Results tagged ‘ Phil Garner ’

The baseball equivalent to Super Bowl Media Day? (Trick question. There isn’t one, thank goodness).

Every year I casually follow Media Day the Tuesday before the Super Bowl and experience the typical combination of amusement and nausea.

Super Bowl Media Day is unlike any other media event in any sport, in that it serves almost no purpose except to create a spectacle. It’s absurd, embarrassing, outrageous – a perfect setting for posers acting as media, but an utter waste of time for the people there who are, you know, actually covering the Super Bowl, for real.

As a baseball reporter, I’ve never been to a Super Bowl Media Day. That’s a tradition I hope continues until I’m dead.

Don’t get me wrong. Media day is fun to follow — online, from my couch, hundreds of miles away from the actual venue. This Sports on Earth account pretty much sums it up – goofy people dressed in ridiculous garb, pretending to be outrageous, because without the shtick, they never would have scored a credential, because in advance of Super Bowl Media Day, they’re not actually, well, media.

It’s a far cry from what you’ll find in an actual press box filled with only accredited reporters who really do cover teams for a living. And I fully acknowledge that there’s nothing terribly intriguing about three rows of follically-challenged middle-age men pounding out the copy on their laptops — at least nothing that would make you want to actually cover it as a news story.

They’ll never be as enticing as the bombshell reporters from Azteca and Telemundo, the pretty Inside Edition-types who were relatively anonymous until they were ogled on national TV by one particular man of a certain age, and anyone else who stands out in the crowd and is given 15 seconds to nab a comment from athletes and coaches who sit on a podium, safely distant from the masses.

I’m guessing the actual football writers – the beat reporters and columnists who actually have been covering the teams playing in the Super Bowl since the beginning of training camp – detest Media Day more than any other of the calendar year.

Can you blame them?

Trying to cover the team you’ve always covered when the rest of the world is now also covering it is at best, difficult. During the regular season, you depend on access and communication and relationships built on the mere fact that you’re there every day, and the athletes are there every day, and you’re talking to each other every day. Even if you may not like each other all the time, there’s enough respect between the two parties that everyone is, for the most part, able to get the job done.

Watching spectacles like Super Bowl Media Day brings back memories, on a lesser scale, of specific times in my baseball writing career when a workday was anything but typical.

The most vivid memory I have of the Astros appearing in the World Series in 2005, for example, wasn’t the actual Series. It was the clubhouse scene in St. Louis after they won the pennant. I have a very clear picture in my head, still, of the sheer joy on Craig Biggio’s face, of players dancing with the NL trophy, of Roger Clemens pouring an entire bottle of champagne over a joyful Andy Pettitte.

Happy days: Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge get down with the NL trophy while Brandon Backe gets his groove on from the side.

Happy days: Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge get down with the NL trophy while Brandon Backe gets his groove on from the side.

The World Series was more of a blur. The experience was short – it lasted four games and ended with the White Sox sweeping and celebrating on the Astros’ home field. But there’s another more significant reason why the memories are kind of fuzzy: after seven straight months of intimately covering this team, suddenly, I was never more distant from it.

The sheer volume of media covering the event makes it impossible to grant reporters the same access you’d get during the regular season. Whereas clubhouses open 3 ½ hours before game time during the regular season, during the playoffs, they’re closed.

Managers and the next day’s starting pitchers are made available prior to batting practice in the controlled environment of the interview room. The system actually works pretty well, all things considered, and from what I’ve gathered over the years, Major League Baseball is probably the most accommodating when it comes to satisfying the needs of the media during the postseason. **

But for the local reporters, it’s kind of a bummer. (Please don’t mistake this for complaining. Reporters report because they love it. Covering baseball is a privilege and we know it. This is designed only to show this side of the business from an angle not normally visible from the outside.) You start to feel less like an individual and more like sheep, herded from point A to point B and hoping you don’t get knocked in the head by a camera guy when Random Superstar Player decides to hold an impromptu Q&A with reporters on the field during batting practice.

(** Astros manager Phil Garner, not surprisingly, went out of his way to make sure the local scribes were taken care of. Throughout the postseasons in 2004 and ’05, he’d host the beat writers for a half hour or so in his office a few hours before game time. We’d enter through the door off the basement corridor and never have to actually walk through the clubhouse. We got what we needed, never broke any MLB rules and were eternally grateful to be covering a manager who got it, on every level, from the little things to the bigger picture.)

In a World Series setting, it’s hard for the everyday beat writers to separate themselves from the masses. I remember standing on the field on the workout day at the White Sox ballpark the day before the series began, and one-shouldered Jeff Bagwell, who 10 minutes earlier was officially announced as the Astros’ designated hitter for Games 1 and 2, emerged from the clubhouse. After regaining my balance following nearly being trampled by a mad rush of reporters making a beeline for Bagwell, I stood in a media crush of around 100 people, staring directly into the armpit of a camera operator. I thought, “There has to be a better way to do this.”

