Results tagged ‘ Astros ’

A wistful look back at Puma being Puma

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Many years ago, I titled this photo “Puma being Puma.”

It was a combination of a nod to who Lance Berkman was as a professional and a person — affable, fun, kind and a free spirit — and a slight jab at the phrase being thrown about in the media ad nauseam to describe the malcontent Manny Ramirez had become. “Manny being Manny” became a sort of rally cry for anyone who was trying to figure out why Ramirez acted out in ways that made him somewhat of an undesirable teammate. A once well-liked player, Ramirez had turned into somewhat of a pain for teammates and support staffers, all which were met with a collective non-committal shrug — as in, “Well, that’s just Manny being Manny.” ‘

Puma being Puma, on the other hand, was a very, very good thing, and it served us all well during his time spent in a Major League uniform. He was fun to watch play and was a tremendous subject to cover as a reporter, if only for his refusal to use clichés and give non-informational information. He was, for the most part, an open book, exceedingly honest even when his views drew criticism.

But what I love most about this picture is how and why it was taken to begin with. I’ve known Berkman, quite literally, from day one of his pro career. The first press conference I attended as a member of the Astros media relations office in 1997 was the one that announced Berkman, the club’s first-round Draft pick that year, had signed.

As time went on, and the Internet changed the way baseball is covered, visual effects became a driving force in the media. I had a camera with me for most of the years I covered the Astros for MLB.com, and as social media hit the landscape (and, for a few years, became my job), photographs weren’t just a nice supplement to the coverage. They were essential and relevant, and played a huge role in driving traffic to our web site and blogs.

That’s how I established such a love-hate relationship with Puma. He loved me. He hated my camera.

Oh sure, he was good-natured about it and for the most part went along with it, doing his best to ignore the camera while going about his business on a typical work day. But I was annoying. Most of the time, he laughed it off, but invariably, I knew that on most game days, I was going to get at least one eye roll from the Big Puma.

“Footer, would you get that stupid camera out of my face,” he’d politely request. “I’m just giving the people what they want,” I’d answer. “People want a thousand pictures of me taking BP?” he’d respond. “Well…yes,” I’d explain.

And so it was. This never became a huge issue, mainly because he respected me, I respected him, and we genuinely liked each other. And as the years went on, his annoyance gave way to a new determination — not so much to get me to put the camera down, but rather to dodge it as much as humanly possible.

The end result? A collection of shots of the back of Berkman’s head, or just a big empty space of nothing after he jumped out of the way at the last second. It cracked him up and after a while, the camera didn’t irritate him anymore. It just made him laugh.

So one day at Spring Training, during another mind-numbing session of batting practice, Puma was in full-force camera-dodge mode. I’d point it toward him, and he’d jump to the left. Then to the right. He’d duck, turn his back, run away…and he succeeded, every time. So finally, I turned my back to him, pretended to look toward the visiting dugout, put the camera in the air, backward, and took a photo. I had no idea where I was pointing or if he was even still standing there.

It turned out to be the very best picture I ever took of him (and explains why the top of his cap is cut off).

Berkman’s retirement announcement brought forth thoughtful, moving columns about why he was so well-liked as a player. We respected his athletic abilities, but appreciated his decency as a human being even more. As the Astros organize a formal event at the ballpark this season to honor him, we’ll read more and more about his terrific career. It’s all deserved.

But as soon as I heard Puma had made the retirement official, all I could think about were the pictures. There is an album on my Facebook page titled, “My favorite ‘Stop taking pictures of me’ pictures of the Puma.” That collection, plus many more taken since then, will serve as a reminder of how much genuine laughter we all shared during the years Berkman was an Astro.

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Veteran players don’t exactly love the length and dull nature of Spring Training. Henceforth, we call this “Grumpy Puma.”

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Grumpy Puma, part deux (with gum)

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Berkman hasn’t uttered a curse word since high school. So this one drew his favorite phrase… “Dadgummit.” As in, “Dadgummit, stop it already.”

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Passing the time at Spring Training, Puma-style.

