This San Francisco Chronicle article piqued my interest, mainly because it raised some interesting observations about former Blue Jay/Met/Indian/Giant/Astro/Dodger Jeff Kent — a somewhat odd figure whom you could never quite figure out, even when you thought you might actually be close to cracking the code.
The one thing we — reporters who covered him, front offices who employed him, ballplayers who played with him — all knew to be true was that Kent didn’t care what people thought of him. He said what was on his mind, political correctness be darned. In an era where pro athletes are increasingly more diplomatic as they choose their words, Kent was having none of that. If he had an opinion, and you asked him about it, he’d unload.
That characteristic alone might help his Hall of Fame chances later this year, when his name appears on the ballot for the first time. More on that later.
Kent had a few different personas. He was well-known for his complete disinterest in getting close to his teammates on any level, treating them, and his profession, in the same manner as the decision makers in the front office. This was a business, the clubhouse was his office, and his teammates were nothing more than coworkers with whom he had one thing in common: they played baseball for a living.
Before one particular road game in California while he was playing for the Astros, Kent was debating with a teammate on a random topic, and the teammate joked, “Careful. We may not be able to be friends anymore.” Kent shot back, “We’re not friends.” The teammate gave one of those half-laughs, the kind you use when you’re not quite sure how to react. Kent said, again, stone-faced, “No. Really. We are not friends.”
That was just how Jeff Kent was. He wasn’t mean-spirited; he was just blunt, and a little strange. What else was he? An amazingly talented baseball player who had an intolerance for losing and stupidity. He fumed after losses. When games were lost because of mental mistakes, he’d sit at his locker after, silently stewing with such intensity you could practically see the steam coming out of his ears.
That’s also what made Kent so respected. His teammates didn’t get him, but they liked him. They didn’t dare invite him to dinner, ever, but they admired him for his work ethic and absolute disdain for losing. Maybe he wasn’t the guy you’d grab a brewskie with after a day game in Chicago, but he be at the top of anyone’s list as a desired teammate on club with a chance to win a championship.
Kent had another side to him as well, but it was one he mainly liked to keep hidden while he was working. A lot of his weird-guy persona, in my opinion, was simply a ploy to keep people guessing, as well as prevent anyone from getting too close. In truth, he’s a nice guy. Bright. Insightful. Even, at times, gracious. (During one particular conversation when he was scowling and purposely being difficult, I threatened to out him as a nice guy. He laughed, briefly, and then put his “I’m so annoyed by you reporters” steely-gazed face back on.)
After two years of covering him, I really grew to appreciate him, even like him, save for the two or three times I wanted to throw things at him.
Anyway, the fact that Kent could not have cared less what anyone thought of him during his career as a ballplayer makes him a somewhat intriguing figure now, for two reasons: he was one of the few players who, while active, railed passionately about his disdain for performance-enhancing drugs, and he’s eligible for election to the Hall of Fame next year.
As cited in the aforementioned San Francisco Chronicle article, Kent lobbied for steroid testing while his union was fighting it and later fought for tests for amphetamines and blood testing for human growth hormone. Kent wasn’t the only one with this stance, but he was certainly one of the few who not only wasn’t afraid to say it out loud, but also invited reporters to ask him about it.
I always wondered why Kent’s outspokenness on the subject didn’t garner more attention. Or Lance Berkman’s, for that matter. Puma also would rail to anyone who wanted to talk about it. He used unique tactics to get his point across, ranging from putting a sign above his locker for reporters at Spring Training that said, “Knee good. Steroids bad” to sticking his arm out and saying, “Here. Take my blood, weekly if you want to.”
Kent’s career stats suggest he will be a Hall candidate worthy of serious consideration. He compiled a .290 batting average with a .356 on-base percentage and 377 home runs over a 17-year career. He was one of a handful of second basemen that in many ways redefined the position that used to be acknowledged more by its defensive importance.
(He’s also the only Major Leaguer in history whose name, if Googled, will appear next to Lisa Welchel in the category of “People also searched for.” So there’s that.)
In a time when Hall of Fame voting has become more controversial than conversational, Kent’s mere presence on the ballot might provide some solace for the voters. While no one can say for sure who did or didn’t use, Kent’s probably as close to a sure thing on the list of players who didn’t. Will that help him? His numbers were great, but maybe not great enough for the voting body to determine he is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Or were they? Will the fact that he presumably played clean in the heart of an era that most feel was anything but help him?
And, as this article states, will the voters have a soft spot, perhaps even an appreciation, for Kent for being on the seemingly “right” side of the PED argument?
While it’s highly unlikely Kent will be voted in his first time on the ballot, it will be interesting to see what kind of percentage he receives. I’m guessing it’ll be significantly higher than a lot of his contemporaries whose stats deem them more worthy candidates for the Hall.
I took a slightly bold approach yesterday after the Hall of Fame announcement revealed that Craig Biggio did not get elected this year, his first on the ballot.
I suggested to Astros fans that Biggio not making the Hall this year is a good thing.
This was risky, obviously, given that I live in Houston, have spent most of my career either covering or working for the Astros and have spent most of the last several years communicating — via email, Twitter, blogs, whatever — with a more passionate segment of the Astros fan base. But hear me out. I really do believe Biggio not making the Hall was the best thing for not only Biggio, but also for Houstonians and Astros fans who have waited this long — precisely 51 years — to see a Houston player elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Hall voting process this year was complicated, controversial and brought out all kinds of emotions from writers and fans, from angst to anger to downright confusion. The conversations began pretty much the day after last year’s induction ceremony and gained steam in the weeks and months leading up when to the voters — 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America — received their ballots and filed their selections.
