Results tagged ‘ Larry Dierker ’

Flashback Friday preview: climbing mountains with Astros legends.

During an Astros road trip to Montreal in 1999, I tagged along with Larry Dierker and Bill Brown for a hike up the locally famous tourist attraction called Mount Royal.

Mount Royal is a mountain, yes, but it has a convenient hiking trail that provides a simple pathway from the bottom to the top that allows you to either jog or walk, depending on your level of fitness.

What you probably can’t tell from your television screen is that Brownie, in his mid-60s, is in the physical shape of a 30-year-old. He’s the model of fitness, a workout fanatic with tree trunks for legs who can hang with men half his age. So Mount Royal, for the then 50-ish Brownie, was a cinch.

I was, at the time, in my mid-20s and still somewhat spry, but I had pretty much decided this trek up the mountain would be done as a walker, not a runner.

And then there was Dierker. He was always an athletic type — tall, lanky, fit — but at this time, only about two months had passed since he had the scary grand mal seizure in the dugout that eventually necessitated complicated brain surgery. Dierker was cleared to go back to work a month after surgery, but the notion of him climbing Mount Royal, this soon after his ordeal, had me a little worried.

Our trio looked something like this: Brownie, happily galloping, semi-full speed, up the steps. Me, walking rigorously, looking behind me every 4.5 seconds to make sure Dierk hadn’t face-planted. And Dierk, carefree as always, keeping up pace, showing no hint of the health episode that thankfully didn’t end catastrophically.

There was a little deli store at the top of the mountain, and after our climb, the three of us stopped for a tuna sandwich. Dierk grinned as he recalled a time, during his broadcasting years decades earlier, when he ran into a former teammate on his way up the mountain. I recently asked Dierk to recount that meeting, because it has to do with a former Astro who will soon be in town to celebrate another Flashback Friday at Minute Maid Park.

“I saw this odd-looking big guy coming down the hill, wearing an orange sweatshirt, blue sweat pants and knee-high yellow socks pulled up over his pants,” Dierk said. “He had a towel around his neck and was holding both ends as he ran.”

It was Rusty Staub, then an outfielder for the Montreal Expos.

“Rusty,” Dierk said. “What the heck are you doing. You might be playing tonight. How can you run up and down this hill and still play?”

“Oh, I didn’t run up.” Staub said.  “I just like to loosen up by running down. I took a taxi to the top. I do it all the time.”

That was Staub in a nutshell: eccentric, a little odd, entirely his own man. Dierker remembers Staub as different from the get-go, interested in things other ballplayers didn’t care about, like making business connections and cooking. Dierker also remembers Staub as a stickler for detail, which translated into greatness as a hitter.

“The hitting stats speak for themselves, but they don’t tell you that he had an outfield arm that was just short of Roberto Clemente,” Dierker recalled. “The only thing he couldn’t do was steal bases.  He was a barely fast enough to play the outfield.”

The red-headed Staub, nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” in French-speaking Montreal, debuted for the Colt .45s in 1963 at the age of 19. He played six years for the Houston franchise and, like Dierker, was a part of the first team to play for the newly-named Astros in the Astrodome when it opened in 1965. Staub went on to play for the Expos, Mets, Tigers and Rangers and was a six-time All-Star during his 23-year career. He’s considered to be the Expos first bona fide superstar, but for folks around here, he’ll always be remembered for where he started — Houston.

Staub will throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Friday, May 4, the same day the Astros roll out their second throwback uniform. In April, they wore the Colt .45s garb. In May, they’ll don the 1960s shooting star jerseys. Two dates are targeted: May 4 and May 18.

Next up: the shooting star jerseys (center) from the 1960s.

Staub transitioned into philanthropy following his playing career. Today, the Rusty Staub Foundation raises money for the Emergency Food Pantries, which serves families facing a shortage of food in each of the five boroughs of New York City. The pantries distribute more than a million nutritious meals every year.

Staub’s pending appearance at Minute Maid Park should provide another fantastic trip down memory lane as the Astros continue their year-long celebration of 50 years of baseball in Houston. The remaining ceremonial first pitches are as follows:

May 18 vs. TEX: Nolan Ryan
June 1 vs. CIN: J.R. Richard
June 22 vs. CLE: Joe Morgan
July 6 vs. MIL: Jose Cruz
July 27 vs. PIT: Mike Scott
Aug. 10 vs. MIL: Jeff Bagwell
Aug. 17 vs. ARI: Brad Ausmus
Aug. 31 vs. CIN: Shane Reynolds
Sept. 14 vs. PHI: Jeff Kent
Sept. 21 vs. PIT: Craig Biggio

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In Dierker’s day, there was no pageantry for throwing a complete game. It was part of the job.

As is the case with just about everything in life, nothing stays the same forever.

Times change. Trends change. Hairstyles, clothing, music (and the devices by which we listen to that music) all change.

Baseball has changed as well, even if the differences aren’t as glaring as the contrast between bell bottoms and leisure suits in the 1970s and parachute pants and sky-high bangs in the ’80s. Baseball has changed in more subtle ways, due in large part to the escalation of salaries paid to players these days.

Pitchers arms are worth, essentially, millions. Like any other valuable asset, the rightsholders to those arms are protective of their commodity. In turn, the rightsholders — also known as Major League organizations — often treat those arms with kid gloves, careful to not overuse or abuse the investment.

A couple of generations ago, on the other hand, pitching was viewed not so much as a science as it was a responsibility. Starting pitchers, quite simply, were supposed to finish what they started. Specialized relief pitchers — lefty specialists, setup men, setup men to the setup men — were largely unheard of. If you pitched the first inning, you were also expected to pitch the ninth. It didn’t always work out that way, of course — it’s not like bullpens are a new thing — but there was a sense of pride with a starting pitcher, and a sense of failure when he wasn’t still on the mound for the last out.

Larry Dierker debuted as a Houston Colt .45 on Sept. 22, 1964, his 18th birthday. He was done as a pitcher by age 30, largely due to the wear and tear on a right arm that endured 2,333 Major League innings.

Dierker retired in 1977 after a brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals. When he left the Astros, he held a record that still stands today: 106 complete games. It’s likely a record that may never be broken. That’s not because the Astros will never have another pitcher who could show that kind of endurance. It’s just that those pitchers won’t be allowed to finish that many games. Their arms are too expensive. Why take the risk?

Pedro Martinez, arguably the most dominant pitcher of his generation, recorded 46 complete games during his stellar 18-year career. Greg Maddux, also in a class of his own through the 1990s, recorded 109 complete games — over 23 years. By contrast, Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, whose career lasted 21 years from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, recorded a whopping 382 complete games, well over half of his 665 career starts.

Dierker wasn’t in the same class as Spahn, of course, but they came from the same old-school style of pitching: you start what you finish, or you didn’t do your job.

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The one season Dierker spent with the Cardinals was the only time he spent away from the Astros. After retirement, he worked for the ticket office for a spell. Then he moved up to the broadcast booth, where he spent nearly two decades as an announcer. He was hired to manage the Astros in 1997, and after that five-year run ended, he slowly worked his way back into the fold as a good will ambassador for the team. All of the alumni functions that have taken place over the last decade are largely due to his leadership.

Dierker threw out the first pitch before the game on Friday, a day when the Astros wore the same Colt .45s uniforms Dierker sported during his debut all of those years ago. Many former players will be honored throughout the 50th anniversary celebration this year, but no one has given more time, knowledge and loyalty to this organization than Dierker.

It’s always nice to see “Sluggo” at the ballpark. Enjoy the images of his  first pitch, along with other highlights from the day that was:

Dierker, during an introduction by PA announcer Bob Ford.

Dierker throws the ceremonial first pitch to manager Brad Mills.

Batting practice: a relaxed Carlos Lee watches from behind the cage.

Jordan Schafer records a promo video for the Astros, wearing a boa and playing some sort of accordion device. (Yes, really.)

The Astros celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on Friday, their first day back after a week-long road trip. They honored Hall of Famer and Houston resident Monte Irvin during the ceremony.

Donning the Colt .45s uniform, J.D. Martinez signs autographs before the game.

As was the case the first time they wore the retro uniforms on April 10, the Astros were digging the stirrups. Lucas Harrell proudly sported his both days.

In honor of Jackie Robinson Day, kids ran on the field when the players took their positions. Here's Chris Johnson making a new friend.

And Chris Snyder, doing the same behind the plate.

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The stars come out to celebrate the Astros/Colt .45s big birthday.

Two former Colt .45s: Jimmy Wynn and Bob Aspromonte

It’s probably a good thing that the Colt .45s changed their name to the Astros after three years, if only because “Aspro the Colt” just doesn’t have the same cool ring to it as “Aspro the Astro.”

Bob Aspromonte, an original Colt .45 and an original Astro, was in uniform as the starting third baseman 50 years ago when Major League Baseball was born in Houston. It’s only fitting that he was the guest of honor for a slew of activities on Tuesday, the exact 50th anniversary of the first game the Colt .45s played as a National League franchise.

Aspromonte headlined the introduction of the Astros new Walk of Fame, recently installed on the sidewalk of Texas Ave. near Crawford St. The original inductees include Aspromonte, all of the Astros retired numbers (Jim Umbricht, Don Wilson, Jose Cruz, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio), plus broadcasters Gene Elston and Milo Hamilton.

Aspromonte was voted by a panel of experts as the best Houston player of the 1960s. The Astros will unveil the best player from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s on a month-by-month basis beginning in May and their names to the Walk of Fame.

Video from the Walk of Fame induction:

Photo album:

Aspromonte, Dierker, Cruuuuuuz

Aspromonte spoke glowingly of the Astrodome, which opened in 1965. It was obviously a gigantic step up from the old Colt Stadium, where Aspro played the first three years of his Houston baseball career.

Cruz next to his Walk of Fame plaque

Group shot: front: Elston, Wynn. Back: Cruz, Aspromonte, Dierker, Hamilton.

Aspromonte's Walk of Fame plaque

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Houston franchise, the Astros wore the Colt .45s jerseys during their game with the Braves. The club also honored several living members of that inaugural team that began a new era of baseball on April 10, 1962: Carl Warwick, Hal Smith, Al Spangler, Bob Bruce and Aspromonte. Also introduced: Rick Cagney, one of the original bat boys for the 1962 team; Elston, the first broadcaster for the ’45s, and Rene Cardenas, who broadcast both Colt .45s and Astros games in Spanish.

Warwick, Smith, Spangler, Bruce, Aspromonte, Cagney

Cardenas

Brad Mills greets Aspromonte and the Colt .45s alumni before the ceremonial first pitch.

Aspromonte throws the pitch. It was indeed a strike.

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Upon entering the clubhouse earlier in the day, players were sized for their Colt .45s cap that they were to wear during the game (they’ll wear the same uniforms on April 20 on the first official Flashback Friday). They also were given a sneak peek at the stirrups the Colt .45s wore 50 years ago.

I’m sure these strirrups were innovative and super-hip in the 1960s, but today, they’re a little funky. Judging from the players’ continued willingness to keep wearing the high socks, though, you have to assume funky can still be a good thing, even today.

Lucas Harrell was digging his stirrups.

Jose Altuve

Junction Jack

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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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TV/Radio bonanza: Brett, Dave, Brownie, J.D., Milo and a bunch of programming notes. The band’s back together.

Today, we start with the transcript from Tuesday’s chat session with our intrepid skipper, Brad Mills

Q: How will such new young talented players adjust together in such short time? in other words, how important is finding a good rhythm?

Brad Mills: Early on, we addressed the need for a cohesive bond and a lot of times with these young players, they do just that. This particular group has bought into that way of thinking and they’ve done a very good job of coming together so far. We think they definitely will continue.

Q: What was the determining factor in naming Myers the closer? Experience? Stats? Desire?

Mills: All of the above, really. We had to make sure that he was as excited about it as we were. When he said he was excited, that was probably the most determining factor. There’s been so many successful closers that have been starters in the past that have turned into really good closers. It helps that he has already been a closer and did well with it.

Q: How fired up is Bud Norris this year? What have been your thoughts on his pitching?

Mills: He’s throwing the ball really well. He has concentrated on a lot of his secondary pitches so far and is developing them quicker than maybe even expected.

Q: Will we see any major rotations or changes in the outfield or infield coming soon?

Mills: There’s going to be changes in the rotation, with Myers leaving and then needing a fifth starter. The infield, we’re going to have a few changes, but nothing drastic yet. The competition we’ve had this spring has really opened our eyes to a lot of good things that have happened to our organization over the past year.

Q: what did you see (on Tuesday) that you liked?

Mills: Livan (Hernandez) stood out. He threw the ball absolutely outstanding. I’m knocking on wood that our defense continues to be very solid. And anytime you hit a walkoff home run, like Brian Bixler did, that’s pretty significant.

Q: Are coaches decisions or a managers decision based on stats solely? Do you ever use your gut?

Mills: I always use my gut, but ignoring stats is ignorant. You have to use everything.

Q: What is the daily routine of a ball player at Spring Training?

Mills: The days are long once we start playing games. Players are usually at the ballpark by 7 in the morning. They have a routine of hitters hitting in the cage, they have their time slots between 7 and 9. Others have early work on the field starting at 8:30. The coaches meeting is at 8 and then we go through a full workout up until lunch. We take lunch and then play a game. That is a full day.

Q: What is the team spirit like after a 6-4 start (after Tuesday’s win)?

Mills: It’s very good right now after the last two wins. Last night’s win and today were both outstanding games, very close games that we won at the end. Anytime we have those types of games it brings a little team bonding. The one thing about this group is they’ve handled themselves extremely well all spring. The effort in doing the things we can control has been very good. That’s been one of the things we’ve emphasized the most.

Q: Are you finding younger picthers recover quicker or about the same?

Mills: Mostly, the same. The one thing veteran pitchers know is how to go about their workload so they are able to recover in a timely manner.

Q: What will these players need to accomplish to make it to the playoffs?

Mills: We have to continue to improve. They’ve shown good progression so far in a short time and we’ll have to continue to do that. There’s a lot of talent here and given those capabilities, that is our objective.

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TV/Radio notes:

* Popular television broadcasters Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies, who not long ago were enshrined into the fictitious MLB bobblehead Hall of Fame, are en route to Florida and will be with the Astros for a full week. They will be in town, of course, to broadcast the Astros’ game on FS Houston on March 20, but they are also going to be given a little time on the radio as well. From what I understand, J.D. will join Dave Raymond in the booth on Saturday when the team plays the Yankees in Tampa, and Brownie will pair with Brett Dolan on Friday for the Astros’ visit to Orlando to play the Braves.

(FYI, bobblehead HOF worthiness is based solely on how much the bobblehead actually resembles the actual person. On a sliding scale, with a score of one being the lowest (a la Jeff Bagwell, class of 2003) and 10 being the highest (Richard Hidalgo, ’01), the Brownie and J.D. bobble given out last June has to be a solid 9.5.)

Anyhoo, it’ll be great to have the old gang together again, especially considering my Astros OneLiners twitter account has been a little barren, to say the least, without J.D.’s, well, J.D.-isms.

* I’m also hearing Craig Biggio is on his way to Kissimmee on Thursday for his annual Spring Training visit. Word is he will be in town through Sunday.

* Former broadcaster/pitcher/manager and current all-around great guy Larry Dierker flew to Florida with owner Jim Crane and a few friends and Astros executives on Tuesday and joined the contingent in Jupiter. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 10 years since the last time Dierker was a regular part of Spring Training, as the Astros’ manager. While I’m sure there’s plenty about being on the field that Dierker misses, Spring Training isn’t high on that list.

As a manager, the early mornings, the long bus trips and the seemingly never-ending slate of Spring Training games wore on him. He quite liked this time of the year when he was an active player, however. As a starting pitcher, he only had to participate in Grapefruit League games every four or five days, and when he was in the game long enough to be considered a veteran, he really had it easy, because he pretty much dictated which road trips he would be on.

“I’d tell the pitching coach where I wanted to go, and I really only had to take one long trip all spring,” Dierker laughed.

Dierker chats with Brett Dolan, as Dolan tries to shield himself from the relentless sun during BP in Jupiter on Wednesday.

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Other notables:

*To add catching depth to the system, the Astros signed Landon Powell, who not long ago was released by the Oakland A’s. Powell signed a Minor League deal and will be in big league camp. While it’s unlikely he’d make the team — a healthy Jason Castro and solid backup Chris Snyder appear to be the favorites to break camp with the club — Powell gives the team a possible plan B. Humberto Quintero is still in the mix as well, obviously, but his back issues leave some uncertainty there. Powell simply gives the Astros more options should they need to dip into the system for catching help.

* The Astros will host the Blue Jays on Thursday at Osceola County Stadium at 1:05 p.m. ET, noon CT. Left-hander Zach Duke will start for the Astros, who will face Toronto righty Dustin McGowan. The game will be broadcast on KBME 790 am.

* David Carpenter will be Milo Hamilton’s guest on Astroline tonight (Wednesday) at 8 p.m. ET, 7 CT. The show will air live from the ESPN Club at the Disney Boardwalk and will air on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

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Dierker hits the books — and the links — for a worthy cause.

The Astros retired Dierker's number in 2002, but that didn't mean he was ready to ride off into the sunset...

In the more than 10 years that have passed since Larry Dierker stepped down at the Astros’ manager, he’s had his hands in plenty of activities. He’s written books, dabbled with writing a screenplay, traveled and spearheaded forming an Astros alumni group that has, over the years, been quite visible in baseball circles in Houston.

Dierker has also allotted a lot of his time to charitable efforts. Most notably, he is a champion of Literacy Advance of Houston, a non-profit organization that has helped people through its free adult literacy programs for nearly five decades.

Dierker, an avid reader in his own right, has personally contributed more than 1,000 volunteer hours for the cause. And he’s set to host Literacy Advance’s Reader Cup – Larry Dierker Celebrity Golf Tournament on Feb. 27 at the BlackHorse Golf Club.

Each year, a host of sport celebrities participates in this golf tournament. This year, the guest list includes Phil Garner, Art Howe, Shane Reynolds, Kevin Bass, Dan Pastorini, Jim Deshaies, Bill Brown, Randy McElvoy, Burton Gilliam (of Blazing Saddles fame), Dayna Steele, Dave Elmendorf and Mark Dennard.

“I play in dozens of tournaments every year that raise a lot of money for various organizations, many of which represent serious diseases,” Dierker said. “I am happy to do that. I’m not a doctor; I cannot cure a disease. I can, however, teach adults to read and write.  It’s relatively easy and quite rewarding. Tutoring makes giving personal.”

Available tournament sponsorship opportunities range from $500 – $10,000, with all proceeds benefiting Literacy Advance of Houston.

Registration on event day will begin at 8 am with a hot breakfast, followed by a shotgun start at 9:30. Post-tournament, sponsors and players will enjoy a hearty lunch and the chance to win auction items, including night on the town packages, gifts and sports memorabilia.

For more information on the event or a downloadable sponsorship/registration form, please visit http://www.literacyadvance.org/golf or call (713) 266-8777.

Feel like Talkin’ Baseball? Join us on Saturday.

The doors of Minute Maid Park will be open on Saturday at 10 a.m., and we hope Astros fans will join us for the annual baseball bonanza affectionately known around here as FanFest.

In addition to player autograph sessions and fun activities on the field, we’ll also be hosting several Talkin’ Baseball sessions. From the Social Media side, we are planning for an interactive chat session with Brad Mills and Bud Norris from 2:30 to 3 CT in Union Station that will connect fans who are at FanFest in person and those following online.

We will take questions from our cyber-audience through this link. Fans who attend the chat in person in Union Station will also have the opportunity to ask questions of our manager and starting pitcher. All answers will be transcribed on our chat page for everyone to read.
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In the meantime, I need to brush up on my Astros history, quickly. I’ll be moderating a Talkin’ Baseball session titled “50 Years of Astros Baseball,” during which we’ll reminisce with a bunch of former players about 50 years of Major League Baseball in Houston.

Expected guests include: Jim Deshaies, Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, Enos Cabell, J.R. Richard and Larry Dierker. The session will take place in Union Station from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m.

Other Talkin’ Baseball sessions, all of which will take place in Union Station, include:

* The 2012 Season Outlook, 11:15 a.m. to noon
The panel: George Postolos, Jeff Luhnow, Brad Mills. Moderated by Milo Hamilton.

* Story Time with Milo Hamilton, 12:45 to 1:15.

* 50th Anniversary Plans, 1:30 to 2:15 p.m.

During this session, we’ll be previewing what’s on deck for Flashback Fridays, including retro uniforms, fireworks and alumni first pitches. We’ll also talk about fan involvement in the 25-man roster vote and the premium giveaways aimed toward celebrating our 50th anniversary, including a “Greatest Moments” Bobblehead set and many retro items from every era of Houston baseball.

The Panel: Christie Miller, Promotions and Special Events Coordinator; Mike Acosta, Authentication Manager. Moderator: me!

* Talkin’ Youth Baseball (GSFYB), 3 to 3:45 p.m. CT

The panel: Jason Bourgeois, Daryl Wade, Fred Arnold.

A full schedule of FanFest activities can be found here. We hope to see you Saturday!

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A holiday salute from the Astros, 50th anniversary style.

Twenty-five years ago, Ruth Ryan sat next to her husband, Nolan, on a charter flight during an Astros road trip and was introduced to a popular relief pitcher walking down the aisle on the way back to his seat.

Larry Andersen, the unofficial class president of the loosey-goosey fun-loving, wacky mid-80s Astros, stopped by to say hello to the Ryans and chat for a bit. Throughout the conversation, Larry wore a set of fake teeth — crooked, yellowish teeth with brown undertones that were entirely too big for his mouth.

Once the conversation ended, Larry made his way back to his seat and Ruth, a polite woman well-known for her classy demeanor, turned to Nolan and said, gently, “You know, he’d be so handsome if he’d just get his teeth fixed.”

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I checked with Larry on this story to make sure I had it straight, as I figured it would be a fitting anecdote to include in an end-of-the-year project intended to serve two purposes: wish everyone a very happy holiday season and give a cap-tip toward our fabulous history as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston.

Another part of the project: I asked former players and broadcasters, as many as I could track down, to take a photo holding a “happy holidays” sign that bears the logo from the era they played in Houston. When I checked in with Andersen on this story, I also sent along a (second and third) gentle reminder to pleeeeeeease take the photo and send it back to me.

“Ninety minutes,” promise,” Andersen emailed back.

Ninety minutes later, he delivered.

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They don’t make ‘em quite like Larry Andersen anymore, but that’s OK. Plenty of unique personalities have passed through the clubhouse doors in Houston, first at Colt Stadium, then at the Astrodome and now, at Minute Maid Park. Each has a story — some more interesting than others — and each contributed in some fashion to five decades of big league baseball in the Bayou City.

Some moments I witnessed in person. Some happened long before I got here. Some happened long before I got here, but I’ve heard the stories told and retold so many times that I’m starting to convince myself that maybe I really was there to see them.

______________

There was that one time…

Early in Larry Dierker’s managing career, when the Astros were playing a weekend series in Montreal, the skipper found himself in a precarious, Dierker-like situation. It was a Sunday, and the team was scheduled to play an afternoon game. After a night of restful sleep, Dierk opened his eyes, looked at his watch and panicked as he realized it was about 30 minutes before game time.

Except that it wasn’t. Ever looked at your watch upside down when it’s 7 a.m.? It looks a lot like 12:30. “I came this close to calling the clubhouse and giving them the lineup over the phone,” Dierker said.

How about the time when…

Jose Lima was a local celebrity by the time the calendar flipped to 2000, a year when two big things happened to him: 1) his employers lined his pockets with several wads of Astrobucks to the tune of a three-year, multimillion-dollar contract, and 2) his career began to spin in an Enron Field-y downward spiral.

Lima bought himself a new car that year — a Mercedes, if memory serves – and he was excited it about it, because this shiny new ride came with voice-activated commands. There was just one problem. It was programmed to detect the English language, sans foreign accents, and it couldn’t pick up Lima’s commands.

Lima was fluent in English, no doubt, and you could understand him just fine. As long as you weren’t a computer chip in a new Mercedes.

Lima parked his car in the garage at the ballpark, walked into the clubhouse and screamed, “my new car is racist!”

Or how about when…

The 1999 season had whittled down to game No. 162, and the Astros, sitting on 96 wins, still needed one more to knock off those pesky, refuse-to-go-away Cincinnati Reds. Mike Hampton pitched a gem against the Dodgers that day and left after seven innings with a 9-1 lead.

With champagne on ice in the clubhouse and a packed house ready to celebrate both a division title AND the final regular season game ever to be played in the Astrodome, the game slowed to an absolute crawl. Jay Powell, saddled with the easy task of pitching the final three outs in a landslide win, instead gave up three hits and three runs, allowed seven baserunners and delayed the party by at least 20 minutes.

Later, during a loud celebration in a happy clubhouse, Drayton McLane walked over to congratulate Powell.

“Sorry it took so long,” Powell mumbled.

“That’s OK,” McLane chortled. “We sold more stuff.”

Heard this one not long ago…

Bob Aspromonte spent his career largely as a self-proclaimed happy bachelor, one whose outgoing personality and movie-star handsomeness allowed him to channel (and embrace) his inner ladies’ man-itude.

In his day, Aspromonte could live life however he wanted, pretty much out of the spotlight, without having to worry about cell phones with cameras or curious strangers documenting his every move on Twitter. Aspro the Astro liked the nightlife, but unlike his less sophisticated, more neanderthal-like teammates, an evening out with Aspro involved fine dining at the best restaurants in town. First-class accommodations from start to finish.

But that didn’t mean general manager Spec Richardson (who was liked by very few players) didn’t want him to tone it down from time to time. Unlike the George Steinbrenner-Derek Jeter flap from about 10 years ago when the crusty Yankees owner made it clear to the world, using various media outlets, that he wanted his shortstop to ix-nay the ightlife-nay, Aspromonte’s admonishment came in a much more muted tone, just man-to-man.

“Bob,” Richardson said to his third baseman during contract negotiations, “I’ll add on 10 grand more if you’ll stop chasing the ladies.”

Aspromonte paused for a moment, thought about it and said, “Nah, you keep your money. And I’ll keep the ladies.”

______________

I wish I had been there to witness Casey Candaele sitting on a serving tray and “skiing” down the aisle during takeoff on the Astros’ charters. That said, I’m ecstatic that I never watched him take batting practice in the back cages on Sundays, because apparently, he did so without wearing any clothes.

I wish I had been around to watch the Astros clinch the division behind Mike Scott’s no-hitter in 1986, but I’m really glad I missed seven-hour, 20-minute, 22-inning showdown between the Astros and Dodgers in 1989. I’m doubly happy that I didn’t have to work the next game either. That Sunday matinee began 11 hours after the 22-inning game and ended up lasting four hours and 17 minutes and took 13 innings for the Astros to finally win it.

That of course pales in comparison to another long, drawn-out affair that I was more than happy to witness, 16 years later. Six-plus hours of baseball was worth sitting through that October afternoon in 2005, especially the 10 seconds it took for Chris Burke’s game-winning home run to clear the left field wall. Eighteen innings of agony translated into a Division Series win over the Braves, and ended up being the first step toward the first World Series berth in club history.

So many years, so many players, so many memories. A lot has happened in the 50 years since Major League Baseball arrived to the Bayou City, thanks to a lengthy cast of characters. Here are some who you’ll surely recognize.

From our Astros family to yours, we wish you a happy, hearty holiday season. We look forward to reminiscing about the old days, while making new memories in 2012.

Larry Dierker, pitcher, 1964-76; broadcaster 1979-96; manager 1997-2001

Carl Warwick, 1962-63

Jimmy Wynn, 1963-73

Bob Aspromonte, 1962-68

Ron Brand, 1965-68

John Edwards, 1969-74

Bob Watson, player, 1966-79; general manager 1994-95

Gene Elston, broadcaster, 1962-86

Norm Miller, 1965-73

J.R. Richard, 1971-80

Jose "Cheo" Cruuuuuuuuuuuz, 1975-87

Art Howe, player, 1976-82; manager, 1989-93

Alan Ashby, player, 1979-89; broadcaster, 1998-2005

Enos Cabell, 1975-80, 1984-85

Billy Smith, 1981

Charley Kerfeld, 1985-90

Kevin Bass, 1982-89

Larry Andersen, 1986-90

Terry Puhl, 1977-90

Phil Garner, player, 1981-87; manager, 2004-07

Billy Hatcher, 1986-89

Glenn Wilson, 1989-90

Jim Deshaies, player, 1985-91; broadcaster, 1997-present

Luis Gonzalez, 1990-95, '97

Brian Williams, 1991-94, '99

Craig Biggio, 1988-2007

Vince Cotroneo, broadcaster, 1991-97

John Hudek, 1994-97

Mike Hampton, 1994-99; 2009

Mike Jackson, 2001

Brad Ausmus, 1997-98, 2001-08

Tim Bogar, 1997-2000

Tony Eusebio, 1991, 1994-2001

Adam Everett, 2001-07

Chris Burke, 2004-07

Mark Loretta, 2002, 2007-08

Jason Lane, 2002-07

Jose Vizcaino, 2001-05

Dave Borkowski, 2006-08

Brandon Backe, 2004-09

Willy Taveras, 2004-06

Darin Erstad, 2008-09

Brad Mills, manager, 2010-present

Dave Raymond, broadcaster, 2006-present

Milo Hamilton, broadcaster, 1985-present

Brett Dolan, broadcaster, 2006-present

Bill Brown, broadcaster, 1987-present

Humberto Quintero, 2005-present

Doug Brocail, player, 1995-96, 2008-09; pitching coach, 2011-present

Jason Bourgeois, 2010-present

Chris Johnson, 2009-present

Bud Norris, 2009-present

Brian Bogusevic, 2010-present

Bobby Meacham, first base coach, 2010-present

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Astros time capsule: the 1970s. A time of transition and a springboard for better times ahead.

Two stars from the 1970s: Bob Watson, who would become the Astros GM in the '90s, and Cesar Cedeno, the Astros' first five-tool superstar.

Our nostalgic look back at Astros history takes us to the 1970s, when the Astros experienced plenty of down years but were ultimately setting themselves up for a more fruitful run in the next decade. Houston Chronicle Harry Shattuck covered the Astros during that era, and when we closed the Dome down in 1999, we asked him to give us his recollection of the Astros in the ’70s. This is what ran in the commemorative game program Oct. 1-3, 1999.

_________________

By Harry Shattuck

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times.

As a team and an organization, the Astros spent the 1970s on a tumultuous roller-coaster ride, an emotional experience perhaps best summed by two-time National League All-Star pitcher Joaquin Andujar who — on more than one occasion — philosophized, “everything about this game can be explained by one word. And that one word is ‘you never know.’”

We do know this: At the decade’s conclusion, Astros players and their fans were clinging to new hope that a long-anticipated division title was on the horizon.

That championship would have to wait another year. But the framework for success was established, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Houston franchise at the decade’s midpoint seem almost on the brink of collapse — with 97 losses and an average home attendance of only 10,593 per game in 1975 and an ownership takeover by credit companies when Astrodome mastermind Roy Hofheinz endured financial difficulties.

Against all odds, and largely due to the timeless efforts and patience of General Manager Tal Smith and manager Bill Virdon, the Astros recovered — on the field and with the fans. And when new owner John McMullen announced the signing of free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan on November 15, 1979, the darkest period in club history was clearly over.

For old time’s sake, though, let’s climb back on that roller coaster.

Along with the spills, there were ample thrills:

This was a decade when the Astros’ first genuine superstar, center fielder Cesar Cedeno, won five consecutive Gold Gloves, stole 50 or more bases in six seasons, hit 20 or more homers three times and twice batted .320.

A decade when young phenom James Rodney Richard came of age as one of baseball’s most feared pitchers, winning 18 or more games in four consecutive seasons.

A decade when outfielder Jose Cruz earned his first of four Astros MVP awards (in 1977).

A decade when Larry Dierker, whose tenure as a Houston favorite had begun on his 18th birthday almost 12 years earlier, pitched a no-hitter on July 9, 1976 — his final season with the club as a player. (And who could have imagined 23 years ago how much Dierker would continue to mean to the city as a broadcaster, newspaper columnist — and now as manager.)

Astros broadcasters, late 1970s: front -- Dewayne Staats and Larry Dierker. Back - Gene Elston and engineer Bob Green.

The 70′s also brought us the “foamer.” The “arm farm.” And the first “rain-in” in Major League history on June 15, 1976, when a 10-inch downpour flooded much of the city, making it impossible for umpires, fans and stadium officials to reach the Astrodome and resulting in postponement of the Astros-Pirates game.

It wasa a decade, too, when diminutive Joe Morgan, whom Houston fans had embraced as early as 1963 when he first joined the Colt .45s, evolved into a Hall of Fame second baseman.

Alas, Morgan’s main heroics came not with the Astros but as a stalwart of rival Cincinnati’s two-time World Champion Big Red Machine. Indeed, his departure to the Reds on November 29, 1971 — with pitcher Jack Billingham, shortstop Denis Menke and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister for first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart — will forever be remembered as one of the worst trades in club history.

Fan favorites Jimmy Wynn and Doug Rader departed in trades, too — but not before the Toy Cannon had powered 223 home runs and played 1,426 games as an Astro and the Red Rooster won five consecutive Gold Gloves (1970-74) at third base.

The decade was also tinged with sadness.

Don Wilson, one of Houston’s most successful pitchers ever and the only Astro to pitch two no-hitters, died tragically at his home prior to the 1975 season, shy of his 30th birthday.

Hofheinz, who inspired the Astrodome’s creation and served as the club’s chairman of the board until 1976, was confined to a wheelchair because of a crippling stroke. Hofheinz died in 1982.

On the field, consecutive 79-83 seasons in 1970 and ’71 precipitated the Morgan trade as Astros management — seemingly with a different philosophical approach at every turn – sought to boost the team’s power potential by acquiring established slugger Lee May.

Although the deal proved a long-term disaster, it did pay some immediate dividends. The Astros slammed 134 home runs — a club record at the time — in 1972, and their 84-69 record marked the first above-.500 finished in franchise history. Overall, May produced 81 home runs and 299 RBI during three seasons, then moved on to Baltimore in a trade that delivered third baseman Enos Cabell to Houston.

The Astros were going through managers almost as fast as they were players, too, with Harry “The Hat” Walker yielding to colorful Leo Durocher during the 1972 season and Durocher, in turn, giving away to one of the game’s genuine gentlemen, Preston Gomez, prior to 1974.

In 1975, the situation hit rock-bottom. The Astros lost 10 of their first 14 games, and at the season’s halfway point the record was 28-53. Fan apathy was such that only 3,427 showd up for one game against the Cubs in June.

As Hofheinz was losing control of the franchise ownership to creditors, Tal Smith — an integral part of the organization’s leadership from its inception through 1973 — was lured back from the New York Yankees, whom he had joined as executive vice president.

There was no questioning Smith’s baseball savvy. But he inherited a team with previous little talent. A budget dwindling as swiftly as the fan base. And a temportary ownership — General Electric, and Ford Motor credit companies in large part — that had no desire to operate a baseball organization and whose main objective was to find a new buyer.

What to do? How to rebuild during a period in which the very face of baseball — with player salaries escalating and the prospect of mass free agency — was undergoing dramatic change?

In retrospect, it could be argued that the creditors — and Astrodomain executives that included Sidney Shlenker, T.H. Neyland and Warren Genee — save the franchise during the latter half of the decade by shrewdly allowing Smith (who assumed the dual role of general manager/president in 1976) the flexibility, if not always the money, to make critical decisions.

Step one was the hiring of Virdon, a former Pirates and Yankees manager, on Aug. 19, 1975, 12 days after Smith’s appointment.

Step two was the decision to place new emphasis on pitching, speed and defense.

Step three was the conscious effort to tap every available resource in the organization’s farm system and to evaluate each potential transaction for its long-term potential, not as a band-aid quick fix.

New enthusiasm grew rapidly. The Astros didn’t knock down any fences in ’76 — indeed, their team total of 66 home runs fell shy of Mark McGwire’s individual total last year — but they stole 150 bases. And a pitching staff anchored by 20-game winner Richard, Dierker and Andujar totaled 42 complete games and 17 shutouts.

Smith’s trades, often questioned at the time because of the unknown nature of the acquisitions, reaped major dividends. Overall, there were 30 transactions in four years. Among the most significant: Andujar came from St. Louis and third baseman Art Howe from Pittsburgh following the ’75 season; utility man Denny Walling from Oakland in ’77; catcher Alan Ashby from Toronto, shortstop Craig Reynolds from Seattle and infielder Rafael Landestoy and outfielder Jeff Leonard from Los Angeles, all in ’78; and reliever Frank LaCorte from Atlanta in ’79. Smith signed pitcher Vern Ruhle as a free agent after Detroit gave up on him during the 1978 season.

The minor league system produced outfielder Terry Puhl, catchers Bruce Bochy and Luis Pujols and the “arm farm” as one after another, the Astros summoned unsung fuzzy-cheeked pitchers from the minor leagues. Some enjoyed only brief moments in the spotlight; others, notably reliever Joe Sambito, developed into All-Stars. But this parade of enthusiastic young talent — combined with an influx of scrappy veterans — captured the fancy of the fans.

There were veteran surprises, too. Joe Niekro, for one, had floundered between the major and minor leagues for years as a reliever and worked primarily out of the bullpen as an Astro from 1975-77. Given a chance as a full-time starter by Virdon in ’78, Niekro went on to become the club’s all-time winningest pitcher.

Ken Forsch, a starter-turned-reliever and a National League All-Star in 1976, reclaimed a full-time spot in the rotation in ’79 — and promptly threw a no-hitter in his first start of the season.

A champagne shower for Ken Forsch, after he threw a no-hitter on April 7, 1979. That's catcher Alan Ashby doing the honors.

The Astrodome was a fun place to be, too, especially on “foamer night.” If a designated Houston player hit a home run — or in later variations, a prominent opposing player struck out on cue — it meant free beer for all spectators.

In 1979, the decade’s final season, the Astros compiled their best record yet at 89-73 and attracted 1.9 million fans to the Astrodome — the highest home attendance since 1965 when the stadium opened as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Joe Niekro pitched 21 victories, J.R. Richard struck out 313 batters, Joe Sambito saved 22 games, Bill Virdon was named Manager of the Year and the Astros battled the Reds to the wire before Cincinnati won the West Division title by 1 1/2 games.

A spectacular turnabout was almost complete. The roller coaster came to a halt. And the stage was set for a championship celebration.

Part One: The 1960s.

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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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