February 2012

Pitchers, catchers, bullpens and sunblock: Spring Training is underway.

I’m sure there was once a time, long, long ago, when position players reported to Spring Training on the very day that they were actually required to be there.

Those days are largely over. In more modern times, it’s almost as if there’s a race to see who can get to Spring Training first. Facilities open earlier and earlier, and when it’s finally time for pitchers and catchers to hit the fields, it’s normal to see close to half of the position players also at the complex, working out on their own, even though they don’t technically have to be here for several more days.

As Astros pitchers and catchers headed out to the backfields as Osceola County Stadium for their first workout Monday morning, the line of position players heading to the cages was almost as long. Chris Johnson, Jose Altuve, Brett Wallace, Brian Bogusevic and Jimmy Paredes are among the dozen or so position players already here. They’ll work out separately from the pitchers and catchers until Sunday, when the full squad will gather for the first time.

Notes from a busy first day of camp:

* Jason Castro was the main topic of conversation among reporters today. As you probably remember, Castro missed all season last year with a knee injury and then had surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot in December. The general feeling from manager Brad Mills and general manager Jeff Luhnow is that Castro will be eased back into action, slowly. He’s progressing well and he appears to have pretty decent agility in the early-going, which is good. He participated in catching drills with the rest of his brethren and seemed to be keeping up well.

They’ll monitor Castro to make sure he’s not overextending himself by catching too many bullpens, and at this point, there’s no concrete timetable as to when he’ll see action in a Grapefruit League game. But he is “coming along well,” as Luhnow said, and he’s still expected to anchor the bulk of the duties behind the plate.

“Jason can be a leader,” Luhnow said. “He can produce offensively and defensively and set the right tone for the team.”

* Owner Jim Crane was a star college pitcher in his day, but suffice it to say, it’s been a while since he’s spent any significant time on a baseball field. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself on Monday as he chatted with players and reporters and moved from field to field to watch the workouts.

Crane and President/CEO George Postolos flew in for the day on Monday and will be back next week when the full squad is together. They both addressed the pitchers and catchers briefly during a meeting before the workout, mainly just to introduce themselves, and it’s likely they’ll do the same when they’re back next time.

The message from Luhnow and Mills was more direct. The objective this spring is to work hard, follow instruction and pay attention to detail. Luhnow acknowledged that no one is talking about the Astros as contenders this year. “We’re not predicted to win this division,” Luhnow said. “Most say we’re not going to compete this year. But I don’t believe that.”

The other directive: pace yourself. Invariably, young players tend to come to camp eager to show management they belong on the 25-man roster. That is a great attitude, unless that enthusiasm overflows a little too much, too soon. That’s when injuries can pop up. Players were reminded to take it easy, even those who had played through the offseason in Winter Ball.

(Another directive from Mills: wear sunblock.)

* Remember Mike Kvasnicka? He’s the Astros’ supplemenental-round pick from the 2010 Draft, a college outfielder-slash-part-time catcher who was converted to play third base when the Astros signed him.

We caught up with Kvasnicka (Kwas-NICK-a) last season when he was playing for the Class-A Lexington Legends, and at the time, we knew only two things about him: he resembles Shane Reynolds, and Jeff Bagwell butchered his name when announcing the pick on MLB Network.

Now we know one more thing: he’s no longer a third baseman. About a month ago, Luhnow and his staff decided it was best to move Kvasnicka back to catcher.

That quickly solved two issues: It put the player back in a position where he was more comfortable, and it gave the system more depth in an area that could use some additional padding.

Kvasnicka, a Minnesota native, has been in Kissimmee for about two weeks, working out at the Minor League facility. On Monday, he was fitted for a uniform and told he would be in big league camp, catching bullpens.

Video: Crane meets with media

Video: Mills, on jobs being wide open this spring

Scenes from the Astros’ first day of Spring Training:

Suddenly, Bud Norris is one of the "veterans" of the group.

Livan Hernandez, David Carpenter go through PFP drills (pitchers fielding practice).

Catching drills: Jason Castro.

More catching drills: Chris Snyder, Humberto Quintero in the forefront.

Two staples of Astros Spring Training: Jose Cruuuuuuuuz and Strech Suba.