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Still more passing time at Spring Training.

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I couldn’t help but notice how fantastically appropriate it was when Berkman was paired with Goofy for an ESPN parade at Disney.

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Me: “Do something interesting.” Puma: “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

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Invading the personal space of radio announcer Dave Raymond.

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Berkman didn’t always run from the camera. Here he is blocking me from taking a photo of Hunter Pence at a community event during the offseason.

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And again

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And…again

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“Act natural,” I requested during this shoot with Puma and reporter Brian McTaggart.

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Puma being Puma…one more time.

“Let Them Wear Towels” exposes bad behavior, terrible treatment and progress.

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A reporter’s job: keep eyes open, recorder running and don’t miss a morsel of what’s unfolding in front of you. To do this, it’s helpful to actually be there.

It was 2004. The Astros were in Atlanta. And they were celebrating.

That last part alone was remarkable. For years, there were very few reasons for the Astros to be celebrating in Atlanta. Whether it was the regular season, or, more significantly, the postseason, the only thing that happened to the Astros in Atlanta of any import was their ability to quietly pack up their belongings and get the heck out of town as quickly as possible.

The Astros never won in Atlanta. Even in their best seasons, they’d go there and get thumped, two, sometimes, three games. And the playoffs? Bah. Pick a year: 1997, 1999, 2001. Different seasons, same results. The Astros were, simply, the Braves’ personal punching bag.

That is, until 2004. The scene in the clubhouse was chaotic. The Astros finally did it — they beat the Braves in the Division Series, and they spent the next hour or so destroying the carpet in the visiting clubhouse with several dozen cases of bubbly. This was a big one. This wasn’t merely the first time the Astros won a postseason series against the Braves. This was the first time they won a postseason series, ever. Seven tries over 40 years and not a single time did they advance beyond the first round. Until now.

Amid the hugs and laughing and champagne chugging, there were so many other things going on in that clubhouse at Turner Field. Older players spoke sadly and solemnly about their friend, Ken Caminiti, who had died just days earlier. Longtime Brave John Smoltz, part of all of those prior teams that beat the Astros, snuck into a backroom adjacent to the visitors’ clubhouse to personally congratulate Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and wish them luck in the next round. General manager Gerry Hunsicker, normally buttoned up, stoic and very GM-like, laughed joyously, champagne-soaked hair wildly shooting off in every direction, recalling his thoughts even with the Astros up by seven or eight runs late in the game: “Oh boy. Here comes (Mike) Gallo. This thing isn’t over yet.”

If this was the scene in, say, 1984 and not 2004, the situation would have been different. Oh, sure, the carpet would have still been destroyed. And players would still be loud and laughing. And the GM would still look like a crazy mad scientist. And classy players from the losing team would still be gracious in defeat.

It would have been different, however, in that the only reporters documenting all of this would have been men. Me? I would have been standing outside of the clubhouse, alone, missing everything, and hoping someone would be nice enough to come outside and tell me about it.

I thought about this, and the dozens of other poignant moments that I would have missed during my years covering the Astros for MLB.com, as I watched the documentary “Let Them Wear Towels” on ESPN Classic. This hour-long special, chronicling the treatment women sports reporters received decades ago, both enraged and enlightened me. Previously, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how things were handled back then. After watching this show, I realize I had absolutely no idea how bad it really was.

It’s impossible to truly comprehend how horribly women were treated back then, mainly because it seems so preposterous in modern times. If you walk into a Major League clubhouse today, you may not find the same number of women reporters as men, but the ratio is closer than ever. And there are probably athletes who still don’t like women in locker rooms, but for the most part, it’s a teeny tiny minority. It’s not unnatural or weird or a spectacle for a woman to be in a locker room. It’s simply a normal workday.

This would be in stark contrast to women being harassed, screamed at and physically thrown out of clubhouses, which apparently was standard practice in the 1970s and ’80s. As I watched “Let Them Wear Towels,” I found myself gasping with disbelief, just stunned, with what women had to deal with back then. It just infuriated me. One account actually moved me to tears.

