Results tagged ‘ Lance Berkman ’

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.

Most players can’t wait to retire, until they actually do it.

Lance Berkman always thought he'd embrace retirement. Then why is he still playing?

Lance Berkman always thought he’d embrace retirement. Then why is he still playing?

I’m usually skeptical when a player retires from baseball while he’s still producing at a high level, but in Chipper Jones‘ case, I really do believe he means it when he says he’s comfortable with his decision to step away from the game, with no desire to return. I just wonder if he’s going to feel that way in another year.

Jones appears to be a rarity. Most players heed the advice from those who came before them: play until they rip the uniform off of you. Loosely translated, it means play until 1) you can no longer can sustain the stamina or strength needed to be productive and 2) the phone stops ringing. (I once asked a coach who played in the big leagues for 18 years, “What year did you retire?” His answer: “Good players don’t retire. They play until they don’t get asked back.”)

It’s understandable that players start to feel the tug of retirement when they’re older and still active. Major League life seems glamorous, and some parts are. Money, charter flights and first-class hotel accommodations are all part of it. But in truth, after you’re in it for a while, it becomes a grind just like every other job. Time away from the kids starts to get old, and for those who don’t get out much on the road, the travel can be boring.

Still, it’s a good life, and most of the time, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than anything these players will do in their post-playing careers. Part of the problem is that players don’t really know this until they’ve actually retired.

I was surprised when Andy Pettitte retired a couple of years ago when he seemingly had plenty left in his left arm, and I wasn’t at all shocked when he came back to the Yankees after a year out of the game. Pettitte appeared to have reached the same conclusion as others who are pondering getting out: nothing they will do after their careers end will ever be as fulfilling as playing Major League Baseball. Especially when you’re affiliated with a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series every year.

During my years covering the Astros, there were two players who made it very clear at about age 30 that they were looking forward to retiring and had no intention to stretch their careers past the parameters of their current contacts: Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.

Berkman was signed through 2010; Oswalt, 2011. Both swore when those commitments ran out, so would they. Berkman was traded to the Yankees in the final year of his contract in ’10, signed on with the Cardinals and won the World Series in ’11. He signed with the Rangers late this past offseason and is talking of playing in 2014, too.

Oswalt held out for an offer from a contender in 2012 and missed half the season but ended up with the Rangers during their stretch run. As of today, he’s unsigned for 2013.

So what happened?

Berkman said he wasn’t necessarily surprised that he felt the tug to keep playing, but acknowledged that talking about retiring is a lot easier than actually doing it. He has always identified himself as a husband, father and devotee to his faith first and a ballplayer last, but the reality is a lot of his identity is indeed wrapped up in what he does for a living. When playing baseball is the only thing you know, it’s a little scary to think of life without it.

Think about it: if a player retires at 40 and lives to a normal life expectancy, he has at least 40 more years to fill. When you’re first starting out, this all seems so far off. But when you’re 36, 37, 38…

“It’s a mental fight,” Berkman said the day before he left for Spring Training. “Is this the right thing to do? You don’t want to sell yourself short. There’s family considerations. There’s all kinds of stuff that goes into the vortex. Your mind is just spinning around and spinning around and you’re trying to make the best decision that you can.”

A big part of who he is, Berkman admitted, is as a Major League Baseball player. “When you don’t have that anymore, how are you going to react to everyday life?” he wondered.

While Berkman does have a list in his mind of things he’d like to do post-career, he also knows he doesn’t necessarily have to start now.

“Even for a guy such as myself who said for years, ‘It’s going to be easy to walk away,’ the reality is, it’s not going to be,” he said. “I don’t want to be too cavalier with that statement. It’s a pretty big thing and a pretty big time in your life. The flip side of that, I am kind of glad that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s other things other than playing baseball that are intersting to me, and you just don’t have time to pursue those things as a player.”

Jones’ named popped up in the news recently when Yankees GM Brian Cashman expressed interest in seeing if “Larry” — yes, oddly, Cashman referred to Chipper by his real name — would be interested in signing on as a fill-in for the injured Mark Teixeira.

Jones responded by tweeting that he prefers to continue his new life as a bad golfer.

Odds are, he’ll still feel this way next year, too.

Won’t he?

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There was something terribly appropriate about Houston Chronicle TV/Radio columnist David Barron describing a recent honor bestowed upon me as “big”, “huge” and “overwhelming,” considering the subject matter — my hair — has been described as all three (mostly at the same time) for the better part of my adult life.

My goal to not draw attention to myself or my towering inferno (another nickname given to me by a college buddy) ended when Barron inexplicably got on Super-Hair.net’s email distribution list. Now the secret’s out. I am indeed a two-time winner of the prestigious “best curls” category in the annual Crown Awards.

I rehearsed my best fake “Who, me????” while watching Anne Hathaway at the Oscars, just in case the secret was leaked. My acceptance speech involved two people: my great-grandmother Libby Goldman, for passing along the red hair gene, and Juan at Satori Heights Salon in Houston, for finding a way to tame this mess.

Other than that, I’d like to also acknowledge all of the support and encouragement that has come my way as I attempted to make a better life for myself and my hair over the last 30 years.

That means you, strange old man on the elevator when I was touring Ohio University as a high school kid. “I’d rather be dead than red in the head,” you said. You made my 17-year-old heart sing! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

And you, the legions of do-gooders who made sure I knew that I could never be a contestant on “Millionaire Matchmaker” because the host hates two things: 1) red hair; and 2) curly hair. Hopes, crushed. Those sugar daddies don’t know what they’re missing. But thank you for correctly assuming I didn’t know this, and realizing how important it was that I did.

And I couldn’t have made it without YOU, middle-aged, bourbon-guzzling balding sports bar guy with your sage observations: “Spiral perms are stupid.” Hear, hear, my brother. Hear, hear.

Lest we not forget you, weird stammering guy striking up a conversation with, “Yea, uh, my sister has red hair.” Riveting exchange, and something I’ll never forget, especially the awkward silence that followed. So, THANK YOU for that.

And to you, the kid who sat behind me in ninth-grade Algebra and asked if I was “keeping a bird’s nest in there.” Your guidance and concern has helped shape me into the person I am today. XOXOXO.

I’m truly humbled, not only to have finally beaten that pesky Jennifer Beals this time around, but also to be sandwiched between a world-class tennis player and the reigning “It Girl” on the Super-Hair.net web site. Pinch me!

Who knew life could be this grand?

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Second base riddle: Altuve? Or DeShields? Or Paredes? (Answer: all three.)

The decision to move Jimmy Paredes back to second base, the position he’s played more than any other since his professional career began, has little to do with Jose Altuve, or Delino DeShields, or anyone occupying his old position at third base, for that matter.

Ballplayers are evaluated, discussed, scrutinized and sometimes moved around from the moment they join an organization. General manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff kept a close eye on Paredes, acquired a couple of years ago from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman trade, and decided the athletic infielder should move back to second base.

And that’s where he’ll play in the Minor Leagues. The general belief is Paredes will eventually be a mainstay in the Majors. The goal is to get the most out of him in the role he’s best suited for. That role, according to the club’s talent evaluators, is not third base.

When the decision was announced, questions immediately popped up regarding the futures of Altuve and DeShields. It made some wonder if moving Paredes is a direct reflection on the Astros’ confidence, or lack thereof, in Altuve’s abilities.

The answer is pretty simple, really. Decisions regarding Paredes have to do with Paredes, and only Paredes. This isn’t about Altuve or DeShields or any other middle infielders in the organization.

Baseball is unlike the other sports. There are many layers to an organization. Most players who are drafted — save for the very few Stephen Strasburg-like prodigies — won’t reach a big league field for three years, minimum. That’s why the Minor Leagues exist. They are designed to turn young, raw ballplayers into Major League contributors.

Hundreds of players comprise a Minor League system. Around four percent are actually prospects that will make it to the big leagues. Even fewer will last more than a couple of years.

The best organizations have talented players at every position throughout the system. They don’t look at their All-Star shortstop on the Major League level and shrug and say, “Well, looks like we don’t need any other good shortstops in our system.” A dozen roadblocks can mess up even the best plan. Injury. Inconsistency. Free agency. A can’t-miss prospect who gets to the big leagues and blows out his arm. Or finds out he can’t hit a Major League curveball.

Take the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain, for example. He was a sure-fire, can’t-miss star. Except, of course, that he’s not. First there was the elbow surgery. Now we hear that he has a possible career-ending ankle injury, born from a trampoline mishap.

More than a decade ago, Tim Redding blew through the Astros’ Minor League system with such force that most considered him a better pitcher than Roy Oswalt.

The only problem with that theory was that it was wrong. As it turned out, Redding lacked two things: maturity, and the ability to make adjustments when no Major League hitters were swinging at his 0-2 pitch. Or his 1-2 pitch. Or 2-2 and 3-2.

Staff ace? Not so much. Master of the 100-pitch-count-after-four-innings? Most definitely.

That’s why baseball teams are layered in such a way that gives them Plans B, C and even, in some cases, D and E. There are eight levels in the Minor Leagues. Prospects who go through the system endure a steady climb to the big leagues, some quicker than others. There are no guarantees the player who shows an enormous skill set in Rookie Ball will still have that going for him when he moves up to Double-A.