Snyder (Chris Wallace and Carlos Corporan in background).

Pitchers running wind sprints.

Lots of media was in Kissimmee to cover the first day of camp. First up: Brad Mills.

Next: Jeff Luhnow.

And finally: Jim Crane.

Pitcher Lucas Harrell and Crane chat in the dugout next to one of the back fields.

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Dierker hits the books — and the links — for a worthy cause.

The Astros retired Dierker's number in 2002, but that didn't mean he was ready to ride off into the sunset...

In the more than 10 years that have passed since Larry Dierker stepped down at the Astros’ manager, he’s had his hands in plenty of activities. He’s written books, dabbled with writing a screenplay, traveled and spearheaded forming an Astros alumni group that has, over the years, been quite visible in baseball circles in Houston.

Dierker has also allotted a lot of his time to charitable efforts. Most notably, he is a champion of Literacy Advance of Houston, a non-profit organization that has helped people through its free adult literacy programs for nearly five decades.

Dierker, an avid reader in his own right, has personally contributed more than 1,000 volunteer hours for the cause. And he’s set to host Literacy Advance’s Reader Cup – Larry Dierker Celebrity Golf Tournament on Feb. 27 at the BlackHorse Golf Club.

Each year, a host of sport celebrities participates in this golf tournament. This year, the guest list includes Phil Garner, Art Howe, Shane Reynolds, Kevin Bass, Dan Pastorini, Jim Deshaies, Bill Brown, Randy McElvoy, Burton Gilliam (of Blazing Saddles fame), Dayna Steele, Dave Elmendorf and Mark Dennard.

“I play in dozens of tournaments every year that raise a lot of money for various organizations, many of which represent serious diseases,” Dierker said. “I am happy to do that. I’m not a doctor; I cannot cure a disease. I can, however, teach adults to read and write.  It’s relatively easy and quite rewarding. Tutoring makes giving personal.”

Available tournament sponsorship opportunities range from $500 – $10,000, with all proceeds benefiting Literacy Advance of Houston.

Registration on event day will begin at 8 am with a hot breakfast, followed by a shotgun start at 9:30. Post-tournament, sponsors and players will enjoy a hearty lunch and the chance to win auction items, including night on the town packages, gifts and sports memorabilia.

For more information on the event or a downloadable sponsorship/registration form, please visit http://www.literacyadvance.org/golf or call (713) 266-8777.

Milo Hamilton declares the 2012 season his last in the broadcast booth.

Jim Crane, left, Milo Hamilton and George Postolos announce that 2012 will be Milo's last season behind the mic.

Milo Hamilton mentioned a couple of times last year to friends and colleagues that the 2012 season would likely be his last as a lead play-by-play announcer on Astros broadcasts.

Milo will turn 85 in September, and, as he said last year, “That’ll be enough.” On Wednesday, he made that official, formally stating that he’ll retire at the end of the season.

Perhaps there’s no “best” time for a beloved figure to step down, but the timing of the announcement will allow the Astros to weave a season-long salute to their long-time broadcaster in with the celebration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary.

Plans to honor Milo this year will be officially announced in full at a later time, but here’s a sneak peek:

* Sept. 2, Milo’s 85th birthday, will be “Milo Hamilton Day” at Minute Maid Park.
* The Astros plan to host a special dinner in Milo’s honor during the season, with proceeds benefiting the Astros In Action Foundation.
* There will be an online vote for fans to select Milo’s greatest calls.
* We’ll start an appreciation Facebook page, dedicated to fans saluting Milo’s great career.
* The Astros plan to create a Milo Hamilton college scholarship for broadcasting students.

Stay tuned for more announcements.

“We will provide a fitting tribute for one of the all-time great broadcasters in our industry,” said Astros President and CEO George Postolos. “The unique bond that Milo has built with our fans is very special. With that in mind, we have created ways for our fans to participate in our tribute to Milo. They will have an opportunity to do that throughout the season.”

Milo’s plan is to only retire from the broadcasting side. He will still be a part of the organization in 2013 and beyond as an emcee for special events and fundraisers, and will take part in the caravan and FanFest. He’ll also appear at events for sponsors and season ticket holders and will be incorporated into the radio broadcasts.

Watch the video from Milo’s announcement

More video: Biggio, talking about Milo and his retirement

Milo, by the numbers:
66 — years as a broadcaster.
58 — years as a baseball broadcaster.
27 — years an Astros broadcaster.
5 — Halls of Fame that have honored Milo, including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1992.
715 — Hank Aaron’s milestone, record-breaking home run, which Milo called as a Braves announcer in 1974.
4,000 — Nolan Ryan’s milestone strikeout, which Milo called as an Astros announcer in 1985.
3,000 — Craig Biggio’s milestone hit total, which Milo called as an Astros announcer in 2007.

From the photo archives: first, a few good ones from the past…

Jeff Bagwell and Milo in 2006, the day Bagwell announced his retirement.

Milo and former skipper Phil Garner at FanFest a few years back.

Milo celebrated his 84th birthday last year by wearing a gigantic blue bow on his head.

Keeping with the theme of intesting head gear, here's Milo and Brad Lidge a few years ago at Spring Training, reading Dr. Seuss books to kids.

…and finally, images from Wednesday’s press conference…

Craig Biggio, who announced his retirement from this very room a little more than four years ago, attended Milo's press conference.

Later, the two convened for an impromptu photo shoot.

The Houston media contingent surrounded Milo following the formal part of the presser.

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Astros CAREavan wrapup, in pictures.

The Houston Astros 2012 CAREavan wrapped up another successful winter road trip with stops last Friday in Katy, Texas. The Astros CAREavan completed its annual tour making 47 stops in 13 cities over eight days, traveling more than 3,500 miles. More than 35 Astros players, alumni, coaches and front office staff participated in CAREavan.

The Houston Astros 2012 CAREavan hit the road on February 1, with three full days of visits throughout central and south Texas.  The team made two-day trips to Austin (Feb. 1-2), Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen (Feb. 1-2) and San Antonio (Feb. 2-3), and spent a day in Corpus Christi and Victoria (Feb. 3). Highlights included conducting several youth baseball clinics, visiting with military and pediatric patients at hospitals and serving fans lunch at Chick-fil-A.

During the CAREavan’s second week, the Astros traveled to Oklahoma City (Feb. 6) and visited with military personnel at Tinker Air Force Base, patients at Mercy Hospital and Oklahoma City RedHawks season ticket holders and sponsors.  The week also included five, single-day trips in Houston, Sugar Land, Spring, Cypress and Katy.  The local tours visited numerous schools for reading activities and Fielder’s Choice assemblies, conducted youth baseball clinics and made daily stops at Academy Sports + Outdoors stores for free autograph sessions.

The CAREavan experience, in pictures:

Austin: Dave Raymond, Jordan Lyles, J.B. Shuck, Kyle Weiland, Doug Brocail at Cedar Park Middle School.

Austin: Ronald McDonald House.

Brownsville: Fernando Rodriguez, Jose Altuve, Jimmy Paredes at Lucio Middle School.

Brownsville: Chick-fil-A

San Antonio: Brett Dolan, J.A. Happ, Angel Sanchez, Jarred Cosart, Humberto Quintero, Larry Dierker at RBI San Antonio.

San Antonio Military Medical Center

Corpus Christi: Jim Crane signs an autograph for a young fan at the Hooks' luncheon.

Victoria: Shane Reynolds givis pitching tips at a Baseball and Softball clinic.

Oklahoma City: David Carpenter and Milo Hamilton.

Meeting with the Oklahoma City RedHawks fan base.

Houston: Bud Norris serves drive-thru customers at Chick-Fil-A.

Houston: Astros front office members and players participated in a "Careers in Baseball" seminar at Carver High School.

Sugar Land: Bud Norris, David Carpenter, Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace visit babies and new parents at Methodist Sugar Land Hospital.

Sugar Land: Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace sign autographs at Academy Sports + Outdoors.

Spring: Brad Mills, Jason Bourgeois, J.D. Martinez, Brian Bogusevic, Jose Cruz at AVANCE-Southwest School.

Hanging with the kids at AVANCE.

Cypress: Jed Lowrie at a CAREavan Baseball and Softball Clinic.

