February 2012

Photo Day shenanigans are a Spring Training tradition.

I’m really not sure why a portion of the Yankees’ Photo Day took place in a bathroom, as evidenced by an Alex Rodriguez picture that circulated around the Internet and Twitterverse on Monday. I checked the Internet for answers as to why a photographer from a reputable company set up camp with A-Rod in such an odd place, but there didn’t seem to be a logical explanation. The only conclusion I can draw is the photo was leaked, and we’re the unfortunate beneficiaries of yellow journalism.

Ba-da-bum.

Anyhoo, I can assure you the Astros’ Photo Day setup was considerably less cramped, had a much lower ick factor, and each year, they try to make it as painless for the players as possible.

Photo Day is a somewhat awkward experience, but one that is an essential part of big league baseball. It’s the one day all year that everyone who needs headshots or posed shots has access to the players, all at once. Newspapers, online news organizations, baseball card companies and the club’s own scoreboard staff use Photo Day to stockpile pictures of players that they will inevitably need over the course of a season.

Photo Day starts insanely early. The first batch of Astros players began the process at 7 a.m., which means the photographers had to be here around 5:30 or so to set up. Groups went through the stations in 15-minute increments, with the youngest, most inexperienced players going first, and the veteran guys (Carlos Lee was last) getting the more desirable time slots.

Players go from station to station with a printout of their name and their position. They hold up the sign for the first photo that is snapped, so that they’re easily identifiable when the hundreds of photos from all 30 teams need to be organized and placed into a database.

(Years ago, Reggie Abercrombie and Hanley Ramirez thought it would be funny to switch signs. For a full year, their head shots on scoreboards all through the league and in media guides were not of themselves, but of each other.)

Here is some behind-the-scenes footage of Photo Day, where players are trying to act naturally for the cameras while ignoring the few of us who snicker from the sidelines. Enos Cabell had a laugh as he remembered Photo Days from years past, when the topic of the exercise centered around the size of Bruce Bochy’s head.

Photo gallery:

Jose Altuve

Jason Bourgeois

Matt Downs

Enos Cabell searches for his hat size while recalling the unusually large head belonging to former teammate Bruce Bochy.

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Transcript from Jeff Luhnow chat session

Q: What is expected of a closer like Myers now? What was the main reason this was such a good move?
Jeff Luhnow: Myers will help our bullpen significantly. He has experience in that role and has the stuff and mentality to shut the door late in the game.

Q: How do you keep young players from making big mistakes?
JL: You don’t. You hope that when they make mistakes they learn from them. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Of course we prepare them as best we can but you can’t avoid them all together.

Q: With such a young team I have to imagine they are all in great shape — how will this work against other teams in the NL?
JL: One of the benefits of a young team is the upside potential as well as the general health. We are very healthy right now (knock on wood) and that will be an advantage for us this season.

Q: Where does the team need most improvement on the chart?
JL: We have talented players… we need to add to our depth, keep everyone healthy, and let them play.

Q: How much time do you have as a manager or coach to fix issues during Spring Training? Is 30 days enough?
JL: Spring Training is long enough to get ready for the season. We teach as much as we can and for most of these guys, it’s a refresher. Remember the teaching goes on all year, even during the season and in the off-season.

Q: What’s the weather like in Florida? Team Spirit?
JL: We had a bit of rain yesterday but it didn’t affect our work. The weather in Florida is PERFECT! The team spirit is very good. I’ve been most pleased with that aspect of camp. The veterans and young guys are mixing very well.

Q: Who is the offensive leader of the Astros this year?
JL: I believe we will get production from our entire lineup. Several of the new guys we added, Lowrie, Cust, Snyder, Ruggiano, Buck, have a history of hitting so that’s a help.

Q: Besides a lot of W’s – What are you looking for out Spring Training from your team?
JL: We have to make decisions on the 25 guys who start the seasons versus Colorado. That means properly evaluating everyone. That’s the priority, as well as staying healthy.

Q: What do the Astros have this year that they didn’t have in 2011?
JL: We have added some new players into the mix. We have a clean slate from which to start. We have a few new coaches. We have young players who are one year more experienced. We have prospects that are one year closer. All good elements that should lead to us performing well above expectations.

Q: What will it take to get the 2012 Pennant?
JL: We have to have a winning mindset and attitude. We need to expect to win every series, and every game. If we work hard and smart and get some breaks along the way, we will be a competitive team.

Q: If you could sum up the 2012 strategy in one word – what would you say?
JL: Build excitement and generate some momentum. Oops, too many words. How about “progress.”

Q: Last year we saw Altuve, Martinez, Paredes and Lyles (just to name a few) get called up and make big contributions. Are Cosart, Singleton, Foltynewicz, Springer or any other of our prospects ready to make that leap this season?
JL: I expect the guys who came up last year will be able to contribute more this year. There will be some new rookies this year, but only time will tell who they are. Those are all good names that you mention.

Q: As general manager, is there a timetable to when this team is not just competitive again, but winning divisions or thinking about the playoffs?
JL: I’m not a patient guy, but I’m also realistic about how difficult it is to contend year in and year out, which is our goal. We are in a tough division and we will be moving to a tough division next year. We will get there, I just can’t predict when because I would likely be wrong!

