December 2011

A holiday salute from the Astros, 50th anniversary style.

Twenty-five years ago, Ruth Ryan sat next to her husband, Nolan, on a charter flight during an Astros road trip and was introduced to a popular relief pitcher walking down the aisle on the way back to his seat.

Larry Andersen, the unofficial class president of the loosey-goosey fun-loving, wacky mid-80s Astros, stopped by to say hello to the Ryans and chat for a bit. Throughout the conversation, Larry wore a set of fake teeth — crooked, yellowish teeth with brown undertones that were entirely too big for his mouth.

Once the conversation ended, Larry made his way back to his seat and Ruth, a polite woman well-known for her classy demeanor, turned to Nolan and said, gently, “You know, he’d be so handsome if he’d just get his teeth fixed.”

****************************************

I checked with Larry on this story to make sure I had it straight, as I figured it would be a fitting anecdote to include in an end-of-the-year project intended to serve two purposes: wish everyone a very happy holiday season and give a cap-tip toward our fabulous history as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston.

Another part of the project: I asked former players and broadcasters, as many as I could track down, to take a photo holding a “happy holidays” sign that bears the logo from the era they played in Houston. When I checked in with Andersen on this story, I also sent along a (second and third) gentle reminder to pleeeeeeease take the photo and send it back to me.

“Ninety minutes,” promise,” Andersen emailed back.

Ninety minutes later, he delivered.

_____________________

They don’t make ‘em quite like Larry Andersen anymore, but that’s OK. Plenty of unique personalities have passed through the clubhouse doors in Houston, first at Colt Stadium, then at the Astrodome and now, at Minute Maid Park. Each has a story — some more interesting than others — and each contributed in some fashion to five decades of big league baseball in the Bayou City.

Some moments I witnessed in person. Some happened long before I got here. Some happened long before I got here, but I’ve heard the stories told and retold so many times that I’m starting to convince myself that maybe I really was there to see them.

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There was that one time…

Early in Larry Dierker’s managing career, when the Astros were playing a weekend series in Montreal, the skipper found himself in a precarious, Dierker-like situation. It was a Sunday, and the team was scheduled to play an afternoon game. After a night of restful sleep, Dierk opened his eyes, looked at his watch and panicked as he realized it was about 30 minutes before game time.

Except that it wasn’t. Ever looked at your watch upside down when it’s 7 a.m.? It looks a lot like 12:30. “I came this close to calling the clubhouse and giving them the lineup over the phone,” Dierker said.

How about the time when…

Jose Lima was a local celebrity by the time the calendar flipped to 2000, a year when two big things happened to him: 1) his employers lined his pockets with several wads of Astrobucks to the tune of a three-year, multimillion-dollar contract, and 2) his career began to spin in an Enron Field-y downward spiral.

Lima bought himself a new car that year — a Mercedes, if memory serves – and he was excited it about it, because this shiny new ride came with voice-activated commands. There was just one problem. It was programmed to detect the English language, sans foreign accents, and it couldn’t pick up Lima’s commands.

Lima was fluent in English, no doubt, and you could understand him just fine. As long as you weren’t a computer chip in a new Mercedes.

Lima parked his car in the garage at the ballpark, walked into the clubhouse and screamed, “my new car is racist!”

Or how about when…

The 1999 season had whittled down to game No. 162, and the Astros, sitting on 96 wins, still needed one more to knock off those pesky, refuse-to-go-away Cincinnati Reds. Mike Hampton pitched a gem against the Dodgers that day and left after seven innings with a 9-1 lead.

With champagne on ice in the clubhouse and a packed house ready to celebrate both a division title AND the final regular season game ever to be played in the Astrodome, the game slowed to an absolute crawl. Jay Powell, saddled with the easy task of pitching the final three outs in a landslide win, instead gave up three hits and three runs, allowed seven baserunners and delayed the party by at least 20 minutes.

Later, during a loud celebration in a happy clubhouse, Drayton McLane walked over to congratulate Powell.

“Sorry it took so long,” Powell mumbled.

“That’s OK,” McLane chortled. “We sold more stuff.”

Heard this one not long ago…

Bob Aspromonte spent his career largely as a self-proclaimed happy bachelor, one whose outgoing personality and movie-star handsomeness allowed him to channel (and embrace) his inner ladies’ man-itude.

In his day, Aspromonte could live life however he wanted, pretty much out of the spotlight, without having to worry about cell phones with cameras or curious strangers documenting his every move on Twitter. Aspro the Astro liked the nightlife, but unlike his less sophisticated, more neanderthal-like teammates, an evening out with Aspro involved fine dining at the best restaurants in town. First-class accommodations from start to finish.

But that didn’t mean general manager Spec Richardson (who was liked by very few players) didn’t want him to tone it down from time to time. Unlike the George Steinbrenner-Derek Jeter flap from about 10 years ago when the crusty Yankees owner made it clear to the world, using various media outlets, that he wanted his shortstop to ix-nay the ightlife-nay, Aspromonte’s admonishment came in a much more muted tone, just man-to-man.

“Bob,” Richardson said to his third baseman during contract negotiations, “I’ll add on 10 grand more if you’ll stop chasing the ladies.”