Cypress: bilingual storytime with bilingual GM Jeff Luhnow.

Katy: Bill Brown, Jose Cruz and current Astros players participate in an assembly at Brookwood Community.

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Astros baseball dinner and FanFest provide a heavy dose of nostalgia. The 50th anniversary celebration is underway.

Larry Dierker witnessed plenty of great moments during his four decades with the Houston Astros as a player, broadcaster and manager, but there’s one event in particular that stands out as more significant than the rest.

Keep in mind that Dierker threw a no-hitter, had his number retired by the team and struck out Willie Mays in his Major League debut on his 18th birthday in 1964. But those moments come in a distant second to Oct. 3, 1999 — the last regular season game played in the Astrodome.

The Astros had to win that game against the Dodgers in order to clinch the division title, and had they lost, the postgame celebration — one that included dozens of former players who flew in for the finale — surely would have been muted.

But they didn’t lose. They beat the Dodgers handily, and the party was on. Confetti fell from the gigantic Astrodome ceiling. Players rode onto the field on motorcycles and lit up the cigars. It was pandemonium, followed by an amazing tribute to Astrodome history: the All-Time team was honored on the field, and players from every decade were invited onto the field to commemorate the beginning, and the end, of a wonderful run in the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Dierker smiled at the memory.

“For about 30 minutes,” he recalled, “It was baseball heaven.”

Dierker shared that story a couple of times on Saturday at FanFest, capping a nostalgia-filled weekend that started with the annual baseball awards dinner, featuring nearly 20 players from the Astros’ past.

The weekend officially springboarded what will be a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Major League Baseball in Houston. The Colt .45s officially opened for business in 1962, became the Astros in 1965, and over the next five decades produced dozens of iconic figures and exciting moments that shaped baseball history in the Space City.

The end of this season will mirror that final day in 1999, in that the All-Time 25-man roster will be determined through a fan vote and a panel of experts. The players who comprise that roster will be invited back during the final homestand as part of Legends Weekend.

Other significant initiatives were revealed during FanFest. Here’s a few to look out for:

* An Astros Walk of Fame: areas outside of Minute Maid Park will be dedicated to honoring the best of the past. This year, names that will be made indelible on the grounds surrounding the ballpark include all nine retired numbers plus one player from each decade, as voted on by a panel of experts.

* Flashback Fridays: the Astros will wear retro jerseys from past decades every Friday home game this year, starting with the Colt .45s (minus the pistol, which was deemed inappropriate to include on a uniform).

* Great Moments bobbleheads: most Astros fans remember Mike Scott’s no-hitter, Jeff Kent’s walkoff homer in Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS and Chris Burke’s game-winning homer in Game 5 of the Division Series in 2005. Those moments, and more, will be recreated in the form of bobbleheads, to be given out at various games this year.

Images from a nostalgic weekend:

Prior to the dinner, guests gathered for a VIP reception. Pictured are Astros TV announcer Bill Brown and former manager Phil Garner.

VIP reception: former infielder Craig Reynolds and current manager Brad Mills.

Lance Berkman was honored as the Houston-area player of the year. As expected, he was highly entertaining while giving his acceptance speech.

VIP reception: Jim Deshaies, Craig Reynolds sign a couple of autographs.

VIP reception: Rookie of the Year J.D. Martinez.

VIP reception: Wandy Rodriguez, Jose Cruuuuuuuuuz

Baseball dinner: former MVPs gather on stage to be recognized for their contributions to the Houston franchise.

Players from all decades of Houston baseball were also honored at the dinner.

FanFest: Alex Trevino, Kevin Bass were among the many Astros alumni to sign autographs.

Current Astros Brad Mills, Bud Norris and Chris Snyder were also part of the autograph sessions.

Catcher Jason Castro signs autographs at FanFest.

J.R. Richard at FanFest.

FanFest began with a roundtable discussion among George Postolos, Brad Mills and Jeff Luhnow. Milo Hamilton emceed the session.

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Tips and notes for the Spring Training traveler.

Back by popular demand, we’re running our yearly, informal, hopefully helpful Guide To Spring Training. In this blog, you’ll find tips for navigating around Osceola County Stadium and for getting around the areas surrounding the ballpark, with suggestions as to where to eat, where to lodge and what roads to avoid if you don’t want to lose your mind (yea, I’m talking about you, highway 192).