Altuve has less than a half-season of experience as a Major League second baseman. He shows great potential and will be at second base on Opening Day on April 6. Is he destined for a 10-year career? Is he a future All-Star?

DeShields was a first-round draft pick a couple of years ago and was converted from an outfielder to a second baseman. The Astros like his athleticism and speed and believe he has a future as a big league infielder. Does he?

The answer to both questions is a resounding…maybe. But who out there really knows, with 100 percent certainty?

Baseball organizations — the good ones — are about depth. Having too many good players in a system at one position is a good problem to have. Depth gives teams flexibility. It allows them have a strong Major League team that is built with home-grown players, while giving them trading chips when there’s a need in another area. It also allows teams to replenish the roster with talent when a player prices himself out of payroll parameters.

In certain circumstances, of course, adjustments have to be made. Lance Berkman became an outfielder around the same time Jeff Bagwell signed a long-term contract extension. Jonathan Singleton was clearly going nowhere as a first baseman in Philadelphia’s system, given its recent commitment to Ryan Howard through 2017. And that’s one of the reasons the Astros were able to trade for him.

Why were the Phillies able to land Hunter Pence in a blockbuster trade last year? Simple: they had the surplus of prospects to offer up. They had a solid farm system that was contributing in two ways: it produced Major League talent capable of getting to the World Series, with even more players available as trade bait to make the product at the very top that much more powerful.

If an organization has one good shortstop, or one good catcher, or one good second baseman, and no options coming through the Minor Leagues, well, that’s where you start to see “100” and “losses” used together in a sentence.

Depth is the single most important component of a healthy organization. Baseball teams cannot survive without it. So don’t fret over the Paredes/Altuve/DeShields conundrum. Be glad it’s here.

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Speaking of prospects, several Astros staff members and players involved with the 2011 Arizona Fall League championship team received rings for winning the AFL Championship.

The players: Jay Austin, Jason Castro, Jake Goebbert, Kody Hinze, Dallas Keuchel, Jason Stoffel, Josh Zeid and athletic trainer Eric Montague.

Photos from the ceremony:

Left to right: Dallas Keuchel, Jay Austin, Jason Stoffel, Josh Zeid, Steve Cobb (from the AFL), Jake Goebbert, Kody Hinze and athletic trainer Eric Montague.

MVPs: Jordan Scott, Austin Wates, Matt Duffy, Yonathan Mejia and
Emilio King

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Whoever gets my old seat in the press box better take tender loving care of it.

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I’m not asking for it to be sectioned off by purple velvet rope and declared an Astros shrine (although if you want to, who am I to stop you?), but I do hope whoever snags the area previously known as my press box seat will at least treat it as part of the family. Or, if that’s too much to ask, just appreciate it for what it is/was — the single best vantage point you’ll find at Minute Maid Park.

In my opinion, press box seats were better than Drayton’s comfy seats behind the plate, because when something happened on the field that made you want to roll your eyes and slap your forehead in disgust, it helped being tucked away in the press box, away from the cameras that could otherwise capture you in all of your exasperated glory.

Anyhoo, the dearly departed press box is being renamed the Astros Press Club, and by Opening Day next year, the venue will be fully functional and available to the public. (They’re taking orders now — read more about it here).

press club 2.jpgThis whole redesign thing has made me pretty nostalgic. After all, we’ve witnessed some pretty spectacular moments from those precious press box seats, ranging from historical (first World Series game ever played in Texas) to hysterical (Mike Hampton throwing Brad Ausmus a cookie of a pitch during Ausmus’ last game as an Astro, which Ausmus “muscled” to the first few rows of the Crawford Boxes).

But what moments were the most unforgettable? After doing a mental sweep of the last 11 seasons in this ballpark, two instances stand out to me more than any other.

Jeff Kent’s home run that ended Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS and gave the Astros a 3-2 lead in the series has to be one of the most memorable moments, ever. I just remember thinking how those types of plays in the postseason were so opposite from what we were used to in Houston. Not to knock the franchise, but let’s face it — at the time, the Astros were on their fifth postseason in eight years, and very little had gone right up until then.

So watching Kent throw off his helmet as he approached home plate, hold up his index finger and say to his ecstatic teammates, “One more” was just really awesome.

But even more than that game (or Chris Burke’s 18th inning walkoff the next year), there was only one time, as memory serves, where I actually said out loud, “This is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever watched here.” And that happened while we were watching Lance Berkman lob home run after home run over the Crawford Box seats, over the facade behind the seats, and out of the ballpark during the Home Run Derby during the 2004 All-Star week.