Q: Can you speak a bit about your own personal philosophy on drafting? I know most generally take the best player available, but all else being equal, do you look for guys who play premium positions, or do you tend to avoid prep players?
JL: Early in the draft, especially the first round, you want to get an impact player – regardless of age or position. When you pick 1-1, you have an opportunity to get a franchise type player. That is our goal.

Q: What is Brett Wallace’s future?
JL: Brett will be a run producer in the big leagues.

Q: If Singleton has a monster spring, will he get consideration to make the big club?
JL: I wouldn’t rule anything out, and he is a great-looking player. We do have a number of options for both outfield and first base, so whoever wins the job/s will need to perform this spring.

Q: Now that there’s an extra spot in the rotation open, who would you say might have an inside track? Is Aneury Rodriguez someone you would consider a strong rotation candidate at this point?
JL: One of the benefits of moving Brett into the bullpen was that it opens up another spot in the rotation. We have at least five candidates for that new spot. I can’t wait to see what emerges but we have some good choices.

Q: Is there a lot of “testing” going on in Spring Training or are you pretty comfortable with everyone’s position and abilities?
JL: Generally speaking, we know the players well enough to know what position they should be playing to help us out. In some cases, like Singleton and Paredes, the player can do well at multiple positions so we might try them out at various spots.

Q: Do you think that it’s better to ease in a young potential starter by working him from the bullpen for a season, or do you favor keeping them as a starter until they’re ready for the big club?
JL: That’s a debate we had in St. Louis and will have here too. There is no perfect answer. Some of it depends on the pitcher and some on the team’s situation. I’ve seen it work both ways.

Q: Now that Michael Kvasnicka is moving back behind the plate, isn’t our depth at 3B in the minors nearly shot? Will you be looking to draft more third baseman this year to help compensate?
JL: No, we’ve got some third basemen. I haven’t seen him recently, but Jonathan Meyer is a very good defensive player at the hot corner. We will add to our depth at that position soon.

Q: Who has the inside shot of being the starting right fielder?
JL: Brad has talked about several options… Cust, Buck, Ruggiano, Bogusevic, Martinez… we have choices and we need to evaluate them over the coming month. We haven’t played any games yet so it’s wide open.

Q: How important to the future of this team is the trading of Myers, Lyon and/or Wandy this year?
JL: All three of those players are Astros and are valuable parts of our current team.

Q: You mentioned the other night that you didn’t see the elite starter arm in the Astros system. Do you see that kind of arm available in the draft this year?
JL: We have some very good pitching prospects, so I didn’t mean to talk them down. The “industry” doesn’t see an obvious top of the rotation guy in our system, and that is what I was referring to in my comment. That doesn’t mean someone won’t emerge as a top guy. We do see some possibilities in this draft.

Q: Which GMs (past and present) do you look to as examples of how to best run a baseball team?
JL: There are many excellent GMs in the game, and I try to watch them from afar (and close when I can) and figure out what they are doing and how well it’s working.

Q: How likely is it that you’ll be able to talk Mr. Crane into making a splash on Jorge Soler before the new spending cap hits? Speaking of which, your thoughts on the cap?
JL: Soler will be pursued by many teams, as he is a very good young player. Mr. Crane will support our efforts to sign top talent. I don’t think the cap will negatively affect our ability to find and sign good players.

Q: Why does there seem to be no interest in a trade for Wandy? He’s a great pitcher. Or is it just that the interest has been not reported/leaked?
JL: Wandy is a valuable pitcher and he would add value to any rotation in baseball. He helps us quite a bit.

Q: Thanks for doing this chat, Jeff. What are thoughts on Kyle Weiland’s shot at the rotation? With Myers moving to the closer’s role now, I’m excited to see Kyle compete for a spot in the starting five.
JL: You are welcome! Kyle has been fun to watch so far and I’m looking forward to seeing him in Spring games. Yes, he has a shot at the rotation along with several other guys.

Q: We had the worst record in MLB last year. No expects us to get to the World Series this year but how would you define a successful season for Astros?
JL: We would like to generate some enthusiasm for the club and make some real progress. I personally would like us to exceed everyone’s expectations and win many more ballgames.

Q: Do you have an opinion on the chances the Astros will finally get someone into the Hall of Fame as Astros players next year? Specifically, what do you think of Bagwell’s and Biggio’s chances?
JL: I will vote for both Biggio and Bagwell. Shoot, I guess I don’t get a vote. They are both deserving for sure.

Q: Have you had a chance to look at the uniform concepts being presented on the Astros.com message boards?
JL: Not yet but I will! I’m glad that fans will be able to weigh in on any possible changes. It should be exciting.

Q: I’ve heard a lot about FIELDf/x as an exciting upcoming system for measuring defensive success more accurately. What can you tell us about it and do you know if it will be (unfortunately) proprietary?
JL: I don’t know if it will be proprietary, but certainly having the information of where the defenders are before and during each play will allow the defensive metrics to evolve to new levels. I can’t wait.

Inside the weight room: hitting the gym with Castro and Bourgeois.