I tried to imagine what it would be like today, to go through what our predecessors endured. And I can’t. It just makes no sense. Standing alone in a hallway, barricaded from a place I had every right to be? Shunned by not only the athletes, but also the public relations directors and fellow reporters, most of who refused to help? Having absolutely no control over anything, including the crappy copy I was about to file to my editor because I had no quotes? And not losing my mind — or worse, my temper — throughout?

I’d like to think I would have pushed forward and fought for what was right. Would I have stood my ground? Probably. Would I have done it with as much restraint, class and dignity as the women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels” did? Well…

As I watched, I tried to put myself into a 1980s setting where women in locker rooms were treated like human feces. Then I thought, why not do the reverse — put the actions of yesteryear in the context of today?

Below is what may have taken place if a female sportswriter in the 1970s or ’80s was live tweeting her experiences, in real time. Most of this is based on exactly what was relayed to us by the brave, strong women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels.”

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Couple of notes:

* Kingman most definitely dumped water over a reporter’s head, but there was no limping on his part later. I added that as a way of relaying how the situation may have been handled differently in, say, 2013, if it had happened to not @alysonfmlb but to @alysonfooter on a day that she may or may not have been moved to use her knee as a weapon of mass destruction.

* The kindness Garvey showed to Claire Smith of the New York Times brought tears to my eyes. It was such a small gesture, but looking back, it probably was a main turning point in the lifting of this outrageous ban on women in clubhouses. And Garvey acted as he did because he knew it was the right thing to do. Simple enough, no? You’d think.

* There is much more to the documentary, including the account of a landmark lawsuit filed by Sports Illustrated against Major League Baseball on behalf of then-26-year-old reporter Melissa Ludtke to grant women access into locker rooms. And then there’s the unspeakable treatment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by the New England Patriots, the aftermath of which was so unbearable that Olson ended up moving to Australia for a spell to get out of the public spotlight.

To say we’ve come a long way would be laughably understated. Not only is the behavior that was so rampant in a generation ago looked down upon today, almost all of it is also illegal.

Progress can’t be made without our predecessors fighting for change. It’s just unfortunate so many had to suffer that much in order to move things forward.

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Osama bin Laden: He gone!!!!

The text came in on May 2, 2011, as I was watching President Obama confirm what the wire reports had already told us: Osama bin Laden had been killed by a heroic Navy SEAL Team 6. The country celebrated, with impromptu “USA! USA!” chants popping up in ballparks stretching from California to New York.

Then I received a text from an Astros player who was relatively new to Twitter.

“Can I tweet, ‘Bin Laden. HE GONE!!!!!’” he asked.

I laughed and assured him that it was fine, that it was a very American thing to be happy about this news, and that while normally it wouldn’t be a good idea to celebrate death on Twitter, for this, it was entirely patriotic and very appropriate.

While I found our exchange amusing, I also was glad that he took the extra measure to check in. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t about to say something that would reflect poorly on him and subsequently, on the organization, and I appreciated it. At that time, we had already constructed a code of ethics regarding social media, a four-page explanation that was included in the Minor League handbook. But we were still in the process of educating players on the Major League level as to what was expected of them if they chose to be active on Facebook and Twitter.

During my time overseeing the social media side of the Astros’ operation from 2009 to 2012, I encouraged players to embrace social media but made sure they understood they needed to be smart about it. The upside of Twitter is that it’s a great way to interact directly with the fans, which in turn can reflect favorably on a player’s marketability. But it can also be dangerous, since there’s no filter between the players and the public.

Twitter is based largely on knee-jerk reactions, which can spell trouble, especially for a professional athlete in the public spotlight. Basically, it’s a free-for-all, where a brief short-tempered moment can turn into public controversy, creating unnecessary headaches for the players and the organizations that employ them.