I know it was a meaningless event in terms of standings and playoffs, which really are the only things that ultimately matter to ballplayers. And I would never suggest this was the best moment, or the most impactful. But watching Berkman in such a groove, doing his thing in front of 42,000 screaming hometown fans, was something I’ll never forget. I think it was the second round where he really started going off, and at some point, a few of us in the press box just had to sit back and laugh because of the wonderful absurdity of it all. The baseballs were actually leaving the ballpark, one after another after another after another. For a while, it seemed like Lance was going to be able to sustain that pace until the next morning.

So while it wasn’t as impactful as the postseason clutch home runs or as emotional as Craig Biggio’s 3,000th hit or as entertaining as watching Jimy Williams kick dirt on home plate while jawing with the umps, the 2004 Home Run Derby gets put in a separate category to be filed under Things I’ll Never, Ever Forget.

Now let’s hear from you. Was there one moment at Minute Maid Park that stood out to you more than any other?

That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the most exciting game, or a game that was historic for one reason or another. Maybe it was the first game you went to with your kids. Or a game where you caught a foul ball. Or a game that Junction Jack laid a big furry kiss on you. Whatever the game, whatever the circumstance…what is your best memory?

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In today’s From the Photo Vault segment, we step back in time to Spring Training 2006, when the Astros hosted a bunch of kids for their Read Across America program. The event takes place on March 2 every year, Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and celebrates the simple joy and importance of kids reading books.

Dr. Seuss is obviously the inspiration behind the program, a notion clearly not lost on Fernando Nieve, Chad Qualls or Steve Sparks.

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 Or Milo.

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Wishing luck to Puma and Roy, sort of. And Minute Maid gets a facelift.

Random thoughts as I rejoin the living after seven glorious days of doing absolutely nothing (other than catching up on sleep, watching the playoffs and enjoying dinner with Milo)…

1. Reds vs. Phils: Rooting for the Reds, for Roy, for the underdog, for Lidge. Yes, I’m conflicted. And exhausted.

A lot of you have asked who I was going to pull for in the Reds-Phillies division series and I honestly had no idea how I was going to feel until I actually sat down to watch the games. After a while, it became pretty clear I was pulling for Cincinnati, with the exception of Game 2, which Roy Oswalt started last Friday in Philly.

I parked myself on a stool my favorite Mexican restaurant and hoped for the best for Oswalt, but I also groaned along with the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area every time the Reds bumbled and fumbled and gave the game away to the Phillies (whom I was not rooting for, only because they’ve been there many, many times in the last few years and won it all in 2008.)

I guess you could say I suffered from multiple personality disorder through the duration of the Reds and Phillies series. Mad when Roy gave up a run, and mad when the Phillies scored. It reminded me of the 2003 World Series — I couldn’t root for the Yankees, because, well, you just don’t do that. But I really didn’t want Marlins fans, who drew about 7,000 per game for most of the season, to get a taste of World Series victory either. So I pouted the entire week and called it a wash.

Now, about Puma’s Yankees. I truly want Lance Berkman to get a hit every time he comes to the plate, but I just cannot, and will not, root for his team. Again, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel once I actually sat down to watch the Twins-Yankees series. It didn’t take long for me to realize which way I was leaning. I was completely disgusted when the series ended without the Twins getting one stinking win. I turned the TV off and tossed the remote control, so clearly, Puma’s presence on this Yankees club didn’t do much to sway me.

Because I like the underdog and root for parity in baseball, I am not rooting for a Yankees-Phillies World Series. We just watched that last year. As far as what I’ll do if it comes down to Oswalt vs. Berkman in a Game 7 situation, I’d do what any good FOR (Friend of Roy) or FOP (Friend of Puma) would do — hide under the bed and hope it ends quickly.

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2. Call Weezie. We’re movin’ on up.

So you’ve probably heard by now that the plans for Minute Maid Park renovations for 2011 include moving the press box up a level. In truth, this is hardly shocking news, considering we always knew we were on borrowed time in our current digs. The press box at Minute Maid Park provides the best vantage point you’ll find in any of the 30 ballparks, and quite frankly, it’s a view that would be an attractive draw for fans who pay to come to the games, not reporters who get paid to be there.

So we’re moving up a level, where the broadcasters live. That will require reporters and your friendly neighborhood blogger to climb an extra 15 steps per game to get there. No disrespect to my esteemed colleagues, but a little uphill exercise is probably not going to kill us, and over the course of 81 games, it might even prove beneficial. (It reminds me of one of my favorite athlete-scribe exchanges. Slumping superstar, to portly reporter: “Maybe next time, you should mix in a salad.” Portly reporter: “Maybe next time, you should mix in an RBI.”)  