The debates were atypical from those that usually surround Hall of Fame voting. Most of you followed along through the process. Performance-enhancing drugs and the “Steroid Era” were discussed more than statistics. Writers were conflicted about what to do with the stars from the 1990s and early 2000s who are on the ballot for the first (or second, or third) time.
Their opinions varied, which seemed to irk readers more than if everyone had taken one sweeping stance. Some voted for the best of the best, regardless of if they were presumed “dirty” or not. Some flatly refused to vote for anyone who had been implicated, either by failing a test or admitting to taking PEDs, or anyone who had large upper bodies that didn’t pass the eye test. Others opted not to vote for anyone from the era, yet, even if they were presumed clean — a sort of way to punish the entire generation that belonged to a union that didn’t seem all that interested in implementing stringent testing a decade ago.
The point is, the narrative went on and on. And on. And on. It hasn’t stopped. The debate continues, and probably won’t truly die down until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in about a month and the writers have something else on which to focus.
That brings me to Biggio. Let’s pretend for a moment that he did get elected. Do you honestly think the attention would have immediately switched from scathing articles about the PED era to trumpets and pageantry and celebration, just like that? Do you really, truly believe the writers and networks (other than MLB Network) would have spent an adequate amount of time lauding Biggio’s stellar career and giving it the recognition it deserves?
Mark me down for “no.” I believe Biggio would have had a bit part in a larger, ongoing story that the media has fixated itself on for months. It wouldn’t be so much about who got in, but rather, about who didn’t. Whether we like it or not, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will continue to come up in conversation more than anyone else, and this is going to drag on for a while.
In his press conference with media on Thursday (photo above), Biggio was asked more about the era he played in and the players he played with and against than what he actually did during his 20-year Major League career. I believe locally, Biggio would have been properly lauded had he been elected to the Hall. But on a grander, national scale, I think we would have witnessed something quite different. And I think the trend would have continued right up until induction day this summer.
Through my years around the Astros, there were many times where I would wonder if they were somehow prone to “hard luck” situations. Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t some melodramatic cry that the team is cursed. It’s nothing close to that. Simply, it seemed like there was just always…something.
Jeff Bagwell, for example, was the greatest hitter in franchise history, but instead of his career ending with proper adulation from the fans and a fitting retirement for a player who never bailed for the greener pastures of free agency, his tenure as an Astro ended with a bum shoulder and messy arguments that involved Bagwell, ownership and insurance companies.
The Astros finally won the pennant — their only pennant — in 2005. And, they were swept in the World Series, mainly because they developed an inexplicable inability to score runs. A couple of years later, before a packed house and frenzied home crowd, Biggio logged hit No. 3,000 — and got thrown out at second trying to stretch it into a double. I remember shaking my head and thinking, “It’s always…something.”
So, when the Hall announcement was looming, and I was trying to gauge if Biggio would make it in or not, my first assumption was, if he makes it, he’ll barely squeak in. He’s either not making it with around 70 percent of the vote or just getting in with 76 or so. Is that truly how you want this to go? Biggio making it in with one of the lowest vote totals in history so that he can always be known as “the Hall of Famer with one of the lowest vote totals in history”?
Then, as the minutes crept toward the 1 p.m. CT announcement, the sentiment through Social Media was that if anyone gets in, it’ll be only one person — Biggio. And my thoughts turned to what the scene would be in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame folks would make it a spectacular day for Biggio, for his family, the Astros and the fans who traveled to Cooperstown. They do things first rate, always have, always will. But it’s the peripheral stuff — the media, the line of questioning, the storylines in general — that are cause for worry.
Biggio would be stamped as the first true PED-era player to make it to the Hall. He’d be asked about it ad nauseum. He’d have no choice but to talk about Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and others.
And I thought, my goodness. There’s a really good chance Biggio will be a footnote at his own Hall of Fame induction.
So count me as one who’s kind of glad the way things turned out. There is no doubt in my mind that Biggio is getting into the Hall of Fame, and it will probably happen next year. He has 3,060 hits. His 668 doubles are the most ever by a right-handed hitter. He’s the only player in history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs. It is ludicrous that he was not elected to the Hall of Fame this year. He will get in.
But as absurd as it is that he garnered only 68 percent of the votes this time, I think Biggio dodged a bullet this year by not making it. Next year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas appear on the ballot for the first time. All three will merit first-ballot consideration. It’s entirely possible Biggio will be on the dais in Cooperstown with players who be celebrated for simply being great, and nothing else.
Is that so terrible?
A couple of weeks before Constellation Field in Sugar Land burst onto the scene as the venue for the most recent Roger Clemens unretirement, I took a drive down there with a buddy to watch a different Astros alum pitch.
Jason Lane, who caught the final out that clinched the National League pennant in St. Louis in 2005 and played six seasons — as an outfielder — for the Astros from 2002-07, has resurfaced in pro ball as left-handed pitcher for the Independent League Skeeters. With a month left in their season, Lane has emerged as the club’s most productive starter, so much that he was named the Atlantic League’s pitcher of the month in July.
Lane’s decision to try his hand at pitching was purely coincidental. He was playing for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A club in Las Vegas last year and was asked to pitch an inning in a blowout game against the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A team from Reno.
Kevin Towers, the D-backs general manager, was in the stands that night. Towers watched Lane throw one scoreless inning and instructed his scouts to “get the gun on that lefty.” Later, the GM tracked down Lane near the underground batting cages.
“I didn’t know that was you out there,” Towers said. (The two had met briefly in 2007, when Towers, then the Padres’ GM, traded for Lane with about a week left in the season.)
Towers invited Lane to big league Spring Training this year, as a pitcher. Lane was assigned to the D-backs Triple-A team but was released after a couple of months.
Enter Gary Gaetti, the hitting coach for the Astros from 2004-06 and now the Skeeters’ manager. He and Lane had spoken briefly during the offseason and when Gaetti found out Lane was available, he reached out and asked Lane if he wanted to join the team as a starting pitcher.
Lane has made 13 appearances for the Skeeters, 12 as a starter, and has compiled a 3.03 ERA. He’s walked 13 and struck out 58 over 77 1/3 innings.
He’s never pitched in the big leagues, but he came close, once. Had the 18-inning affair between the Astros and Braves in the Game 4 of the Division Series in 2005 stretched to 19, Lane, who pitched in college, was up next.
He would have come in relief of Clemens, who pitched the 16th, 17th and 18th innings.
“(Pitching coach Jim) Hickey told me, ‘Roger’s going to go as long as he can,’ and that I was next in line,” Lane said. “He told me to start playing catch with the ballboy. I was just trying to process what might come.”
That moment never did come, thanks to a game-winning solo homer by Chris Burke.
Still, Lane is hoping that close call doesn’t represent his last opportunity to pitch in the big leagues.
“I remember my first inning in big league camp — the first warmup pitch was the hardest,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘just get it to the catcher.’ Now, I feel more relaxed on the mound than at the plate.”
Lane resurrecting his career as a pitcher isn’t the strangest story involving an Astros alum this year. Even Clemens’ fourth unretirement at age 50 (which many believe is a precursor to him pitching for the Astros this season) doesn’t take top billing in the category of, “You’re kidding, right?”
No, friends, that honor goes to former second baseman Jeff Kent. If you’re like 98 percent of society that thought Kent was probably the least likely retired ballplayer who would agree to appear on reality TV, you were wrong, wrong, wrong.
The full lineup has yet to be revealed, but we do know of one other participant other than Kent who has committed: actress Lisa Welchel. My money’s on Kent having no idea who she is. It’s probably also safe to assume he’s not familiar with Tootie’s rollerskates or Mrs. Garrett’s high, shrill voice, and has spent no time wondering how a group of seemingly intelligent teenagers spent like eight years in high school.
Welchel played snooty beauty Blair Warner on the hit ’80s TV show “The Facts of Life.” Back then, she (or, at least the character she played) spent a lot of time admiring herself in the mirror and sparring with Jo Polniaczek, the rebellious teen with a sharp tongue and a big heart. Now in her late 40s, Welchel — wife, mother, motivational speaker — appears to be ready to roll up her sleeves and eat bugs next to a five-time Major League All-Star.
Check your local listings.
Speaking of Astros alums…lest we not forget one Brad Ausmus, who was in town recently to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Flashback Friday.
Ausmus created a bit of a stir when the TV cameras panned on him in the GM booth exchanging pleasantries with Jeff Luhnow. With Brad Mills seemingly on his last legs as the Astros’ manager, it was only natural that Ausmus’ cameo appearance lit up the message boards and blogs.
In truth, the booth meeting wasn’t an interview, and as far as we know, the club hasn’t contacted Ausmus about the open managerial position. For now, the only managing gig Ausmus has on his plate is for the Israeli team that he hopes will qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“I have been asked that many times,” he said. “I’m not looking at this as a stepping stone. This is just something that realistically allowed me to still spend time at home and not have to travel a lot. The tournament itself is probably a week and a half long, including the workout days. The time commitment is relatively minimal compared a Major League Baseball season. It still keeps me involved in baseball and allows me to try something different.”
The qualifying round will take place in Jupiter, Fla. in September. Retired Major Leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler will serve as player-coaches, but Ausmus has no plans to join them on the field.
“I don’t need people to see me hit again,” he said.
OK, I’ll be the first to say it — this one doesn’t pass the smell test.
Oh, sure, I believe Roger Clemens truly does want to try his hand at pitching professionally, and on a much lower scale than the big leagues, as he gives his 50-year-old arm a test against real-life hitters.
But forgive me if I don’t think this is a one-game only experiment, a good-will gesture, a way for Clemens to sign some autographs, and, as he put it on Tuesday, “just have some fun.”
I have no idea what is actually going on inside Clemens’ head as he prepares to take the mound for his Independent League Sugar Land Skeeters debut on Saturday. Heck, maybe this really is just a case of a former superstar pitcher wanting to see if he can still bring it.
If that’s the case, heck, why not? It’ll be a fun night at Constellation Field. If it’s just about Houston resident wanting to inject some baseball life into a nearby suburb only 20 minutes from home, then so be it. It isn’t hurting anyone. Go for it.
But you’ll forgive me for being suspicious. I don’t claim to know Roger Clemens well. I am not in his inner circle. Most of my conversations with him were filtered through his agents (which was always a hoot). But I did cover him as a reporter during the Astros’ glory years in the middle of last decade, and I learned a few things. First and foremost, when it comes to competing, Clemens doesn’t do anything just for rips and giggles.
He competes because he lives for it. It defines him. It’s all he knows. And it’s hard for him to give it up, which is why he unretired in 2004 to pitch for the Astros, why he stayed on with them for three years, why he went back to the Yankees in 2007 and why he now plays in a 50-and-over softball league (and why he boasted at his presser that he hit two home runs in his most recent game).
Clemens was dutifully self-deprecating with his responses as to whether his Skeeters debut was a precursor to signing on with the Astros, possibly in September, when rosters expand.
No, no, no, Clemens said. Loosely translated, it likely means maybe, possibly, and probably.
“I’ve come out of retirement three times. But I’m 50 years old. It’s not realistic.”
“There’s a big difference between pitching and training at a high level. I’m not at that level, by any means.”
“I’m nowhere near where I was five years ago. I’m 50 years old. I have to be conscious of that.”
“Mentally, I’m going to go out and feel 35 again. When I throw my first couple of pitches, I’m going to feel 50 and say, “what the heck am I doing?”
Just a minute, Sonny.
It’s one thing for Clemens to take a safe and harmless aw-shucks approach. It’s quite another for him to predict that he’ll soon be second-guessing himself.
Sorry, I’m not buying it. That’s not Clemens. It wasn’t Clemens at 30 or 35 or 41. It’s certainly not him at 50. It just doesn’t compute.
I could be wrong on all of this. He could be using this angle to protect himself in case he does indeed blow up Saturday. He could very well hit 83 mph on the gun and get torched by opposing hitters. If that happens, he probably will sign some autographs, shake a few hands and ride off into the Sugar Land sunset by way of Highway 6 and U.S. Route 59.
But what if this experiment isn’t a disaster? What’s next?
I agree it’s a stretch to think any 50-year-old, even one seemingly as ageless as Clemens, could realistically have success against Major League hitters 25 years younger than him. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of covering Clemens, it’s that the only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing for sure.
Clemens hasn’t lost the burn to compete. The Astros thought enough of Monday’s warmup session to send their scouting director to watch. And there are a few empty seats at Minute Maid Park these days, if you haven’t noticed.
Perfect storm or far-fetched fantasy?
One of the many things that stood out to me when I read Gary Carter’s books over and over and over in the late 1980s and early ’90s was his disdain for Davey Johnson’s computers.
Carter, the catcher for the Mets during the glory years, very much liked Johnson, the manager for those great teams. He just didn’t like Johnson’s computers, his printouts or his penchant for hunkering down in his office and using stats to prepare for games in the hours leading up to first pitch.
“Davey Johnson had come up to manage the Mets from their Triple-A team in Tidewater after the ’83 season,” Carter wrote in his book, ‘The Gamer.’ “Davey managed by the numbers…literally. He was a computer whiz who could pull up more baseball statistics on his screen than most of us knew existed. I liked Davey, but I didn’t care much for his computer.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with having all the latest stats available, but it’s tough to quantify qualities such as ‘heart,’ ‘desire,’ and ‘intestinal fortitude.’ Moreover, Davey’s computer might dutifully report that a player went hitless in four at-bats but totally miss the fact that all four outs were hard-hit balls or long fly balls just inches away from being home runs.”
Carter’s sentiments were in line with most baseball insiders back then. Constructing a lineup was based mostly on a player’s batting average and how he fared in the past against the opponent’s starting pitcher, and not much else. Sure, there were debates about where players should hit in the order and how valuable — or wasteful — a sacrifice bunt was, but for the most part, baseball analysis was not something that necessitated the use of a computer to help crunch the numbers. Or so the “experts” thought.
Times have changed, obviously. Johnson’s insistence on including computers into his daily routine wasn’t kooky, it was innovative. He was ahead of his time not only as a manager, but as a player, too. Apparently, his mathematics-minded approach to baseball dates all the way back to the 1960s, when he played for the Orioles.
Johnson’s motives were simple: he was hitting seventh, and he wanted to be hitting second. He needed to come up with a way to convince manager Earl Weaver to move him up, so he came up with a computer program designed to back up his philosophy. He presented it to Weaver as a way to, as he put it, “optimize the Orioles lineup.”
It was a tough sell. Weaver liked matchups. He liked using his hitters who had the best numbers against that day’s pitcher in the middle of the order, regardless of how they’d performed over the course of the season. If an MVP-caliber player had poor numbers against a specific opponent, chances were, he was going to sit that day. Other than that, Weaver’s favorite thing to do was rely on his pitching and defense, and wait for the long ball.
Johnson, who obtained a mathematics degree from Trinity University, was a formidable challenge for Weaver. Johnson wasn’t the prototypical, cookie-cutter ballplayer — he was smart, and he was curious. While finishing his coursework at Trinity University, he took a computer class at Johns Hopkins University, just for the heck of it. It was during that time he had lunch with an engineer-turned-author named Earnshaw Cook, who left an immeasurable impression on the numbers-minded Johnson.
Cook, also a professor at Johns Hopkins, had written a book called “Percentage Baseball.” In hindsight, it was sabermetrics before sabermetrics. It was also rebuffed by a baseball community unwilling to embrace Cook’s oddball philosophies that suggested the best hitters should bat first, that sacrifice bunts were wasteful and relief pitchers — get this — should start games and then be replaced by a pinch-hitter when it came time for his first at-bat. Starting pitchers would then enter the game and pitch the next four or five innings. This, Cook argued, could tack on another 25 wins for a team.
Cook’s theories piqued the interest of a few people, according to this Alan Schwartz feature — Tal Smith, a young, up-and-coming executive with the Astros and self-proclaimed stat nerd, Ewing Kauffman, owner of the Kansas City Royals, and Johnson.
While Johnson didn’t follow Cook’s philosophy to the letter, Cook’s views gave him some level of validation as he worked on his computer programs to solve baseball riddles.
Now it was just a matter of convincing Weaver. Johnson would take his giant optimization printouts, generated from his oversized computer, and present them to his manager.
“Earl, do you know what the standard deviation chart is?” Johnson recalled asking. Weaver’s response was dismissive, but Johnson plowed on. The standard deviation chart, Johnson explained, requires a larger pool by which to make judgments, to be able to predict with a plus or minus five percent. If you flip a coin five times, you might get five heads. If you flip it 500 times, it’s more likely to be half heads and half tails, or close to it.
“Six at-bats doesn’t really give you a good way to predict,” Johnson told Weaver. “There’s more things involved.”
