Results tagged ‘ Craig Biggio ’

“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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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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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.

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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

Ausmus, Bagwell, Biggio, Kent among A-listers headed back to Minute Maid Park in ’12.

Two players who you'll see throwing out ceremonial first pitches this year: Brad Ausmus and Jose Cruuuuuuuuuz.

The Astros’ 18-inning win over the Braves in Game 4 of the NLDS in 2005 still comes up in conversation from time to time, and what people remember best about that game, of course, is the Chris Burke home run that won it almost six hours after the affair started.

Fans might also remember Roger Clemens pitching three brilliant innings of relief. Or that Lance Berkman was lifted for a pinch-runner eight innings earlier. Or that Brandon Backe started the game and wasn’t terribly effective.

But the one key moment that sometimes gets pushed to the side, considering how significant Burke’s home run was, is that the Astros were minutes away from losing that game, if not for one improbable swing of the bat. The two teams were pretty much headed back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 5 — until they weren’t, thanks to Brad Ausmus.

The game only continued because Ausmus picked a really, really good time to be very un-Ausmus-like and hit a home run with two outs in the ninth inning to tie the game at 6.

The umpires also picked a really good time to show a complete understanding about the ground rules and the zig-zaggy yellow lines in the outfield that indicated what was a home run and what wasn’t. This was before instant replay, but when the ball smacked against the left-center wall, just above the zig and to the right of the zag, the umpire immediately started twirling his index finger in the air, indicating a home run.

Ausmus will be one of 13 former players who will visit Minute Maid Park this season as a ceremonial first-pitch honoree. His Game 4 heroics are not the reason why, of course. “Officer Brad” was a mainstay behind the plate for 10 of 12 seasons from 1997-2008, missing only two years when he was traded to the Tigers (and subsequently traded back after it became apparent the Mitch Meluskey experiment was a disaster).

Ausmus was Steady Eddie behind the plate, wearing several hats in addition to the one with the Astros star on it. He was a security blanket for the pitchers, an encyclopedia of knowledge while dissecting the tendencies and habits of every hitter in the league, and a no-nonsense field operator who was in complete control at all times. His pitchers knew that, as did whoever was running things from the dugout. His batting average was, well, average, but his value to the team was immeasurable.

On Tuesday, the Astros released complete list of first-pitch pitchers who will appear on “Flashback Fridays.” The team will wear throwback uniforms and celebrate Houston’s fabulous 50-year history every Friday home game in 2012, and the return of former players will only add to the nostalgia that is sure to take over Minute Maid Park throughout the season.

The first ceremonial pitch is on April 10, the actual anniversary of the first Major League game played in Houston. Bob Aspromonte, arguably the most well-known of the original Colt .45s, will have the first pitch honors that day. The rest of the best:

April 10 vs. ATL Bob Aspromonte; 1960s- Colt .45s
April 20 vs. STL Larry Dierker; 1960s-Astros
May 4 vs. LAD Rusty Staub; 1960s-Colt .45s
May 18 vs. TEX Nolan Ryan; 1980s
June 1 vs. CIN J.R. Richard; 1970s
June 22 vs. CLE Joe Morgan; 1960s-Astros
July 6 vs. MIL Jose Cruz; 1970s
July 27 vs. PIT Mike Scott; 1980s
Aug. 10 vs. MIL Jeff Bagwell; 1990s
Aug. 17 vs. ARI Brad Ausmus; 1990s
Aug. 31 vs. CIN Shane Reynolds; 1990s
Sept. 14 vs. PHI Jeff Kent; 2000s
Sept. 21 vs. PIT Craig Biggio; 2000s

Each player will throw a customized Rawlings baseball that features a 24-karat gold leather cover with the Astros 50th anniversary logo.

This group of players combined for 49 All-Star Game appearances, 15 Silver Slugger Awards, 12 Gold Glove Awards, four MVP Awards, two Hall of Fame inductions, one Rookie of the Year Award and one Cy Young Award. The 13 combined for over 18,000 hits and nearly 2,000 home runs. The five pitchers – Dierker, Reynolds, Richard, Ryan and Scott – have over 800 wins and more than 11,000 strikeouts.

The first pitch participants are scheduled to appear at Minute Maid Park in the month during which their playing days are being honored. The appearances of Staub, Ryan and Morgan are scheduled out of order to accommodate their individual travel schedule.

“Flashback Fridays” highlights the rich tradition of the Astros’ former uniforms, some of the most recognizable and iconic in baseball history. In April, the Astros will celebrate the 1960s by wearing the original Colt .45s jersey. The 1960s shooting star jersey, the first Astros jersey ever worn, will be donned in May. The club will celebrate the 1970s and wear the rainbow jerseys in June, the 1980s shoulder rainbow jerseys in July and the 1990s blue and gold star uniforms in August.

Fans can purchase a special Flashback Friday 14-game flex plan, presented by Papa John’s, that guarantees a seat for Opening Day and each Flashback Friday night. This special ticket package also includes a free ticket for a 15th game of their choice.  Plans are available by calling 1-800-ASTROS2 or visiting Astros.com.

In addition to uniforms, “Flashback Fridays” will also feature special ballpark entertainment and fireworks shows themed to each particular decade. Several additional promotions recognizing the 50th anniversary are scheduled throughout the 2012 season, with a complete listing available at www.astros.com.

Meanwhile, enjoy some nostalgic photos of several first pitch honorees:

Jeff Bagwell during 2004 postseason.

Craig Biggio during pregame introductions at the World Series.

Larry Dierker during his uniform number retirement in 2002.

Jeff Kent introduced himself to the Houston fanbase in dramatic fashion, hitting a home run in his first game as an Astro.

Nolan Ryan during a press conference following his 3,509th career strikeout.

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Retro jerseys, bobbleheads, Flashback Fridays: celebrating 50 years in style.

Who doesn't remember the uniforms the Astros were wearing when they clinched their first NL Central title in 1997?

The 50th anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston will be celebrated this year, and to supplement the good times, most of the promotions, events and giveaways will center around this Golden milestone.

Fridays at Minute Maid Park this year are going to be a very big deal. Tabbed “Flashback Fridays,” these nights will go heavy on nostalgia, from the uniforms the players wear during the game to iconic players from the past who will be on hand to celebrate the club’s history.

The Astros will highlight a different uniform each month, with the team wearing that jersey for each Friday night game. The featured jerseys include:

1960′s Colt .45s (April 10 – commemorating the first game in franchise history and April 20)
1960′s Shooting Star (May 4 and May 18)
1970′s Rainbow (June 1 and June 22)
1980′s Shoulder Rainbow (July 6 and July 27)
1990′s Blue and Gold Star (Aug. 10, Aug. 17 and Aug. 31)


“Flashback Fridays” also feature special ballpark entertainment and fireworks shows themed to each particular decade. In addition, as part of the celebration, Colt .45s and Astros alumni from the past 50 seasons will be invited back to toss out ceremonial first pitches prior to those Friday games.

This year’s bobblehead set will feature Astros “Greatest Moments” from 50 years of baseball in Houston.

The first bobble features Nolan Ryan (May 19) celebrating his record fifth no-hitter in 1981. Craig Biggio (June 22) portrays his unforgettable 3,000th hit in 2007, followed by Cy Young Award winning pitcher Mike Scott (July 7) clinching the National League West Division with a no-hitter in 1986.

Craig Biggio's 3,000th hit will forever be immortalized with this nifty bobblehead.

Nolan Ryan's fifth no-hitter happened in 1981, and 31 short years later, the moment will be captured with this bobblehead.

Rounding out this year’s “Greatest Moments” bobblehead lineup is a pair of home run heroes. In what currently stands as the longest playoff game in Major League history, 2005 National League Division Series hero Chris Burke (July 28) joins the set for his 18th inning walk-off homer in a year that saw the Astros in their first World Series.

Jeff Kent (Sept. 1) joins in similar fashion for his walk-off home run in Game 5 of the 2004 National League Championship Series.

Among the remaining highlights for 2012:

All-Time 25-Man Roster Vote

A panel of 10 experts has voted on the Astros All-Time 25-Man Roster, and throughout the season, Astros fans will have a chance to let their voices be heard as they will cast the 11th vote. Each month throughout the season, a different position will be featured on astros.com and fans can cast their vote on their all-time favorite players.

Oldies but Goodies

“Retro” is in the air as the 50th Anniversary Celebration weaves its way through multiple giveaways this season. Currently scheduled items include a Colt .45s cap (April 10), Colt .45s replica jersey (April 20), 1970’s rainbow style t-shirt (June 1), retro gym bag (June 2), retro lunch bag (June 3), 1960′s blue Astros cap (June 20), 1990′s blue and gold replica jersey (Aug. 10), and a rainbow umbrella (Aug. 12).

Pink in the Park

Pink in the Park week is back in 2012. The week (May 4-9), dedicated to driving awareness for breast cancer research, will kick off with the fourth annual Pink in the Park Brunch and Bazaar, benefiting the Methodist Cancer Center (May 4). The rest of the week will feature pink giveaway items including a Belted Tote Bag (May 4), a Pink Yoga Mat (May 6), and Pink Pashmina Scarf (May 7).


Special Events

The 2012 calendar features many events including fan favorites as well as events specifically geared towards the anniversary celebration. Returning in 2012 is Opening Day Street Fest (April 6), Friday Night Fireworks, Dog Day (May 6 and Sept. 16), Bayou Bash (May 19), Bike to the Ballpark (June 3), Faith and Family Night Concerts (June 23 featuring Third Day and July 28 featuring Mercy Me), and Oktoberfest (Sept. 15).

The Astros are bringing back local members of the 1962 Colt .45s roster for a pregame ceremony and reunion on Tuesday, April 10, 50 years to the day from the first game ever played in franchise history. In addition, the season-long celebration culminates with Legends Weekend (Sept. 21-23) in which all Colt .45s and Astros alumni will be invited to Minute Maid Park to take part in anniversary activities. As a part of the weekend, all available members of the Astros All-Time 25-Man roster will be recognized in a special pregame ceremony.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.astros.com, at the Minute Maid Park box office on Texas Avenue or by phone toll free at 1-877-9ASTROS (1-877-927-8767). Tickets are also available at Ticketmaster retail centers in all Fiesta and select Macy’s, H-E-B, F.Y.E., Wherehouse Music and Ritmo Latino stores during regular store hours.

2012 Astros Promotions and Events:

April 6

Schedule Magnet (United) 20,000 fans; Opening Day Street Fest; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

April 7

50th Anniversary Patch (Insperity) 10,000 fans

April 8

50th Anniversary Poster (Champion Energy Services) 10,000 fans

April 10

Colt .45s Cap (Conn’s) 10,000 fans; $1 Hot Dog Night (Classic Foods)

April 20    

Colt .45s Replica Jersey (Champion Energy Services) 10,000 fans; Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation); Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System)

April 21

Play Green® Cap (Waste Management) 10,000 fans

April 22    

Grocery Tote Bag (The Methodist Hospital System) 10,000 fans

May 4

Belted Pink Bag (Methodist Cancer Center) 10,000 fans; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

May 5

Los Astros Cap (Wells Fargo) 10,000 fans; Cinco de Mayo Celebration

May 6

Pink Yoga Mat (Methodist Cancer Center) 10,000 fans; Dog Day at Minute Maid Park

May 7

Pink Pashmina Scarf (Methodist Cancer Center) 10,000 fans

May 17

Drawstring Bags (MLB Network) 10,000 fans

May 18

Lone Star Series T-Shirt (Champion Energy Services) 10,000 fans; University of Texas Night; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

May 19

Nolan Ryan Bobblehead Fifth No-Hitter (Coca-Cola) 10,000 fans; Bayou Bash; Texas A&M Night

June 1

1970′s Rainbow T-Shirt (The Methodist Hospital System) 10,000 fans; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

June 2

Retro Gym Bag (Kroger) 10,000 fans

June 3

Retro Lunch Bag (Champion Energy Services) 10,000 fans; Bike to the Ballpark

June 20    

1960′s Retro Cap (Bastion Technologies) 10,000 fans


June 22    

Craig Biggio Bobblehead 3,000th Hit (Coca-Cola) 10,000 fans; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

June 23

Faith and Family Night

July 6    

Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

July 7    

Mike Scott Bobblehead 1986 No-Hitter (Grand Slam for Youth Baseball) 10,000 fans

July 27

Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

July 28

Chris Burke Bobblehead 18th Inning Walk-Off Home Run (Dahill) 10,000 fans; Faith and Family Night

Aug. 10    

1990′s Blue and Gold Jersey (Coca-Cola) 10,000 fans; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

Aug. 12    

Umbrella (HEB) 10,000 Fans

Aug. 17    

Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

Aug. 18    

Jeff Bagwell Bobblehead 400th Home Run (Champion Energy Services) 10,000 fans

Aug. 31

Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

Sept. 1

Jeff Kent Bobblehead NLCS Game 5 Walk-Off Home Run (The Methodist Hospital System) 10,000 fans

Sept. 14    

Fleece Blanket (The Methodist Hospital System) 10,000 fans; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

Sept. 15    

Los Astros T-Shirt (Goya) 10,000 fans; Oktoberfest

Sept. 16    

Dog Day at Minute Maid Park

Sept. 21    

50th Anniversary Legends Weekend; 50th Anniversary Canvas Art (The Methodist Hospital System) 10,000 fans; Flashback Fridays (The Methodist Hospital System); Friday Night Fireworks (Marathon Oil Corporation)

Sept. 22    

50th Anniversary Legends Weekend

Sept. 23    

50th Anniversary Legends Weekend

Sept. 26

Team Poster (Houston Chronicle) All Fans

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Milo Hamilton declares the 2012 season his last in the broadcast booth.

Jim Crane, left, Milo Hamilton and George Postolos announce that 2012 will be Milo's last season behind the mic.

Milo Hamilton mentioned a couple of times last year to friends and colleagues that the 2012 season would likely be his last as a lead play-by-play announcer on Astros broadcasts.

Milo will turn 85 in September, and, as he said last year, “That’ll be enough.” On Wednesday, he made that official, formally stating that he’ll retire at the end of the season.

Perhaps there’s no “best” time for a beloved figure to step down, but the timing of the announcement will allow the Astros to weave a season-long salute to their long-time broadcaster in with the celebration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary.

Plans to honor Milo this year will be officially announced in full at a later time, but here’s a sneak peek:

* Sept. 2, Milo’s 85th birthday, will be “Milo Hamilton Day” at Minute Maid Park.
* The Astros plan to host a special dinner in Milo’s honor during the season, with proceeds benefiting the Astros In Action Foundation.
* There will be an online vote for fans to select Milo’s greatest calls.
* We’ll start an appreciation Facebook page, dedicated to fans saluting Milo’s great career.
* The Astros plan to create a Milo Hamilton college scholarship for broadcasting students.

Stay tuned for more announcements.

“We will provide a fitting tribute for one of the all-time great broadcasters in our industry,” said Astros President and CEO George Postolos. “The unique bond that Milo has built with our fans is very special. With that in mind, we have created ways for our fans to participate in our tribute to Milo. They will have an opportunity to do that throughout the season.”

Milo’s plan is to only retire from the broadcasting side. He will still be a part of the organization in 2013 and beyond as an emcee for special events and fundraisers, and will take part in the caravan and FanFest. He’ll also appear at events for sponsors and season ticket holders and will be incorporated into the radio broadcasts.

Watch the video from Milo’s announcement

More video: Biggio, talking about Milo and his retirement

Milo, by the numbers:
66 — years as a broadcaster.
58 — years as a baseball broadcaster.
27 — years an Astros broadcaster.
5 — Halls of Fame that have honored Milo, including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1992.
715 — Hank Aaron’s milestone, record-breaking home run, which Milo called as a Braves announcer in 1974.
4,000 — Nolan Ryan’s milestone strikeout, which Milo called as an Astros announcer in 1985.
3,000 — Craig Biggio’s milestone hit total, which Milo called as an Astros announcer in 2007.

From the photo archives: first, a few good ones from the past…

Jeff Bagwell and Milo in 2006, the day Bagwell announced his retirement.

Milo and former skipper Phil Garner at FanFest a few years back.

Milo celebrated his 84th birthday last year by wearing a gigantic blue bow on his head.

Keeping with the theme of intesting head gear, here's Milo and Brad Lidge a few years ago at Spring Training, reading Dr. Seuss books to kids.

…and finally, images from Wednesday’s press conference…

Craig Biggio, who announced his retirement from this very room a little more than four years ago, attended Milo's press conference.

Later, the two convened for an impromptu photo shoot.

The Houston media contingent surrounded Milo following the formal part of the presser.

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Holiday roundup: The Sunshine Kids, Boys and Girls Club, Craig Biggio and a not-so-fat (but still plenty jolly) Santa Claus

The Astros haven’t stepped onto a baseball field in quite some time, but their December has shaped up to be almost as busy as a typical month during the season.

In between welcoming in a new owner and hiring a new general manager, the Astros have also been busy in the community, spreading their usual holiday cheer to kids from all over Houston. Two of their recent ventures include the annual Sunshine Kids Christmas Party, and a new event: the ASTROrdinary Clubhouse Christmas party.

The Sunshine Kids party has been a long-standing tradition for as far back as we can remember, and Craig and Patty Biggio’s presence at the party has been just as constant. Dozens of Astros volunteers helped out with face-painting, photos with Santa and other ho-ho-holiday activities. The venue — the gorgeous Children’s Museum — just added to the festive nature of this Sunshine Kids night out.

Biggio chats with a young party goer.

The Sunshine Kids party is a family affair for Quinn Biggio (back, left) and her parents, Craig and Patty, and friends.

"Head, shoulders, knees and toes" is always a crowd pleaser.

Same goes for Junction Jack.

Next up was the ASTROrdinary Clubhouse Christmas party, a soiree that was fun for the 50 kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston and for anyone who thinks it’s funny when ballplayers dress up in elf shoes, elf hats and pointy ears (which includes pretty much all of us, no?).

Doug Brocail should be very proud to know that the kids, while appreciative of the effort, didn’t think he was fat enough to really be Santa Claus. Still, the pitching coach was pretty convincing in his red suit, white beard and bushy eyebrows that he needed help sticking on to his face. Lining up behind him with their jingly green slippers were Santa’s elves: Jason Bourgeois, Bobby Meacham, Chris Johnson and Humberto Quintero (or, as Santa referred to him, “Elf Q”).

The kids — first, second and third graders — took a behind-the-scenes tour of the entire clubhouse and then gathered in the team dressing area to watch the movie “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Following the movie, the group moved to the Diamond Club for dinner and a photo session with Santa, who finally let out a big Ho! Ho! Ho! after 15 minutes or so of snuggling with two of his elves.

The kids then received their own special gift, a big box of some seriously cool swag, including an iPod Shuffle and an iTunes gift card.

Taking a tour of the weight room in the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park.

Brocail -- I mean, Santa -- checking himself out in the mirror.

Chris Johnson, preparing for his debut as the city's tallest elf.

Photo time

Opening presents in the Diamond Club

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Here’s a story that might tug at the heartstrings, regardless of whether you are a Mets fan, or a Jose Reyes fan, or a fan of, well, beer. Foley’s NY Pub & Restaurant in New York City, which doubles as a home away from home of sorts for baseball writers, front office staffers and umpires, came up with a fool-proof promotion that accomplishes two goals. It enables Mets fans to wallow in anger and/or self-pity and/or euphoria, while doing something productive for kids in the community.

According to this New York Daily News report, Foley’s, located in Midtown across from the Empire State Building, is offering free libations in exchange for No. 7 Reyes jerseys. Contributing fans will receive, according to the report, free beer to drown their sorrows that Reyes signed with the Marlins, or champagne to celebrate Reyes signing with the Marlins, or appetizers for those who don’t drink and are depressed — or don’t like the Mets but do like appetizers.

The jerseys will be donated to clothing drives. Fans are also asked to donate their Reyes bobbleheads, which will then go to children’s hospitals.

It’s a genius move, really. It gets people to go to Foley’s with promises of free food and drink, and in the end, everyone has made a charitable contribution. A win-win and not at all surprising that Foley’s owner Shaun Clancy came up with such a great idea.

Cheers!

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Shooting stars, rainbow sleeves, blue and gold: “Flashback Fridays” will feature slick jerseys from the past.

Jose Cruz, Craig Biggio

History and nostalgia will be front and center for the Houston Astros in 2012, so it’s only fitting that four of their most famous players from yesteryear were on hand Thursday to ring in the club’s 50th anniversary celebration.

A large gathering of Houston media watched and listened as Jimmy Wynn (1963-73), Larry Dierker (1964-76), Jose Cruz (1975-87) and Craig Biggio (1988-2007) shared their memories of their favorite moments during their tenure with the franchise.

Not surprisingly, the 2005 World Series was mentioned more than once. Biggio’s 3,000th hit in June of 2007 ranked high on many lists as well.

“We were the first Texas team to go to the World Series,” Biggio said. “That was something to be proud of. And the 3,000 hit night — it was a magical night.”

Popular television announcers Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies hosted the question and answer session with the Astros icons in the FiveSeven Grille, which was decorated with images of the 50th anniversary logo and the jerseys from the past. Deshaies also interviewed several key Astros figures who were sitting in the crowd, including president of baseball operations Tal Smith, Spanish broadcaster Rene Cardenas, former radio announcer Gene Elston and current radio announcer Milo Hamilton.

Larry Dierker, Jim Deshaies

In addition to Biggio’s 3,000th hit and the Astros’ World Series, Hamilton cited the 2003 club’s six-pitcher no-hitter at Yankee Stadium as a highlight of his career.

“It had never been done before and I don’t think it will ever happen again,” Hamilton said.

The Astros also outlined their plans for the big golden anniversary celebration in 2012, which we blogged about here earlier in the day. Judging from the response I’ve received, I’d say the one element that has fans excited about the 50th anniversary celebration in 2012 more than any other is the “Flashback Fridays” plan, where every Friday home game, the Astros will wear a throwback jersey that represents a certain era in the Houston franchise.

That includes the 1964 Houston Colt .45s jersey, which, to the best of the club’s knowledge, has never been worn since that season 47 years ago. Also on the docket are the shooting star jersey from the first season in the Astrodome in 1965, the rainbow jersey the teams wore from 1975-86, the rainbow sleeve from 1987-93, the blue and gold jersey from 1994-99 and the current pinstripe jersey the club wears today.


More snippits from Thursday’s presser:

Drayton McLane cited the Astros’ press conference in 1996 announcing that they had a new manager as one of his favorite moments. It wasn’t so much that the Astros had hired a new manager as much as it was who their new manager was — Larry Dierker.

“Everyone was surprised,” McLane said. Turning to Dierker, McLane said, “Larry, did it surprise you?”

“Well,” Dierker deadpanned. “I knew what was going on by then.”

_________

McLane recalled the night in ’96 that he and several members of his inner circle were waiting to hear if the stadium referendum had passed.

“We were up late at the Westin Hotel in the Galleria,” he said. “At 12 at night, we were losing. At 2:30 in the morning, we won.”
_________

Brownie asked Biggio how long he thinks his career would have lasted if Biggio had remained at catcher instead of moving to second base.

“How many years did I catch? Four?” Biggio asked rhetorically. “So, maybe five.”
_________

Cruz was asked about the signature Cruuuuuuuuuuuz moniker given to him by the late J. Fred Duckett, the Astros’ public address announcer back in the day.

“The first time I heard it, I thought they were booing me,” Cruz said. “I was playing well. I thought, ‘What are they doing?’”
_________

Dierker credited the success the Astros had during his run as skipper from 1997-01 more to the makeup of the team than to his managerial maneuvering.

“We had such great talent on those teams,” Dierker said. “It didn’t matter what moves I made. We were going to win with that talent.”

Dierker offered a bit of advice to today’s Astros fans.

“Don’t judge a manager on his win-loss record. Judge a manager on what he gets out of the talent he has. Is Joe Girardi the best manager in the game? He’s the manager of the Yankees. Anyone can manage the Yankees and win.”

_________

Deshaies: “What was it like to work in Colt Stadium back in the day?”

Cardenas: “It was hot.”

_________

More from Cardenas: “I remember when Larry Dierker came to the ball club — he was a wonderful player and a wonderful person. I looked at this kid from California and said, ‘how did the Dodgers not sign him?’ We were lucky to have him.”
_________

Video corner:

Dierker, on past rebuilding projects and the Astros’ current reloading plan

Biggio, on spending his entire career with the Astros and who was influential on him in the early years
__________

And finally…the Astros will be previewing their 50th anniversary celebration this weekend with three promotional giveaway items bearing the special logo.

Friday: Commemorative Cap

Saturday: Fleece Blanket

Sunday: T-shirt

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Some thoughts on hitting coaches as we wait for the Astros to hire one.

Now that the Astros have had a hitting coach — albeit a temporary one — who was once one of the best hitters in the game and is considered by many to be Hall of Fame worthy, it’s easy to assume that the next one needs to bring the same type of resume of greatness as a player.

That is simply not the case.

Jeff Bagwell’s .297 average and 449 home runs had absolutely nothing to do with his ability to be a good coach. He succeeded in the role for the exact reasons we thought he would — he’s smart, he understands both the mental and mechanical side of hitting, and he relates well with today’s players, possibly better than anyone who’s ever coached in the Astros’ organization.

Bagwell came here and immediately worked on getting the hitters to relax, to have good at-bats, to clear their heads and stop analyzing every motion of every at-bat during hours spent in the video room. Many of the hitters did enjoy quite a turnaround after he took over as coach, which is a credit, on some levels, to Bagwell. On other levels — and Bags will be the first one to acknowledge this — the hitting came around because inevitably, the good hitters who spent much of the season being bad hitters eventually became good hitters again. That’s what happens over a six-month season. Things even out. (It’s that whole “law of averages” thing we talk about so much in this game.)

So as disappointing as it was to hear that Bagwell isn’t coming back, it’s important not to get caught up in thinking the Astros have to find another Hall of Fame worthy player to take over. The Astros are in the process of searching for a new hitting coach, and I would expect the list to consist of a blend of candidates, from those with impressive resumes as players to those who have experience in the coaching ranks. I’d also expect their statistics as players to have no bearing on their chances to land the hitting coach job, because, quite frankly, how they hit as players just doesn’t matter.

Take for example, hypothetically, Brad Ausmus (who, for the record, is most definitely NOT a candidate for the Astros’ hitting coach job). Over an 18-year Major League career, he proved to be a really, really…mediocre hitter. Not terrible and not terrific. Over 1,971 games, he posted a .251 average (average being the operative word).

Does this mean he had less of an understanding of hitting than Bagwell? Of course not. Ausmus knew what he needed to do at the plate. He just didn’t have the same physical gifts as some of his contemporaries to parlay the knowledge into results we saw from the Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman. I would feel entirely comfortable with him as a hitting coach (although, as a former catcher, I think he’d make a better pitching coach).

There are instances, in fact, where the really great players don’t make very good coaches because often, things just came naturally to them and they can’t relate, or understand, players who cannot simply roll out of bed and hit .300.

Often, it’s the guy who spent 10 years in the Minor Leagues and had the proverbial “cup of coffee” in the big leagues who makes a great coach, because he was never able to let his guard down, even for a minute, as he fought for playing time.

A hitting coach needs to be able to detect flaws and, more importantly, understand what each hitter, as an individual, has to do to get the absolute most out of his ability. I do like that Bagwell steered away from the video room and didn’t try to overload his guys with too much information. So much of being a good hitter is being able to deal with failure. I have seen many players over-think themselves right out of the game, leaving their raw ability largely untapped because they were too busy worrying.

Hopefully, the next coach will bring with him a to-do list consisting of one item: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

________________

With the help of our #astrostweeps, we threw together a last-minute party Thursday night at Lucky’s Pub to watch Game 2 of the World Series. The group was united in rooting for the Rangers, even through the late-game bullpen meltdown. Disappointing result to the game, but losing is a lot easier to take when surrounded by lively conversation, piping hot pizza and cold beverages. Thanks to @xtinedp, @itsallaboutde @lnzy04 @EdBashinski and Jesse Gonzalez for the good times…

1028_group_blog.jpg 

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And in closing, it’s time to dip back into the photo vault, where we found some fun shots of our Astros of yesteryear going airborne.

Adam Everett

1018_adam_evertt.jpg

Bagwell

1019_bags_2004.jpg

Biggio

1019_biggio_2004.jpg

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Random thoughts on the Astros as we near the finish line.

The Astros have their eyes fixated firmly on finishing the season at the .500 mark, a goal that seemed impossible just two months ago when they were in danger of being the first team in club history to lose 100 games.

It would be great to finish at .500, of course, but even if they fall short, they can be proud of a 79 or 80 win season, too, because it will still symbolize how far they’ve come in a very short amount of time.

About halfway through this season, I remember feeling a little panicked — not because of where they were headed in 2010 (we all sensed this could be a somewhat lean year) — but because of what it meant for ’11. I recall talking with some Astros fans after an Astroline show during the offseason and telling them 2011 looks pretty good. I figured with the core of hitters in the middle of the order, coupled with some young pitching coming through the system, next year could be, at the very least, interesting.

Then came the struggles — by Lance Berkman, by Carlos Lee, and at times, by Hunter Pence — and I said, “Uh oh.” The blueprint for ’11, at the time, was predicated on these three being what they had always been. Problem was, Berkman and Lee were hitting some 50 points below their career averages and showed no signs of pulling out of it. The offensive talent coming through the system is not as strong as the pitching, and I feared the club could find itself in a helpless situation as it put together the team for 2011.

Times have changed dramatically. Chris Johnson has had a fantastic rookie season, answered every challenge as he was moved from seventh to sixth to fifth in the order, and appears to be primed for a full season next year as the starting third baseman. Lee has performed better at first base than I think anyone expected, and he seems to even hit better during games when he’s playing over there. Brett Wallace, while still working to put it all together, has shown great potential as a hitter and is also a lot more defensively savvy than had been indicated when he was traded here.

Michael Bourn has had his share of struggles offensively but has also had long stretches of extreme productivity, and he has to be considered one of the top center fielders in the league. Pence has been red-hot in the second half, and Jeff Keppinger is the perfect No. 2 hitter — rarely strikes out, makes contact and keeps things moving.

The overall lack of power still concerns me and I do worry about Lee’s ability to spread his production over a full season, considering how much he struggled for the better part of four months. A lot will have to go right next year, which is the case every year. But a strong pitching staff and a reshaped lineup tells me the Astros could be in for some interesting times next year.

_______________

What I really like about this team is not only the infusion of youth, but also that these guys are going through these early stages of their careers together. A lot of the players with the Astros now went through the Minor Leagues together and having each other to lean on now, at this level, is a very good thing.

I recall in 2004 writing a feature on the Astros playoff team and noting that around 70 percent of the Opening Day starting lineup had either been drafted and developed by the Astros (Ensberg, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt, etc.) or had come from outside of the organization but had never played a Major League game for anyone but the Astros (Everett, Bagwell). Drafting and developing your own talent is the lifeline of every organization, but it also creates a closeness and camaraderie that makes a team a cohesive, unselfish group moving forward.

_______________

Heading to the offseason, there are a few things to keep in mind as we watch the front office put together next year’s team. The question I get more than any other is if the Astros are going to make any splashy trades for veteran players or sign any big free agents. Please keep in mind that trading for veteran talent requires giving up Minor League players, and the only players other teams are interested in are the absolute top prospects and no one else. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions — that the Astros could trade for a big impact player in exchange for a bunch of players not considered “prospects.” Please keep in mind it’s not about quantity when you make a trade, it’s about quality. And the Astros, for all of the work they’ve done in reshaping the farm system, are still in no position to get rid of top talent. When a team has a surplus of top prospects, they can use some of those players as trade chips. The Astros aren’t there yet, and when it comes to dangling the Jordan Lyles of the world this winter, it’s in the best interests of this club to just say no.

_______________

On the Minor League front, the Astros are hoping Oklahoma City picks them to be the parent club of their Triple-A team in 2011. Two teams that are in search of a new home are eyeing Oklahoma City — the Astros and the Blue Jays. A decision is expected in the not-so-distant future.

______________

The Astros were one of several teams who watched Barret Loux, Arizona’s former No. 1 draft pick, throw an extended bullpen session at Texas A&M recently. You can read the details in McTaggart’s notebook here.

_______________

We’re all geared up for our second Social Media event, which will take place Sunday in the Budweiser Patio. You can read the details and purchase tickets by clicking here, but I wanted to show some of the items we’re giving away during our Twitter trivia contest (in addition to the baseballs signed by Johnson, who will be out there from noon to 12:15 to hand them out).

Signed Biggio bronze bust (that’s him in the background, after I hit him up for the autograph)

0917_biggio_bust.jpg

Bourn signed bobblehead

0917_bourn_bobble.jpg

Throwback cap, signed by Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.

0917_cap_bag_bidge.jpg

Pence signed bobblehead

0917_pence_bobble.jpg

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I get a lot of questions from fans about former players, about where they are now, and what they’re doing these days. For the most part, I have to Google their names, and if they’re not in baseball, I have no idea what they’re doing now. But no one elicits more “where are they now” inquiries than popular former second baseman Bill Doran. Turns out, Doran is working in the Reds’ organization as their Assistant Field Coordinator of Instruction and he’s with the Major League club during this trip to Houston.

Here’s a picture of him taken Friday during batting practice, talking with another popular former second baseman. (Sorry it’s a bit blurry. I need a new camera.)

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And finally…from the photo vault:

I stumbled upon this funny picture, taken during one of our annual offseason caravan trips to Temple (I think this was 2008). Pence and Chris Sampson always knew how to ham it up for the camera.

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