Saying goodbye is never easy, but alas, it’s time. A salute to the Astros and their fans.
Three years ago, Roy Oswalt, a native of Weir, Miss., (pop. 500), built a restaurant smack dab in the middle of his hometown and near three others, intending to give people who lived nearby a place to go for a nice dinner without having to drive 30 miles into town to do so.
Oswalt promised me that when the restaurant was complete and ready for public consumption, he would invite me to come to town so I could cover the grand opening. True to his word, when the date was finalized, he sent a text message that he was ready, and he offered up a room in his lodge located on his sprawling white tail deer ranch.
Roy’s friend, Joey, showed me around the place while Roy was busy at the restaurant preparing for the opening. Joey drove me around the hundreds of acres of land on a four-wheeler, doing his best to explain the country life to a city girl whose idea of “getting back to the land” was hiring someone to trim the six feet of grass that sits in front of her townhome off Washington Ave.
Joey was a great host. He showed me the lake Roy built with the bulldozer Drayton McLane gave him years earlier. He drove me by several wooded areas where white-tail deer freely roamed. And, much to my delight, he got as close as he could to the deer, even as they freaked out and sprinted in the opposite direction, which is what deer do when intruders (me) show up.
After a long afternoon on the ranch and a tasty dinner at Roy’s new restaurant, Joey ticked off the list of activities for the next day. First up: waking up at 5 a.m. to artificially inseminate the white-tail doe, with contributions from super-special, well-bred deer from an undisclosed, far-away place where super-special deer apparently are raised.
“It’s going to be great,” Joey said, excitedly.
“You know, that sounds fascinating,” I said. “But I think I’m going to go ahead and sleep in,” I said.
That visit to Roy’s hometown occurred a few months after I began a new job with my old team, a position designed to bring the fans closer to the Astros through the annals of Social Media and blogging. That trip was the first of many in-depth glimpses to our team, for our fanbase, with the intention to give insight as to who these players are and what makes them tick. We wanted to show them not as robots but as people, beyond what you can see for yourself by watching on TV and reading in the paper.
We felt the best way to implement that plan was to provide a never-ending stream of behind-the-scenes access through storytelling, photos and videos. To illustrate the ins and outs of the Houston Astros. To make fans feel like they were part of the process.
Simply put, the last three years have been an absolute blast. But now, as is the case with most elements of life, it’s time to move on.
Over the last 16 seasons, I’ve had three jobs: first with the Astros, then with MLB.com, and then back with the Astros. In another week, I will leave my post with the Astros to go back to MLB.com for an exciting new opportunity. I’ll be a national correspondent, working with all 30 teams on a variety of levels. My first assignment will be All-Star week.
While I’ve obviously had plenty of experience changing jobs, this one is a huge leap, because although I’ll still be based in Houston, for the first time, I will no longer be working exclusively with the Astros. So this, in many ways, is goodbye.
I’m not really into “farewell” columns writers post when they’re on the move, but I do want to express my gratitude to you, the readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thanks for all of it — the good, the bad and the loud disagreements. For the give and take, the back and forth, the laughter and the spirited debates. Mostly, I thank you for trusting me, for knowing you could ask me just about anything, and accepting my answers as candid, honest and forthright. That was hugely important to me.
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know I like to ramble on about a bunch of completely unrelated topics. I figure that would be a fitting way to end this chapter. So here we go:
* Your Astros are in extremely good hands. I refer to Jeff Luhnow as a rock star (although I’m not sure if I’ve ever told him that. Guess he knows now). He understands what it takes for an organization to sustain long-term success and is building the Astros accordingly. Sure, he’s smart and savvy, but he has that little something extra that makes you believe he’s going to be in this job a long while. He gets baseball, he gets people, and let’s face it, he’s just a really cool dude. The first thing he said to me when we met at his introductory press conference was “I follow you on Twitter.” I think @drjohnreyes phrased it perfectly when he said, “Jeff Luhnow being on Twitter is like finding out your parents skydive.”
* Jim Crane also gets it. The worst thing an owner can do is take over a team, put a sound plan in place to build a winner, and then blow a jillion dollars on a free agent past his prime, messing up the team’s financial structure for the next decade. This will not happen with Crane. He hired smart, capable people to run the baseball operation, and he’s leaving it up to them to do just that. The plan is in place and they are sticking to it. Trust me, it’s a good plan. My money’s on it working.