When Johnson started managing, he developed a program to obtain data from the opposing manager to gauge hitters’ tendencies and to determine what counts were more favorable when a manager decided to hit and run. He pored over stats to determine the best possible batting orders. He viewed his computer as “another coach, with a better memory than me.”
As a player, Johnson and his theories didn’t get very far with his manager, and as a manager, his players disregarded his computer with a flippant wave. He didn’t get far with his own teammates, either. He recalled watching pitcher Dave McNally struggle to hit the inside corners during one particular start. Between innings, Johnson said to him, “You’re in an unfavorable chance deviation.”
In other words, stop aiming at the corners. Aim it down the middle, and you’ll hit the corners.
Predictably, that particular bit of advice didn’t go over very well.
“From that, I was nicknamed ‘Dum-Dum,’” Johnson said.
When MLB.com was in its infancy back in the early 2000s, reporters and producers received an email from our higher-ups a couple of weeks before the start of Spring Training, giving us a list of old and worn-out cliches that we were NEVER to use in our copy or headlines.
Spring Has Sprung. Hope Springs Eternal. Baseball’s in Full Swing. And on and on.
I sent an email back, asking as politely as possible, “Can we add, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’ to that list?”
That was (at least) 11 years ago. I can’t recall if that line ever did appear on Astros.com or MLB.com, but even if it didn’t, it’s only a small victory. Because it shows up everywhere else.
It seems that whenever the Astros (and quite possibly the Rockets, Texans and other Houston sports teams) are in turmoil, and have, well, a problem, the headline writers spend all of four seconds coming up with something that properly illustrates the issues surrounding the team in trouble.
Houston, We Have a Problem.
Neat. Congratulations. Well done. Now, please stop.
I try to picture the process by which an editor chooses that particular headline. It’s late at night, he’s editing a story about the Astros sinking in the standings. He has his index finger pressed firmly against his chin. He’s looking up at the ceiling, deep in thought. And then it hits him. His eyes light up. Yes. Yes. Yes. He smiles. He types. He inwardly congratulates himself for coming up with the most clever play on words in the history of the English language.
Houston, he writes. We Have a Problem.
How has no one thought of this before? he wonders. It’s perfect. Four decades ago, the Apollo 13 space mission was aborted because of an exploding oxygen tank, and the astronauts inside sent a message back to the command center: “Houston, we have a problem.” And now, a Houston sports team stinks.
Using “Houston, We Have a Problem” solves two issues: It is a quick fix — a convenient headline to slap onto a story and call it a night. It also allows for the editor to have to spend no time actually coming up with something creative. Or timely.
The Astros are getting a lot of national attention lately, and I do not begrudge the writers from jumping on this story. It’s not easy to do what the Astros are pulling off, losing at such an alarming pace that although they were within a game of .500 as late as the end of May, they’re now on pace to surpass last year’s club record 106 losses. It’s mind-boggling. So I understand the need to follow along.
While the Astros are being shoved into the unfortunate national spotlight, this seems like as good a time as any to try to at least attempt to ceremoniously retire “Houston, we have a problem.” Heck, if the Rangers can launch an entire in-stadium campaign to kill the Wave, the least we can do in the Bayou City is wipe out a worn-out cliched phrase that should have gone away around the same time The Brady Bunch went off the air.
The phrase isn’t even accurate. The actual words uttered by the Apollo 13 crew were “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That is less dramatic, obviously, because it indicates there was a problem, but there isn’t one anymore. That wouldn’t work for headline purposes. Readers aren’t going to be nearly as interested if they think the problem that once existed has been solved.
So, “Houston, We Have a Problem” works better. And the Astros have complied over the years by giving the headline writers plenty of opportunities to use it. Consider:
2000 — The Astros, coming off three straight division titles, move into their gorgeous new downtown ballpark and spend the first half of the season on pace to lose 120 games.
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
2001 — Larry Dierker, in his fifth year of managing, watches his Astros get swept, again, in the Division Series. Rumors swirl that he will be fired. He is.
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
2004 — Roy Oswalt and Michael Barrett have a contentious relationship, which creates friction between the Astros and Cubs and adds a delicious subplot every time the two teams meet. Oswalt throws at Barrett during a game at Minute Maid Park, is ejected, and Jeff Bagwell gets mad at Oswalt for getting thrown out of a game during a time the Astros are making a push for the Wild Card. Bagwell’s never spoken out against a teammate, ever. Houston media is all over it. (No, not really.)
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
2006 — Coming off a World Series appearance, the Astros cannot recapture the magic and are not in any kind of race, until the last week of the season when the Cardinals help out by putting together an eight-day nose dive.
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
2007 — the team is worse, and Phil Garner is fired.
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
2008 — hellooooo Hurricane Ike.
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
2009 — the oldest roster in baseball costs $100 million and finishes fifth.
“Houston, We Have a Problem.”
In short, we get it. Houston is the Space City. Astronauts live here. There are times when the Houston sports teams aren’t very good. “Houston, We Have a Problem” was once clever and apropos.
Isn’t it time to move on?
I had to chuckle when I read this excerpt from Astros radio announcer Dave Raymond’s blog illustrating how the “Dog Days” of summer can wear out those who travel with a Major League ball club.
The effects from a restful All-Star break usually wear off within a week or two, and by the time August arrives, full-out fatigue has set in. Middle-of-the-night arrivals take on a whole new life when you’re four months into baseball season. You wake up in the morning and have no idea what city you’re in. You get back to the hotel after a game and can’t remember your room number.
Or, as illustrated in Raymond’s blog, you can pull a Bill “Brownie” Brown and try to use your Starbucks gift card to get into your hotel room, fail miserably, lug your belongings back to the front desk, pull out your driver’s license and get a new key, only to discover the original one would have worked just fine.