Anyhoo, back to the press box. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the broadcast level, either to hang out with Brownie and J.D. or to track down Ed Wade, whose booth is also on that level. The view from up there is not only suitable for work purposes, it gives a much broader perspective of the seats, field and dugouts. It’s a great view and still one of the best seats in the house.

Trust me, it could be worse. Much, much, much worse. Try finding some of the press boxes we visit on the road. A few — not all, but a few — are located at the very top, so high that you actually are looking down at the patrons who bought the five dollar nosebleeds. To be honest, I don’t mind those high-up press boxes, but for broadcasters, it’s a nightmare. You lose all sense of depth perception, and every routine pop up to the second baseman looks, upon contact, like it could be a home run. Thankfully, we don’t have that problem in Houston.

These days, press box placement isn’t such a big deal for beat writers anyway. Here’s our dirty little secret: we watch most of the games on the five-second delayed TV broadcasts.

In the old days, beat writers were responsible for an 800 word game story and a few dot-dot-dot notes at the bottom of the game story (known as “gamers.”) In today’s era of the internet, where there are no deadlines or space limitations, covering a game (I speak as a former beat writer for MLB.com) includes 800-900 word notes packages, sidebars if there’s really big news (key player injuries, trades, controversies, etc.), a gamer and a preview for the next day’s game. Add to that tweeting, blogging and surfing our competition’s web sites to see what stories we’re being beaten on, and we are pretty much occupied throughout the duration of the game.

Subsequently, we catch most of the action on one of the five or six TVs that hang in the front of the press box and show the broadcast five seconds after it happens in real time.

It goes something like this: innings one through three, reporter hastily transcribes tape from pregame interviews and writes, non-stop, in an effort to get the notebook filed by the fourth inning. With barely enough time to look up from computer screen, reporter depends on sounds to dictate important moments during the game.

1) Hear crack of bat. 2) Hear crowd react. 3) Look up at TV and find out what happened. 4) Look back down at computer. 5) Keep typing. 6) Hear another crack of bat. 7) Look up in time to watch player run down the baseline. 8) Look up at TV to see what pitch was thrown.

Rinse, repeat.

What does this all mean? It’s simple. Where I’m watching the game isn’t as crucial as the quality of the television broadcast. So the only thing I’m really hoping for is that the Astros chuck the old TVs that were installed when the ballpark opened and replace them with shiny new HD versions in our shiny new press box.

(Years ago I vowed never to write about things the fans don’t care about, and this rambling blurb has already broken that vow. So I’ll end the press box conversation here.)

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Meanwhile, the new scoreboard sounds pretty cool. I’ve had the great fortune of checking out a bunch of the gigantic HD scoreboards in other ballparks like Atlanta and Kansas City, and I’m pretty excited that we’re going to have something similar in our ballpark. The Astros are in need of some upgrades in that area, especially if they can’t even get replacement parts for the old one anymore. The size of the new one appears to be just right — large enough to make an impact, but not too big that it’ll be a distraction.

Here is a rendering of the new scoreboard, and an illustration of how it compares to the size of the old one:

New:

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Old:

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3. Miscellany:

* We’re still waiting for Jeff Bagwell to make his decision about returning as hitting coach. Even though he’s been offered a two-year contract, if he wanted to come back on a one-year deal only, I sense the team would be OK with that. But I haven’t talked to Bagwell and I don’t know if that’s what it will take for him to return. So we wait. And hope.

* I was really happy to see the Astros extend Brad Mills’ contract by picking up the ’12 option and adding an option year for ’13. That was a mere formality; there was no way the manager was going have less job security than the coaching staff, which is signed through ’12. Wade all but solidified that last month when he said as far as he’s concerned, he’s hired his last manager. Mills did a tremendous job this year and I think we all saw what happened as soon as he was given a younger, less experienced but more enthusiastic club in the second half.

* I was terribly sad to watch Billy Wagner leave with an injury Friday night during the Braves-Giants game. An injury of that severity, at this point of the season, probably means he has thrown his last Major League pitch. Every professional athlete will tell you ending a career with an injury is one of their worst nightmares. Wagner has steadfastly held onto his insistence that he’s really, truly done after this season, and it’ll take something short of a miracle to recover from a pulled side muscle quickly enough to pitch in the World Series, if the Braves make it that far.

Every player wants to go out on his own terms, and Wags came so close to doing so. It’s a shame to see it end like this.

* Our friends in Round Rock are finding ways to keep the ballpark lively during the offseason. If you like live music, wine and/or baseball, click here.

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From the photo vault:

Here we have former starting pitcher Wade Miller, who had just made a play on softly-hit grounder back to the mound. He bends, fields, and throws to ….no one.


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On Bagwell, Berkman, LeBron and Scott Sullivan.