Aspromonte paused for a moment, thought about it and said, “Nah, you keep your money. And I’ll keep the ladies.”

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I wish I had been there to witness Casey Candaele sitting on a serving tray and “skiing” down the aisle during takeoff on the Astros’ charters. That said, I’m ecstatic that I never watched him take batting practice in the back cages on Sundays, because apparently, he did so without wearing any clothes.

I wish I had been around to watch the Astros clinch the division behind Mike Scott’s no-hitter in 1986, but I’m really glad I missed seven-hour, 20-minute, 22-inning showdown between the Astros and Dodgers in 1989. I’m doubly happy that I didn’t have to work the next game either. That Sunday matinee began 11 hours after the 22-inning game and ended up lasting four hours and 17 minutes and took 13 innings for the Astros to finally win it.

That of course pales in comparison to another long, drawn-out affair that I was more than happy to witness, 16 years later. Six-plus hours of baseball was worth sitting through that October afternoon in 2005, especially the 10 seconds it took for Chris Burke’s game-winning home run to clear the left field wall. Eighteen innings of agony translated into a Division Series win over the Braves, and ended up being the first step toward the first World Series berth in club history.

So many years, so many players, so many memories. A lot has happened in the 50 years since Major League Baseball arrived to the Bayou City, thanks to a lengthy cast of characters. Here are some who you’ll surely recognize.

From our Astros family to yours, we wish you a happy, hearty holiday season. We look forward to reminiscing about the old days, while making new memories in 2012.

Larry Dierker, pitcher, 1964-76; broadcaster 1979-96; manager 1997-2001

Carl Warwick, 1962-63

Jimmy Wynn, 1963-73

Bob Aspromonte, 1962-68

Ron Brand, 1965-68

John Edwards, 1969-74

Bob Watson, player, 1966-79; general manager 1994-95

Gene Elston, broadcaster, 1962-86

Norm Miller, 1965-73

J.R. Richard, 1971-80

Jose "Cheo" Cruuuuuuuuuuuz, 1975-87

Art Howe, player, 1976-82; manager, 1989-93

Alan Ashby, player, 1979-89; broadcaster, 1998-2005

Enos Cabell, 1975-80, 1984-85

Billy Smith, 1981

Charley Kerfeld, 1985-90

Kevin Bass, 1982-89

Larry Andersen, 1986-90

Terry Puhl, 1977-90

Phil Garner, player, 1981-87; manager, 2004-07

Billy Hatcher, 1986-89

Glenn Wilson, 1989-90

Jim Deshaies, player, 1985-91; broadcaster, 1997-present

Luis Gonzalez, 1990-95, '97

Brian Williams, 1991-94, '99

Craig Biggio, 1988-2007

Vince Cotroneo, broadcaster, 1991-97

John Hudek, 1994-97

Mike Hampton, 1994-99; 2009

Mike Jackson, 2001

Brad Ausmus, 1997-98, 2001-08

Tim Bogar, 1997-2000

Tony Eusebio, 1991, 1994-2001

Adam Everett, 2001-07

Chris Burke, 2004-07

Mark Loretta, 2002, 2007-08

Jason Lane, 2002-07

Jose Vizcaino, 2001-05

Dave Borkowski, 2006-08

Brandon Backe, 2004-09

Willy Taveras, 2004-06

Darin Erstad, 2008-09

Brad Mills, manager, 2010-present

Dave Raymond, broadcaster, 2006-present

Milo Hamilton, broadcaster, 1985-present

Brett Dolan, broadcaster, 2006-present

Bill Brown, broadcaster, 1987-present

Humberto Quintero, 2005-present

Doug Brocail, player, 1995-96, 2008-09; pitching coach, 2011-present

Jason Bourgeois, 2010-present

Chris Johnson, 2009-present

Bud Norris, 2009-present

Brian Bogusevic, 2010-present

Bobby Meacham, first base coach, 2010-present

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Jeff Luhnow chat session transcript posted here.

The following is the transcript from General Manager Jeff Luhnow’s online chat on Dec. 19:

Jeff Luhnow: Hello everyone. I appreciate the interest in the Astros and am excited to be here. I know you all have questions and I will try to answer them as best I can, given I’ve been here about a week! So fire away…

bham2421:
Jeff, first congratulations on being the new GM of the Astros. Can you talk a bit about the players we currently have in our minor league system that you have high expectations for down the line?

JL:
Thank you. I will say that in the week I’ve been here I’ve spent time with many of our coaches and evaluators and there is a great deal of excitement about the prospects in the system. I will evaluate them myself during Spring Training and beyond, but for now suffice it to say we do have some talent on the way.

steve_ande:
hello jeff. do you plan on reestablishing an Astros presence in Venezuela?

JL:
The Astros have a full scouting staff in Venezuela and we plan to be active in finding and signing players from all parts of Latin America. Very few teams operate academies there anymore due to security concerns and cost.

aandycfb:
I know that the Cardinals direclty own at least one of their own minor league teams. Do you see any possible benefit to that kind of ownership situation for the Astros?

JL:
Typically that is a business decision and not a baseball decision. The Astros do own and operate the affiliate in the Appalachian League (Greeneville) as well as the GCL affiliate.

aandycfb:
With the Astros and the Rangers soon being in-division rivals, what do you see as being important to winning the hearts and minds of Texan baseball fans? Why should someone choose to be an Astros fan instead of a Rangers fan?