I kid because I care. And because I’ve been there before. A lot. Regardless of how spry and able-bodied you are, from time to time, you will have a senior moment. It’s not cause for alarm. It’s just that with around 60 games left in the season, baseball people start running on fumes. Some get through it better than others, but forgetfulness is a common symptom, across the board. It’s not so much, “What time is it?” as it is “What day is it?”
I recall one particularly harrowing roadie way, way back in 1999. The Astros played a Thursday night game in Arizona that, of course, went 11 innings, followed by an overnight flight to Kansas City. The buses pulled up to the hotel in Kansas City around 7 a.m. The sun was up. Rush hour traffic was in full force. And the Astros hadn’t been to bed yet.
I was working for the Astros’ media relations department at the time, and a local radio station that did a weekly segment with Ken Caminiti every Friday asked me to send along a message to Cammy to remind him to call in later that day. The hosts sensed that with the early morning arrival and no real concept of one day becoming the next, this could be an issue for the third baseman.
They were right. I saw Caminiti on the team bus and said, “Don’t forget to call the radio station for your show today.” He shook his and said, “I do the show on Fridays.” I said, “Cammy. It is Friday.”
Blank stare. Then a slap of the forehead. “Ohhhhhh….right.”
After the game, the team bus dropped us off at the hotel and I stood at the elevators, having no idea, at all, what floor I was on or what room I was in. That was the first time it happened. It most certainly wasn’t the last.
As recently as two years ago (or was it last year?) I worked a little later after a game at Wrigley Field, took a cab back to the hotel and couldn’t for the life of me remember what floor I was staying on. I stopped on six. Then eight. Then six again. I ran into Ed Wade on one of my stops and said, “I have absolutely no idea where I am.” He looked amused, but not surprised.
Finally I called the one person who I was certain would sympathize with my plight — Dave Raymond, of course. I asked him to look at the rooming list and tell me where to go.
I would have felt foolish, if not for the fact that I was fairly certain I wasn’t the only one who this happens to. Reading that it happens to people like the astute and organized Brownie was oddly comforting.
How well you hold up during a season is largely contingent on how well your team is positioned in the standings. That’s just how it is. Losing has a ripple effect. When your team is not anywhere close to a pennant race, it’s hard to stay perky in August and September, even with Starbucks locations on every street corner across the country.
But when you’re winning? Man, oh man. Nothing can ruin the mood. Exhaustion? Bah. The one thing I remember better than anything else about that aforementioned 11-inning game in Arizona in ’99 was that the Astros lost that game, and just before they began the boarding process for their red-eye to Kansas City, Mike Hampton stopped, busted out with his best attempt at the moon walk, cracked up his teammates and THEN got on the plane. Extra-inning losses are a lot more tolerable when it’s the only game you’ve dropped in a week.
Later that season, the Astros swept a Montreal-Philadelphia road trip and ended up stuck on the tarmac for at least five hours, maybe more, due to torrential downpours. Problem? Nah. Some played cards. Others watched movies. The broadcasters engaged in their usual two-hour fantasy baseball debate. Bench coach Matt Galante and I went toe-to-toe in a makeshift baseball trivia contest. We had pizzas delivered to the plane (this was pre-9/11) and everyone remained, for the most part, exceedingly happy.
That’s what happens when your team is in a pennant race. Baseball is fun. You like your colleagues. You can’t wait to get to the ballpark the next day.
When you’re losing…well, let’s just say the countdown to October takes on an entirely different meaning.
If memory serves me, in the years after I graduated from the University of Cincinnati, I had several conversations with people from the Tri-State area about the city’s top sports figures.
It wasn’t so much about who were the best players. It was more about who, in the sports landscape, were the most revered. Who, if you will, “owned” the town?
Back then, in the early to mid-1990s, the Reds had both good years and terrible years, the Bengals were unspeakably awful, and with no NBA team to dump on and the only hockey in town being of a minor league variety, there wasn’t much going, sports-wise. At that time, the one team with the most national prominence was UC men’s basketball, a perennial high seed in the tournament and really, at the time, the toast of the town.
So, in my estimation, there were three sports figures in Cincinnati at that time that were revered in the eyes of the public. They were, in no particular order: UC men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins, Reds shortstop Barry Larkin and Reds radio announcer Marty Brennaman.
Back in the old days, it really didn’t matter if the Reds were good or bad (which was good, because some years were just really, really bad). Listening to Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall on the radio was just something you did. You listened in the car. You listened while hanging out at the pool. You listened when you were close to home and, thanks to 700 WLW’s ability to be picked up hundreds of miles from home, you could also listen during the long rides that inevitably accompanied any family vacation.
The broadcasts were never boring. Brennaman’s candid assessments and picture-perfect descriptions made even the snoozers interesting. He was, and continues to be, one of the only radio broadcasters in baseball who willingly will go against the establishment to criticize the team when warranted. His observations often infuriated star players, not to mention ownership (how many times did Marge Schott tried to rid herself of him?). It didn’t matter. Marty always prevailed, because he told it like he saw it, and in turn, he was radio gold for listeners. He was as untouchable as you can get without actually wearing the uniform.
Anyhoo, Marty became the Reds’ full-time announcer when I was not yet three years old, so, for the most part, he’s been calling Reds games my entire life. A few things haven’t changed in his 40-plus years of broadcasting: his booming voice, his popularity, and, well, his hair.
Marty has a lot of hair. He always has. I’m fairly certain it hasn’t always been white, but I have no memory of that, so I have to assume it changed color when he was still a relatively young man. Marty’s hair has always been a signature trait, which I guess is a funny thing to say about a guy who makes his living on the radio. But Marty didn’t hide behind the mic. For a radio guy, he was (and is) everywhere.
