Triggerettes, Earthmen, epic homers and soul-crushing losses: Brownie’s new book covers all the bases.
I always said if I could hop on a time machine and live through whatever era of Astros baseball I wanted, I’d definitely plant myself around the 1986 team. It had everything — personality, fun, a little intellect sprinkled in here and there, and, most importantly, those zany guys won 96 games. What could be better?
But after reading through Bill Brown’s new book chronicling five decades of Houston baseball, I’m thinking I’d like to try out 1964-ish, just before the Colt .45s moved out of their smoking hot, skeeter-infested outdoor stadium and into their new air-conditioned domed wonder.
It’s not that I’m anxious to witness outdoor baseball in Houston in August. Goodness no. I just think it would be fun to be a Triggerette.
Tiggerettes were, as best as I can tell, neatly dressed and presumably perfectly coifed young women who guided patrons to their seats. They fit in with a full-blown Wild West vibe that was working at Colt Stadium back in those days, when parking attendants wore orange Stetsons and workers in The Fast Draw Club dressed in old-style saloon attire.
Had I made it through a sweltering summer at the old ballpark, I probably would have had a good chance to make the cut and move with the team to the Astrodome. But I would have had to change my title from Triggerette to Space-ette, a small price to pay considering the Stetson-wearing parking attendants were renamed Space Finders, and if you wanted to be part of the grounds crew, you had to answer to “Earthman.”
You have to love how different things were back then. The notion that an entire baseball team would dress in matching blue suits and pose on the steps of their team plane HOLDING GUNS (guns!) sounds absurd in today’s age, of course. But that’s part of why history is so fascinating. It takes us back to a time that was, more or less, completely foreign to anything that has to do with everyday life as we currently know it.
Brown’s book, “Deep in the Heart: Blazing a Trail from Expansion to the World Series,” was a labor of love he started years ago, and with the assistance of co-author and Astros employee Mike Acosta, the longtime Astros broadcaster has produced a fabulous 192-page pictorial look back at Houston’s 50-plus years of baseball history.
The book will be ready for sale on March 31 — Opening Night — at Minute Maid Park. The cost will be $39.95.
How long and hard did Brownie work on this book? He pretty much summed it up with this comment to MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart:
“If there were such a thing as a woman being pregnant for three years and being relieved when she finally has a baby, it’s somewhat akin to that.”
What took this book so long to complete is probably what makes it so good: it seems that Brownie talked to every living figure who significantly contributed to Astros history. As you thumb through, you’ll find descriptions of every epic moment in history, told by the very people who were directly involved.
I loved Billy Hatcher describing his 14th-inning home run in Game of the NLCS as “probably the closest thing I’ll ever do to get to heaven.” Brad Ausmus gave some great insight into the 18-inning Division Series clincher in ’05, which ended with a Chris Burke home run into the Crawford Boxes. Larry Dierker, a gifted writer in his own right, is quoted multiple times throughout the book — fitting, given how much he has been a part of every decade of the franchise’s history.
Brownie was kind enough to send along a few pages so we can give you a sneak peek of “Deep in the Heart.” For die-hard fans (and newbies too), this will make a great keepsake.
I’m usually skeptical when a player retires from baseball while he’s still producing at a high level, but in Chipper Jones‘ case, I really do believe he means it when he says he’s comfortable with his decision to step away from the game, with no desire to return. I just wonder if he’s going to feel that way in another year.
Jones appears to be a rarity. Most players heed the advice from those who came before them: play until they rip the uniform off of you. Loosely translated, it means play until 1) you can no longer can sustain the stamina or strength needed to be productive and 2) the phone stops ringing. (I once asked a coach who played in the big leagues for 18 years, “What year did you retire?” His answer: “Good players don’t retire. They play until they don’t get asked back.”)
It’s understandable that players start to feel the tug of retirement when they’re older and still active. Major League life seems glamorous, and some parts are. Money, charter flights and first-class hotel accommodations are all part of it. But in truth, after you’re in it for a while, it becomes a grind just like every other job. Time away from the kids starts to get old, and for those who don’t get out much on the road, the travel can be boring.
Still, it’s a good life, and most of the time, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than anything these players will do in their post-playing careers. Part of the problem is that players don’t really know this until they’ve actually retired.
I was surprised when Andy Pettitte retired a couple of years ago when he seemingly had plenty left in his left arm, and I wasn’t at all shocked when he came back to the Yankees after a year out of the game. Pettitte appeared to have reached the same conclusion as others who are pondering getting out: nothing they will do after their careers end will ever be as fulfilling as playing Major League Baseball. Especially when you’re affiliated with a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series every year.