JL:
Simple. We need to win ball games and then baseball fans across Texas will become Astros fans! We have a great base of fans over the 50 years of existence and we promise to work hard to win games and keep everyone excited. Jeff

jermster:
How do you views Brett Wallace role in the Astros organization future?

JL:
Brett and I have history since the Cardinals drafted him. He has had an up and down career but he is a talented baseball player with a bright future. He will get every opportunity to have an impact on this team in 2012.

aandycfb:
Do you have any Houston ties?

JL:
I have several Texas ties, and some Houston ties. My grandmother lived in Houston for the last five years of her life. I spent many summer days in Houston growing up attending Astros games. I’ve done business in Houston as part of my prior careers. This is a great city and I’m excited to be a part of the community.

aandycfb:
I heard that, in applying for the GM job, you put together a 25-page plan for rebuilding the Houston Astros. Can you share any of the high-level bullet points from that plan?

JL:
I would share that with you but then I’d have to… well actually, I hope that you will see it playing out over the coming years!

timmy_:
What did you ask Santa for, for Christmas?

JL:
A shortstop and a starting pitcher. The Red Sox delivered!

wgr56:
Thanks for the chat, Mr. Luhnow. My question: Much has been said about Mr. Crane’s decision to cut the budget. Are there areas where the budget might actually increase, such as scouting and player development?

JL:
Mr. Crane and the entire ownership group are committed to building a winner in Houston. We will have resources to invest in the player pipeline and that is good news for the fans.

drj0606:
Is your plan of action to replicate the success you had in St. Louis or to create a brand new path, a new story with the Astros?

JL:
Good question. Every situation is different so the path here will not look the same as the path in St Louis. We do hope that the results will be similar over time… creating a team that can compete consistently and develop a strong pipeline.

drj0606:
Do you plan to live in Houston?

JL:
Definitely. If you have any suggestions for neighborhoods, let me know!

terrias_2:
There is a great deal of pressure from fans for the team to get better quickly (many have abandoned game attendance). Is there a plan to balance these demands from fans as well as sticking to the plan of building from the bottom up?

JL:
This is going to be a balancing act that is very important. Nobody wants to lose games and we all want to show progress as soon as possible. Having said that, we are going to stick to the plan to build the elements that will lead to sustained success. Often there are tradeoffs between winning now and the future, and we will err towards the future.

drj0606:
What it is your opinion of the Astros having to face Albert Pujols for another 10 years? (Not a trick question) :)

JL:
Walk him.

drj0606:
Besides the obvious answer of winning, what are some other avenues you and Mr. Crane will pursue to increase Minute Maid Park attendance?

JL:
Fans come to the ballpark to have a great baseball experience. Putting a winning product on the field is a key element of that, but not the only one. I hope fans come and enjoy the family atmosphere and to watch the players as the team improves. Plus, you can lock in your season tickets now before the team gets so good you can’t get them anymore!

drj0606:
What do you think are Brad Mills’ greatest strengths?

JL:
Brad knows what it takes to win. He’s open minded and he understands the situation we are in… he’s eager to get better and at the same time willing to give the younger kids a chance to play. He’s a great fit for the Astros.

ElRanchoMan:
I know the draft is not until June, but who is on the radar for the #1 pick?

JL:
The scouts here have seen all the possible players. So have I. There are some good choices. You will find out on draft day.

virtualdarrell:
What kind of moves have to be made in 2012 to get ready for the move to the AL in 2013?

JL:
There are a few questions about the move to the AL. Right now, that is not a roster consideration. Clearly the biggest difference is the need for a DH. We will address that in plenty of time to start the 2013 season. Having a DH in some ways allows you some additional flexiblity in finding offensive weapons.

rtm3000:
Any chance we see David Carpenter doning the tools of ignorance again as the emergency third catcher this year? That would be pretty cool; I think baseball could use some more two-way players.

JL:
David was a good catcher… I know because the Cardinals had him. Once the conversion is made, though, we need to commit to it. He’s an important part of the bullpen plan for 2012 and that doesn’t mean warming guys up.

terrias_2:
Have you discovered the delight that is El Tiempo Margaritas yet?

JL:
I have not but Alyson has also mentioned it so I guess I have to try it!

rxs5505:
What is your opinion on the players obtained in the trades before you were hired?

JL:
Several legitimate prospects came over to Houston as part of those trades, and that bodes well for the future. It’s always tough giving up value but we did receive good players.

wgr56:
I’ve often read that St. Louis has MLB’s greatest baseball fans. What is good about St. Louis fans, and how do we get that in Houston?

JL:
We need to establish a winning tradition. St Louis has won 11 World Series. That creates great fans. We need to work on our first one and then go from there. Houston is a great sports city and it will happen here too.

aandycfb:
The Astros have “Scouting” and “Player Development” as different positions, but you played both roles for the Cardinals. What are some of the benefits of merging the Scouting/Player Development positions?