This was recently brought to light by an unfortunate lapse in judgment by Ian Stewart, an infielder in the Cubs’ organization who is currently playing for the club’s Triple-A team in Iowa. Through a series of tweets, mostly coming from exchanges with inquisitive followers, Stewart unleashed a lot of anger directed in large part toward Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

To state the obvious, the Cubs weren’t happy. Citing a “loyalty clause” in Stewart’s contract, the infielder has been suspended without pay. Terms of the suspension will be announced at a later time, after the Cubs get through the legalities of the process.

It goes without saying (and Stewart actually did say it later, through a string of repentant tweets) that he’d like to have those 15 minutes back. Surely, he’d have gone about things differently and just vented to a buddy over a beer, or called his mom, or simply seethed inwardly, unnoticed. You know, the way we used to complain about our problems during the stone ages of the early 2000s, before social media.

What happened to Stewart should serve as a cautionary tale to all players. There are a few fights you cannot win, one of which is taking on your organization through social media, especially when you have accomplished little, if anything, in the big leagues. (The other is criticizing the fans, especially about low attendance, but that’s a topic for another day).

During my time with the Astros, I had a chance to speak to a few of the Minor League affiliates during my yearly trips to check out the organization’s top prospects. We also held media training sessions during Spring Training with eight to 10 of the young players in Major League camp who were expected to have a presence in Houston at some point within a year or so. My message: please, please please…think before you tweet.

“Before you tweet something, imagine one of the beat writers standing in front of you with a flip cam pointed at your face and a tape recorder running,” I’d say. “Now, say the tweet out loud. Are you comfortable with this being on the record?”

Tweets are most definitely suitable for public, and media, consumption. If reporters see something newsworthy on Twitter, it’s considered very much on the record and if it’s juicy enough, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll run with it. This is the world we live in today. Players may not like it, but they have to adjust to it. Some have done this better than others.

Prior to Spring Training in 2012, we designed large signs, in English and Spanish, to hang in the clubhouses at all of the Minor League affiliates, plus in the Major League clubhouses in Houston and Kissimmee. Titled “The Dos and Don’ts of Twitter” (with focus more on the don’ts), we explained the rules in an orderly, colorful fashion, using eye-catching graphics to illustrate what’s good and what’s bad. Some sections included smiley faces and a cartoon drawing of a “thumbs up” to show what is acceptable, while frowning faces and thumbs down were used in the “don’t do this” areas.

Major League Baseball had sent out its own memo to the players explaining what was acceptable and what wasn’t regarding social media, but we wanted to spell out the expectations of players on something that could serve as a daily reminder without any effort, other than looking at it hanging on the wall. Most importantly, we just wanted the players to read it.

Included in the “what not to do on Twitter” section: don’t call out teammates or air private disagreements with coaches/managers/front office. Don’t tweet after drinking alcohol and don’t use profanity/sexual innuendos.

Also, don’t comment on signings or trades before the transactions are officially announced by the team. During our Spring Training talks with the Minor Leaguers, we explained that for every promotion, someone on the Major League team was getting traded, or released, or demoted. Informing the Minor League player that he was going to the big leagues was just one step in the process, and likely, the first step.

So while you’re on Twitter celebrating your buddy making it to “the show,” we explained, there’s someone in the Major League clubhouse who’s about to lose his job. It’s usually in that order.

“Until you see it on my Twitter, it hasn’t happened,” I’d say. “I don’t care if a full 24 hours goes by between when it leaks out and when it’s confirmed. It’s unofficial until we say it’s not.”

On the list of “what to do on Twitter,” we encouraged players to show gratitude to the fans, to thank them for their support, and be humble. Talk about working hard and trying to improve. Speak of their teammates in a supportive manner, and talk about community events they’ve participated in.

In the middle of the poster, in a shaded box, was this:

BEFORE TWEETING, ASK YOURSELF:

* Is this something I want my parents/wife/girlfriend/relatives to know about me?

* Will this create conflict with my teammates/organization?

* Is this something I would be OK seeing quoted in a newspaper/online news site?

Finally, we gave examples of good tweets and bad tweets by professional athletes.

@JustinVerlander: My 2012 resolutions: Help Tigers get to World Series, meet more veterans, learn Spanish.