During my years covering the Astros, there were two players who made it very clear at about age 30 that they were looking forward to retiring and had no intention to stretch their careers past the parameters of their current contacts: Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.
Berkman was signed through 2010; Oswalt, 2011. Both swore when those commitments ran out, so would they. Berkman was traded to the Yankees in the final year of his contract in ’10, signed on with the Cardinals and won the World Series in ’11. He signed with the Rangers late this past offseason and is talking of playing in 2014, too.
Oswalt held out for an offer from a contender in 2012 and missed half the season but ended up with the Rangers during their stretch run. As of today, he’s unsigned for 2013.
So what happened?
Berkman said he wasn’t necessarily surprised that he felt the tug to keep playing, but acknowledged that talking about retiring is a lot easier than actually doing it. He has always identified himself as a husband, father and devotee to his faith first and a ballplayer last, but the reality is a lot of his identity is indeed wrapped up in what he does for a living. When playing baseball is the only thing you know, it’s a little scary to think of life without it.
Think about it: if a player retires at 40 and lives to a normal life expectancy, he has at least 40 more years to fill. When you’re first starting out, this all seems so far off. But when you’re 36, 37, 38…
“It’s a mental fight,” Berkman said the day before he left for Spring Training. “Is this the right thing to do? You don’t want to sell yourself short. There’s family considerations. There’s all kinds of stuff that goes into the vortex. Your mind is just spinning around and spinning around and you’re trying to make the best decision that you can.”
A big part of who he is, Berkman admitted, is as a Major League Baseball player. “When you don’t have that anymore, how are you going to react to everyday life?” he wondered.
While Berkman does have a list in his mind of things he’d like to do post-career, he also knows he doesn’t necessarily have to start now.
“Even for a guy such as myself who said for years, ‘It’s going to be easy to walk away,’ the reality is, it’s not going to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be too cavalier with that statement. It’s a pretty big thing and a pretty big time in your life. The flip side of that, I am kind of glad that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s other things other than playing baseball that are intersting to me, and you just don’t have time to pursue those things as a player.”
Jones’ named popped up in the news recently when Yankees GM Brian Cashman expressed interest in seeing if “Larry” — yes, oddly, Cashman referred to Chipper by his real name — would be interested in signing on as a fill-in for the injured Mark Teixeira.
Jones responded by tweeting that he prefers to continue his new life as a bad golfer.
Odds are, he’ll still feel this way next year, too.
There was something terribly appropriate about Houston Chronicle TV/Radio columnist David Barron describing a recent honor bestowed upon me as “big”, “huge” and “overwhelming,” considering the subject matter — my hair — has been described as all three (mostly at the same time) for the better part of my adult life.
My goal to not draw attention to myself or my towering inferno (another nickname given to me by a college buddy) ended when Barron inexplicably got on Super-Hair.net’s email distribution list. Now the secret’s out. I am indeed a two-time winner of the prestigious “best curls” category in the annual Crown Awards.
I rehearsed my best fake “Who, me????” while watching Anne Hathaway at the Oscars, just in case the secret was leaked. My acceptance speech involved two people: my great-grandmother Libby Goldman, for passing along the red hair gene, and Juan at Satori Heights Salon in Houston, for finding a way to tame this mess.
Other than that, I’d like to also acknowledge all of the support and encouragement that has come my way as I attempted to make a better life for myself and my hair over the last 30 years.
That means you, strange old man on the elevator when I was touring Ohio University as a high school kid. “I’d rather be dead than red in the head,” you said. You made my 17-year-old heart sing! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
And you, the legions of do-gooders who made sure I knew that I could never be a contestant on “Millionaire Matchmaker” because the host hates two things: 1) red hair; and 2) curly hair. Hopes, crushed. Those sugar daddies don’t know what they’re missing. But thank you for correctly assuming I didn’t know this, and realizing how important it was that I did.
And I couldn’t have made it without YOU, middle-aged, bourbon-guzzling balding sports bar guy with your sage observations: “Spiral perms are stupid.” Hear, hear, my brother. Hear, hear.
Lest we not forget you, weird stammering guy striking up a conversation with, “Yea, uh, my sister has red hair.” Riveting exchange, and something I’ll never forget, especially the awkward silence that followed. So, THANK YOU for that.
And to you, the kid who sat behind me in ninth-grade Algebra and asked if I was “keeping a bird’s nest in there.” Your guidance and concern has helped shape me into the person I am today. XOXOXO.
I’m truly humbled, not only to have finally beaten that pesky Jennifer Beals this time around, but also to be sandwiched between a world-class tennis player and the reigning “It Girl” on the Super-Hair.net web site. Pinch me!
Who knew life could be this grand?
PHOENIX – Dale Murphy proudly considers himself a serial tweeter, a notion that was hammered home by one of his more than 40,000 followers with this tweet: “Follow Murph. He tweets more than a Kardashian.”
And with that, Murphy (@dalemurphy3) was off and running.
It wasn’t always a smooth ride. In the beginning, like most folks of his generation (Murphy turns 57 on Tuesday), his kids had to guide him through it. And once, he accidentally sent out a tweet that was intended to be a text message to his wife.
Fortunately, it was only about picking up eggs and milk at the grocery store. For the most part, Murphy, widely considered one of the nicest and most approachable players to ever don a big league uniform, is loving the engagement with the fans and relishes the opportunity to communicate directly with the masses.
“When I played, it was a little easier for people to have contact with players,” Murphy said. “Everything was toned down a lot more. There’s a lot more security now, understandably, for a lot of reasons. (Twitter) is an unbelievable way for people to have contact with current players.”
Back in his day, Social Media was unheard of. Murphy, currently a coach for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, played 18 years in the big leagues, mostly with the Braves, from 1976 until his final season in 1993. Back then, “tweeting” was a noise a bird made, “blog” wasn’t yet a word, cameras and phones were totally unrelated to each other and the #hashtag was known as a “pound” sign.
Nowadays, privacy is at a premium. Sure, people can still choose to remain out of the spotlight and under the radar, but the digital age gives those who don’t mind a more public image a stage to do so.
If it’s done right, Murphy said, Twitter can be a great thing for athletes and fans.
“Who would have thought you could interact this way with personalities and people and athletes?” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Rumor had it that Murphy wanted Team USA to be the first baseball team to do the Harlem Shake, and that he just may have mentioned this idea to skipper Joe Torre.
“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Torre said.
But Murphy has cooled on the Shake. After all, it’s SO two weeks ago.
“It’s over,” Murphy said. “It lasted two weeks. It’s too old.”
Major League Baseball implementing expanded replay in 2014 isn’t exactly new news, but every time Joe Torre addresses the situation, as he did on Tuesday, he seems to bring a new clarity to the situation.
Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, is currently serving as Team USA’s manager in the World Baseball Classic. With his club playing at Camelback Ranch in Glendale to play the White Sox, Torre was again back in arm’s reach of curious reporters who are determined to get to the bottom of the instant replay conundrum.
It appears everyone is on board with the notion that more instant replay is needed. The question appears to be, how far should they take it? And, how much is too much? There are limits, Torre said, asking, “Do we want to get everything right?”
Torre obviously isn’t looking for bad calls to be made. He’s simply looking for a logical way to decipher what needs to be put under further review and what should simply be considered the human aspect of umpiring. Effusive in his praise of the umpires, Torre is not looking to stop play for every single disputed call.
After all, Torre said, even when play is halted, there’s no guarantee replay will provide a final decision with 100 percent accuracy.
“To me, even when you use replay there are going to be times when you’re not going to be able to tell,” he said. “Two guys can see the same replay and you’re going to get, ‘I see it this way, I see it that way.’ I think what we’re looking at is some of the obvious stuff that you can see right away. We certainly want to address that. But I don’t think we want to get into every single play. The game would never end.”
As it stands, the current replay rules involve judging whether home runs are fair or foul and whether a fan interfered with a ball. Possible expansion includes fair balls, foul balls and trapped balls.
The two elements that will never be up for replay scrutiny are balls and strikes. Torre has no desire to tinker with something that doesn’t need to be fixed, citing the umpires’ more than 95 accuracy rate in that department.
“You have to have something to yell about,” Torre quipped. “I don’t want to take the yelling out of this thing. That’s part of the color.”
Instant replay has been a hot topic for quite some time, ever since MLB implemented it for the first time in 2008. I remember at the time hearing some fans use it as an opportunity to take shots at the umpires, which I felt was completely unfair and misguided.
The quality of the umpires, most of whom are universally respected by the managers and players, has not increased or declined over the years. It’s the same as it’s always been, and umpires make calls with a higher degree of accuracy than most may think.