Hopefully, these tips will help you out as you travel to Central Florida for another spring season. Please feel free to contribute in the comments section below. I’m sure a lot of you are seasoned Spring Training veterans and have found plenty to do when you’re down (over) there. So please share your knowledge/experiences. Thanks!

For those of you not going to Spring Training, please check back often to this blog and astros.com for complete coverage of everything happening with your Astros throughout the spring season. We’ll be providing news, photos and videos, all with hopes that you’ll reacquaint yourselves with some of your old favorites as well as get to know those who are new to the team. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I’ll be providing minute-by-minute updates throughout. Where I go, you’ll go.

1. Where is Kissimmee and how do I get there?
Kissimmee is about 20 minutes from Disney, to the west of Orlando, on Highway 192. The address is 1000 Bill Beck Blvd., on the left heading toward the turnpike.From the Orlando Airport, take the South exit (to Kissimmee) out of the airport. Merge onto Boggy Creek Road, pass under the #417 – Greenway and continue on Boggy Creek to the next stop light (Circle K store on corner) turn right. This is still Boggy Creek Rd. After you pass the Lakeside Subdivision stay in the right lane and go right at the next light (still Boggy Creek), go over the bridge, turn left at the light (Bill Beck Blvd.). Stadium parking lot will be on the right approximately 1/2 mile ahead.

If you are staying anywhere near Highway 535, which is directly off of I4 in Lake Buena Vista, I strongly suggest you travel to the ballpark via Osceola Parkway. It’s a toll road, so you’ll have to pay around two bucks each way, but it’s worth going that way and avoiding 192 and its billion stoplights. Take the Parkway East for about four miles to Michigan Ave. (You’ll see a shopping center on the left that has, among other things, a Buffalo Wild Wings). Turn right on Michigan for about two miles until you get to 192. Turn left and the ballpark will be on
your left, about a mile down.

2. How can I watch the team work out?
Just show up at the ballpark — workouts begin Feb. 20 (pitchers and catchers) and Feb. 26 (full squad) and they’re open and free to the public. It’s a great time to get an up close view of your favorite players and you’re free to roam around all fields in the back of the complex, while the workouts are going on.

Workouts usually begin around 9:30 a.m. and last until noon or so. They’ll probably conclude a little earlier during the first five days, when it’s just pitchers and catchers. WORKOUTS ARE CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC ON HOME GAME DAYS. When the team is on the road during Grapefruit season, half the squad stays back and works out at the home complex. Those workouts are also open and free to the public.

3. Where can I obtain autographs?

Most players do not sign during the workout hours, but don’t be discouraged. Many players finish the workouts on the field, go into the clubhouse to hit the weight room, and then come back out to sign. Once the games start, the best place to obtain autographs is the patio located near the back of the clubhouse, down the left field line.  Typically, once a player comes out of the game, he’ll stop and sign before he heads inside. Sometimes, he’ll first go inside to work out and then come out and sign.

The patio area is located down the left field line. Most players sign after they come out of the game and make their way to the clubhouse.

Most players sign, but not at all do. Odds are, you’re going to have a great success rate getting autographs from the young players. The veteran guys are pretty good about signing as well but there are always exceptions.

If you bring four things for one player to sign, you’ve got “dealer” written all over you and you’re probably going to be blown off. Please don’t ruin it for everyone else, especially the kids. Game programs, ticket stubs and hats are great indications that you’re a well-meaning fan, not a dealer. Success rate odds increase heavily when you bring those items.

4. What else is there to do in Kissimmee?

Kissimmee is located next to the Happiest Place on Earth, so there’s plenty to do. Disney isn’t just an amusement park anymore; there’s something for everyone, including great nightlife for adults.

“Astroline” will begin its Florida broadcasts on Feb. 29. The show will air live every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (7 CT) at the ESPN Zone on the Boardwalk at Disney. There are lots of restaurants and nightclubs along the Boardwalk, so once Astroline is finished, you can find plenty to do in the same area.