Good tweet.

@OakcliffBully (Kenyon Martin): All the haters should catch full blown aids and die! do the world a favor! and rid us of you all!

Clearly, a bad tweet.

Our intent wasn’t to stifle players or take away their freedom of speech. I wanted them to be themselves, to have opinions, to show their personalities and embrace the opportunity for a healthy give-and-take with the fanbase. But they also needed to understand that while they are representing Major League Baseball and the teams that are paying them, they are held to a higher standard.

There have been hiccups over time, sure. And it’s possible that another Ian Stewart situation will happen again. For the most part, though, I’ve been impressed by how ballplayers handle social media, especially during times of adversity when fans can vent their frustrations directly to a players’ Twitter account. These guys show amazing restraint, and I commend them.

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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.

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Biggio not getting Hall call is probably a good thing. Here’s why.

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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.

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Biggio to media: “I got a 68. I’ll study harder and hopefully get a 75 next year.”

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?

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He’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack….

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.”

True.

“There’s a big difference between pitching and training at a high level. I’m not at that level, by any means.”

Makes sense.

“I’m nowhere near where I was five years ago. I’m 50 years old. I have to be conscious of that.”

Totally.

“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?”

Whoa.

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?

Stay tuned.

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Saying goodbye is never easy, but alas, it’s time. A salute to the Astros and their fans.

Three years ago, Roy Oswalt, a native of Weir, Miss., (pop. 500), built a restaurant smack dab in the middle of his hometown and near three others, intending to give people who lived nearby a place to go for a nice dinner without having to drive 30 miles into town to do so.

Oswalt promised me that when the restaurant was complete and ready for public consumption, he would invite me to come to town so I could cover the grand opening. True to his word, when the date was finalized, he sent a text message that he was ready, and he offered up a room in his lodge located on his sprawling white tail deer ranch.

Roy’s friend, Joey, showed me around the place while Roy was busy at the restaurant preparing for the opening. Joey drove me around the hundreds of acres of land on a four-wheeler, doing his best to explain the country life to a city girl whose idea of “getting back to the land” was hiring someone to trim the six feet of grass that sits in front of her townhome off Washington Ave.

Joey was a great host. He showed me the lake Roy built with the bulldozer Drayton McLane gave him years earlier. He drove me by several wooded areas where white-tail deer freely roamed. And, much to my delight, he got as close as he could to the deer, even as they freaked out and sprinted in the opposite direction, which is what deer do when intruders (me) show up.

After a long afternoon on the ranch and a tasty dinner at Roy’s new restaurant, Joey ticked off the list of activities for the next day. First up: waking up at 5 a.m. to artificially inseminate the white-tail doe, with contributions from super-special, well-bred deer from an undisclosed, far-away place where super-special deer apparently are raised.

“It’s going to be great,” Joey said, excitedly.

Oh.

“You know, that sounds fascinating,” I said. “But I think I’m going to go ahead and sleep in,” I said.

Oswalt, during one of our spirited debates.

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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.”

I’m guessing not many other GMs out there conduct chat sessions with fans during games. Incidentally, Luhnow will do another one of those Tuesday at 7:30 CT.

* 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.

The list of my favorite people in baseball is long. But no one tops Phil Garner, seen here multi-tasking a couple of hours after the Astros won the pennant.

_____________

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!

Alyson

Altuve gains national attention. Newsflash: he’s really good. (But we already knew that.)

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.

Vouchers are available here.

______________

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All-Star chatter includes Altuve, Lowrie; fans encouraged to Tweet the Vote.

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”

I’m guessing Watt has already voted here…

…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.)

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‘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.

The Correa signing: a family affair.

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:

Correa meets and shakes hands with owner Jim Crane.

Joey Sola, Larry Pardo, Bobby Heck, Correa, Jeff Luhnow

Correa hugs Pardo

Hitting in the cage

Taking ground balls

Correa was introduced on the field to the Minute Maid Park crowd during the Astros-Cardinals game.

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