Bonus celebrity first pitch: another Astros alum drops by Minute Maid Park next week.
Exactly 10 years ago, rumblings of a possible Major League Baseball players strike were prevalent in every city, as fans braced themselves for what looked to be an inevitable shutdown. The disputed topics centered around the predictable (money), the hot-button (steroid testing) and the absurd (the owner of the Minnesota Twins thinking he could actually get away with doing away with his team).
Unlike 1994, when the union and the owners were so far apart and negotiations were so contentious that a strike was inevitable, this time, in 2002, players were overwhelmingly against a shutdown (although they’ll probably deny it to this day). This was a different time than in ’94: not even a year had passed since the tragic events on Sept. 11, 2001, the economy was in the proverbial toilet, a war was brewing and people were, in general, frazzled.
Many players voiced a similar sentiment: “If we strike now, we’re done. The fans aren’t coming back.”
The Astros were, at that time, contenders every year. They had won the division in 2001 and were talented enough in ’02 to remain competitive and take the division race down to the wire. There were plenty of young players on that team, but there was a strong veteran presence as well. Many of those veteran players were against a union strike. They wanted to keep playing, realizing the number of years remaining for them to get to the postseason, and win the World Series, were dwindling.
Jeff Bagwell, in particular, was one of those players. He had a few years remaining on his contract, but recent shoulder surgery made his future, and his longevity in the game, a lot less certain. He had already begun the process of passing the leadership baton to the next generation. “Our time is getting shorter,” he said. “This is Richard and Lance’s team now.”
By “Richard” and “Lance,” Bagwell was referring to Richard Hidalgo and Lance Berkman, two rising young stars who were drafted and developed by the Astros and considered to be the future of the organization. Bagwell and Craig Biggio mentioned, often, that the team was in very good hands because of those two players.
Hidalgo’s career, obviously, didn’t pan out the way Berkman’s has. Nonetheless, “Doggie” was a popular figure in Houston back then. He debuted with the team when it was still playing in the Astrodome, and he holds the distinction of scoring the first Astros run at the new downtown ballpark, via the first Astros home run hit in ballpark history.
Hidalgo will be in Houston when the next homestand begins, sparking an impromptu special edition Alumni First Pitch. On Monday, April 30, Hidalgo will throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Astros-Mets game (coincidentally, the Astros traded Hidalgo to the Mets in the middle of 2004). Instead of “Flashback Friday,” we’ll call this one “Memory Monday.”
Can’t wait to see “Doggie” again. Woof!