Results tagged ‘ Puma ’

A wistful look back at Puma being Puma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grumpy Puma, part deux (with gum)

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

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Passing the time at Spring Training, Puma-style.

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Still more passing time at Spring Training.

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

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

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Invading the personal space of radio announcer Dave Raymond.

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

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And again

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And…again

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

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Puma being Puma…one more time.

Brett Wallace, Part Deux.

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Over the winter, it was widely believed within the inner workings of the Astros front office that Brett Wallace would have few problems securing the starting first base job during his time at Spring Training this year. However, in an industry where there are few guarantees, it would have been unwise to anoint him as the sure-fire favorite over Carlos Lee before the team had even arrived to Kissimmee to get ready for the season.

That said, after spending a little bit of time with Wallace during the offseason at Astroline and various community activities, I gained an understanding of his demeanor and guessed that he wasn’t going to have a problem dealing with what was waiting for him — daily speculation as to whether he was doing enough to win the job outright.

I don’t know him that well yet, but it’s clear that Wallace is a take-it-as-it-comes kind of player, who sees what’s in front of him with clarity, takes it at face value and deals with it in a level-headed manner. If he’s felt any pressure or stress this spring, he’s hid it well.

As we’ve discussed in past blogs, the first base job wasn’t as much his to win as it was his to lose. And yes, there’s a difference.

Competition for a position during Spring Training means two prominent players are going to get relatively equal playing time at that position and at the end, one will be declared the winner.

Wallace was the primary first baseman throughout the spring, with Lee playing all but two of his games in left. Lee, who showed last year that he can play a pretty decent first base, was strictly a Plan B in case Wallace had a terrible spring.

Wallace has had a great spring, but there still seems to be some confusion as to his standing on this team. I read a report on Fox Sports’ web site this morning that I found curious: “The Astros are at their payroll limit, but would like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jason Michaels if they go with Carlos Lee over Brett Wallace at first base, which is hardly a sure thing.”

That was an accurate statement, two months ago. But no longer. If the Astros are responsible for putting the best team on the field, then I fail to see how Lee at first, Michaels in left and Wallace in Triple-A is a better combination than Wallace at first, Lee in left and Michaels as the first guy off the bench in a late-inning pinch-hitting situation.

What am I missing?

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A few weeks ago, Baseball America came out with a listing of how much teams have spent on International signings and the Astros were, according to this report, the third-highest spenders in 2010, behind the Mariners and Yankees.

According to the list, the Astros, who opened a new Dominican Academy last May, spent $5.13 million on International signings. Around $2.5 million went to their most heralded signing, 16-year-old outfielder Ariel Ovando (who is now 17).

While Ed Wade pointed out that the amount a team spends isn’t as important as the quality of the players it is spending on, it’s still nice to see the Astros near the top of this list. When Wade took over, he made two hugely important hires — first, Assistant General
Manager of Scouting Bobby Heck, and later, Felix Francisco, the club’s  Director of Latin American Scouting. Geographically, the scouting efforts were expanded, as were the spending parameters.

“We talk a lot about the impact that Bobby Heck and our free agent scouts have made through the domestic draft, but of equal importance is the work that Felix Francisco has done internationally,” Wade said. “Since coming over from the San Diego Padres, Felix has enhanced our Latin American presence a hundredfold.  It’s not about spending the third-most money or handing out the highest bonuses.  It’s about making smart baseball decisions and always working for the betterment of the Astros.  Felix is smart, aggressive and loyal, not
to mention extremely valuable.”

Here’s the Baseball America list of the top 10 International spenders:

1. Mariners, $6.47 million
2. Yankees, $5.27 million
3. Astros, $5.13 million
4. Pirates, $5.00 million
5. Athletics, $4.73 million
6. Blue Jays, $4.18 million
7. Cubs, $4.16 million
8. Rangers, $3.57 million
9. Braves, $3.28 million
10. Padres, $2.75 million

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On a much, much lighter note, I stumbled across this hilarious blog post from our friends in St. Louis. The post served as a tip of the cap to Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold, who noticed some glaring inaccuracies in Topps’ Photoshopped version of Lance Berkman’s “new” Cardinals baseball card. Then it escalated into something much more hilarious.

I initially found the post mildly amusing, until I got to the beer vendor part. I haven’t stopped laughing since. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
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And now for a pictorial wrap up of the weekend that was:

Craig Biggio

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Biggio, Cheo Cruz

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Carlos Lee

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Chris Johnson

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Puma

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Random spring notes: Paulino, Wright and Ensberg. Yes, that Ensberg.