In terms of dining, I’m partial to La Forchetta, located a couple of miles from the Osceola County Stadium complex at 321 S. John Young Parkway (when you’re driving away from the ballpark, turn left on JYP and go about a mile and a half. It’s on the left. If you get to the bridge, you’ve gone too far.) La Forchetta has delicious Italian home cooking, overseen by owner Maria Manzi. Get there early — the restaurant has only about 15 tables, and during Spring Training, it fills up quickly.

The Loop on Osceola Parkway has really grown over the last several years, and you’ll find just about anything you’re looking for there, from restaurants to brew pubs to shopping and a movie theater. Restaurants of note: Pei Wei, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Bonefish Grill.

Downtown Kissimmee has been built up nicely in the last few years as well. If you turn left on Main (coming from the ballpark) and head toward Downtown, you’ll find a nice array of restaurants, sports bars and wine bars. A few of us Astros types are partial to Three Sisters — good bar food, cold beverages, great happy hour specials. Very casual setting.

5. When do games start?

The Astros open the Grapefruit League season at home this year. They will play the Nationals on March 3 beginning at 1:05 p.m. ET. All exhibition games will be aired on either 740 or 790 am. FS Houston will televise the games on March 20 vs. the Cardinals and April 3 vs. the White Sox (at Minute Maid Park).

You can view the full Spring Training schedule here.

6. How do I get tickets?

Individual game tickets can be purchased at astros.com, in person or by mail at the Osceola County Stadiums box office (home games only). You can also order by telephone and in person at Florida Ticketmaster outlets (home and road games). The box office is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET and on all game days.

Credit card purchases can be made by calling Florida Ticketmaster at (407) 839-3900. Mail orders for home games can be sent to Osceola County Stadium, 631 Heritage Park Way, Kissimmee, Fla., 34744. Checks should be made to Osceola County Stadium and include $5 postage and handling for each order.

Of course, the easiest way to order tickets is online at astros.com. There is an interactive map of the seating area at Osceola County Stadium that allows you to pick your own seat.

7. Housing

There are hotels everywhere, but it also might be more economical for a family or group of friends to rent a townhome. If you’re looking for last minute housing, try Bob Rivera, either via email (bob@gblservices.com) or by phone — 321-946-8889.

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Feel like Talkin’ Baseball? Join us on Saturday.

The doors of Minute Maid Park will be open on Saturday at 10 a.m., and we hope Astros fans will join us for the annual baseball bonanza affectionately known around here as FanFest.

In addition to player autograph sessions and fun activities on the field, we’ll also be hosting several Talkin’ Baseball sessions. From the Social Media side, we are planning for an interactive chat session with Brad Mills and Bud Norris from 2:30 to 3 CT in Union Station that will connect fans who are at FanFest in person and those following online.

We will take questions from our cyber-audience through this link. Fans who attend the chat in person in Union Station will also have the opportunity to ask questions of our manager and starting pitcher. All answers will be transcribed on our chat page for everyone to read.
______________

In the meantime, I need to brush up on my Astros history, quickly. I’ll be moderating a Talkin’ Baseball session titled “50 Years of Astros Baseball,” during which we’ll reminisce with a bunch of former players about 50 years of Major League Baseball in Houston.

Expected guests include: Jim Deshaies, Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, Enos Cabell, J.R. Richard and Larry Dierker. The session will take place in Union Station from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m.

Other Talkin’ Baseball sessions, all of which will take place in Union Station, include:

* The 2012 Season Outlook, 11:15 a.m. to noon
The panel: George Postolos, Jeff Luhnow, Brad Mills. Moderated by Milo Hamilton.

* Story Time with Milo Hamilton, 12:45 to 1:15.

* 50th Anniversary Plans, 1:30 to 2:15 p.m.

During this session, we’ll be previewing what’s on deck for Flashback Fridays, including retro uniforms, fireworks and alumni first pitches. We’ll also talk about fan involvement in the 25-man roster vote and the premium giveaways aimed toward celebrating our 50th anniversary, including a “Greatest Moments” Bobblehead set and many retro items from every era of Houston baseball.

The Panel: Christie Miller, Promotions and Special Events Coordinator; Mike Acosta, Authentication Manager. Moderator: me!