Even if you were lucky enough to run into a player in the dugout before BP, you pretty much had no chance to engage in a private conversation. That’s because media from other parts of the country and the world covering the Series, but had no idea who the players actually were, were on the constant lookout for the opportunity to grab sound bites. Because they couldn’t identify most of the players, they had to wait for someone in the know to make the first move. If any of the local reporters did approach a player, we’d inevitably hear pitter-patter of the oversized feet of camera operators, rushing to follow behind. It got to the point where it was just easier not to talk to the players. ***

It became comical. “How ya doing?” Mike Lamb shouted from the opposite end of the dugout, waving. “Top of the day to you, Mike!” I yelled back, from the other end. “Have a good game!” End of conversation.

(***Not that I can totally blame these “outsiders.” I’ve been in their shoes. When I’m covering the World Series that involves two teams I’m not all that familiar with, it gets a little scary when the players are in a setting where they’re not wearing jerseys with their names on their backs. I still cringe when thinking about the 2003 clubhouse scene when the Marlins won the World Series, and I had an entire conversation with a player who wasn’t who I thought he was. You’d be surprised how similar guys can look when they’re soaked in champagne and wearing the same “World Series Champion” t-shirts. This was before iPhones, where you can quickly Google a player, just to make sure that actually is Brad Penny.)

Absurdities of the job are part of the job, and they more often than not provide laughs years later over beers with colleagues. I often refer to Clemens as the gift that keeps on giving, mainly because there are probably enough chuckles he’s unknowingly provided colleague Brian McTaggart and me over the years to fill a book.

For a couple of years, a Roger Clemens appearance at Spring Training was big news for the wrong reasons. We had no choice but to follow him around and hope he talked to us. Not the most dignified way to spend a day, but part of the job.

For a couple of years, a Roger Clemens appearance at Spring Training was big news for the wrong reasons. We had no choice but to follow him around and hope he talked to us. Not the most dignified way to spend a day, but part of the job.

At the time, this stuff wasn’t so funny. Standing outside of the entrance to the Astros’ Minor League clubhouse in Kissimmee, waiting hours for Clemens to emerge after working out with his son, was quite possibly the worst use of time in the history of Spring Training coverage. But you had to do it, because everyone else was there, and if you weren’t there to talk to Clemens when he did finally come outside, then you missed the story. So you stand there with the Associated Press and New York Times and New York Daily News and wait and wait and wait with hopes Clemens, now a couple months removed from appearing in the Mitchell Report, will talk.

He didn’t, of course. His black Hummer was parked maybe two feet from the clubhouse door, enabling him to jump in and drive away in silence. McTaggart and I figured that would be the end result, a conclusion we drew during the three hours we waited for Clemens to emerge from the clubhouse and not talk to us. Looking for entertainment value, we decided taking pictures of each other standing next to Clemens’ Hummer was a way to make the best use of our time. ****

We decided to look reflective, stately and serious for this photo shoot. Tags played it well.

We decided to look reflective, stately and serious for this photo shoot. Tags played it well.

I, on the other hand, couldn't keep a straight face.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t keep a straight face.

(****That wasn’t the most bizarre behavior of the day. That distinction belongs to the AP reporter who inexplicably took off in a full sprint, chasing Clemens and his Hummer, screaming Mitchell Report-ish questions as Clemens sped away. The rest of us were speechless. I asked McTaggart, “Should we be running after him, too?” We decided to do what the Times and Daily News did. Thankfully, they stayed put.)

There are times when I wish reporters had a medium to display their own blooper reels, just for laughs. Most of the time, we’re just grateful for the anonymity. Reporters who are there to merely report prefer to not make themselves part of the story, and the ones who do, well, they’ll catch up with you at Super Bowl Media Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

Oswalt, during one of our spirited debates.

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That visit to Roy’s hometown occurred a few months after I began a new job with my old team, a position designed to bring the fans closer to the Astros through the annals of Social Media and blogging. That trip was the first of many in-depth glimpses to our team, for our fanbase, with the intention to give insight as to who these players are and what makes them tick. We wanted to show them not as robots but as people, beyond what you can see for yourself by watching on TV and reading in the paper.

We felt the best way to implement that plan was to provide a never-ending stream of behind-the-scenes access through storytelling, photos and videos. To illustrate the ins and outs of the Houston Astros. To make fans feel like they were part of the process.

Simply put, the last three years have been an absolute blast. But now, as is the case with most elements of life, it’s time to move on.

Over the last 16 seasons, I’ve had three jobs: first with the Astros, then with MLB.com, and then back with the Astros. In another week, I will leave my post with the Astros to go back to MLB.com for an exciting new opportunity. I’ll be a national correspondent, working with all 30 teams on a variety of levels. My first assignment will be All-Star week.

While I’ve obviously had plenty of experience changing jobs, this one is a huge leap, because although I’ll still be based in Houston, for the first time, I will no longer be working exclusively with the Astros. So this, in many ways, is goodbye.

