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!
Collectively, as an organization, the Astros got past the Jose-Altuve-is-too-short-to-play-in-the-big-leagues thing quite a while ago.
Two-and-a-half months into the season, I think we can all agree Altuve’s height is holding him back from nothing. That conclusion was established here in Houston a while ago. Now, several folks outside of our city are now catching on as well.
As you peruse this delightful blog written by Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, please also enjoy this latest nugget:
In addition to putting up All-Star caliber numbers so far this season, Altuve is also on pace to become one of the few NL second basemen since 1985 to lead his team in singles, doubles and triples.
The list of predecessors is impressive:
Steve Sax, Dodgers, 1986: 157 singles, 43 doubles, 4 triples
Craig Biggio, Astros, 1994: 84, 44, 5
Jeff Kent, Giants, 2000: 115, 41, 7
Freddy Sanchez, Pirates, 2007: 126, 42, 4
Jose Altuve, Astros, 2012 (through 66 games): 57, 18, 4
All-Star voting is coming to close in the not-so-distant future. In-stadium balloting ends Wednesday, while the cutoff for online balloting is June 28 (next Thursday).
To boost the numbers in Houston and give one final push for Altuve and shortstop Jed Lowrie, the Astros are hosting an All-Star voting party tomorrow (Tuesday, June 19) during their game with the Royals.
The party will take place at the Conoco Pump Alley in left-center field and the more times you vote, the more times you’ll be entered to win a bunch of Astros prizes (game-used balls, hats, goody bags).
Tickets can be purchased here. Or you can call 1 877 9 ASTROS.
Hall of Famer Joe Morgan will be in town this weekend to receive his Walk of Fame honors, as well as throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Astros game with the Indians.
Morgan, who played for the Astros from 1963-71 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, will sign autographs on the main concourse from 6-6:30 p.m. on Friday. Autograph vouchers cost $25, with proceeds going to the Astros In Action Foundation.
Altuve-mania is sweeping the greater Houston area, and it’s becoming exceedingly clear that your second baseman is going to find himself in Kansas City in about a month.
No, no, no…the Astros didn’t make another trade with the Royals. Rather, Kansas City is the site of the 2012 All-Star Game, and Jose Altuve, who’s maintained an average well over .300 the entire season, arguably is the leading candidate to represent the Astros this year.
Don’t count out Jed Lowrie, either, who as of Sunday is leading all big league shortstops with 12 home runs and should be in any conversation at this point about the Astros and the All-Star Game. It would be nice to see both Lowrie and Altuve — with his .326 batting average, 17 doubles, three triples and 22 RBIs — head to Kansas City.
I have no idea how many Altuves it takes to get from Houston to Kansas City, but I’m pretty sure of one thing: every time someone mentions his height (or lack thereof) Altuve gets a hit.
Athletes from the other Houston sports teams are jumping on the Altuve bandwagon, too. On Sunday, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt tweeted: “Hey Houston, @JoseAltuve27 hit a HR & stole home today and is hitting .326 on the year. Get your votes in, make him an All-Star #TeamHouston”
…and you can also Tweet the Vote here, using a slew of hashtags that identifies the Astros and your favorite players.
In addition to signing their first-round pick in less than 72 hours, the Astros have been busy working on signing as many of the remaining 40 players they selected during the Draft last week.
So far, they’ve inked 18, including their third-rounder (RHP Brady Rodgers) and their fifth-rounder (OF Andrew Aplin).
The full up-to-date list, as of Sunday night:
1 SS Carlos Correa
3 RHP Brady Rodgers
5 OF Andrew Aplin
9 RHP Daniel Minor
12 OF Terrell Joyce
13 LHP Brian Holmes
14 IF Joseph Sclafani
15 RHP Erick Gonzalez
16 OF Daniel Gulbransen
17 RHP Aaron West
18 C Richard Gingras
19 IF Austin Elkins
28 IF Angel Ibanez
29 RHP Christian Garcia
30 RHP John Neely
31 C M.P. Cokinos
34 RHP Jordan Jankowski
37 RHP Michael Dimock
(Update: the Astros signed three more: LHP Joseph Bircher (10th round), RHP Travis Ballew (23rd round), 1B Michael
Martinez (36th round).