* Despite the Astros’ current record, the organization as a whole is in a very good place. The Minor League teams are winning, a lot. This would be in stark contrast to the last several years, when the Minor League teams were losing, a lot. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Luhnow’s mantra: build the Minor League rosters with winning in mind. That means disregarding who was drafted in what round and feeling a need to push former high picks through the system just for the sake of moving them. Now, it’s about performance and development, and little else.
* Minute Maid Park is still one of the premier ballparks in baseball. For the last 10 years, my top three have not changed: Minute Maid Park, AT&T Park (San Fran) and PNC Park (Pittsburgh). Working from Minute Maid Park has been a pleasure, and I’m guessing the fan experience isn’t much different.
* For all of the grief Ed Wade took, he did a lot of good work here. There’s a lot of talent in the Minor League system and many of those players were obtained under Wade’s watch. You haven’t heard a lot about them, but you will. Soon.
* I don’t care what Chris Snyder’s batting average is. He’s been a great addition to this team. He has that certain something that makes him a perfect presence in a big league clubhouse. Every team needs that veteran guy who keeps things steady, can relate to all teammates and handles winning and losing with an unwaveringly calm approach. He’s a ballplayer, in the truest sense. He needs to stick around.
* I hated the hot sauce packet mascot race. Mascots who run in races, by definition, need eyes. When you put faces on inanimate objects, it’s funny. And what’s up with Mild Sauce losing every day? I know Texans like their spicy toppings, but come on. Totally fixed.
* Six years ago, Oswalt and I made a friendly wager. He insisted that when his contract ran out after 2011, he was going to retire. I disagreed, guessing he’d keep pitching. The wager: dinner. Roy, changing your cell number doesn’t get you off the hook. Pay up.
* When the Astros were winning and winning and winning in 2004 and ’05, the rosters were comprised mostly of players who had never played for another Major League team. Most were drafted by the Astros (Berkman, Biggio, Oswalt, Ensberg, Lane, etc.) and others were obtained through trades as Minor Leaguers (Bagwell, Everett). This created a sense of unity among teammates that made the winning that much more meaningful. When the modern-day Astros start rolling again, the rosters again will be filled with mostly players who were drafted and developed by this organization. That’s significant.
* Best moment: Covering the clubhouse scene when the Astros won the pennant. What I remember most about the World Series was not that the Astros were swept, but that Craig Biggio said to me at least three times, “You know, this was totally worth the wait.”
* Worst moment: Covering the clubhouse scene the day Darryl Kile died, 10 years ago today. The grief was overwhelming. I’ve never witnessed such complete devastation and I sensed that some of Kile’s friends would never be able to get past the loss.
* Best quote: Billy Wagner. You just never knew what was going to fly out of his mouth. A reporter’s dream, a team’s (occasional) nightmare.
* Most nerve-racking non-Astros moment: Watching, in person, Brad Lidge attempt to nail down the save in the World Series clinching game for the Phillies in 2008. I was covering the Series for MLB.com and my assignment was to document the postgame celebration on the field. I snuck down to the seats right behind the third-base dugout and watched the ninth inning from there. I was so nervous for Lidge that I actually feared I was going to either pass out or toss my cookies. Fortunately everything turned out well for both of us.
* Most challenging moment: Covering Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. Reporters have to turn in game stories five minutes after the last out is made, and with two outs in the ninth, no one on base and Lidge on the mound, I had 700 words written about the Astros’ pennant-clinching win over the Cardinals. Ten minutes later, Albert Pujols launched his moon shot to left field, and I had no choice but to highlight the story, push delete, and start over. (Honorable mention: the 18-inning win over the Braves in the NLDS. When games go that long, paragraphs that were important three innings ago eventually become irrelevant. So for three hours, it was type, delete. Type, delete. Rinse, repeat.)
* Favorite memory that I couldn’t write about: I finished my game coverage around 3 a.m. after the Astros clinched the pennant in St. Louis and walked back to the media dining room to pour a Budweiser beer from the single tap located near the eating area. I propped my feet up, savored the moment and realized I was probably drinking the very last Bud beer ever to be poured in old Busch Stadium. The ballpark was razed the next morning.
That should just about do it. Thank you again for your friendship. I will continue blogging and tweeting in my new job, so I hope you’ll continue to follow along. In the meantime, please continue to follow @astros for information about your hometown nine.
Be well, Astros fans!