For select members of the Astros’ front office staff, these early days of Spring Training, as casual and carefree as they may seem from afar, are among the busiest of the calendar year.

The ballpark entertainment staff, for example, is spending its time in Florida preparing just about everything it will need to keep you engaged in between innings when you’re taking in an Astros game at Minute Maid Park. This requires a very early arrival to the ballpark in the morning and some long hours as the day progresses.

The skits and bits that play on the giant scoreboard at Minute Maid Park (El Grande), are almost all filmed during Spring Training. The entertainment crew — Kirby Kander, Joey Graham and David Congdon — are here for an abbreviated amount of time but somehow find a way to cram almost everything they need for the season into a tidy 10-day jaunt to Spring Training.

One feature they’ll run this year is called “Fit to Win,” which will give a behind-the-scenes view of a player’s workout routine, and his explanation about what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, and what the benefits are. Several players have been asked to be a part of this feature, including starting pitcher Bud Norris, catcher Jason Castro and outfielder Jason Bourgeois, among others.

Since this was a behind-the-scenes project, and we consider this blog as an all-access behind-the-scenes pass to all things Astros, we thought it would be fun to tag along and shoot video of our scoreboard staff shooting video of our players.

While taking in the workout routines of Castro and Bourgeois, I learned a few things: these dudes are strong. And ridiculously fit. And some of the stuff Castro was doing was making my hammys hurt, just watching him. Same goes for Bourgeois and his ab work.

The more I watch Castro work, the more confident I am that he will not only be able to adequately move past last year’s injury issues, but that he’ll also be able to maintain his stamina so that he can catch a significant amount of games this year.

With that, we move to today’s gallery: working out with Castro and Bourgeois:

Castro: Medicine ball side tosses.

Castro is pulling 500 lbs -- yes, 500 -- while doing this sled drag.

I'm sure working out with two video cameras and three Astros staff members watching your every move is not the most comfortable way to work out, but Bourgeois was a trooper while graciously granting the access.

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Team meeting stresses attitude, work ethic, effort. Mills: “Respect the game.”

The morning of the first full-squad workout is always a little more jam-packed than the rest, mainly because players are in and out taking physicals and then ushered to the assembly room on the second floor of the complex for the first team meeting of Spring Training.

Sixty-three players, plus more than a dozen front office members and around than two-dozen coaches, instructors and other members of the Spring Training staff gathered for an introductory meeting Sunday that featured four speakers: general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager Brad Mills, president/CEO George Postolos and owner Jim Crane.

Postolos and Crane, new to the organization, used the platform to introduce themselves and share some details about their backgrounds. Luhnow did as well, before spelling out exactly what he expects from the players this spring and on into the season. He acknowledged that the Astros are picked by no one to contend in the National League Central division, but he also emphasized that this team is better than most think, and he set expectations extremely high in terms of effort, work ethic and attitude:

“Every game, we’re going to go into it thinking we’re going to win,” Luhnow said. “Every series, we’re going to go into it thinking we’re going to win. Even when things go wrong, we can’t give up and say, ‘It’s not going the way we planned, so be it.’

“That’s where the mental toughness part comes in. That’s when you really have to bear down and you really have to believe in yourself and in your teammates. When things aren’t going well, when we get swept or lose a game we should have won, that’s when you have to forget about it, and the next morning be back on track with that (winning) attitude. That’s the only way it’s going to happen for us. That’s what I expect and that’s what you should expect from each other.”

Mills stressed the importance of respecting the game, which can be achieved in a few different ways. First and foremost, play the game the right way: run hard to first base, move runners over, hit the cutoff man, back up bases, get ahead of hitters.

“Everything you do, you don’t take for granted one day that you put on a Major League uniform,” Mills said. Later, he added,  “We’ve all heard that losing’s a habit. Well, so’s winning.”

The behind-the-scenes video of the team meeting can be viewed here.

Luhnow asked for a show of hands of anyone who has won a championship at any level, whether it was Litle League, college or the pros.

Owner Jim Crane joked that his Astros jacket was the only team-related clothing item he has been issued, making it "a 610 million-dollar jacket."

Other camp notes and miscellaneous tidbits:

* The pitchers who threw live batting practice for the first time on Sunday include: LHP Fernando Abad, RHP Juan Abreu, LHP Xavier Cedeno, LHP Zach Duke, LHP Sergio Escalona, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Arcenio Leon, RHP Jordan Lyles, RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP Brett Myers, RHP Lance Pendleton, RHP Henry Sosa, RHP Jose Valdez, RHP Kyle Weiland and LHP Wesley Wright.

* Carlos Lee said he hasn’t decided whether to retire after his contract runs out this year. He sounded as if he’d see what he has left performance-wise this year and make a decision after that. He also said he was amenable to the idea of serving as the Astros’ designated hitter when they move to the American League in 2013.

* Currently, just 10 of the 63 players in the Astros camp are 30 years old or older. Six of the 35 position players and four of the 28 pitchers in camp are 30 or older.

The over-30 position players: Jason Bourgeois (30), Jack Cust (33), Carlos Lee (35), Humberto Quintero (32), Chris Snyder (31) and Joe Thurston (32). The pitchers: Livan Hernandez (37), Brandon Lyon (32), Brett Myers (31) and Wandy Rodriguez (33).