* Talkin’ Youth Baseball (GSFYB), 3 to 3:45 p.m. CT

The panel: Jason Bourgeois, Daryl Wade, Fred Arnold.

A full schedule of FanFest activities can be found here. We hope to see you Saturday!

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An A-list lineup of past Astros stars turn out to honor a true original.

The old gang: Craig Biggio, Dennis Liborio, Mike Hampton.

Working for one company for 32 years is no small feat, but to be in one spot for so long and be loved by just about everyone you worked with should come with some sort of badge of honor.

That’s how it is for Dennis Liborio, the Astros’ longtime clubhouse manager who retired from his post with the Astros several weeks ago. It was a sad goodbye for generations of colleagues, but the party celebrating his colorful career was in no short supply of laughter, friendship and, as an added bonus, star power.

On Monday, dozens of players whom Liborio looked after during his three-plus decades of service as the all-knowing “key master” of the Astros inner-world flocked to Damian’s Cucina Italiana to pay tribute. The soiree, organized by Astros travel chief Barry Waters and hosted by Frankie Mandola, Dan and Susan Sessions and many friends from the Texas Italian American Sports Foundation, featured an A-list guest list rife with stars from nearly every decade of Astros baseball.

Nolan Ryan, Art Howe, Larry Andersen, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Phil Garner, Jose Cruz, Charley Kerfeld, John Hudek, Mike Hampton, Woody Williams, Bob Aspromonte, Enos Cabell, and on and on. The broadcasting side was represented by television announcers Bill Brown, who emceed the event, and Jim Deshaies, also a Dennis favorite from the mid-80s Astros. A slew of executives past and present were also peppered in the crowd, including Gerry Hunsicker and Tal Smith. Even one umpire – Joe West — joined the party.

It was like a class reunion, only with much cooler people.

The tributes and stories flowed freely from the crowd of nearly 120, as the did the vino, compliments of Firriato Sicilian Wines. Donations were welcome, with proceeds going to the newly-named Dennis Liborio Texas Italian American Sports Foundation Scholarship. The Astros kicked in $5,000 as a tribute to their long-time employee.

Brownie emceed the speech portion of the evening.

Jose Cruz, Nolan Ryan, Liborio, Charley Kerfeld.

Liborio and Ryan, friends for three decades and counting.

Liborio, Kerfeld.

Andersen, not surprisingly, had quite a few funny Dennis stories to share.

Lifelong friends and laughter. Is there anything better?

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Studdard, Holliday highlight music portion of Urban Invitational at Minute Maid Park

Several years have passed since Ruben Studdard burst onto the scene as the winner of “American Idol,” but his booming voice and smooth style make his voice something few have forgotten.

Studdard will sing the national anthem at the 2012 Urban Invitational on Saturday, Feb. 18 at Minute Maid Park, a tournament that will showcase five historically black colleges and will be featured live on MLB Network and MLB.com.

The star power doesn’t end with the anthem. In addition to 2003 “Idol” winner Studdard, who will perform before the second game at 3 p.m. CT, Grammy and Tony award-winning singer Jennifer Holliday will “America the Beautiful” prior to the third game of the tournament at 7 p.m. CT.

The Urban Invitational, the annual, round-robin collegiate baseball tournament designed to give Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their baseball programs national exposure, is relocating to Houston and will feature five HBCUs – the most-ever in the tournament’s five-year history. The Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park will be the primary site of the tournament on Friday, February 17 and Sunday, February 19, while the games on Saturday, February 18 will be played at Minute Maid Park.

The particapting schools are Alabama State University (Montgomery, Alabama), Grambling State University (Grambling, Louisiana), Southern University (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, Texas) and Texas Southern University (Houston, Texas) will all participate in the Urban Invitational along with NCAA Division-I school University of California, Irvine.

The Minute Maid Park games are as follows:

Alabama State University vs. Grambling State University, 11 a.m.
University of California, Irvine vs. Southern University, 3 p.m.
Texas Southern University vs. Prairie View A&M University, 7 p.m.