JL:
The scouts are always optimistic and the coaches often see a different aspect of the player because they are with them day in and day out. It is important in my opinion to have one voice across both areas. We will have that here too.

wgr56:
Mr. Luhnow: Many Astros fans feel not enough has been done to honor players from the past. Cesar Cedeno and J.R. Richard, specifically. Might the front office revisit this issue and retire the numbers of deserving players such as the two I mentioned.

JL:
We have several former Astro greats involved in the organization, and they are a resource I value very much. I am not involved in numbers being retired but I do plan to use the former greats to help up on the baseball side.

ElRanchoMan:
Welcome to Houston, are the Astros planning on keeping Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers or are they on the market? Also will Carlos Lee be exclusively playing 1B this upcoming season?

JL:
Wandy, Brett and Carlos are all three very good players and they have helped the Astros in the past and will in the future. We will look for any opportunity to improve our team in the medium and long term, so if there were a trade that made sense, we would consider it.

jermster:
What prospects in the Astros organization are you most impresed to see?

JL:
I’ve seen almost all the high profile players from the draft. I have not seen Villar and I’m excited to see him this spring.

stronation:
How much emphasis on pitching mechanics goes into your style of player evaluation? More specifically with regards to forecasting and injury risk.

JL:
There is a relationship between the delivery and potential for injury. It is part of a thorough evaluation.

aandycfb:
Do you think an international draft would benefit the sport? Teams? Latin American hopefuls?

JL:
That’s hard to tell. Some think the draft diminished the number of players from Puerto Rico. There are so many good players entering the game from Latin America and that will continue, even without a draft.

aliceanna:
How much say do you have with the way Brad Mills uses his players, i.e, lefty-righty matchups, platooning, relief roles, etc.?

JL:
I don’t see that as a GM’s role… micro managing the decisions made by the manager. There is information that is available that can assist in those decisions, and I will make sure our staff has everything they need.

aliceanna:
Do you favor drafting a position player or a pitcher with the first draft pick, or best available?

JL:
When you pick 1-1, you have to consider the player that has the highest chance of being an impact player. That can come in the form of a pitcher or position player.

elephande8:
Is there any chance the Astros make a big free-agent singing in the near future?

JL:
That’s unlikely given where we are at this point. We have young players that need to play. We will consider all options, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up for a big name big dollar free agent.

aandycfb:
Do you have any favorite baseball blogs?

JL:
Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus, The Book, among others. There are so many smart people writing about baseball… it’s great for the game.

kyuss94:
I was a fan of the trade with the Red Sox. Do you see Kyle Weiland as a starter or a reliever, and will he have a chance to make the team out of spring training?

JL:
Thanks. He has been a starter and he will continue to be a starter. He will compete for a spot on the opening day roster.

JL:
Thanks to everyone for asking the questions… we will do this again sometime next month. Keep following the Astros! Jeff

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Holiday roundup: The Sunshine Kids, Boys and Girls Club, Craig Biggio and a not-so-fat (but still plenty jolly) Santa Claus

The Astros haven’t stepped onto a baseball field in quite some time, but their December has shaped up to be almost as busy as a typical month during the season.

In between welcoming in a new owner and hiring a new general manager, the Astros have also been busy in the community, spreading their usual holiday cheer to kids from all over Houston. Two of their recent ventures include the annual Sunshine Kids Christmas Party, and a new event: the ASTROrdinary Clubhouse Christmas party.

The Sunshine Kids party has been a long-standing tradition for as far back as we can remember, and Craig and Patty Biggio’s presence at the party has been just as constant. Dozens of Astros volunteers helped out with face-painting, photos with Santa and other ho-ho-holiday activities. The venue — the gorgeous Children’s Museum — just added to the festive nature of this Sunshine Kids night out.

Biggio chats with a young party goer.

The Sunshine Kids party is a family affair for Quinn Biggio (back, left) and her parents, Craig and Patty, and friends.

"Head, shoulders, knees and toes" is always a crowd pleaser.

Same goes for Junction Jack.

Next up was the ASTROrdinary Clubhouse Christmas party, a soiree that was fun for the 50 kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston and for anyone who thinks it’s funny when ballplayers dress up in elf shoes, elf hats and pointy ears (which includes pretty much all of us, no?).

Doug Brocail should be very proud to know that the kids, while appreciative of the effort, didn’t think he was fat enough to really be Santa Claus. Still, the pitching coach was pretty convincing in his red suit, white beard and bushy eyebrows that he needed help sticking on to his face. Lining up behind him with their jingly green slippers were Santa’s elves: Jason Bourgeois, Bobby Meacham, Chris Johnson and Humberto Quintero (or, as Santa referred to him, “Elf Q”).

The kids — first, second and third graders — took a behind-the-scenes tour of the entire clubhouse and then gathered in the team dressing area to watch the movie “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Following the movie, the group moved to the Diamond Club for dinner and a photo session with Santa, who finally let out a big Ho! Ho! Ho! after 15 minutes or so of snuggling with two of his elves.

The kids then received their own special gift, a big box of some seriously cool swag, including an iPod Shuffle and an iTunes gift card.

Taking a tour of the weight room in the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park.

Brocail -- I mean, Santa -- checking himself out in the mirror.

Chris Johnson, preparing for his debut as the city's tallest elf.

Photo time

Opening presents in the Diamond Club

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Here’s a story that might tug at the heartstrings, regardless of whether you are a Mets fan, or a Jose Reyes fan, or a fan of, well, beer. Foley’s NY Pub & Restaurant in New York City, which doubles as a home away from home of sorts for baseball writers, front office staffers and umpires, came up with a fool-proof promotion that accomplishes two goals. It enables Mets fans to wallow in anger and/or self-pity and/or euphoria, while doing something productive for kids in the community.

According to this New York Daily News report, Foley’s, located in Midtown across from the Empire State Building, is offering free libations in exchange for No. 7 Reyes jerseys. Contributing fans will receive, according to the report, free beer to drown their sorrows that Reyes signed with the Marlins, or champagne to celebrate Reyes signing with the Marlins, or appetizers for those who don’t drink and are depressed — or don’t like the Mets but do like appetizers.

The jerseys will be donated to clothing drives. Fans are also asked to donate their Reyes bobbleheads, which will then go to children’s hospitals.

It’s a genius move, really. It gets people to go to Foley’s with promises of free food and drink, and in the end, everyone has made a charitable contribution. A win-win and not at all surprising that Foley’s owner Shaun Clancy came up with such a great idea.

Cheers!

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Buying T-shirts and touring Astros clubhouse: no longer mutually exclusive.

Round one of the two-day Clubhouse Extravaganza on Friday turned the Astros’ locker room area into something resembling your favorite department store at Christmas time. It was just your garden variety end-of-season bargain bonanza where, delightfully, everything must go.

The Team Store in Union Station is lovely and inviting, don’t get me wrong. But what’s more fun than buying drastically marked-down items while peering into Bud Norris’ locker?

The Clubhouse Extravaganza, which features licensed Major League Baseball clothing items and game-used memorabilia, including jerseys, bats and baseballs,  will continue on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In addition to shopping in and touring the clubhouse, fans will have the opportunity to take photos with Junction Jack and sit in the Astros dugout. Dollar hot dogs and soda will also be available.

Admission to the event is $10.00, which will be applied to the purchase of merchandise. Free parking will be available in the Diamond Club lot.

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Luhnow’s task: Build, fix, win. In that order.

Jeff Luhnow (LOO-know) has a gigantic undertaking ahead of him and he acknowledged as much during his introduction to the media Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. He didn’t gloss over what’s going on with your Astros lately, nor did he give a bunch of false promises that would suggest the Astros are going to be World Series contenders next year and their farm system is a humming, sound, well-oiled machine.

The Astros began the rebuilding process two years ago and the organization is in a much better place now than it was in 2007 when a disastrous draft pushed the farm system in a dire need of a makeover. That process is ongoing, and now they have a general manager in place who not only helped the St. Louis Cardinals win two World Series in five years, but whose fingerprints can be found all over a Minor League system that has produced winners at every level, bottom to top.

You’ve heard us drone on and on about scouting and player development in the last year to year and a half. Expect that line of chatter to continue. The underlying levels of a Major League franchise — the parts fans cannot see from their seats at Minute Maid Park — are the lifeline of a team. Luhnow’s task is simple: turn the farm system into the best in baseball. Think of it as a trickle-up theory. Churning out the talent in the farm system will eventually turn the Major League team into a winner. That’s the plan, and to hear Luhnow, owner Jim Crane and president/CEO George Postolos talk, it’s a plan they have written out in specific detail, and one they have no intention of abandoning.

This will require patience from the fans, and there is no one in the Astros’ organization who does not recognize and acknowledge that it’s asking a lot. Luhnow was even asked Thursday if he had any trepidation joining an organization that is struggling as much as the Astros are. “I love St. Louis and I loved my time there,” Luhnow said. “There are very few opportunities that I would have considered leaving them for. This is one of them.”

Over time, the Major League club will be filled with players who came from the Astros’ farm system, rather than a grouping of players who came from outside of the organization. This might not seem significant, but it is. There is a different feeling among teammates who came up through the system together and are given the opportunity to win with the team that drafted, signed and developed them. It’s a special camaraderie that can go a long way.

To illustrate, let’s look at the 2004 Astros, who made it to Game Seven of the National League Championship Series before losing the pennant to the Cardinals. The Opening Day lineup consisted of five players who were drafted (or signed out of Latin America) by the Astros: Richard Hidalgo, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Roy Oswalt. Two more were not drafted by the Astros but had never played for another Major League team: Jeff Bagwell and Adam Everett. That left only Brad Ausmus (who eventually played 10 seasons with Houston) and Jeff Kent who had played in the big leagues for other teams before joining the Astros.

If the current plan in place works, history could repeat itself, with different characters, obviously. The majority of the resources will be spent on scouting and player development, on Latin America and International scouting. When it’s time to win again, that’s when it will be time to add a free agent here and there to fortify an already winning formula.

So that’s the plan. The Cardinals are very similar to the Astros in that they rely mostly on homegrown talent. Many of the players that contributed to the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series title were drafted under Luhnow’s watch, including Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Lance Lynn. He took over the club’s player development system in 2006 and saw the Cardinals turn in the best system record in baseball in 2010 and five Minor League championships from the Rookie Leagues to Triple-A.

If he can do that in Houston, better times are surely ahead.

Luhnow's first moments in his new office at Minute Maid Park.

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Winter Meetings snapshots: Job fair, managers luncheon and a new dress code. (Hint: Leave the flip-flops at home.)

Sixteen years ago, I stuffed a stack of resumes in my suitcase and flew to Los Angeles for the Winter Meetings, where a start-up company called PBEO (Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities) was holding a job fair.

Most of the jobs available were with Minor League teams, although a scant amount of Major League jobs were also available. The process was simple: teams would post job openings, and interested applicants would submit their resumes. Interviews would take place on site and hopefully, by the end of the three-day process, you would leave with a baseball job.

I was lucky enough to land one of the few non-internship jobs that actually paid a yearly salary, even though the money I made during my one year with the Double-A Cleveland Indians was barely enough to cover rent, fast food and an occasional six-pack of Bud Light. And I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, but it eventually led me to the Houston Astros.

The PBEO job fair continues to this day, and although it’s a lot more organized than it was back in the mid-1990s, the concept is still the same. Many of the jobs available are internships. A few are full-time. All are for little or no pay, but they provide a wonderful opportunity to break into the business, which could very well springboard into something more fruitful in the future.

The number of PBEO job fair applicants who land jobs is staggering, given the ratio. According to Darryl Henderson, the Coordinator of Affiliate Programs at Minor League Baseball, 404 jobs were posted this week. The number of registered applicants: 470.

If you’re looking to work in baseball but don’t know where to start, you might want to check out PBEO.com.

The applicant workroom also serves as a place to drop off resumes.

The job posting room...dozens of openings, from dozens of Minor League teams.

Each posting includes a number in the right-hand corner. Interested applicants then drop their resumes in a coordinating tray.

When I went through the job fair process in 1995, interviews were done in the hotel rooms of the teams. Now, they have a much better setup: an interview room adjacent to the workroom and posting room.

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MLB.com columnist and MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons weighed in on the Astros’ GM search on Tuesday, noting that the organization is “going through a very thorough process…a very detailed process, very well thought out.”

There is no timetable on when the Astros might make a hire, but I’m pretty sure nothing will be resolved by the time the front office officials leave the Winter Meetings after the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday. The latest names to come out as potential candidates are Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo and Dodgers assistant GM Logan White. White interviewed for the job four years ago before Ed Wade was hired.

White oversees the Dodger’s amateur and international scouting efforts, while Picollo, who previously worked for the Braves, has made his mark as one of the key people to restock the Royals’ Minor League system with ample talent.

Astros president and CEO George Postolos has made it clear he’s looking for someone deeply experienced in scouting and player development, so it comes as no surprise that the four candidates that have been publicly revealed all have strong backgrounds in that area.

UPDATE: The Astros confirmed late Wednesday night they hired Jeff Luhnow as their new General Manager. Astros Owner Jim Crane will introduce Luhnow on Thursday at 1 p.m. at Minute Maid Park.
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Albert Pujols’ contract status and the Miami Marlins’ splashy spending spree have generated the biggest buzz this week at the Winter Meetings, but on Wednesday, an interesting sideshow became the secondary focus, however briefly, for many reporters.

Major League Baseball has issued a dress code for the media, the first of the four major sports to do so. Among the clothing items now prohibited: flip-flops, short skirts, tank tops and anything that bears a team logo. Ripped jeans, visible undergarments, sheer clothing, one-shouldered and strapless shirts and tops exposing bare midriffs are also banned.

Moreover, skirts, dresses or shorts cut more than three or four inches above the knee are now on the list of no-nos.

You’d like to think reporters already know what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to work attire. Unfortunately, it takes only about 15 minutes spent in a Major League press box to realize this is not the case. A Major League stadium is a place for fans to go to have fun in a casual atmosphere, but for those who work in the industry, a ballpark is a place of business. The new MLB dress code simply asks reporters to remember that and act accordingly.

MLB’s guidelines are concise and to-the-point, but if I had a chance to spell this out for the media, I could probably sum it up even more efficiently:

Dude. No one wants to look at your feet.
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Day Three of the Winter Meetings brought all 30 Major League managers together for the annual Manager’s luncheon, where skippers and the reporters who cover them gather for an informal, interview-free hour-long lunch designed to generate good will between teams and the media.

MLB prefers that we not take pictures or tweet during the luncheon, but we were given permission to snap photos along with the official photographer when it was time for the group session:

I dared Brad Mills (front row, second from right) to pose with the American League managers. He laughed at me and declined. Smart man.

American League managers.

Padres manager Bud Black chats with new Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny.

Buck Showalter, Ron Washington, Joe Maddon.

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Next Friday and Saturday (Dec. 9-10), the Astros home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park will be converted into a Team Store featuring the licensed Major League Baseball collection and great deals for holiday shopping.

The sale will also include unique, game-used memorabilia, including jerseys, bats and baseballs.

The “Clubhouse Extravaganza” event will be held on Friday from Noon to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to shopping in and touring the clubhouse, fans will have the opportunity to take photos with Junction Jack and sit in the Astros dugout. Dollar hot dogs and soda will also be available.

Admission to the event is $10, which will be applied to the purchase of merchandise. Free parking will be available in the Diamond Club lot.

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A look at the Winter Meetings, from a media point of view.

The Winter Meetings can be an overwhelming experience, especially for the first-timers who have no idea how involved the process is or how many people — thousands, really — participate.

Even former players who had long and interesting Major League careers are somewhat bowled over by everything that goes into the four-day yearly baseball convention. As we explained earlier, it’s not just a time for Major League teams to make deals and sign free agents, although that is undoubtedly what garners the most attention. The Winter Meetings provide an opportunity quite literally for everyone involved in baseball to gather in one place for a short time to network, report, meet, greet, schmooze…and on and on and on.

That includes all 30 Major League front offices, hundreds of Minor League franchises, beat reporters and columnists, radio hosts, television stations, cable networks, scouts, agents and vendors. Throw in a hefty crop of job seekers and you’re talking about an overwhelming amount of people spending hours in one confined space. Even though the Hilton Anatole in Dallas is a gigantic hotel, it seems a lot smaller when you put everyone in baseball under one roof. The
surroundings seemingly shrink even more at the end of the traditional workday when the lobby, and the lobby bar, becomes everyone’s favorite late-night hangout.

The media, of course, are a huge part of the Winter Meetings. Reporters are everywhere. They scour the lobby for agents who might have a scoop. They hang out on the sidelines hoping to run into an executive or three. The national heavy-hitters are front and center, right in the thick of things, which is why you’ll see the ESPN and MLB Network sets parked in the lobby, the epicenter of the Winter Meetings.

Radio and television stations are set up throughout the hotel, right in a row, which makes it easier for media relations directors to provide media availability for their managers in one fell swoop. Each Major League manager is first scheduled for 30-minute sessions with reporters in the media workroom, and after that, he simply makes his way down radio/TV row, granting interviews to anyone who asks. That usually includes Sirius/XM, MLB.tv, MLB Network, ESPN, and more.

Here are a few images from the Winter Meetings on Tuesday in Dallas, from a media angle:

The MLB Network crew: Matt Vasgersian, Dan Plesac, Larry Bowa, Jon Heyman.

Seeing former players mingling with execs and managers in the lobby is common at the Winter Meetings. Recognize the guy on the left? It's former Astro Jose Vizcaino, now a special assistant with the Dodgers.

Former Major League player Kevin Millar is now with the MLB Network, and seeing his employer is front and center at the Winter Meetings, he's a common sight in the hotel lobby during breaks.

Astros manager Brad Mills (left) and Blue Jays manager John Farrell are close friends, having coached on Terry Francona's staff for several years with the Red Sox. Here they are catching up in the media workroom.

After his formal meeting with the beat writers, Mills joined MLB TV for a short interview.

The media workroom, home to hundreds of print/internet reporters during the Winter Meetings.

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What the Astros are looking for in a general manager.

Astros president and CEO George Postolos acknowledged on Monday that he and club owner Jim Crane have interviewed “about a half-dozen” candidates for the vacant general manager position. He declined to reveal names, but one thing is perfectly clear — whoever gets this job will have a strong background in scouting and player development.

If it comes down to a candidate who projects as a “win now” GM whose strength is tweaking a Major League roster to be an immediate contender, and a candidate who has a “get good and stay good” vision with a definitive idea how to pump as much talent into the farm system as quickly as possible, look for the latter to be hired.

Long-term, Postolos and Crane are looking to win a World Series. (Obviously. Who isn’t?) But before the Major League team can rise back to prominence, the farm system needs to get back on track. This isn’t a chicken-egg riddle. There’s no question which comes first with regard to a winning franchise. Major League teams with bad Minor League systems do not win championships (yes, even the Yankees have a solid farm system). Crane and Postolos plan to carry out the long-term plan, with the realization that long-term plans aren’t carried out overnight. Their first order of business is to find the right GM, then continue to build the farm system, and then prepare to win on the big league level.

(Postolos video on scouting and player development)

“A lot of the time you’ll see candidates from two different pools,” Postolos said during his media session late Monday afternoon at the Winter Meetings in Dallas. “You’ll see candidates who came up as assistant general managers focused on roster construction and then you’ll see candidates who are very experienced in scouting and player development. Because of where our franchise is and where our priorities are at this point in time, we tend to be focused more on that scouting and player development pool.

“That’s a little different from some recent searches where somebody may be looking for the person who can come in and tweak the Major League team just right in order to get over the hump and win the division title or get in a position to win the World Series. We know where we are. Having finished the 2011 season where it is and given where our system is, the key for us is laying the foundation the right way.”

Postolos pointed out that “if you say everything is your priority, then you don’t really have a priority.” The Astros’ priority, Postolos added, is to be “elite in the talent pipeline.”

“That’s the candidate we’re looking for,” Postolos said. “The candidate that can put us in that position. We’re very confident if we get into a situation if we develop one of the top systems in baseball, we’re fortunate enough to be in a market that will allow us to sustain that success.”

With that in mind, it’s not surprising why the first two candidates that have been confirmed as having interviewed with the Astros have piqued Postolos’ interest. Jeff Luhnow was picked to head up the Cardinals’ baseball development operation eight years ago and brought with him an unconventional philosophy, one that was initially scoffed at by the old guard in baseball that believes there is only one way to identify and develop talent.