I’m not really into “farewell” columns writers post when they’re on the move, but I do want to express my gratitude to you, the readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thanks for all of it — the good, the bad and the loud disagreements. For the give and take, the back and forth, the laughter and the spirited debates. Mostly, I thank you for trusting me, for knowing you could ask me just about anything, and accepting my answers as candid, honest and forthright. That was hugely important to me.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know I like to ramble on about a bunch of completely unrelated topics. I figure that would be a fitting way to end this chapter. So here we go:

* Your Astros are in extremely good hands. I refer to Jeff Luhnow as a rock star (although I’m not sure if I’ve ever told him that. Guess he knows now). He understands what it takes for an organization to sustain long-term success and is building the Astros accordingly. Sure, he’s smart and savvy, but he has that little something extra that makes you believe he’s going to be in this job a long while. He gets baseball, he gets people, and let’s face it, he’s just a really cool dude. The first thing he said to me when we met at his introductory press conference was “I follow you on Twitter.” I think @drjohnreyes phrased it perfectly when he said, “Jeff Luhnow being on Twitter is like finding out your parents skydive.”

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

* Jim Crane also gets it. The worst thing an owner can do is take over a team, put a sound plan in place to build a winner, and then blow a jillion dollars on a free agent past his prime, messing up the team’s financial structure for the next decade. This will not happen with Crane. He hired smart, capable people to run the baseball operation, and he’s leaving it up to them to do just that. The plan is in place and they are sticking to it. Trust me, it’s a good plan. My money’s on it working.

* Despite the Astros’ current record, the organization as a whole is in a very good place. The Minor League teams are winning, a lot. This would be in stark contrast to the last several years, when the Minor League teams were losing, a lot. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Luhnow’s mantra: build the Minor League rosters with winning in mind. That means disregarding who was drafted in what round and feeling a need to push former high picks through the system just for the sake of moving them. Now, it’s about performance and development, and little else.

* Minute Maid Park is still one of the premier ballparks in baseball. For the last 10 years, my top three have not changed: Minute Maid Park, AT&T Park (San Fran) and PNC Park (Pittsburgh). Working from Minute Maid Park has been a pleasure, and I’m guessing the fan experience isn’t much different.

* For all of the grief Ed Wade took, he did a lot of good work here. There’s a lot of talent in the Minor League system and many of those players were obtained under Wade’s watch. You haven’t heard a lot about them, but you will. Soon.

* I don’t care what Chris Snyder’s batting average is. He’s been a great addition to this team. He has that certain something that makes him a perfect presence in a big league clubhouse. Every team needs that veteran guy who keeps things steady, can relate to all teammates and handles winning and losing with an unwaveringly calm approach. He’s a ballplayer, in the truest sense. He needs to stick around.

* I hated the hot sauce packet mascot race. Mascots who run in races, by definition, need eyes. When you put faces on inanimate objects, it’s funny. And what’s up with Mild Sauce losing every day? I know Texans like their spicy toppings, but come on. Totally fixed.

* Six years ago, Oswalt and I made a friendly wager. He insisted that when his contract ran out after 2011, he was going to retire. I disagreed, guessing he’d keep pitching. The wager: dinner. Roy, changing your cell number doesn’t get you off the hook. Pay up.

* When the Astros were winning and winning and winning in 2004 and ’05, the rosters were comprised mostly of players who had never played for another Major League team. Most were drafted by the Astros (Berkman, Biggio, Oswalt, Ensberg, Lane, etc.) and others were obtained through trades as Minor Leaguers (Bagwell, Everett). This created a sense of unity among teammates that made the winning that much more meaningful. When the modern-day Astros start rolling again, the rosters again will be filled with mostly players who were drafted and developed by this organization. That’s significant.

* Best moment: Covering the clubhouse scene when the Astros won the pennant. What I remember most about the World Series was not that the Astros were swept, but that Craig Biggio said to me at least three times, “You know, this was totally worth the wait.”

* Worst moment: Covering the clubhouse scene the day Darryl Kile died, 10 years ago today. The grief was overwhelming. I’ve never witnessed such complete devastation and I sensed that some of Kile’s friends would never be able to get past the loss.

* Best quote: Billy Wagner. You just never knew what was going to fly out of his mouth. A reporter’s dream, a team’s (occasional) nightmare.

* Most nerve-racking non-Astros moment: Watching, in person, Brad Lidge attempt to nail down the save in the World Series clinching game for the Phillies in 2008. I was covering the Series for MLB.com and my assignment was to document the postgame celebration on the field. I snuck down to the seats right behind the third-base dugout and watched the ninth inning from there. I was so nervous for Lidge that I actually feared I was going to either pass out or toss my cookies. Fortunately everything turned out well for both of us.

* Most challenging moment: Covering Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. Reporters have to turn in game stories five minutes after the last out is made, and with two outs in the ninth, no one on base and Lidge on the mound, I had 700 words written about the Astros’ pennant-clinching win over the Cardinals. Ten minutes later, Albert Pujols launched his moon shot to left field, and I had no choice but to highlight the story, push delete, and start over. (Honorable mention: the 18-inning win over the Braves in the NLDS. When games go that long, paragraphs that were important three innings ago eventually become irrelevant. So for three hours, it was type, delete. Type, delete. Rinse, repeat.)