As an additional aspect of the Urban Invitational weekend activities, MLB and the Astros will host a college fair at Minute Maid Park on Feb. 18 beginning at 11:00 a.m. CT. More than 20 colleges and universities will be represented and will provide information about college preparation, undergraduate and graduate degree programs, financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Beginning at 3 p.m. CT, the games at Minute Maid Park will air live on MLB Network and MLB.com, with play-by-play from Greg Amsinger and analysis from two-time MLB All-Star Harold Reynolds. In between these contests, fans at Minute Maid Park will be entertained in a collegiate “battle of the bands,” with live performances from Southern University’s “Human Jukebox,” Texas Southern University’s “Ocean of Soul” and Prairie View A&M University’s “Marching Storm.”

Tickets to the games and events at Minute Maid Park will be available to the general public for $5, and parking for Minute Maid Park is also available for $5. There is a special ticket package available for $10, which will allow access to the ballpark and provide a concession voucher for a hot dog and soda. High School students and below with a valid student ID will be admitted to the ballpark for free. Games at the Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park will be available on game day for a suggested $5 donation. Children 12 and under, and any student 18 and under with a valid student ID, will be admitted free. All proceeds from the ticket donations at the Academy will benefit the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Foundation, which is a not-for-profit 501(c) (3) corporation.

Friday’s and Sunday’s schedules and locations are as follows:

Friday, Feb. 17
Southern University vs. Prairie View A&M University, 11 a.m. at Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park;
University of California, Irvine vs. Alabama State University, 2:30 p.m. at Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park;
Grambling State University vs. Texas Southern University, 6:00 p.m. at Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park

Sunday, Feb. 19:
University of California, Irvine vs. Texas Southern University, 11 a.m. at Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park;
Alabama State University vs. Southern University, 2:30 p.m. at Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park;
Grambling State vs. Prairie View A&M University, 5:30 p.m. at Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park

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Altuve, Crane, Milo, kids, fun: Astros CAREavan rolls on and on and on.

Jim Crane’s first introduction to the Corpus Christi Hooks fan base began with a touch of humor that put a recent hot-button issue to bed for good.

“I floated out the idea of a name change,” the new Astros owner said. “And you’d think I’d run over two grandmothers.”

Crane was humorously reflecting on a week-long controversy that began with him casually mentioning to reporters that he would consider changing the name “Astros” to something else when the team moves to the American League in 2013. That sparked an emphatic response from fans all over the city who voiced their opposition — loudly — to the idea. After inviting comments on the club’s Facebook page and sending a survey to season-ticket holders, Crane squashed the idea and promised “the Houston Astros are here to stay.”

The Hooks have been a long-standing partner with the Astros as their Double-A affiliate, and a visit to Corpus has been a staple of the Astros caravan for as long as the two have been affiliated. Crane accompanied the traveling crew to Corpus, a trip that included a stop at Flour Bluff Primary School and a luncheon at the Omni Hotel. The trip concluded in Victoria, where the group — Crane, Milo Hamilton, Jose Altuve, Brian Bogusevic, J.B. Shuck and former pitcher Shane Reynolds — hosted a Baseball and Softball clinic at the Youth Sports Complex and signed autographs at Academy Sports + Outdoors.

The past week was dedicated to the out-of-town portion of the Astros CAREavan and included stops in Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen. President and CEO George Postolos toured Austin, followed by his hometown of San Antonio, in what was his first taste of life on the road with the Astros caravan.

Next week, the CAREavan will head to Oklahoma City, home of the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate, but the Astros will also visit the Houston area: Katy, Cypress, The Woodlands and Rosenberg. A full rundown of public appearances can be found at http://www.astros.com/careavan.

Meanwhile, enjoy the collage of photos from most corners of Texas:

Second graders at Flour Bluff Primary School got a kick out of storytime with Milo Hamilton and Jose Altuve. It's quite possible Altuve had more fun than anyone.

Milo and Bogusevic at the Hooks luncheon.

When he pitched for the Astros, Shane Reynolds was a media favorite -- insightful, expressive and cliche-free during postgame interviews. He still knows how to work a crowd.

J.B. Shuck gives instruction at the Baseball and Softball Clinic in Victoria.

Jim Crane addresses the crowd in Corpus.

Kids at the Boys and Girls Club in San Antonio show off their loot -- a ton of signed photo cards from the Astros.

The visit to San Antonio included a stop at the Brooke Army Medical Center. Thank you troops!

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