About a week ago, the surging Reds were attempting to extend a winning streak to an unthinkable 10 games, and Marty cast his doubts on the team’s ability to carry it out. A Reds coach asked him if he’d shave his head if the team won that night, and Marty said, “Sure.”
I’ll be honest, I never understood why sports-related streaks make so many normally well-reasoned folks want to suddenly challenge their friends to shave their heads. I’ve been in situations where some brazen so-and-so will propose some silly bet about where a team will finish in the standings, and invariably, it’s always the same proposed wager: “If I win, you have to shave your head.” It’s stupid. It irks me in the same way as watching four college-age men at a sports venue in say, San Diego, dancing around for the cameras with their shirts off. It’s a balmy 70 degrees and they’re — gasp! — shirtless? They must be really, really…cold?
Still, when I first heard about this proposed challenge, I pictured Marty and his iconic poofy white hair and tried to imagine what he might look like without it. I thought, this, I have to see.
The Reds won that night, and the focus temporarily shifted from Marty calling the game to Marty to paying up. To make sure this gesture had a point, a stipulation was added: If enough fans ponied up the cash to reach $20,000 for the Reds Community Fund and Joe Nuxhall Character Fund, the shaving would happen on the field, after the game, in front of the fans. If they didn’t raise the cash, the shaving would still go on — just in the privacy of the Reds clubhouse, away from the glare of
Marty’s dome the public spotlight.
Reds fans didn’t raise 20 grand — they raised 50. Charlie Sheen, a long-time Reds fan whose dad, Martin, is originally from nearby Dayton, Ohio, added another $50,000. That’s 100 grand, all for charity, all to celebrate one very beloved local celebrity who transitioned from “poofy-haired fancy boy” to shiny-headed bald guy.
Marty always did own that town. Glad to see some things never change.
My top five most interesting facts about the Marty Party that I learned from watching this video:
1. Marty is quite tan throughout the season. His head, however, had some catching up to do after he parted with his hair. No worries. Marty’s plan for the team’s pending trip to Milwaukee was to spend ample time on the golf course, sans hat.
2. Not only did the act of Marty having his head shaved bring in money, the shaved hair was also auctioned off, for charity. Could make for an interesting decoration on some lucky fan’s mantle, but I’d keep it away from the Christmas lights.
3. Marty had his personal barber of 23 years do the shaving. Many Reds players initially offered to help out, but were rebuffed.
4. Marty fully admits he loves his hair and apparently doesn’t mind singing it from the rooftops. He was quoted as saying, “No one has had a more passionate love affair with his hair than me.” Intense.
5. It took six minutes and 13 seconds to shave the head, from start to finish — five minutes, 27 seconds longer than it takes for the average American man to have his head shaved. (No, not really).
Random musings as the media contingent in Kansas City begins its mass exodus to the airport…
My excursion through FanFest during All-Star week got me thinking about nicknames. Ballplayers have had some doozies over the years, but regrettably, the number of nicknames that score high points for originality and creativity has definitely tapered off. A lot.
One look at the Negro Leagues exhibit at FanFest made me realize we are really missing the boat these days on nicknames. Nearly every player in
the Negro Leagues had a cool alias. Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan. Joseph “Smokey Joe”/”Cyclone” Williams. Norman “Turkey” Stearnes. James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. William Julius “Judy” Johnson. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. Elijah “Pumpsie” Green. Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.
I realize names like “Turkey” and “Judy” probably wouldn’t go over well in these modern times, but still. They were definitely on to something back then.
(Full disclosure: I come from Houston, where players are called by their last name, with a “y” or “ie” at the end, depending on your spelling preference. The manager, Brad Mills, is “Millsie.” He calls his closer, Brett Myers, “Meersie.” Matt Downs is “Downsie.” If they call up Brett
Wallace after the All-Star break, he will answer to “Wally.” Jose Altuve is “Tuvie.” Wilton Lopez? “Lopie.” It’s absurd. The only one who’s exempt is Jed Lowrie. For obvious reasons.)
That’s not to say there haven’t been any creative nicknames in more modern times. Jeff Francoeur is “Frenchy,” which is pretty cool. Then there was Andres Gallaraga, “Big Cat.” Fred McGriff was “Crime Dog.” David Ortiz, “Big Papi.” Sean Casey is, appropriately “The Mayor.” And how could we forget Jose “Lima Time”? Or Lance Berkman, the only documented player in the last 100 years to actually give himself his own nickname — “Big Puma” — to make people forget about his other, less desirable moniker: “Fat Elvis.”
An extensive Internet search on the matter revealed a bunch of nicknames I never knew existed. (And by “extensive,” I mean, I googled “Major
League Baseball Player nicknames” and stumbled on a page from the believe-it-at-your-own-risk Wikipedia site. In other words, research was
entirely unscientific.) Living so far away from New York, I never heard Phil Hughes referred to as “Phil Franchise.” During my stops in
Colorado, I never heard Todd Helton referred to as “The ToddFather,” thank goodness. Other cringe-inducing names: “The Mexicutioner” (Joakim Soria), and “Huff Daddy” (Aubrey Huff).
Working an All-Star Game involves a lot of work and a lot of long hours at the ballpark, but there’s a major upside to all of this. One of my
favorite things about MLB’s jewel events — namely, the All-Star Game and World Series — are the number of Hall of Famers and fan favorites who are involved in the events.
MLB tries to include as many local stars from the host cities as possible, citing one big name to be the official All-Star ambassador. The All-Star Game being in Kansas City this year, it was only fitting that the Royals’ only Hall of Famer, George Brett, serve in that role.