* The Astros Grapefruit League home opener on March 3 will be Scout Day at Osceola County Stadium, which will include a parade and special activities for area Boy Scouts attending the game. Other promotional days include: March 6 vs. the Mets: the first 2,000 fans will receive an Astros Visor; March 13 vs. the Phillies: the first 2,000 fans will receive an Astros Drawstring Backpack.

March 18 will be Florida Hospital Employee Day, which will include special discounted tickets for employees of Florida Hospital. March 30 will be Teacher Night, during which each area school’s Teacher of the Year will be recognized. School employees can purchase discounted tickets.

* Literacy Advance of Houston and Larry Dierker will host the Reader Cup – Larry Dierker Celebrity Golf Tournament on Monday (Feb. 27). In addition to a raffle and live auction, they are also offering a custom-made Hawaiian shirt in honor of Dierker, for a donation of $50 to Literacy Advance.

The Hawaiian shirt can be ordered here, Proceeds benefit Literacy Advance’s free literacy programs.

And finally, the photo gallery from a well-populated workout at the Osceola County Stadium complex:

Brad Mills and hitting coach Mike Barnett talk during Carlos Lee's round of BP.

Travis Buck, Jose Altuve.

Jim Crane, Brian Bogusevic, Matt Downs.

Brett Wallace signs autographs on his way back from the indoor batting cage.

A few feet from Wallace, Lee does the same.

Jeff Luhnow, Jim Crane, George Postolos.

Brad Mills, Jim Crane.

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To the Kid, from a kid: a final goodbye to Gary Carter.

All week, I’ve been reading beautiful tributes by people who covered Gary Carter during his 19-year career and got to know him on a personal level. They lauded his work ethic and his professionalism and his genuine zest for life, and they stand in admiration for how much he appreciated the gifts that allowed him to earn a living by playing a Kid’s game.

I, too, admired Gary Carter. But I did not know him, other than one brief, passing introduction. I did not cover him as a reporter; he retired while I was still in college. By all logic, he was a virtual stranger. Yet, it’s quite possible no one had more of an impact on me while I was deciding who and what I was during my teenage years. And so much of who he was is directly tied to what I’m doing now.

I’d describe myself — back when I was a kid growing up in southwest Ohio — as a perfectly adequate Reds fan. I liked baseball, a lot, and enjoyed the two or three hour-long trips every year my family would take to Cincinnati to watch games at Riverfront Stadium. We’d buy the cheap tickets, my dad would pick up eight $1 hot dogs, we’d sneak down to the good seats and move around as we got booted by the ushers. We would leave at the top of the eighth inning — Dad’s orders — to beat the traffic, and listen to Marty and Joe finish out the game on the radio.

But in those days, baseball was just a fun, family-involved hobby that captured my attention when it was convenient, like when Pete Rose logged hit No. 4,192 and when Paul O’Neill — swoon — made his big league debut. But baseball wasn’t yet an obsession. That came later.

I was at a friend’s house watching the pregame show before Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and the featured interview was with the catcher of the New York Mets, Gary Carter. He was handsome. He was smart. He had charisma. He smiled, a lot. My 15-year-old heart went pitter-pat, and I was hooked.

I watched Game 6 with rapt attention, mainly because over the course of 30 minutes, in all of my teenage wisdom, I was now a die-hard Mets fan. Because I was now so emotionally attached to this team, I was wholly unsatisfied with how Game 6 was going to end. Carter came to the plate with two outs in the 10th inning, and I could barely stand to watch. It was, clearly, over.

Except it wasn’t. That Mets comeback is, of course, one of the most famous, if not the most famous, in postseason history. When that ball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs, and all heck broke loose at Shea Stadium, I sat there, in my best friend’s living room in Dayton, Ohio, in absolute disbelief. I was simply stunned at what I had just witnessed.

At that moment, something in me changed. Somewhere, hundreds of miles away, this game, this comeback, this miracle, was actually happening. In my decade and a half of living, I had never watched anything so…well, Amazin’.

I vowed never again to miss another baseball playoff game. For the most part, I stuck to it. The next year, I skipped out early on parties and youth organization activities to plant myself in front of the TV, and in turn, I witnessed a wonderful ’87 World Series between the Twins and Cardinals.

In ’88, at a classmate’s party, I snuck into a separate room and watched Game 1 of the Dodgers-A’s World Series. Late in the evening, a friend said, “Come on. We’re leaving.” Kirk Gibson was, at the same time, limping to the plate. “Can you pleeeeease give me just five more minutes?” I begged. Thankfully, she obliged.

Through all of this, I remained fiercely loyal to one player: Gary Carter. My bedroom became what my parents, brother and I now refer to as the Gary Carter shrine. Posters. Baseball cards. Box scores from the USA Today when he drove in the game-winning run. And on and on.

He wrote books; I’d read them in a single night. If he was on TV, I taped it. My girlfriends thought it was weird; my guy friends thought it was funny. Few understood how I could partially abandon my loyalty to the Reds for whatever team Gary Carter was playing for. I didn’t care. Most teenage girls in the ’80s rebelled by piercing their noses, coloring their hair purple or hanging out with questionable characters of the opposite sex. Me? I just rooted for the Mets.

Carter eventually moved on from New York, and I focused my attention back to the Reds. Except now, I was 100 times more passionate. Baseball was a part of me, in the deepest and most emotional sense. To this day, one of the greatest nights of my life was the night the Reds won the World Series in 1990.

This is where you’d expect me to say that my love for Gary Carter led directly to a career in baseball. That would be inaccurate, and disingenuous. A lot of other things had to happen as well, like going to college and being completely disinterested in math and science and pretty much everything else…except for writing.

I took the leap after grad school and pursued a career in baseball. By chance and luck and all sorts of other great things, I started working for the Astros in 1997. In July of that season, my boss, Rob, brought me along on a St. Louis-Montreal road trip. It was a training trip; Rob was bogged down with the planning and building of the Astros’ new downtown ballpark, and he needed someone to take over his share of road trips with the team.

Montreal happened to be where Gary Carter was working, as a broadcaster. I tried to plot the perfect plan to meet the man, but after going over various scenarios in my head, I decided not to introduce myself, for fear of coming off like a complete goober.

Sunday brunch in the press box at Olympic Stadium was famous in baseball circles as the very best in the game. The Expos had a chef who prepared made-to-order omelettes, and eager to experience this, I stood in line with Rob, waiting for my turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone making a beeline in our direction. He was walking quickly, with authority. It was Gary Carter.

I froze. What was he doing? (I also wasn’t aware, at the time, that everyone in baseball knew Rob, and everyone in baseball loved Rob.) Carter reached out, grabbed Rob’s shoulder, and gave him a hearty greeting and a handshake. Then he turned to me, extended his hand and bellowed, “Hi! I’m Gary Carter!”

I tried not to laugh at the ironic absurdity of the situation. He was telling me who he was, oblivious to the fact that it was beyond unnecessary. I shook his hand, mumbled my name, tried not to look too stupid and quietly walked back to my spot in the press box. I giggled, thinking, well, that was easy.

On a road trip the next season, we were sitting on the team bus after a game and Alan Ashby, then an Astros broadcaster, asked me what celebrity posters made it onto my wall when I was a teenager. I rattled off Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy and a few others, and then said, “Honestly, the only person that had any staying power was Gary Carter.”

I then happily chirped away for a solid two minutes about my admiration for Carter, about how much he had to do with my love for this game. Then I looked over at Ashby and saw a somewhat pained look on his face. “Gary Carter?” he said. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”

Today, I have a deep knowledge and appreciation of Astros history, but at this time, I was still learning. I hadn’t taken into account that so many of the people sitting on that bus — Ashby, Jim Deshaies, Jose Cruz, and probably more — remembered the ’86 Mets for a different, and painful, reason. “Game 6″ had always carried a special meaning for me. In Houston, I learned, there was another Game 6, and even all those years later, the wounds were still open for those who were a part of it.

So from then on, I clammed up about Gary Carter and the Mets. I rarely talked about this part of my past in my new life in Houston. Over time, I became so attached to the Astros and so fascinated by their history that even today, on many levels, I wish they had won that 16-inning NLCS game in ’86.

I saw Gary Carter several times over the next decade, mainly on All-Star Sunday, at the legends/celebrity softball game that he usually played in and I covered for MLB.com. By then, the years in baseball had taken a predictable toll, in that I was no longer affected by encounters with ballplayers — even Gary Carter.

Now, what I felt when I saw him (and snapped a few photos of him, from a distance), was wistfulness. I allowed myself only to harken back to a happy time in my life when the mere sight of him would have sent me into a frenzy.

I never tried to interview him. I simply gazed at him with muted amusement and a touch of sadness, remembering how I admired him, and how grateful I was that he impacted me as dramatically as he did at such an impressionable time in my life.

The news of Gary Carter’s brain cancer diagnosis last May was devastating. The recent news of his death has been overwhelming. It has crushed the baseball world and sparked moving tributes from coast to coast and up into Montreal, where his Hall of Fame career began.

In my own corner, quietly, I mourn. The pain is suffocating.

The one thing I learned in all of the years of following Gary Carter was that his on-field accomplishments paled in comparison to what he was in life. He was a kind, decent person. He was a terrific husband, a doting father and grandfather and a man fiercely devoted to his faith.

Carter’s mother passed away from leukemia when she was 37 and he was 12. Her death, and the way he found out the news — a neighborhood kid rushed up to him on the walk home from school and said, “Hey Gary, your mom died” — haunted him for the rest of his life. When he became a famous baseball player, he parlayed that grief into charitable efforts and raised millions for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He went on to raise countless funds for a host of other charities.

The day he passed, I wrote, “When you are a Hall of Famer, yet you’re best remembered for being a good, decent, nice person, you know you’ve lived a great life.”

Gary Carter was a great ballplayer, but it turns out, that was the least of his accomplishments. He simply loved living his life. That, to me, is his legacy.

What a way to be remembered.

Lions and tigers and bears — oh my! An Astro honeymoons in Africa.