Somewhere along the way, we sort of lost track of Wesley Wright, who has been quietly going about his spring business out of the spotlight. That might be simply because reporters haven’t gotten around to writing about him yet — after all, there are about 45 days of spring features to write and still just under a month until Opening Day.

But Sunday morning before batting practice, manager Brad Mills talked a little about Wright. So let’s talk a little bit about him here, now.

Wright spent the last two seasons as a left-handed specialist but might be tested as a starter this spring. Mills said Wright will likely start a game coming up, possibly on one of the split-squad days that requires two starting pitchers instead of one. The Astros have split-squads scheduled for March 13, 16 and 21, so don’t be surprised to see Wright start one of those games.

“I’ll hold off making a lot of comments until we see how it goes,” Mills said. “But he’s definitely going to get his innings.”

At this point, I’m not considering Wright as a true contender for one of the five rotation spots coming out of Spring Training, but the Astros are definitely keeping their minds open while trying to figure out where Wright is best suited.

When the team got him from the Rule 5 draft a couple of years ago, I received many questions as to whether Wright could eventually be converted to a starter. I was told he was staying in the ‘pen because that’s where the club had the biggest need. But now, I think we can all agree the starting depth is thin, and there’s nothing wrong with at least considering Wright to fill the club’s needs there too. Wright had a nice showing as a starter during Winter Ball, so there’s probably no harm in testing him out this month.

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Meanwhile, Felipe Paulino, a sure-fire candidate for the starting rotation, will be getting his innings this spring, but not necessarily at the beginning of games. One standard practice during Spring training is for teams to “piggyback” two starting pitchers in the same game. You’ll see this quite often, because most teams have more than five candidates trying to make their rotation. Piggybacking allows for everyone to still pitch on regular rest.

Paulino and Wandy Rodriguez will both pitch Wednesday, and each is slated to go three innings. Rodriguez will go first, followed by Paulino, and a handful of relievers will absorb the final three innings.

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As a reporter, there were times that I enjoyed covering Morgan Ensberg and times that he made me want to pull my hair out.

Don’t get me wrong — Ensberg was everything a reporter would want in a player: talkative, intelligent, insightful, reflective. But there was one topic that would make Morgan clam up, and at times, it was simply infuriating.

I tried my best to write about things the fans wanted to know about, and from 2006 through ’07, fans wanted to know about Ensberg’s ever-changing batting stance. It was becoming increasingly obvious to just about the entire viewing public that the third baseman was struggling with looking, and feeling, comfortable at the plate.

So I asked. And asked. And asked again. Either he changed the subject, talked around it or was so vague that by the end of the conversation, I was more confused than when I first approached him. After a while, I gave up. It didn’t take a genius (thankfully) to figure out the guy simply didn’t want to talk about it.

But now, as a retired player, Ensberg is no longer avoiding the topic. He has started a blog — morganensberg.wordpress.com — and he’s touching on many interesting topics, many of which he didn’t want to discuss during his playing career. The blog is titled “Morgan Ensberg’s Baseball IQ,” which he hopes gives “solid fundamentally based strategy and teaching” insight into the game. “Each week I will teach you something about the game,” Ensberg writes. “Either at the professional or amateur level.”

I’m already fascinated by his insight. In explaining why communication is the key to success in baseball, he first quotes former Houston bench coach Jackie Moore: “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” Ensberg then goes on to say this:

“Trust me on this one. I changed my batting stance more times than I can remember and it was because I didn’t know what I was doing.

“In order to be great you have to be willing to fail. If you are afraid to fail then you won’t learn and you will have regrets.  The military says that if you don’t know what to do then take action.

“I didn’t take action. I was afraid to fail. I learned though and will be better next time.”

Ensberg has been retired from the game for about a year and he’s hoping to begin a career in broadcasting. When he was with the Astros, I always felt he would be successful with whatever he decided to do in his post-playing career, whether it was politics or coaching or broadcasting. As much as I liked him as a player, I had 100 times more respect for him as a person. That’s why I was delighted to see he started a blog.

In his most recent entry, he talks about how it ripped his heart in half to be booed by the Houston fans: “As a result, I no longer concentrated on the game and instead concentrated on not getting booed.”

Check it out. Interesting stuff.

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From batting practice at Disney Sunday:

Puma and Pence chat with MLB Network’s Peter Gammons.

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Pence works in the cage.

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First base coach Bobby Meacham and third baseman Pedro Feliz.