Jeff Bagwell reflected upon his first day on the job as the Astros’ hitting coach with a touch of humor, threatening to pull a LeBron James while also revealing an interesting exchange with Lance Berkman.

The Astros hit enough Friday night to beat the Pirates, against whom they’re 7-0 this year, their best record against the Bucs to begin a season. Jeff Keppinger came up with a clutch homer and Humberto Quintero had two nice hits, but Berkman, who said before the game Bagwell was kind of like the dad you didn’t want to make mad, went 0-for-4.

“He disappointed me tonight,” Bagwell said, joking. “He got no hits.”

Apparently, Berkman found solace in this by bringing up a somewhat sore subject with Bagwell — his hitless streak against a former Reds right-hander named Scott Sullivan.

Sullivan had a nice career with the Reds, pitching the better part of nine seasons in middle relief. Not a headline grabber but certainly a decent pitcher in his own right. But he has one claim to fame — Bagwell absolutely, positively, could not hit him.

When side-armer Sullivan would run in from the bullpen, “I used to tell Dirk,” Bagwell said, referring to former manager Larry Dierker, “‘You’re really going to send me up there again?'”

And again, and again. In fact, Sullivan faced Bagwell more times in his career than any other player, ever.

Bagwell had 31 official plate appearances versus Sullivan, including 24 at-bats. And zero hits. If you look up “Sullivan vs. batters” on the Baseball Reference page,  every hitter whom Sullivan ever faced is listed, and Bagwell is first, because his batting average against the former Reds righty is exactly .000. Bagwell has one RBI — via a sac fly — and has drawn six walks off Sullivan, three of which were intentional.

Bagwell’s success — or lack thereof — against Sullivan was so well-known back in the day that Berkman not only still remembers, but still uses it to get Bagwell’s goat.

“He just wanted to make me feel bad,” Bagwell said. “I said, ‘That’s about as low as you can go right there.'”

This was all in jest, of course. Bagwell, who is mindful of the good work Sean Berry did during his long tenure as the Astros’ hitting coach, is doing his best to deflect the attention from himself as the Astros try to salvage what they can during the second half of the season.

But Bagwell did acknowledge his “quick” start.

“I’m retiring,” he said. “I’m 1-0. I’m leaving. I’m going to play for the Heat.”

(Bagwell talks after his first game as hitting coach…click here)

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News and notes from Astros camp:

Felipe Paulino had a setback recently and it appears the tendinitis in his shoulder has flared up again. He’s flying back to Houston to have an MRI and will not make his scheduled start against the Cubs on Tuesday.

Also, righty Brian Moehler has been placed on the 15-day DL with a strained right groin, which he suffered during his last start before the All-Star break. Moehler’s DL stint will be backdated to July 8 and he will be eligible to return on July 23, when the team returns to Houston.

That will clear a roster spot for whomever the Astros decide to start in Paulino’s place on Tuesday.

Why is this man smiling?

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The running joke about Lance Berkman — actually, it’s not a joke, come to think of it — is that he loves Texas so much he really prefers to never leave the state unless he absolutely has to.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but there’s little question about Berkman’s emotional attachment to his home state. He loves Texas, loves being in Texas and prefers to be home in Texas rather than out of town, no matter how nice the city where he’s traveling might be.

But as we know, Berkman’s job takes him on the road quite a bit, so staying within the friendly confines of the Texas State lines 365 days a year isn’t an option. Astros road trips are all pretty much the same to him, but there are a few road ballparks he likes more than others. In those terms, count Milwaukee as one of his preferred destinations.

If you talk to media people and broadcasters about their favorite cities to visit when the team travels, the conversation invariably centers around hotels, press boxes and press box food. For players, the needs are about the same — all you have to do is swap out “press box” for “clubhouse.”

Restaurants, night life and shopping are all well and good, but during the grind of a long season, ballplayers like to keep things simple. Give ‘em a visiting clubhouse with a comfortable couch, a large movie selection and a decent postgame spread, and, for the most part, they’re happy.

That’s why players like coming to Milwaukee. The facility is first rate and the sprawling clubhouse provides a comfortable place to hang out in the hours leading up to gametime.

And the logistics could not be better. In most ballparks, the clubhouse and the dugout are connected by a long tunnel that winds around and may or may not involve a stairwell. Regardless, there is usually a short walk involved. In Milwaukee, the door to the clubhouse literally opens right into the dugout. This makes is convenient for players to go back and forth during batting practice and games without having to worry about missing anything.

“In terms of the position to the dugout and the amenities, I think it’s the best clubhouse in the National League,” Berkman said.