In the early stages of Spring Training every year, you’ll hear the same lines of conversation between players, staff and those who cover the team: how was your offseason? Where are you staying down here? Did you do anything fun over the winter?

Ask Jed Lowrie that last question, and you’re not going to get the typical, “Yea, hung out with the family, went to Cabo over Christmas” response. The new Astros shortstop got married last November and took a honeymoon that some of us could only dream of, and others of us wouldn’t touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole (and by “others,” I mean, me).

Lowrie and his wife, Milessa Muchmore-Lowrie, honeymooned in Tanzania, where they went on a two-week African safari. Lowrie, who took over 7,000 photos, called it the experience of a lifetime.

Brian McTaggart has the complete rundown in a fantastic write up on Astros.com, complete with a slate of breathtaking photos of wild animals living in their natural habitat. Speaking as a less adventurous person, if someone handed me an air horn and said, “Blow this if there’s a lion in your tent,” I’d be on the first flight back to whatever city prefers to keep its animals in zoos (preferably, Houston).

Lowrie is not your garden-variety ballplayer. He’s a graduate of Stanford University and an avid photographer, and his wife a foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department who will soon be relocated to Mexico.

When you have a spare moment, check out the story. The photos are amazing.
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For several years, we’ve been running Spring Training video reports on Astros.com, and we’ll continue to produce the same twice-a-week shows this spring. Our first one is posted now, and it features right-hander Jordan Lyles.

The plan is to run a player feature mid-week every week and one with general manager Jeff Luhnow every Monday.

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Today’s slate of photos captures players not only working out, but seemingly enjoying the process (remember, friends, this is baseball — it’s supposed to be fun). Also in the mix are a couple of photos that harken back to our past, 50th anniversary-style.

Enjoy.

Bud Norris watches with amusement as his pitching mates practice bunting.

Infielder Joe Thurston, a non-roster invitee, and outfielder Jason Bourgeois greet each other during BP.

Pitchers practicing comebackers is always an amusing drill to watch. The premise: Brad Mills hits balls back to the pitchers, at a high speed, one after another after another, with no break. Probably not the most pleasant experience when you're the pitcher fielding those comebackers, but it's fun to watch nonetheless, as you can see in this shot of two Rodriguezes -- Fernando and Aneury.

Chris Snyder watches pitchers throw bullpens and waits for his turn to crouch behind the painted plate.

Are there two more popular outfielders in Astros history than Jose Cruuuuuuz and Cesar Cedeno? Probably not. Here they are together, watching a round of BP on Field 4.

Cedeno watches from behind the cage with another former Astro, Enos Cabell.

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Snapshots from Spring Training, Day Three.

A month ago, it looked as if catcher Jason Castro, who had two injury setbacks over the course of one calendar year, might not be ready to start the season when Opening Day rolls around on April 6.

Today, the level of optimism is much higher. It’s more likely than not that Castro, who had season-ending knee surgery last Spring Training and foot surgery this past December, is on track to start the season on time.

This isn’t to say that he’s maintaining the same workout pace as the other catches in camp. He’s not. He’s participating in drills and catching bullpens, but on a slightly lesser scale than the rest. The goal is for him to build stamina without overextending himself, even if it means not being quite ready to play when the Grapefruit season gets underway in another 10 days.

Regardless of when Castro appears in his first spring game, the catching situation this year, so far, is light years ahead of where the team was a year ago. There is no stat line that can truly describe how valuable a catcher is to a team. He’s top lieutenant on the field and can provide a huge sense of security to pitchers. On the flip side, if a catcher is inadequate in his ability to call games and block pitches in the dirt, it can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s psyche.

Castro’s return will be a big lift for the team, and the addition of Chris Snyder, a veteran catcher, should not be overlooked. The Astros now have three catchers in a pool that also includes veteran Humberto Quintero, giving them experience, depth and a plan B. They pretty much had none of those things  a year ago.

A couple of housekeeping notes:

* The final Houston-based Astroline will air on Thursday at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown. Former outfielder Kevin Bass will join Milo Hamilton for the hour-long show, which can be heard on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

Astroline will resume the following week on Feb. 29 at the Disney Boardwalk in Orlando. Keeping with tradition, the first Florida-based show will feature manager Brad Mills.

* The first full-squad workout will be held Feb. 26, and as always, workouts are free and open to the public. Gates open around 9:30 a.m. The first Grapefruit League game will take place at Osceola County Stadium on March 3 vs. the Nationals. Workouts on home game days are closed.

* Two spring games will be televised this year: March 20 vs. the Cardinals and April 3 vs. the White Sox (at Minute Maid Park).

And we conclude with images from Day 3 on a cloudy but rain-free morning at the spring complex:

Brian Bogusevic, Jed Lowrie

Practicing fielding comebackers: Brad Mills and Kyle Weiland.

Having some between-drills laughs: Jose Altuve, roving minor league baserunning coordinator Milt Thompson, Jimmy Paredes, Jose Cruz.

PFP: Bud Norris.

Two former first-rounders: Delino DeShields (2010) and George Springer (2011).

Batting practice: J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve.

Jimmy Paredes waves to a fan.