The issues emerged when technology exploded. It started when TV rightsholders suddenly had the ability to install cameras at every corner of the ballpark and had 27 different angles when showing a play in slo-mo after the fact. This enabled the viewing public to see, immediately, if a call was good or bad. In my opinion, that was unfair to the umpires. They were watching plays unfold in real time and had a fraction of a second to make a call. If they made an error, it would take only about 30 seconds for the networks to let the entire viewing public know it, and even less time was needed for the fans’ wrath to reach the playing field.
Things became worse for the umps when the new ballparks emerged. In the old days, outfield walls simply went straight across and a home run was determined by one bit of criteria: the ball either cleared the seats, or it bounced off the wall and back onto the field. There wasn’t much gray area, making it much easier for the umpires to make a snap decision before starting the one-fingered twirl.
Today, uneven outfield walls and zig-zaggy lines define what’s in and out of play. It’s part of the “uniqueness” of stadiums. But what’s neat for the fans became headaches for the umps. I saw this firsthand at Minute Maid Park, where the crazy outfield dimensions made it, at times, impossible to decipher what was a home run and what just barely missed.
Implementing instant replay the first time helped rectify those issues, and there is nothing at all wrong with everyone acknowledging that the umpires indeed could use some help. It’s simply not fair to have them out on a tightrope by themselves while the fan base can see a blown call from nine different angles while standing in the beer line and watching the TVs on the concourse. Times have changed, and helping umpires evolve with the times should only be looked at as a good thing.
Every year I casually follow Media Day the Tuesday before the Super Bowl and experience the typical combination of amusement and nausea.
Super Bowl Media Day is unlike any other media event in any sport, in that it serves almost no purpose except to create a spectacle. It’s absurd, embarrassing, outrageous – a perfect setting for posers acting as media, but an utter waste of time for the people there who are, you know, actually covering the Super Bowl, for real.
As a baseball reporter, I’ve never been to a Super Bowl Media Day. That’s a tradition I hope continues until I’m dead.
Don’t get me wrong. Media day is fun to follow — online, from my couch, hundreds of miles away from the actual venue. This Sports on Earth account pretty much sums it up – goofy people dressed in ridiculous garb, pretending to be outrageous, because without the shtick, they never would have scored a credential, because in advance of Super Bowl Media Day, they’re not actually, well, media.
It’s a far cry from what you’ll find in an actual press box filled with only accredited reporters who really do cover teams for a living. And I fully acknowledge that there’s nothing terribly intriguing about three rows of follically-challenged middle-age men pounding out the copy on their laptops — at least nothing that would make you want to actually cover it as a news story.
They’ll never be as enticing as the bombshell reporters from Azteca and Telemundo, the pretty Inside Edition-types who were relatively anonymous until they were ogled on national TV by one particular man of a certain age, and anyone else who stands out in the crowd and is given 15 seconds to nab a comment from athletes and coaches who sit on a podium, safely distant from the masses.
I’m guessing the actual football writers – the beat reporters and columnists who actually have been covering the teams playing in the Super Bowl since the beginning of training camp – detest Media Day more than any other of the calendar year.
Can you blame them?
Trying to cover the team you’ve always covered when the rest of the world is now also covering it is at best, difficult. During the regular season, you depend on access and communication and relationships built on the mere fact that you’re there every day, and the athletes are there every day, and you’re talking to each other every day. Even if you may not like each other all the time, there’s enough respect between the two parties that everyone is, for the most part, able to get the job done.
Watching spectacles like Super Bowl Media Day brings back memories, on a lesser scale, of specific times in my baseball writing career when a workday was anything but typical.
The most vivid memory I have of the Astros appearing in the World Series in 2005, for example, wasn’t the actual Series. It was the clubhouse scene in St. Louis after they won the pennant. I have a very clear picture in my head, still, of the sheer joy on Craig Biggio’s face, of players dancing with the NL trophy, of Roger Clemens pouring an entire bottle of champagne over a joyful Andy Pettitte.
The World Series was more of a blur. The experience was short – it lasted four games and ended with the White Sox sweeping and celebrating on the Astros’ home field. But there’s another more significant reason why the memories are kind of fuzzy: after seven straight months of intimately covering this team, suddenly, I was never more distant from it.
The sheer volume of media covering the event makes it impossible to grant reporters the same access you’d get during the regular season. Whereas clubhouses open 3 ½ hours before game time during the regular season, during the playoffs, they’re closed.