* Favorite memory that I couldn’t write about: I finished my game coverage around 3 a.m. after the Astros clinched the pennant in St. Louis and walked back to the media dining room to pour a Budweiser beer from the single tap located near the eating area. I propped my feet up, savored the moment and realized I was probably drinking the very last Bud beer ever to be poured in old Busch Stadium. The ballpark was razed the next morning.

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

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That should just about do it. Thank you again for your friendship. I will continue blogging and tweeting in my new job, so I hope you’ll continue to follow along. In the meantime, please continue to follow @astros for information about your hometown nine.

Be well, Astros fans!

Alyson

Mike Scott’s no-hitter in ’86 was one for the ages. But it wasn’t the only great playoff-clinching moment in Astros history.

One Sunday morning, several years ago, Brandon Backe sat at his locker doing what young players normally do in the hours before gametime. Hanging out. Saying very little. Doing nothing to draw attention to himself.

This was 2004, arguably the most significant (at that time) of Backe’s Major League career. He spent that season up and down between the minors to the big leagues, mostly as a reliever. Inconsistency and one bout of fatigue-related issues prevented him from gaining any real staying power in the rotation.

But Backe showed enough to merit multiple opportunities with the Astros that year. He had spunk. He had moxie. He had, quite frankly, an attitude. That type of demeanor, paired with hard work, usually buys a kid some extra time while he tries to put the pitching side of things together.

This particular Sunday in 2004 wasn’t like the other Sundays. No, this was the final Sunday of the season, the final game of the season, and the National League Wild Card was on the line. Win the game, go to the playoffs. It was that simple.

The team liked its chances, what, with Roger Clemens scheduled to start and the Astros having enjoyed a streak of 35 wins against 10 losses that catapulted them right into the thick of a hotly-contested Wild Card race.

An hour before gametime, however, things changed. Instead of suiting up for the game, Clemens was laying on a table in the training room, IVs inserted in his arm, trying to fast-forward through a stomach flu that left him sapped of his energy.

Clemens said the right things to the athletic trainers and doctors — “I’m fine, I can pitch” — but his body was saying quite the opposite. As the minutes passed, it was clear it would not be Clemens taking the mound at 1:05 for arguably the most important game of the season.

“Clemens is sick,” manager Phil Garner said to catcher Brad Ausmus, in passing, near the lunch room in the Astros’ clubhouse. “Backe’s pitching.”

Ausmus’ face fell, briefly. Then, perhaps realizing a reporter was watching this exchange, his expression changed. He simply nodded, and walked off.

Inside the locker room, pitching coach Jim Hickey walked up to Backe’s locker and told the 26-year-old righty that he was starting the game. Backe, likely dumbfounded and now with 60 minutes to prepare, nodded silently. Then he headed straight to the bathroom.

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Backe put forth a fabulous effort that day. He struck out six and held the Rockies to two runs five hits with two walks. And, he contributed the first two RBIs with a two-run bloop single in the second frame that put the Astros on the board for the first time. The Astros won by two runs, a sold-out Minute Maid Park erupted, and the party was on.

Brandon Backe didn’t spare any champagne after the Wild Card clincher in 2004.

The Astros have had many exciting playoff-clinching moments. Really, in recent history, the only ho-hum clincher was in 1998, only because the Astros were so good that it negated a true division race. They clinched it with about a week-and-a-half left in the season, creating as much drama and suspense as a rerun of “Laverne and Shirley.”

But other than that 102-win season, the Astros have had many, many nail-biting, down-to-the-wire clinchers that happened on the very last day of the season, or close to it.

They had around four days remaining in ’97 when they clinched, but that one was extra-special, because it was their first NL Central division title and their first division winner in 11 years. In 1999, they won the division title while playing the final regular-season game in the Dome, in front of a jam-packed crowd that included almost every former player who had meant anything to the franchise over three-plus decades of baseball in Houston.

Larry Dierker, the manager of the Astros at that time, called the win, and the celebration of history after, “Baseball heaven.”

The famous shot from the ’97 clincher: Hampton, Biggio, Bagwell. (photo courtesy of Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle)

The 2001 clincher was memorable as well, considering the team they were fighting for the division title was also the team they had to beat on the last day.

The Astros ended the regular season in St. Louis, a week later than originally scheduled because of the tragic events on Sept. 11. They had been in relative cruise control a couple of weeks earlier and looked to be on their way to easily winning the division, but then they spent the better part of one crucial week losing almost every day. So it came down to the last game, and in front of a hostile Busch Stadium crowd, the Astros beat Darryl Kile and the Cardinals, 9-2.

The 2005 Wild Card clincher, like ’04, happened on the final day. The Astros topped the Cubs to finally, and officially, brush away the pesky Phillies, their closest nemesis in the Wild Card race. That push to the finish was even more impressive than the Astros’ 36-10 run from the year before, because this group had to climb out of a 15-30 hole it dug itself into at the start of the season.

Phil Garner and Craig Biggio walk off the field after the 2004 Wild Card clincher.

The most exciting clincher in Astros history, obviously, was Mike Scott’s no-hitter in 1986. The Astros were expected to do very little in the NL West that year, but heading to the final stretch, there they were, at the top of the standings. Two days before Scott’s game, Jim Deshaies threw a two-hitter. Nolan Ryan followed with a one-hitter over eight innings, after which Alan Ashby said to J.D., prophetically, “I have a feeling Scotty’s going to show both of you up tomorrow.”

Scott no-hit the Giants and the Astros clinched the division. To this day, when eye-witnesses reflect back to that game, their speech patterns speed up and their voices get a little screechy.

Manager Hal Lanier and Mike Scott after Scott’s no-no in ’86.

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Given the historic nature of Scott’s no-hitter, it would be silly to think any other playoff-clincher could possibly trump that one. Polling fans on this one would be just plain silly.

Too bad — we’re doing it anyway! But don’t just cast your vote. I want to know what you remember best from those clinching games. Perhaps you were at the 2004 Backe game. Or maybe you were watching from home, wearing your baseball cap positioned just so atop of your head, the same way you had worn it for all 36 games of the Astros’ 36-10 run that year. Or maybe you were just a kid when the Dome opened and found yourself back there, in person, when it closed down in ’99.

Whatever the memory, please share with us here. We’ve provided plenty of nostalgia for you as we celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary. Now it’s your turn to provide a walk down memory lane.

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Links we like:

First, Brett Myers was compared to Charles Dickens. Now, in his latest blog entry, Astros radio announcer Dave Raymond finds parallels between the Astros’ nearly four-hour game with the Dodgers Saturday night and the Chevy Chase classic, “Fletch.” (Personally, I’m skeptical. Chevy Chase makes me laugh, yet the only emotion I felt during the game Saturday was an overwhelming urge to gouge my eyes out).

Dave also gives us some cool Astros-by-the-numbers info. For those of you who haven’t figured it out by now, our affable radio announcer is also a bit of a stat nerd.

In The Crawfish Boxes “Mondays Three Astros Things,” David Coleman discusses why the Astros appear to have come out ahead on the Jobduan Morales-Justin Ruggiano trade. He also focuses on everyone’s favorite topic — Altuve, Altuve and Altuve.

Sure, Altuve is the leading candidate to be an All-Star, but there are others on this roster too, no?

Vote Astros to All-Star Game

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The 1986 Astros reunion: celebrating good times and great baseball memories.

Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan

Who doesn’t love a good “Where Are They Now” story?

Under normal circumstances, finding out Where They Are Now takes quite a bit of digging. But for a few hours over the weekend, there was no need to search far and wide for such information on the 1986 National League West champion Houston Astros.

Where Are They Now? On Saturday, many of the ’86 Astros were all together, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the old Astrodome.

The annual TRISTAR Houston Collectors Show brought together 18 members of that ’86 team, a group that lives in Houston baseball history as one of the most beloved, ever. The characters of that team are as well-remembered as the heart-stopping moments that defined that season. TRISTAR hosted an ’86 Astros reunion as part of their two-day show at Reliant Arena, and also on the agenda was a reception that brought the team back together for a 90-minute question and answer session between paying patrons and the former Astros players.

The lot of 18 included manager Hal Lanier, Jose Cruz, Bill Doran, Jim Pankovits, Billy Hatcher, Nolan Ryan, Dickie Thon, Alan Ashby, Kevin Bass, Phil Garner, Bob Knepper, Glenn Davis, Danny Darwin, Jim Deshaies, Terry Puhl, Mike Scott, Jeff Calhoun and Craig Reynolds.

The group gathered in the lobby of the hotel before the formal program began, and like any class reunion, it was a happy scene. Many of the players from that team are still in baseball, and still more live in Houston. But in terms of getting together and catching up on old times, such occasions rarely, if ever, take place. That makes events like this special, and fun to watch from the sidelines. It also served as a nice precursor for the season-long celebration the Astros are planning to commemorate their 50th anniversary in 2012.

Emceed by SportsRadio 610’s Rich Lord, the Q&A session sparked laughter and reflection. Lanier was grilled on why he lifted Knepper from Game 6 of the NLCS, and Ryan, asked what his favorite moment was in his 27-year career, cited the 1969 World Series with the Mets, “Because it was the only time I played for a World Series title.”

The Astrodome, unsurprisingly, came up in conversation more than once. “I drove by the Dome today and thought, “Man. I wish there was something we could do to preserve it,” Doran said. “It’s a special place.”

The whereabouts of a few of the ’86 Astros are more well-known than others. Following a long run as a radio announcer for the Astros, Ashby moved on to work in the same capacity for the Blue Jays. Garner is mostly retired, but is working on a part-time basis with his original team, the Oakland A’s, and will be with them during Spring Training. Cruz is still with the Astros as a special assistant.

Hatcher and Doran are both with the Cincinnati Reds, Hatcher as a coach and Doran as a special assistant. Pankovits managed the Astros’ Short Season A TriCity team to a New York-Penn League championship in 2010 and is now a coach in the Mariners’ system. Davis is active in the hotel business and children’s ministries in Georgia, and Puhl is a local businessman and baseball coach for the University of Houston-Victoria. Bass is also locally based, working in real estate. Thon coaches in Puerto Rico; Lanier does the same in the Independent Leagues. Reynolds is a pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston.

And Ryan? “I’m just out signing Japanese ballplayers,” the Rangers owner said to a chorus of laughs.

Scott? “I travel, golf, and babysit my granddaughter.”

Deshaies: “I say clever things like, ‘That’s right, Brownie,’ and dream of being like Mike Scott.”

Simply put, this was a great night.

Group shot (and special thanks to Chronicle photographer Karen Warren for allowing us to piggy back on her photo session).

TRISTAR show: Alan Ashby.

TRISTAR show: Kevin Bass.

TRISTAR show: Jose Cruuuuuuuz and fans.

TRISTAR show: Phil Garner.

Reception: Kevin Bass, Terry Puhl, Jim Pankovits, Jose Cruz.

Reception: Bill Doran, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl, Dickie Thon.

Reception: Bill Doran, Dickie Thon, Phil Garner.

Reception: Jim Deshaies, Danny Darwin, Bob Knepper, Billy Hatcher.

Reception: Bob Knepper, Billy Hatcher.

Reception: Alan Ashby, Nolan Ryan, Terry Puhl, Phil Garner, Mike Scott.

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Dennis Liborio: loyal employee, clubhouse staple, one of a kind.

The first time I met Liborio 15 years ago, I called a friend and said, "There's a guy that works here who looks exactly like David Crosby."

In the spring of 1988, a cocky, sunburnt kid from New York sauntered into the Astros’ clubhouse at their Spring Training facility and said to the man standing at the door, “I’m looking for Yogi Berra.”

“And who the heck are you?” the man snapped.

“I’m Craig Biggio,” the kid snapped back. “Where’s Yogi?”

“Oh boy,” the man said to himself. “This guy’s going to be a beauty.”

And from there, a friendship was born. Biggio, fried to a crisp after driving from New York to Florida with the top down on his convertible, and Dennis Liborio, a rough-around-the-edges but soft-hearted Bostonian, eventually became friends, and the two evolved into family over the next 20-plus years.

Liborio is retiring after 32 seasons as the Astros’ clubhouse manager due to health issues. While he’s not a household name to Astros fans, his departure comes as a sad blow to generations of players and staff who grew close to Liborio during their time in Houston.

You may recall reading about Dennis in this blog. Two years ago, we ran a semi-regular feature called “Who’s in Dennis’ chair?” Dennis’ office in the Astros’ clubhouse often doubled as a who’s-who of baseball notoriety, for one simple reason: everyone loves Dennis, and everyone loves to visit Dennis. As a result, the big, comfy black chair in his office was rarely vacant.

Larry Andersen. Phil Garner. Luis Gonzalez. Biggio. Jeff Bagwell. Past players from every decade. Former Astros who were now opponents. Everyone managed to stop by Dennis’s office, because, simply, Dennis’ office was the place to be.

It wasn’t just players who liked to visit. In 2000, the year the Astros’ new ballpark opened, George W. Bush, who at that time was preparing for his presidential campaign, walked into the clubhouse, threw his arm around Dennis’ shoulder, and proclaimed, “This is my running mate!” within earshot of the large contingent of reporters.

Right on cue, Dennis responded, “We’ll show them how to get this country straightened out.” One particular reporter who apparently lacked a sense of humor rushed up to the pair and said, “I just want you to know you can’t have two people on the ticket from the same state.” Without hesitation, Liborio chortled, “That’s all right. I’m from Massachusetts!”

Former President Bush visited the Astros in Arlington in 2009, reuniting with several Astros staffers, including Liborio, whom he met a decade earlier.

Clubhouse and equipment managers are more than just support staff workers. They’re the eyes and ears of the inner-workings of the team. Everyone and everything that enters and leaves the clubhouse goes through the clubhouse managers, and discretion is one of the biggest components of their game. A ballplayer relies heavily on his equipment/clubhouse manager, which is why the ties that bind them together during a player’s career usually carry on for decades, long after the uniform comes off for good.

Take Dennis and Nolan Ryan, for instance. For decades, they traveled together to Las Vegas every offseason for the rodeo. The first night of their very first trip, Dennis walked into the lobby of the hotel wearing a 10-gallon hat, cowboy boots and a pair of jeans with a huge western belt buckle. “Here comes the Boston Cowboy,” Nolan said in his thick southern drawl. “Nolan, I’ve heard of the Boston Strangler,” Dennis responded, “But never the Boston Cowboy.”

It was during one of those Vegas trips many years later when Dennis’ longtime sweetie, Geraldine, blurted out, “Darn it, Dennis, when are you ever going to marry me?” In typical “Diamond Denny” fashion, he answered, “How about now?” And the two went through a drive-thru and tied the knot, Vegas-style.

A few weeks later, a box weighing no less than 70 pounds arrived to the clubhouse. “What the…?” Dennis said. Inside was a jumbo-sized steel ball and chain, courtesy of Gonzo, with a note that said, “It’s about time.”