Brandon Lyon and Jason Castro discuss Lyon's bullpen session when it ended.

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Community Corner: Urban Invitational makes a splash at Minute Maid Park.

Welcome to our Community Corner, a soon-to-be regular feature on this blog that will give updates on some of the non-baseball events the Astros are involved with. Our guest blogger is Dairanetta Spain, the club’s manager of community affairs. This week, Dairanetta gives us highlights from the MLB Urban Invitational that was held at Minute Maid Park last weekend.

Historically black colleges and universities are known for their rich tradition in history and are a source of accomplishment and great pride for the African American community.

The Houston Astros and Major League Baseball joined forces to display HBCUs and their baseball programs on a national scale last weekend during the 2012 MLB Urban Invitational held at Minute Maid Park.

The 2012 tournament featured five HBCUS: Alabama State University, Grambling State University, Prairie View A&M University, Southern University and Texas Southern University along with NCAA Division I school University of California, Irvine. Texas Southern, Grambling, and Southern each finished the three-day event with a 2-1 record.

Many came out to Minute Maid Park over the three-day weekend event, taking in games, attending a college fair and enjoying entertainment by the Texas Southern “Ocean of Soul” and Prairie View A&M “Marching Storm” soulful marching bands. Jennifer Holliday, Grammy and Tony Award-winning artist and HBCU alumnus of Texas Southern, performed “America the Beautiful” before the final game of the Saturday lineup. Holliday’s performance and games played at Minute Maid Park that day aired live on MLB Network and MLB.com.

HBCUs have long offered quality educational and athletic programs and have a proud tradition of producing outstanding baseball players. Baseball Hall of Famers Lou Brock (Southern University) and Andre Dawson (Florida A&M University), as well as current Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks (Southern University) played in HBCU baseball programs. Thirteen HBCU players were selected in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, six of whom played in last year’s Urban Invitational in Compton. Through the annual Urban Invitational, MLB aims to help these programs continue providing young players from underserved communities the opportunity to play collegiate-level baseball.

Speaking as a proud product of an HBCU — Tennessee State University — MLB hit it head on capturing the essence of of HBCUs and all that their baseball programs have to offer.

High school students gained valuable information about the college admission process from over 20 colleges and universities during the MLB Urban Invitational College Fair.

Grammy and Tony Award-winning artist Jennifer Holliday performed “America the Beautiful” before the Prairie A&M-Texas Southern contest Saturday evening.

Texas Southern drum majors ushered in the “Ocean of Soul” marching band onto the field at Minute Maid Park during the Battle of the Bands competition.

 

 

 

Why Livan? One word: innings.

Much of the talk so far this spring has been about how many jobs are available, at just about every position, with the exception of just a few.

Let’s just say most of the players aren’t making permanent arrangements for Houston just yet. Instead, the mantra is one of caution: “I have to make the team first.”

If anything, that uncertainty will make for a more intriguing Grapefruit League season. Not only will several infield and outfield positions be up for grabs, but the starting pitching situation could also become pretty dramatic as the spring season draws to a close.

While there are no real guarantees in life beyond death, taxes and mind-numbing traffic at every corner of the greater Kissimmee metropolitan area, barring any unforeseen trades, it’s pretty definite that three of the rotation spots are going to Bud Norris, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers.

That leaves a slew of candidates for the remaining two spots, and with that, of course, comes uncertainty about not only who will win these jobs by the time camp breaks, but also how reliable these pitchers will be over the course of a full season.

That is why a team must have more than one option and more than one plan moving forward. And that is precisely why general manager Jeff Luhnow saw enough in Livan Hernandez to sign him to a low-risk Minor League contract.

If healthy and effective, the 37-year-old Hernandez gives the Astros something they might find they desperately need a couple of months into the season: innings, innings and more innings. Specifically, around 200 of them.

Over the last five seasons, Hernandez has averaged 180.1 innings per year. The ERAs have been all over the map, from very good (3.66 in 2010) to not so good (6.05 in 2008) to respectable (4.93 in 2007 and 4.47 in 2011). What manager Brad Mills and the coaching staff like about Hernandez is his ability to do two things: keep his team in the game, and still be on the mound in the seventh and eighth innings.

The Astros will look at many candidates this spring to fill those final two spots in the rotation. J.A Happ and Jordan Lyles have an upper hand in that they were both part of the equation, for varying amounts of time, just one season ago. Lucas Harrell, Zach Duke, Kyle Weiland and Henry Sosa could see some starts this spring as well.

But it would be impossible (and irresponsible) to label any of the candidates with a broad brush, mark them down in red pen and declare them as guaranteed innings-eaters.

That’s why the Astros signed Hernandez. If he’s healthy and does well this spring, he could be a big lift for a rotation in transition.

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Randoms:

* Another day, another Astros tweeter. Harrell has joined the Twitterverse and can be followed at @lucasharrell34. On an unrelated note, he also lost a bet to a buddy a while back and can’t cut his hair for a year, which is why he looks a little unruly these days. And he’s only 7 1/2 months into paying up.

* There are more position players in camp than I can count, so I’m not going to attempt to give an unscientific number of who’s already here. But I did sneak into the batting cages today and spotted Jed Lowrie, Jake Gobbert, J.B Shuck and J.D. Martinez, among others.