Brett, one of the few Hall of Famers who played for only one team his entire career, was pretty much up at the crack of dawn every day for nearly a week to fulfill about a dozen good will commitments, in addition to managing the U.S. Team in Sunday’s Futures Game. He jokingly rolled his eyes at the Royals’ head of PR while rattling off his list of responsibilities for the week. But when discussing what Kansas City means to him, Brett’s tone grew more serious.
Eyes welled, Brett said, “I love this town. They adopted me in 1973 and have been so good to me. I’ve had a great time this week and I’m extremely honored that they named me ambassador. I didn’t realize the work that would be involved, but it’s been a pleasure.”
Asked what he says to today’s players about the importance of a strong work ethic, Brett answered, “I played every day like my dad was in the stands.”
Brett creates a stir in this town, but there is one person who can eclipse even that and take it to an entirely different stratosphere. That person is Bo Jackson, who starred in both the Major Leagues and the NFL and was once considered by many as the greatest athlete, ever.
Jackson participated in the Legends/Celebrity Softball Game Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium, not as a player, but as a coach. When it comes to our sports heroes from the past, it’s easy to romanticize what they once were and brush aside the realities, like why they were forced to retire in the first place. Jackson had a hip replacement 20 years ago, and while I have no idea what he’s had to deal with pain-wise today, I’m guessing he’s still dealing with the aftermath from the injuries that prematurely ended his athletic career.
Whatever the reason, Jackson clearly did not want to play in the softball game, but when it came down to the American League’s final at-bat, the
sellout crowd started chanting his name in an effort to get him to step to the plate. Jackson did not want to. The crowd got louder, but he stood his ground. Then Jackson’s teammates began gently coaxing him, and finally, he gave in. He was clearly uncomfortable.
Jackson popped up to third base side, but he hit the ball hard enough to satisfy the crowd, and most importantly, he didn’t do anything do embarrass himself. It wouldn’t have mattered even if he had swung and missed; nothing was going to diminish the crowd’s adoration for its local hero. But watching the scene unfold was a little disconcerting, and when Jackson made contact, with some level of authority, it came as a pretty big relief.
During a question and answer session at FanFest, Rollie Fingers explained the origin of his famous handlebar mustache, and what prompted him to grow it. It used to be against the rules for ballplayers to have facial hair, but in the early 1970s, Reggie Jackson rebelled and showed up to Spring Training with a mustache. Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley, normally unreasonable and cantankerous by nature, liked it so much that he asked the rest of the team to follow suit.
Finley even went as far as to add an incentive: have a mustache on Opening Day, and receive a check for $300. Needless to say, Finley ended up handing out 30 checks for 25 players, four coaches and one manager.
That got me thinking about old friend Phil Garner, who was drafted by the A’s just before the 1972-74 dynasty began. He had to have spent time with the big league team during Spring Training, even before his ’73 debut. And he does have a big bushy mustache. Did he, too, grow it for the money?
Answer: yes. But this story doesn’t have quite the happy ending as it did for Fingers.
Garner grew the mustache like everyone else, but he was sent to the Minor Leagues when camp broke. He asked for his money, but the Minor League director and Finley’s son-in-law said it was only for big leaguers.
“I got hosed,” Garner said.
Favorite quote of the week:
“Twitter, tweeter, twooter.” George Brett, explaining why it’s harder for a player to stay under the radar when he’s struggling in this day and age, because of the Internet and the ability to find out any stat, for any team, anywhere in the world.
Random images from a great week in Kansas City. Hat tip to the Royals for putting on a fantastic show.
The Astros have announced a new partnership with Houston-based corporations to build or refurbish youth baseball and softball fields in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the city.
The companies that have currently committed to this program are National Oilwell Varco, Halliburton, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Calpine Corporation, Champion Energy Services, Schlumberger and Nabors Industries. The Astros plan to have 12 corporate partners in the Community Leaders Program, which will ultimately contribute $18 million to the City of Houston over the next five years.
To recognize the Community Leaders, the Astros are building a large structure on the left field light tower at Minute Maid Park that is scheduled to be completed by July 20. The pennants currently located on the left field wall will be moved to another location inside the ballpark.
Astros Owner and Chairman Jim Crane personally developed the plan with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who has offered the club and its corporate partners many viable options of parks that need refurbishment. Over the last few months, Crane, Mayor Parker and Houston Parks and Recreation Director Joe Turner have visited these neighborhoods and parks to select the best options, which will have the most lasting impact on youth baseball and softball.
The Community Leaders program has offered corporations the opportunity to partner with the Astros and the Astros In Action Foundation to become part of a team that will improve these neighborhoods through the game of baseball.
Community Leaders is a five-year program, which matches the corporation’s employees along with wounded veterans as volunteers in the build, refurbishment, and guest services that go along with the plan. Their employees will also volunteer as coaches or mentors at the park, some of which will also be providing wellness and education programs for their patrons.
Crane: “Baseball was very important to my own development. Playing baseball made me a lot more confident and comfortable in my ability to achieve things. I”d like to be able to help more kids get the opportunity I had through baseball.”
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig: “I applaud Jim Crane and the Astros for partnering with so many fine local organizations and impacting the future of youth baseball in Houston. The Astros’ efforts will help us reach our next generation of leaders, players, coaches and fans. Major League Baseball is a social institution, and I am delighted that the Astros’ new Community Leaders Program will help us meet our important social responsibilities in the communities of Houston.”
The Astros will break ground on the project this summer and will complete construction of the fields at the start of the 2013 baseball season.
The Citgo sign that used to hang in that area will be moved closer to center field. Citgo and the Astros have renewed their partnership for three years, and a larger sign will go up in the near future.