Yet, as highlighted in an extensive Baseball America feature, Luhnow’s fingerprints can be found all over the Cardinals’ World Championship team. During a three-year stretch from 2005-07, Lunhow, according to the publication, oversaw three drafts that eventually produced 24 big leaguers, more than any other organization has gotten from the same three drafts. Many of those players were under-the-radar prospects who eventually played key roles in the 2011 Fall
Classic.

Bill Geivett, senior VP of scouting and player development of the Colorado Rockies, is largely responsible for his team acting as a cohesive unit, from the very top to the very bottom of the organization. In his early days with the Rockies as player personnel director and farm director, according to an MLB.com report, Geivett compiled a teaching manual used throughout the organization so that the Minor Leagues and Major Leagues are all on the same program.

Continuity is a huge part of the success of any organization, and those who have worked with or for Geivett have never experienced any confusion as to what the organization’s feelings are on various topics. That can go a long way when it comes to entrusting the many managers and coaches who players encounter as they make their way through a farm system.

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Elsewhere around the gigantic Hilton Anatole hotel in cold and drizzly Dallas…

While the Winter Meetings are largely known for teams making trades and sign big-ticket free agents, there is a lot more that goes on during the four-day convention than just Major League clubs wheeling and dealing. It’s also a time when executives get together with their brethren for meetings that usually run morning until late afternoon. Public relations departments have their meetings, as do athletic trainers, traveling secretaries, and on and on.

I sat in on a couple of public relations meetings this morning that were centered on Social Media. With the announcement of the new Basic Agreement came the revelation that Major League players would be subject to guidelines regarding Social Media, with specifics on what to do and (more importantly) what not to do.

The final guidelines haven’t been made official yet, but we were given some insight as to the general rules, and there are really no huge surprises. They can be implemented easily by simply using a little common sense. Don’t use Twitter to reveal confidential club information, don’t use Twitter as a mechanism to denigrate your teammates, coaches, manager or organization, don’t use derogatory language, don’t reveal confidential injury information. That kind of stuff.

Last summer during my Minor League tours through Lexington and Lancaster, I gave a 10-minute speech to the teams about the do’s and don’ts of Social Media. (We also talk to the players about these topics during Spring Training.) Twitter is at the forefront obviously, but Facebook (and the ability to post hundreds of pictures in a matter of minutes) is not to be ignored either.

Regarding Twitter, the message to the players was pretty simple: What you say on Twitter is on the record. If interesting enough, your quotes will be used by reporters. And as a professional athlete, it’s not acceptable to embarrass yourself or the organization through this medium. And yes, you are in the spotlight and therefore you are held to standards different from the average member of society. So get used to it.

Before you send out a tweet, I tell them, imagine you are relaying this thought verbally to a reporter who is standing there in front of you holding a recorder and a flip cam. Now, think about it again. Is this something you really want out there? If the answer is yes, let it fly. If you have even a smidgeon of trepidation about it, play it on the safe side and do not tweet.

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Programming note: Bud Norris will appear on “Astroline” Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT. The show, hosted by Milo Hamilton, will air live from Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown and can be heard on 740 KTRH and Astros.com. The call-in number to the show is 713-212-5874.

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The all-time team in 1999 and the all-time team now: What’s changed?

Some of you might recall the nostalgic look back to the Astrodome days that we took a few weeks ago, when we reprinted pages from the game program sold during the final weekend of the season in October of 1999.

In the middle of that commemorative Farewell to the Astrodome issue of Astros Magazine was pictorial tribute to the players and manager who were named to the All-Astrodome team.

It’s interesting to see who was picked back then — after all, at that time, Lance Berkman had about 10 big league at-bats to his name and Roy Oswalt was still about a year and a half from from making his Major League debut.

Catcher: Alan Ashby

First baseman: Jeff Bagwell

Second baseman: Craig Biggio

Shortstop: Craig Reynolds

Third baseman: Doug Rader

Outfielder: Cesar Cedeno

Outfielder: Jose Cruz

Outfielder: Jimmy Wynn

Starting pitcher: Joe Niekro

Starting pitcher: J.R. Richard

Starting pitcher: Nolan Ryan

Starting pitcher: Mike Scott

Starting pitcher: Larry Dierker

Reliever: Dave Smith

Reliever: Billy Wagner

Next year, fans will have plenty of input as we elect the all-time team during our celebration of the 50th anniversary of Houston baseball. But for now, let’s have a little fun. Take a look at who was considered to be the best of the best in 1999. Who would your all-time team be now? Looking for one manager, a first baseman, second baseman, shortstop and third baseman, catcher, three outfielders and two relievers.

(For those of you stressing over Berkman and Jeff Bagwell both being first basemen, just count Puma as an outfielder.)

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While we’re on the subject — and boy, we’ve been talking a lot about Larry Dierker lately — our lovable former skipper is now a full-fledged blogger. A lot of you might remember Dierk’s “Baseball Library” columns that used to run in the Houston Chronicle back in the day. Well, they’re back, in the form of  “Dierk’s Dugout,” which you can find on MLB.com or just by clicking here.  Not only is Dierk a great writer, but the insight he provides after nearly 50 years in this game is priceless.

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