Speaking of the Draft, it wasn’t at all surprising when the announcement regarding the Player To Be Named in the trade with the Royals from a few months ago came down this weekend.
The Astros traded Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero to Kansas City during Spring Training for left-hander Kevin Chapman and that always-mysterious Player to Be Named, who was to be named, well, later. Much, much later.
We now know that player is 20-year-old outfielder D’Andre Toney. He was drafted by the Royals in 2011, and because a player has to be in the system for a full year before the team who drafted him can trade him, the Toney transaction couldn’t happen until the 2012 Draft was complete.
Hence, the timing.
Jeff Luhnow hinted in March the PTBNL was the cornerstone of the trade, and if early returns are any indication, it appears the Astros acquired a speedy outfielder with offensive potential. Last year while in Rookie Ball, he hit .340 with 12 doubles, five triples, five home runs and 29 RBIs and a .432 on-base percentage.
In trading two bench players, the Astros acquired a young lefty pitching prospect and outfielder, moving the organization forward as it continues to build the farm system and plan for the future. Looks promising.
(Chapman, by the way, has a 3-2 record with a 2.30 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings in 24 appearances for Double-A Corpus Christi this season and was named the club’s Pitcher of the Month in April.)
‘Twas a long, eventful day for Carlos Correa. Next up: his high school graduation. And then, baseball.
When Jeff Luhnow mentioned on Tuesday that top Draft pick Carlos Correa would be visiting Houston two days later, the GM indicated he hoped negotiations would move forward quickly once all parties involved — Luhnow, scouting director Bobby Heck, the scouts pursuing him, Correa and his parents — were together, face to face.
As Luhnow continued talking with reporters, however, it became evident he didn’t view Thursday’s visit as a time to simply exchange pleasantries with the family. To Luhnow, Thursday was THE day. Take the physical, sign the contract, officially join the Astros organization.
(Side note: If I’m to understand this correctly, if a team has only “x” dollars to spend on its first 10 or 11 picks, then it behooves the draftees to sign up quickly. If you’re a first-rounder and the other nine or 10 picks sign before you, and there’s only $2 million left over, then you get $2 million and there’s no negotiating, other than an extra five percent a team can pour on top of that without being penalized. If that’s the case, it looks like the absurd nature of the prior parameters that allowed free spending and led to negotiations often going down to the final minute, as was the case with two of the Astros’ top picks last year, are for the most part, over. )
It’s been quite a week for the 17-year-old Correa (featured in the behind-the-scenes footage above), who signed on with the Astros three days before his high school graduation and five days before he’ll head to Kissimmee, Fla., to join the club’s Gulf Coast League affiliate.
Correa definitely looks like a teenager, but he handled the day’s events with the poise of someone much more experienced. As soon as he stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor of Union Station to sign the contract, all eyes — and recording devices — were on him. This seemingly did not faze him. He shook dozens of hands, met all of the top Astros brass, including owner Jim Crane, and seemed very at ease.
He sounded sincere and answered questions eloquently at the press conference and even managed to ignore the cameras and few dozen reporters who were waiting for him as he made his way to the field. He seemed to mingle well with the Astros players as he took batting practice, and it helped that he crushed a few balls to left-center early in the session.
A few notes:
* Because Correa is a minor, his parents had to co-sign the contract.
* The men front and center of Correa signing are Luhnow and Heck, but two equally important figures shouldn’t be overlooked. Drafting Correa came on the recommendation of area scouts Larry Pardo and Joey Sola, who ultimately
are responsible for the signing.
* Correa’s entire family was ecstatic with the day’s events, with one exception — Correa’s three-year-old sister, who seems to have figured out this is going to lead to big bro leaving home. Apparently, she has said more than once, “Don’t sign.”
* Correa had a little rock star mojo going during the signing and press conference, but as soon as he stepped into the clubhouse, he was treated like any other teammate who has no Major League experience and is about to put on a big league uniform for the first time. He was greeted with catcalls of, “Your locker’s in the bathroom,” while Chris Snyder told Correa he’d fine him $20 for every ball he hit to the right side of second base.
* Correa picked uniform No. 12 for two reasons: he was honored to be the first pick in the 2012 Draft, and he was paying homage to his baseball hero, fellow Puerto Rican Roberto Alomar.
Photos from an eventful day: