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.
johnny14k_2: Padres edged us out last night in 10 – how will we do tonight?
JL: We are going to win tonight…after all we are a good club at home and we’ve got Lyles on the bump. Faith!
Ashitaka: First, thanks so much for chatting with us as often as you do; we all appreciate it greatly. And please pass along the fanbase’s thanks to Bobby Heck & Co. for the outstanding job on the draft. In keeping with that, do you believe that Carlos Correa stick
JL: The scouts did a tremendous job preparing for the draft and everyone in the front office helped pull it all together. I gather you were going to ask whether Carlos will stick at shortstop. The answer is yes, in my opinion. He is very talented and athletic. That being said, he is so young that his body may change…he may end up taller, thicker, etc. and if that happens he may end up at third, but that won’t be a problem. He projects to be a plus defender at either position.
Ashitaka: Matthew Duffy is currently having an excellent season in Lexington, out of nowhere it would seem. Interesting that he’s also a 20th round pick like a certain outfielder on the Astros roster. Is this guy the real deal?
JL: He is having a big season, and that is great. Anytime a drafted player does well in full season A ball, there is reason to be excited, regardless of the round in which he was selected. He will continue to get challenged and if he continues to respond, he could be a big leaguer some day.
Ashitaka: When Foltynewicz was drafted he was touted as a #1 starter type with the sort of typical power pitcher’s profile. He’s looking good this year, but it seems like he might be trying to pitch to contact and get ground balls. Is that accurate?
JL: Often times, what gets a player drafted is not what makes them successful in pro ball. Remember the objective is to get outs, and while velocity helps, control and movement are critical. It’s not unusual to see a power pitcher find success by pitching to contact and generating ground balls. Folty is having a big year, and that is exciting. I’ve also seen pitchers go down in velo for a few years and after they get used to the grind of pro ball, it goes back up.
Ashitaka: Reports have talked about the improving velocity of Nicholas Tropeano (the Astros.com message board is calling him “NiTro”) and he’s certainly looking like a better strikeout pitcher than a lot of people though when he was drafted.
JL: Got out of that jam? Good job Jordan. Yes, NiTro (cool nickname, mind if I start using it?) is striking guys out, and that is a key predictor of future success. He is a pitcher we are keeping a close eye on and those strikeouts are screaming that he has big league potential. Go NiTro!
Ashitaka: It looks like Delino DeShields has improved greatly, especially in the key areas you look for a in a top-of-the-order bat. Is he a guy that’s close to taking off, or does he still need a lot of work in other areas?
JL: It is so exciting to have a guy like DD in our system! He’s young and still has some development ahead of him, but you don’t find guys with his tools everywhere. I’m thrilled with what he’s doing and can’t wait to watch him do it at the upper levels in the coming years.
Ashitaka: Should we be concerned about Jarred Cosart’s pedestrian strikeout rate, or his…perhaps off-the-field issues is the term? It seems like there might have been something going on related to some Twitter comments he made recently that lead to a suspension.
JL: Cosart has a big league arm. He still needs some time in the minor leagues but you should remain excited about him. There is a reason we acquired him and that hasn’t changed.
Ashitaka: Nolan Fontana has probably gotten the least amount of publicity of our first five picks, and there seems to be a lot of differing opinions about where he profiles defensively and if he’ll be able to hit enough to be a regular starter.
JL: Maybe it’s “draft fatigue” but he should get every bit of the attention that the other guys are getting. He has done something the younger guys have not — had success at a high college level. We are challenging him right out of the box and sending him to Lexington, and once you see what he does there, I believe you will be equally excited about him and his future in our organization.
Ashitaka: Are you concerned for Jonathan Singleton right now? It looks like he’s still fairly patient at the plate, but he’s in a pretty spectacular slump right now.
JL: No. Slumps are part of the game. What we watch for is how the player makes adjustments and how he battles out of a slump. Singleton has the talent to be an impact player at the big league level and should be ready soon. Everyone can watch him in Kansas City at the Futures Game.
Ashitaka: I believe Telvin Nash might be leading the solar system in strikeouts right now. Is he a guy that can’t stop swinging and missing, or more on the Adam Dunn side that he takes a lot of close pitches and gets rung up as a result? How do you seem him developing?
