show our appreciation. The fans are always enthusiastic and welcoming to our major league players, similar to how they are to our minor league players throughout the season. They are first class all the way.”

The Hooks have been affiliated with Houston since their inaugural Corpus Christi season in 2005. From 2000-04, the Astros’ Texas League Double-A affiliate was located in Round Rock as the Express.

During seven seasons, 33 Hooks have ascended to the Astros, including eight in 2011. Three of those – second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Jimmy Paredes and left fielder J.D. Martinez – bypassed Triple-A and went straight to the big leagues over a 13-day period in July and August.

The Astros-Hooks player development contract runs through 2016.

Start time April 2 is 6 p.m. Hooks full-season ticket holders will be extended the option to purchase their regular seats and additional locations at $28 each. Twenty-two game package holders (Friday Fireworks/Saturday Special) enjoy seating options as well at that rate.

Any remaining Astros-Hooks reserved-seat tickets go to general public sale at $30 each on Friday, March 2. General Admission pricing is $12.

For 2012 Hooks season-ticket information, call 361-561-HOOK or go on-line to cchooks.com.

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Broadcaster Cardenes a finalist for Ford Frick Award

Considering the Astros are gearing up to celebrate the franchise’s 50th birthday, it’s only fitting that someone who was here in the very beginning is now eligible for a big honor next year.

Broadcaster and journalist Rene Cardenas, who helped create the first Spanish-language MLB broadcast in 1958 and spearheaded the Spanish broadcasting efforts with the Colt .45s in 1962, was announced on Wednesday as one of the 10 finalists for the 2012 Ford C. Frick Award. The honor is presented annually for excellence in baseball broadcasting by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

For more than 50 years, Cardenas, a native of Nicaragua, has brought the excitement and passion of Major League Baseball to Hispanic communities across numerous countries. His work has been read or listened to throughout the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, his home country of Nicaragua, and globally on the Internet.

Since his start in Major League Baseball in 1958, Cárdenas has been a pioneer for Spanish radio, television and print with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Astros and Texas Rangers.

Cardenas and Joe DiMaggio at the Astrodome (photo courtesy of laestufacaliente.com)

Since the inception of the Houston franchise in 1962 with the creation of the Colt 45s, Cárdenas has served the organization in various capacities for more than 23 years. He has broadcast in all three of the franchise’s ballparks, including Colt Stadium, the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park, and has served in the front office as director of Spanish broadcasting, public relations director for Latin America, and Spanish National and Internal news media relations director.

Cárdenas was inducted into the Nicaraguan Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000 and into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of U.S. Hispanic Heritage in 2002.

Following a career in broadcasting, René Cárdenas continues to cover baseball and the Astros by writing for Crónicas de los Astros, astrosdehouston.com, Astros Magazine and the Managua, Nicaragua, newspaper La Prensa. He also created his own MLB website, a noncommercial page with contributions from other Spanish baseball writers.

The 10 finalists for the 2012 Frick Award are: Skip Caray, Cardenas, Tom Cheek, Ken Coleman, Jacques Doucet, Bill King, Tim McCarver, Graham McNamee, Eric Nadel and Mike Shannon. The winner of the 2012 Frick Award will be announced on December 6 at the Baseball Winter Meetings and honored during Hall of Fame Weekend, July 20-23, 2012 in Cooperstown.

Final voting for the 2012 Frick Award will be conducted by a 20-member electorate, comprised of the 15 living Frick Award recipients and five broadcast historians/columnists, including past Frick honorees Marty Brennaman, Jerry Coleman, Gene Elston, Joe Garagiola, Jaime Jarrin, Milo Hamilton, Tony Kubek, Denny Matthews, Jon Miller, Felo Ramirez, Vin Scully, Lon Simmons, Bob Uecker, 2011 Frick Award winner Dave Van Horne and Bob Wolff, and historians/columnists Bob Costas (NBC), Barry Horn (Dallas Morning News), Stan Isaacs (formerly of NY Newsday), Ted Patterson (historian) and Curt Smith (historian).

In more modern times, Cardenas is shown here interviewing J.D. Martinez.

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Offseason notes: Alumni golf tournament, Texas Hold ‘em poker

Baseball season is over, but the fundraising continues…

Now that the weather has cooled off to more tolerable temperatures, spending the day outside — especially a work day — seems like a pretty good idea. Just ask Larry Dierker and his  gang, many of whom will gather at Wildcat Golf Club on Wednesday, Nov. 9 for 18 holes of rip-roaring fun during the annual Astros Alumni Golf Tournament.

This tournament,  benefiting the Urban Youth Academy through the Astros In Action Foundation, is always a big draw for past players — a reunion of sorts that usually draws a couple dozen pretty recognizable faces from some of the more well-known teams from the past. Consider this an informal kickoff of the 50th anniversary celebration that will carry through the end of the 2012 season.

Larry Dierker and Enos Cabell (left) are regulars at the annual Alumni Golf Tournament.

The event begins at 9:30 a.m. with registration and breakfast, followed by a shotgun start at 11 a.m. The luncheon and awards portion of the day will take place around 3:30 p.m.

For more information about the tournament and instructions how to register, click here.

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Two days after the Astros’ season ended, three players stuck around to participate in an All-Star Texas Hold ‘em Poker tournament, benefiting the Houston Area Women’s Center.

Mark Melancon, Bud Norris and Angel Sanchez served as celebrity players, in addition to professional poker player Katie Stone, who grew up in Houston and plays all over the world with the European Poker Tour, the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker.

The two-hour event, first introduced at the Wives’ Gala and held at DelFrisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, raised around $9,000 for the Women’s Center.

Check out Melancon with his shades and fancy hat…maybe fatherhood is bringing out a new side to him?

Angel Sanchez

Bud Norris on right, pro poker player Katie Stone on far left.

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