Liborio and former manager Phil Garner celebrate the NL pennant in 2005

Liborio started his baseball career in Wally Pipp fashion in 1969, when he was 14 years old. He’d hang out near the Red Sox’ clubhouse at Fenway for no particular reason, except to watch the players come in and out. He became such a fixture there that finally, the Red Sox clubhouse manager decided to put him to work. One of the clubhouse kids was out sick with mono, and Dennis filled in by taking the uniforms to the dry cleaners. He ended up staying on four years.

In 1977, the manager of the Dodgers’ clubhouse called Dennis and asked him to work for him. Dennis was the Dodgers’ assistant equipment manager until November of 1979, when the Astros came calling. Traveling secretary Donald Davidson and Assistant GM Gerry Hunsicker called Dennis’ boss and said, “We have an opening. Do you know anybody?” And just like that, Dennis was in his way to Houston to run the Astros’ clubhouse.

Dennis has been with the Astros for all nine playoff appearances and was with them when they clinched the first, and only, pennant in 2005. He’s watched more than 5,000 Astros games. During his tenure, Houston’s record was 2,596-2,471.

“Dennis is truly one of my best friends,” Biggio said. “Behind every great, successful team, there is a great clubhouse man. That’s what Dennis was for us. For me, he’s been an awesome human being and did an unbelievable job. He will be missed.”

More quotes from notable Astros:

“Dennis is one of a kind. Of the countless people I’ve met in the game, he is among my favorites. It just won’t be the same without him in that clubhouse. As players, he was our team ‘Mom’ … not afraid to give you grief, but always had your back.” — Jim Deshaies, current Astros TV analyst and Astros pitcher from 1985-91

“Dennis Liborio is an Astros institution. His many years of faithful service to the organization are greatly appreciated by the players he has helped during his tenure. Thank you, Dennis, for all you have done for me and so many others. The clubhouse won’t be the same without you.” — Lance Berkman, Astros 1B-OF from 1999-2010

“I felt like Dennis was one of the top equipment and clubhouse managers that I ever worked with. He always had a real passion for the game and was truly committed to the organization.  I hope he enjoys his retirement.” — Nolan Ryan, Astros pitcher from 1980-87 and current Texas Rangers president

“Dennis was wonderful to us. There was never a dull moment in that clubhouse, no matter how bad you were going. He was so much fun to be with, but was always so on top of everything. We appreciated him because he honestly cared about us. I miss him more than anyone I was with in Houston.” — Bill Doran, Astros infielder from 1982-90

“When I got to Houston in 1990, we had a young team those first few years and Dennis was a father figure to a lot of us. He really took care of us. We had so much fun sitting in his office, listening to him holding court and telling great stories. He was incredible to us. Over the years, our families built a strong bond and even shared season tickets for the Aeros games since Dennis loved hockey so much.” — Luis Gonzalez, Astros outfielder from 1990-95

“Dennis will be greatly missed. He brought me to Houston with him and is the reason I am here today. I love the guy and appreciate everything he has done for me and for the Astros.” — Barry Waters, Astros longtime Traveling Secretary who also worked with Liborio in the Dodgers clubhouse prior to coming to Houston in November of 1979

Visiting clubhouse manager Steve Perry, Liborio, Waters and clubhouse manager Carl Schneider celebrate the pennant in '05.

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Pitchers throw live batting practice, hitters a little flummoxed

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The first day that pitchers throw to hitters during a live batting practice session is always a little entertaining (if you’re a pitcher), a little befuddling (if you’re a hitter) and not at all telling as to how these guys will perform in another five weeks (if you’re the manager).

Pitchers have a four-day head start on position players, and while that might not seem like a long time, it is. Pitchers have had a head start, getting their arms loose, throwing bullpens and slowly getting back into a (very preliminary) rhythm. Hitters, no matter how well-conditioned they are when they show up to camp and how much they’ve been hitting in the cages over the winter, are nowhere near where they will be in a few more weeks in terms of timing and simply shaking off the rust.

Fifteen pitchers threw live BP: LHPs Fernando Abad (pictured above), J.A. Happ, Sergio Escalona, Wandy Rodriguez, Wesley Wright; and RHPs Jeff Fulchino, Arcenio Leon, Wilton Lopez, Jordan Lyles, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, Lance Pendleton, Aneury Rodriguez, Fernando Rodriguez Jr. and Henry Villar.

The Astros will have similar workouts throughout the week, and next Sunday, in anticipation of the first Grapefruit League game the next day, will play an Intrasquad game. These usually run 5 1/2 innings and will likely be the first time the team plays on the main field at Osceola County Stadium.
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Did you know? Hitting coach Mike Barnett was Michael Jordan’s hitting coach at AA Birmingham in 1994. Barnett recalled how focused Jordan was, no matter what the task at hand: “That type of competitiveness, that type of work ethic, he was just a joy to work with every day.”
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Quotable:

General Manager Ed Wade, on what has surprised him about camp:

“I just think the whole tone and tenor has been very, very positive. I think part of it flows from the staff and the attention to detail as regard to the schedule, and Millsie preaching energy to the staff during the eight o’clock meeting before they ever go out onto the field to interact with the players.  Let’s keep the energy up. I think a lot of it flows from the approach they’ve taken. It hasn’t been a case of any particular player standing out. It’s a case of the guys collectively looking like they understand why they’re here and having fun in the process.”
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The final Houston version of Astroline will take place Wednesday at Buffalo Wild Wings on Gray St. in Midtown, beginning at 7 p.m. CT. Our old buddy Phil Garner will join Milo Hamilton for the full hour and they welcome your calls (713-212-5874). The show is open to the public and will air on the club’s flagship station, 740 KTRH. The show will also be streamed live on astros.com and will be available in the archives on the site soon after the broadcast.