JL: Unfortunately, for most players strikeouts and power go hand in hand. He’s mashing, for sure, but that comes at a cost. Trust me when I tell you that our coaches and the player know this is an issue and are working hard to address it.
Ashitaka: Ariel Ovando is off to a nice start, can you give us a feel for the new regime’s view on him, how you think he may develop and how quickly or slowly he might be able to rise through the system?
JL: I didn’t know much about Ovando until I saw him in January in the DR, and then saw him more in Florida. He has a big league body and some big league tools. It’s great to see him get off to a good start. I’m increasingly bullish on him and he’s still soooo young.
Ashitaka: There’s a pretty good debate within the fanbase right now about what Jed Lowrie’s trade value would be. Without asking if you would or are trying to deal him, what do you see his value as on the trade market?
JL: His trade value would be very high. His value to us is very high. Jed’s very important to our organization and while I’d never say anyone is untradeable, he’s not likely to go anywhere for a while…or longer!
Ashitaka: Can you give us a name or two of late-round guys you and the crew picked who you felt flew under-the-radar in the draft and could exceed what most people might expect from where they were selected? Your personal favorites, so to speak?
JL: West from Washington has a good arm, Ballew from Texas State, and Gulbransen from Jacksonville University are all sleepers!
Ashitaka: Offensively, Jobduan Morales is making you look pretty smart right now. Is his defense still as rough as people say though, and do you see him being able to work those kinks out and move through the system quickly, or is he much more of a long-term project?
JL: He is swinging the bat well, and there is a saying among baseball people, the more he hits, the better he looks behind the plate. He’s OK defensively but we have our best guys working with him. Thanks for the compliment!
Ashitaka: Jason Castro has looked a lot better at the plate recently. Can you give us a realistic expectation for him as a long-term offensive player?
JL: He’s increasingly comfortable. Last night’s home run was great. I think he can be a guy who hits .260/.350 OBP with 10 to 15 home runs and that would be interesting for an athletic catcher.
Ashitaka: Is Jim Crane and the ownership group going to want you to be conservative at the deadline for appearance purposes, or do you have free reign to wheel and deal as you see fit for the sake of the long-term rebuilding process?
JL: We will stay on strategy…acquire talent, compete, and as quickly as possible get to the point of being able to challenge for a playoff spot year in and year out.
JL: Wish we had scored there. Oh well. Fontana on the radio with Milo now. When he’s done I’m going to take him down to the field, so at that point I will have to cut this off…
Ashitaka: What is going on with the construction in left field? Or at the least can you tell us when we might expect information about it to be revealed?
JL: I believe the cover story of Sports Business Daily covered the story. There will be a release soon so stay tuned…
yonip: Congrats on the draft! With most of the picks signed, are their any more picks you expect to sign in the next couple of weeks?
JL: We have one more in the top 10 rounds to go and then possibly a few after that…most of the work is done. It’s a huge benefit to have so many players signed quickly, for them and for us.
TimothyDeBlock: Most recent move you’ve seen and what did you think of it?
JL: I saw the Avengers in 3D and it was awesome!
strosfn4vr: Jobduan is off to a great start in Tri-City. Will we be seeing him in Lexington soon? Also any insight into the pronunciation of Jobduan?
JL: Just like you spell it! He’s just started so no need to promote him quite yet!
astros821: Lance McCullers had excellent stats do you think he can be the future opening day starter?
JL: Lance has the stuff to be a dominant big league starter, so the answer is yes. He’s special.
johnny14k_2: Do you think Altuve voted 25 times for himself this year to be in the All-Star Game? I know I did!!!
JL: He’s a humble man so I doubt it, but he sure appreciates your votes (and mine). I have to believe he will make it. He sure deserves to be there!
TimothyDeBlock: What will happen to the Sr. Director of Social Media position now that Alyson Footer is heading back over to MLB.com?
JL: We all know that Alyson can’t be replaced. She’s awesome and everyone will miss her. She will still be around covering baseball at our park, so I still get to see her! We will continue to develop and improve our presence in social media, don’t you worry. Maybe we can get those guys from the LA Kings to help us out!
Astros2011yes: Is there any chance of Jimmy Paredes getting called up this year?
JL: Yes, of course. He’s hitting for a high average, stealing bases and hitting for power. He still has some refining to do at second and with his pitch selection, but he’s very close to being ready to help here.
andy_hc: Jeff, remember how much fun we had in Colorado? What an awesome time! Thanks for the M&Ms! So, are we BFFs or what? …and who was your favorite player growing up?
JL: Andy, that was fun and I agree with the tweeps that you are over your skiis with your girlfriend! So, growing up I loved Reggie, Steve Garvey, and Nolan Ryan!
cbstro1: Could you share what the new structure on the light tower in left center will be?
JL: A very cool program that will benefit our city for generations. Stay tuned…
40acre: When do you expect Jiovanni Mier to be back on the field?
JL: A couple of weeks, assuming no setbacks.
jrivers2: We all are expecting big things from Correa, Ruiz, & McCullers, but who beyond them will we look back on and say that was the steal of the draft?
strosfn4vr: After this draft and subsequent signing period I’m considering getting a “Luhnow” jersey when the new ones come out next year. What number would you recommend for it?
JL: Ha ha, thanks! I like 4 but Jed has that number. Maybe 11 for the year I started working for the awesome Astros?!
buckystros: Are you concerned with Lance McCullers arm action in the stress it may generate? Does his delivery mimic his father enough to where you believe his genetics may support the arm action and injuries that may come with it?
JL: We have studied his delivery. He had a lot going for him and does many things naturally that we love. Anybody who throws 100 has a decent risk of arm trouble, but we are hoping that our pitching coaches and conditioning program and trainers will keep him healthy!
Tmengd: Just don’t trade Altuve. Everyone in Houston sees him as the next big guy (no pun intended) they can hold onto for the next decade!!!
jrreyes: If you had to get rid of hot dogs or nachos at the ballpark, which would it be?
JL: I would add more Mexican food!
JL: How about a mid-chat takeover by our 2nd round pick Nolan Fontana? He’s about to come in here…
usc1: If we are planning for the future, why are we playing Carlos Lee. Brett Wallace came up and did a great job and deserves a chance now. Lee is not going to be on the team. He is not our future.
JL: Wallace did a great job here. LOOOONG ball out by JED!!!!
JL: How about that?!
Nolan Fontana: Hey there this is Nolan Fontana, Just finished talking with Milo
Jeff Luhnow: Any questions for our newest Astro?
tidalwave2: Given the new infusion of talent with the draft, which of this years players can we expect to see in Houston fastest?
JL: It’s really him, I promise.
Astros2011yes: Is there a realistic chance of Jed Lowrie in the All-Star game this year?
JL: I would say so. Gosh, 14 home runs for a shortstop?! Are you kidding me? How could he not? TLR, are you watching?
strosfn4vr: Kuechel is off to a great start to his big league career. With Bud returning from the DL soon, how tough of a decision will it be to send him down? Or is there a chance someone else goes to OKC?
JL: Stay tuned…I think you will all enjoy the answer.
johnny14k_2: What can we expect from newly signed Scott Moore?
JL: He earned this promotion. Look at his numbers in AAA.
mtx711: Where would Carlos Correa fit right now in terms of top prospects?
JL: Near or at the top.
JL: Ask Kevin Goldstein and Keith Law.
dan410: Is there a chance that Jarred Cosart makes it to AAA this season?
JL: Yes, we thought about it already and it will happen at some point.
JL: Ok folks, NF and I are headed to the field for an introduction. Nice chatting with you! Let’s win this game! Let’s talk again soon…
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow will chat with fans tonight during the Astros’ game with the Padres, beginning at 7:30 p.m. CT. Luhnow will take your questions online and answer them directly from his booth at Minute Maid Park while watching the game.
If you’ve been through this exercise before, you know Luhnow is pretty candid with his responses, and if the game is going well, he’ll often stretch the 30-minute session to 40 or 45 minutes. He’s also been known to throw out an “OMG!” when an Astros player hits a home run during the chat session.
In other words, Luhnow’s chats are highly entertaining. Hope you’ll join us tonight at 7:30. Here is the link.
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!