(Watch the full behind-the-scenes clubhouse tour and the Berkman interview here)

Night games begin around 7 p.m., but many members of a Major League traveling party will start rolling in as early as noon. Those hours are usually exclusive to the coaching staff and manager, but plenty of players are arrive early as well.

Typically, players start to make their way to the ballpark around 2 or so, but in cities where there’s not much to do (Milwaukee would be one of those cities), players might arrive even earlier. The might want to look at film or take in some early hitting, or they simply might be going a little stir crazy in their hotel rooms.

When you have the plush surroundings of the visitors’ clubhouse at Miller Park at your disposal, why not hang out there instead?

Berkman doesn’t normally go to ballparks early, but he’d probably concede that Milwaukee is one place that’s far more appealing than his hotel room. And the food’s pretty good, too.

“The postgame spread — after the game you’re at the mercy of the clubhouse guys,” Berkman said. “You want a place that feeds you well. A lot of guys are into things like movies, and games. This place has plenty of movies and games. If you wanted to come here at noon, you can eat lunch and watch a movie before batting practice. If you took a poll of most players, this would rate really high just in terms of amenities in the National League.”

It’s hard to describe without visuals, so when the team was on the field taking batting practice, I snuck in to take some video footage of the clubhouse.

Here’s what we’re talking about:

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Hands down, the best couches in the league. Berkman: “You’ve got to stay away from those as much as possible because you don’t want to get yourself into a comatose state before the game.” (Feel free to fire away with the snarky comments. Yes, I am aware of the Astros’ position in the NL Central standings.)

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More reasons why baseball is not like football.

Through the first two days of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, I’ve heard from a lot of you regarding the Astros’ picks. A lot of you have raised questions as to why they’re drafting certain positions and what that might mean for some of the Astros players on the current Major League roster.

I’ve also heard of some questionable commentary on local radio shows that I find to be somewhat disconcerting. These comments seems to be fueling public confusion about how the team views its current big league players.

Baseball is unique from the other major sports in that it takes, typically, a few years before the draftees can make an impact on the Major League level (Stephen Strasburg, obviously, is the exception). In football and basketball, the returns are immediate. Baseball is a longer process.

The players who the Astros draft this week simply have absolutely nothing to do with the job security of the players currently playing at the big league level.

One talk show host insinuated that the Astros’ decision to draft Delino DeShields Jr. as their first pick somehow indicates Michael Bourn has a limited future with the Astros. This line of thinking is just absurd. First of all, the Astros envision DeShields as a second baseman (although he will play center this year), and even if he was honed as a center fielder, that has absolutely nothing to do with Bourn. DeShields has a lot of development ahead of him before he can think about the big leagues. Bourn is a star whom the Astros are not interested in dealing.

Healthy Major League organizations have deep, deep farm systems. They have several players at each position who could potentially impact the team on the big league level. They go into Spring Training with a log jam all over the field, and several players who are good enough to be on the team aren’t, simply because there are more capable and experienced players ahead of them on the depth chart.

When the Astros’ farm system was rated No. 1 by just about everyone several years ago, they had too many pitchers qualified to make the rotation coming out of Spring Training. There were times I’d look at the spring roster and think, “where are they going to put everyone?” Then, inevitably, there would be injuries, or players who slumped terribly, or supposed up-and-comers who flamed out halfway through the season. And there was usually a stud prospect who was given a shot, and performed well. I remember in 1998, Richard Hidalgo was by far the best outfielder in the organization. And he was shipped to Triple-A before Spring Training ended.

That’s where the Astros are trying to get back to. They appear to be on the right track, but I encourage you to not put too much stock into what positions these young players are being drafted as. Think about it: Lance Berkman was drafted as a first baseman. Even Puma thought he didn’t have much of a chance to be drafted by the Astros because they obviously had a mainstay in Jeff Bagwell at first, and in 1997 he was hands down one of the best first basemen in baseball and in the prime of his career.

So what if the Astros had decided to pass on Puma, because of Bagwell? Instead, they converted Berkman into an outfielder, and he performed a lot better than the club had envisioned. Then he took over at first when Bagwell’s shoulder gave out five years after Berkman was drafted.

In ’97, the Astros drafted the best player available, and that player was Berkman. I think we can agree the returns have been off the charts.

Prospects can change positions. Some of you have noticed the Astros selected several catchers on Tuesday. Those catchers can easily become third basemen, or first basemen, or some other position down the road. They can also become catchers. While we’re all very optimistic about Jason Castro, we don’t know for sure what he’ll be. There are also no guarantees that he won’t get hurt.

Depth. Its importance cannot be underestimated.

And also, keep in mind prospects are extremely valuable to an organization when it needs trade chips to get that one player who can make a difference in a contending season. It’s all about stockpiling, and if the Astros have too many good players at one position, that’s a great problem to have. It’s what got them to the postseason six times in 10 years, and it’s what will get them there again.  

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Tough times for Astros as the losses pile up.

I probably don’t need to say this out loud, because you can probably figure this out on your own, but the Astros clubhouse was silent after Saturday’s loss in Cincinnati. The kind of silence that usually sparks the old cliche “You could hear a pin drop.” Almost two months into the season, the team continues to search for answers, and it’s doubly frustrating now, because not only is the offense continuing to sputter, but the pitching is failing them as well.

Tough times for the Astros, for sure. They used to dominate in Cincinnati, rarely losing here for the better part of a decade, whether they were playing at the old Riverfront Stadium (known in its later years as Cinergy Field) or at the newer Great American Ball Park. Now, they’re on a nine-game losing streak in Cincinnati, which only a couple of years ago would seem impossible, considering Roy Oswalt’s and Lance Berkman’s absolute dominance at this place and against this team.

The Astros are struggling, no doubt, and it didn’t help that they ran into a red-hot Reds team that seemingly can do no wrong. They’ve absolutely pummeled your Astros in the last two days, having outscored them 27-8.

Brian Moehler took full responsibility for the loss and didn’t tip toe around the obvious.

“My location was just terrible,” he said. “I left some balls over the plate and they didn’t miss them. I felt completely fine, but I just had poor location.”

So now it’s up to Felipe Paulino. Now would be the perfect time to get that first win of the season. A complete game would help, too. Just sayin’.

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Not a lot to laugh about these days, but I did get a kick out of this image before batting practice. Oswalt might just have found a new career once he’s gotten this pitching thing out of his system:

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Note to self: More pictures of Pence in plaid pastels.

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Plenty of reactions poured in after we posted this picture on Twitter of Hunter Pence and his stylish sport coat he wore to the Pink in the Park Brunch and Bazaar on Thursday:

Many of you liked it, many did not. But I was struck by the number of comments that arrived in the form of “So-and-so called. He wants his blazer back.”

The complete listing of so-and-so’s:

Milo.
Craig Sager.
Tim Meadows (so he has something to wear in The Ladies Man 2).
Walt Frazier.
Buddy Holly.
The 1970s
Jim Deshaies (who has a similar eyesore called the “Guaranteed Win Jacket”).
Deion Sanders.

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Braves closer Billy Wagner has been gone from the Astros for seven years, but he still has close ties to several in the organization. As he made his rounds through Astros territory during batting practice Friday, he said to former teammate and current hitting coach Sean Berry, “I announced my retirement today. I’m done.”

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I thought he was kidding, and I’m pretty sure Sean did too, initially. Apparently, Billy’s serious. He told Bobby Cox he’s done after this year, regardless of whether he reaches his goal of 400 saves (he’s currently sitting on 387).

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While I’ve been all over the country throughout my years working for or covering the Astros, I haven’t done a whole lot of international travel. In fact, most of my times crossing any  borders have been work-related, and very sporadic — a few roadies to Montreal in the late 1990s and Spring Training exhibition trips to Venezuela (2001) and Mexico City (2004).

I’m about to add the Dominican Republic to the list and even though it’ll be a really quick trip, I’m looking forward to finally seeing it for myself.

The Astros are officially opening their brand new Dominican Academy in Boca Chica on May 10, and I’ll be tagging along with the front office contingent for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration. The Academy has been up and running for a while, with approximately 35 players currently preparing for their season, which is scheduled to begin at the end of May.

At the opener, the Astros will play the Phillies’ Dominican Summer League club in a five-inning exhibition game following the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Not sure how much live Tweeting I’ll be able to do down there from my cell phone, but we’ll post plenty of pictures and videos in the blog soon after our return later that evening.

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Injury update:

Chris Johnson (strained rib cage) has been hitting off a tee and hopes to start hitting in the cage in the near future. He still feels the pull in his midsection but says he’s making decent progress. Johnson is eligible to come off the DL on May 4.

Lance Berkman was held out of Friday’s game after tweaking his groin during his last at-bat on Thursday. Manager Brad Mills is hopeful Puma will be able to play Saturday. With two day games scheduled for this road trip, Mills opted to give Berkman the night game off with hopes he can finish out the series in Atlanta.

Wandy Rodriguez tested out his sore back with a short throwing session with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg before batting practice and appears to be on track to start Saturday. Wandy was scratched from the opener in Atlanta when he came down with back spasms before the final game of the homestand.

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Sights from a beautiful spring evening at Turner Field:

Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence

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Pedro Feliz, Tommy Manzella

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The gigantic JumboTron in the outfield

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Lee leans.

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Pitchers stretch.

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Humberto Quintero.  

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