(More than half of the players in there are also active on Twitter. This completely irrelevant, I realize, but it kind of made me feel like a proud den mom.)

* While a Major League coaching staff consists of only seven people (including the manager), a Spring Training staff is much larger. Nearly two dozen coaches and special assistants comprise the spring staff. That includes all Minor League coordinators and instructors and select members of the coaching staffs of the Minor League teams. For example, the Triple-A Oklahoma City manager and coaches are working in big league camp, and slowly, as cuts are made and the Minor League spring seasons get underway, they will filter back over to their regular-season assignments.

________________

Feeling peppy? The Astros will hold auditions for Park Patrol hopefuls on Friday, March 2 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 3 from 8 a.m. to noon at Union Station at Minute Maid Park.

The Park Patrol is an interactive squad that performs at Astros home games. Game presentation activities include t-shirt launches, prize giveaways and trivia contests, in addition to performing dance routines and “skits” with the Team Mascot.

Park Patrol members will perform these tasks live in the stands, on ballpark concourses and will be featured on the stadium video boards. The Astros Park Patrol will also make appearances at season ticket holder events, Astros in Action Foundation events, and any approved event in connection with the Houston Astros.

Qualifications:
• Must be able to perform activities and interact with fans on camera in front of 40,000+ people. Prior entertainment experience preferred.
• Squad will wear baseball-inspired, cheerleader-styled attire. Previous experience as a cheerleader, pep squad, or drill team member or some dance classes a plus, but not required.
• Individuals must have outstanding communication skills and a positive, energetic personality.
• They must also have stamina and fitness level capable of performing in conditions for several hours before and during games.
• Individuals must be available to work during Astros home games and other special events as needed.
• Must be reliable, punctual, and courteous. Good listening skills and ability to work with brief instruction required. Must also be flexible and able to handle situations with a quick and professional response.
• Those who are selected to the squad must be able to attend mandatory training sessions being held March 22 to March 25.
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And we leave you with more images from another sunny morning in Central Florida:

Thought this was pretty cool: after Livan Hernandez finished throwing his bullpen session, he hugged his catcher, Chris Wallace, and thanked him. I'm sure this is not the first time such an exchange has taken place in similar settings, but it was still a nice gesture from a veteran pitcher to a young prospect whom he just met two days ago.

Jason Castro takes BP on the back field with the other catchers in camp.

Castro and hitting coach Mike Barnett discussed the BP session when it was over.

Post workout stretching sessions often double as social occasions. Jorge DeLeon and Jimmy Paredes wrap up the day with some general chatter.

Jed Lowrie, jettisoned from Boston in the Mark Melancon trade, is one of many position players who are already here.

Bud Norris throws his first bullpen session of the spring.

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Morning links: Schafer apologizes, Crane tours Kissimmee, and Manny gets yet another chance.

Jordan Schafer did the smart thing by speaking directly with reporters about his offseason troubles immediately upon arriving to Spring Training on Monday.

Schafer was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia during a traffic stop soon after the season ended. He’s currently taking part a court-ordered pretrial intervention in program and if he completes it without incident, his record will be cleared.

In this Brian McTaggart report on MLB.com, Schafer was contrite, apologizing to the Astros for the spot he put them into and thanking them for standing behind him.

“I got caught up in a bad situation, and hopefully I’ve learned from my mistake and moved on and become a better person for it, and hopefully we don’t have any more instances like that,” he said. “Hopefully, I can be a good role model and learn from this.”

Schafer is active on Twitter, and if you follow him, you were able to see first-hand, thanks to the magic of Twitpics, that he was serious when he said he put on 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. You also received this tweet from him as he turned in for the night:

“Goodnight twit fam, busy day n I’m beat. Good to finally get everything off my chest n move on. Thanks 2 all of u 4 the support. Muchluv.”

Other notables:

* George Springer, the Astros’ first-round pick from last year’s Draft, has reported to camp and will be one of a handful of top prospects spending some of the spring with the big league club. Springer won’t make the team this year, but the experience of going through a Major League Spring Training could be valuable for him, as well a few other key figures who could be a big part of the Astros’ future, including Jonathan Singleton, Jonathan Villar and DeLino DeShields, among others.

* For 90 days, Jim Crane, along with his partners, has owned a baseball business. Monday, he finally owned a baseball team, writes the Chronicle’s Zachary Levine. Crane spent the day in Kissimmee on Monday, taking in his first Spring Training. By all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed himself.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I hadn’t been in a locker room in a long time, but you never forget what it’s like.”

* When word traveled through the baseball world that Manny Ramirez was looking to make a comeback, I surmised that 30 of 30 teams would pass on him. After all, he’s turning 40 in May, right around the same time that he’d be eligible to play his first game after serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

I was wrong. Twenty-nine of 30 teams passed on him, leaving just the Oakland A’s ready and willing to take a chance on Manny being Manny. The contract is almost commitment-free: it’s a Minor League deal, which means it’s non-guaranteed, and it’s worth no more than $500,000.

Risk-free, yes. But is it even worth it to take that chance?

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