There is a twist to this Wednesday’s show: Astroline and Buffalo Wild Wings will be hosting a silent auction benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project, a fundraiser geared toward raising awareness and enlisting the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members. Participants can purchase a $10 ticket, which entitles them to six traditional or eight boneless wings and a beverage. In addition, these guests will receive a ticket to participate in a raffle of one autographed item. The silent auction, which will contain many Astros autographed items, will be open from 6 to 9 p.m. CT.
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On to the photos…

Michael Bourn grunted (in admiration) on more than one occasion while facing Abad.

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Infielders stand by while pitchers practice faking pickoff throws to second

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This conditioning exercise involves players bending their knees and flapping their arms. In a group, it looks like they’re trying to fly away.

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J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez during morning pickoff drills.

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Mills chats with players at the end of the workout, when players are stretching following conditioning drills.

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Happy to be here: Carlos Lee…

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…and Hunter Pence

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Round One wraps up today.

Two members of the Red Sox coaching staff — bench coach Brad Mills and first base coach Tim Bogar — will interview with the Astros today as the club wraps up its first round of managerial interviews. Then it’s on to round two, which theoretically could begin as early as later this week.

When the process began I figured the Astros would make an announcement regarding a managerial hire once the World Series ended. But the interviews are moving swiftly and you have to wonder if they might even want to have a decision made earlier. With so many offdays between the two League Championship Series and the World Series, there might be time to get this done. The World Series doesn’t start until Wed., Oct. 28.

That said, if Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin is a finalist, and his team ends up winning the National League pennant, that might slow down the process.

Mackanin flew from Los Angeles to Houston on Saturday, stopping off long enough to interview before continuing on to Philadelphia, where his team had a day off between NLCS Games 2 and 3. Phil Garner had a much easier schedule, seeing he simply drove to Minute Maid Park from his home in The Woodlands.

You can read a full transcript of Garner’s meeting with the media here.

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As soon as Garner walked into the interview room Saturday, I couldn’t help but notice he was wearing his National League championship ring. “Nice move,” I said. He laughed. Coincidence? I think not.

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Pete Mackanin.

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You, too, can take pictures just like this one.

 

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One of the new promotions the Astros are offering this year is the “Pre-game Field Pass,” which in layman’s terms means gaining access to the area right behind the Astros cage while the team goes through its daily stretching and batting practice.

For $75, you’ll watch one hour of batting practice up close, from a VIP viewing area behind home plate. It’s prime positioning for pictures as the Astros players get ready for the game.

It’s pretty much the same vantage point as I have on a daily basis, which has produced pictures like these:

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Pre-game field passes are offered for every home night game — the team normally does not take BP before day games — and must be purchased online. Check it out here.

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New feature: “homemade” videos!

Eventually, videos from the day-to-day happenings of your Astros will be featured regularly on my Footnotes landing page. Right now, the process is taking a while. Once we figure out exactly how to edit, upload and post the videos (and by we, I mean, well, me), the video section will be a constant flow of activity.

Slowly but surely, however, the All-Star videos are being rolled out. We’ve posted two, and most of the content was generated by Hunter Pence, who took my camera pretty much everywhere he went during his two-day jaunt to St. Louis.

In the first video, titled “Pence Media Day,” Hunter conducts interviews with some of his favorite opponents, including Ted Lilly (“Do you know what it’s like to face you?”), Orlando Hudson (“Now that you’ve moved from Arizona to L.A., do you do any surfing?”) and his own teammate, fellow All-Star Miguel Tejada. You’ll notice Tejada promises he’ll get a RallyHawk if the Astros make it to the postseason this year.

We still laugh about the second video, titled “All-Star Workout.” In addition to some batting practice shots, there’s also footage of Pence’s bizarre encounter with Bobby Knight, and, inadvertently, Tony La Russa. Earlier that day, Knight struck up a conversation with Pence but was cut off when La Russa sort of interrupted and ushered Knight into his office. What you see in this video is both semi-apologizing to Pence, who just shrugged, laughed and said, “This is something I won’t forget — Bobby Knight and Tony La Russa arguing over where to talk to me.”

I’m working on three more All-Star videos that will hopefully be posted soon. In the meantime, enjoy the first two.

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As part of their on-going celebration of 10 seasons at Minute Maid Park, the Astros are posting memories from some of the decade’s most notable figures on their blog. Today, we have former manager Phil Garner’s favorite memory, which involves Roger Clemens and the epic 18-inning game that clinched the Division Series in 2005.

And that leads us to the latest installment of “Who’s in Dennis’s Chair?” Why it’s none other than Scrap Iron, who stopped by the clubhouse a few days ago to say hi to the old gang.

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