Managers and the next day’s starting pitchers are made available prior to batting practice in the controlled environment of the interview room. The system actually works pretty well, all things considered, and from what I’ve gathered over the years, Major League Baseball is probably the most accommodating when it comes to satisfying the needs of the media during the postseason. **
But for the local reporters, it’s kind of a bummer. (Please don’t mistake this for complaining. Reporters report because they love it. Covering baseball is a privilege and we know it. This is designed only to show this side of the business from an angle not normally visible from the outside.) You start to feel less like an individual and more like sheep, herded from point A to point B and hoping you don’t get knocked in the head by a camera guy when Random Superstar Player decides to hold an impromptu Q&A with reporters on the field during batting practice.
(** Astros manager Phil Garner, not surprisingly, went out of his way to make sure the local scribes were taken care of. Throughout the postseasons in 2004 and ’05, he’d host the beat writers for a half hour or so in his office a few hours before game time. We’d enter through the door off the basement corridor and never have to actually walk through the clubhouse. We got what we needed, never broke any MLB rules and were eternally grateful to be covering a manager who got it, on every level, from the little things to the bigger picture.)
In a World Series setting, it’s hard for the everyday beat writers to separate themselves from the masses. I remember standing on the field on the workout day at the White Sox ballpark the day before the series began, and one-shouldered Jeff Bagwell, who 10 minutes earlier was officially announced as the Astros’ designated hitter for Games 1 and 2, emerged from the clubhouse. After regaining my balance following nearly being trampled by a mad rush of reporters making a beeline for Bagwell, I stood in a media crush of around 100 people, staring directly into the armpit of a camera operator. I thought, “There has to be a better way to do this.”
Even if you were lucky enough to run into a player in the dugout before BP, you pretty much had no chance to engage in a private conversation. That’s because media from other parts of the country and the world covering the Series, but had no idea who the players actually were, were on the constant lookout for the opportunity to grab sound bites. Because they couldn’t identify most of the players, they had to wait for someone in the know to make the first move. If any of the local reporters did approach a player, we’d inevitably hear pitter-patter of the oversized feet of camera operators, rushing to follow behind. It got to the point where it was just easier not to talk to the players. ***
It became comical. “How ya doing?” Mike Lamb shouted from the opposite end of the dugout, waving. “Top of the day to you, Mike!” I yelled back, from the other end. “Have a good game!” End of conversation.
(***Not that I can totally blame these “outsiders.” I’ve been in their shoes. When I’m covering the World Series that involves two teams I’m not all that familiar with, it gets a little scary when the players are in a setting where they’re not wearing jerseys with their names on their backs. I still cringe when thinking about the 2003 clubhouse scene when the Marlins won the World Series, and I had an entire conversation with a player who wasn’t who I thought he was. You’d be surprised how similar guys can look when they’re soaked in champagne and wearing the same “World Series Champion” t-shirts. This was before iPhones, where you can quickly Google a player, just to make sure that actually is Brad Penny.)
Absurdities of the job are part of the job, and they more often than not provide laughs years later over beers with colleagues. I often refer to Clemens as the gift that keeps on giving, mainly because there are probably enough chuckles he’s unknowingly provided colleague Brian McTaggart and me over the years to fill a book.
At the time, this stuff wasn’t so funny. Standing outside of the entrance to the Astros’ Minor League clubhouse in Kissimmee, waiting hours for Clemens to emerge after working out with his son, was quite possibly the worst use of time in the history of Spring Training coverage. But you had to do it, because everyone else was there, and if you weren’t there to talk to Clemens when he did finally come outside, then you missed the story. So you stand there with the Associated Press and New York Times and New York Daily News and wait and wait and wait with hopes Clemens, now a couple months removed from appearing in the Mitchell Report, will talk.
He didn’t, of course. His black Hummer was parked maybe two feet from the clubhouse door, enabling him to jump in and drive away in silence. McTaggart and I figured that would be the end result, a conclusion we drew during the three hours we waited for Clemens to emerge from the clubhouse and not talk to us. Looking for entertainment value, we decided taking pictures of each other standing next to Clemens’ Hummer was a way to make the best use of our time. ****
(****That wasn’t the most bizarre behavior of the day. That distinction belongs to the AP reporter who inexplicably took off in a full sprint, chasing Clemens and his Hummer, screaming Mitchell Report-ish questions as Clemens sped away. The rest of us were speechless. I asked McTaggart, “Should we be running after him, too?” We decided to do what the Times and Daily News did. Thankfully, they stayed put.)
There are times when I wish reporters had a medium to display their own blooper reels, just for laughs. Most of the time, we’re just grateful for the anonymity. Reporters who are there to merely report prefer to not make themselves part of the story, and the ones who do, well, they’ll catch up with you at Super Bowl Media Day.
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.