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Hanging in the dugout before BP…Berkman, Michaels.

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Hanging out with the popular kids (Brownie and J.D.).

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Every time I hop on an Astros message board, I’ll read about some funny one-liner from Jim Deshaies or a Bill Brown witticism or some other cool story emerging from the television booth. Selfishly, I find this to be problematic, because sometimes I feel like someone threw a party and didn’t invite me.

While Brownie and J.D. are yucking it up in the booth, I’m in the press box, with only muted television monitors to keep me entertained (um…other than the play on the field, of course. That’s what I meant to say.)

Anyhoo, I thought I’d mix things up a bit this road trip and blog and Twitter/tweet from the broadcast booths during the Astros’ series in Cincinnati this week. So on Tuesday, I’ll be in the television booth with Brownie and J.D., and on Wednesday I’ll move over to the radio side and hang out with radio announcers Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond.

I hope you’ll join in on the fun. You can follow me on Twitter at @alysonfooter, and I’ll be updating my blog a couple of times during the game as well. See/read you then.

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I’ve known Jose Cruz for the better part of 13 years, and while I’m sure he’s gotten mad at some point during that time, I’ve never actually seen him mad. So I was somewhat startled by how forceful he was with his response to Pirates closer Matt Capps’ accusation that he and Miguel Tejada were stealing signs during Sunday’s game.

“Not in the 13 years I’ve been [first base coach] or the 30 years I’ve been in baseball,” Cruz said. “I’m offended, yes. I don’t know how that guy got the idea that I gave the signs to Tejada.”

Other news and notes from the Astros clubhouse:

Jose Valverde is not in Cincinnati but general manager Ed Wade is hopeful the closer will rejoin the team on Tuesday. After ruling out strep throat, Valverde was simply diagnosed with a “virus.” Sounds like the flu, and I’m glad the team had enough sense not to send him on the charter. Being in such close quarters — the clubhouse, the airplanes, the dugouts — it seems like if one player gets sick, they all do.

Consider, for example, a brief spell back in 2005 when it seemed like the entire team had come down with the flu. I recall Lance Berkman walking around the clubhouse wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves, which really should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the Puma.

Roy Oswalt underwent an MRI on his lower back on Friday, which came back negative. Wade blamed Oswalt’s problems simply on having a “veterans pitcher’s back,” which means when you pitch long enough in the Major Leagues, you’re going to suffer from some wear and tear.

Oswalt added swimming to his workout routine to strengthen his core and will cut down on the running.

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Moehler an Astro in 2010? I vote yes. Yes on Randy Wolf, too.

The Astros won’t have much money to play with next year, and I’d like to see what extra they do have spent on pitching. The first thing I would do is pick up the option on Brian Moehler’s contract, which will be worth either $2.3 million if he pitches fewer than 150 innings this year, and $3 million if he exceeds that total. He’s pitched 119 innings so far and assuming he makes six more starts and averages six innings per start, he’ll come in just over 150.

So, for argument’s sake, let’s say the option is worth $3 million. Going over the projected salaries for 2010, four players will take up more than half the payroll — Lance Berkman ($14.5 million), Roy Oswalt ($15), Carlos Lee ($18.5) and Kaz Matsui ($5). Including Moehler’s option, that’s $56 million for five.

Drayton McLane has not set the payroll for next season, but for now let’s estimate it at $95 million. They’ll need about $21 million to cover the arbitration-eligible players. That leaves $18 million to spend on the rest of the team, with more than half the 25-man roster still undetermined. If Miguel Tejada agrees to play third base for $5 million, and Tommy Manzella and Jason Castro make the league minimum as the starting shortstop and catcher, respectively, I would fill the rest of the infield with Jeff Keppinger, who will probably cost a little less than $1 million in arbitration, and Geoff Blum, who the Astros probably could sign now for around $2 million.

The Astros will probably have to round out the bullpen with mostly young guys — Yorman Bazardo, Alberto Arias, Sammy Gervacio, Wesley Wright and Jeff Fulchino (he’ll be 30 next season, but he’s not yet arbitration-eligible, which puts him in the category of “young”). I have no idea what they’re going to do with the closer situation. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to afford to bring back Jose Valverde, who I’m assuming will be looking for a multi-year deal exceeding the $8 million he made this year. The Astros may be forced to try to either convert one of their young relievers into a closer or trade for a young pitcher viewed as a possible future closer.

Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez will get hefty raises in arbitration. I do not know what the final figures will be but I have Wandy penciled in for $5 million and Pence and Bourn making around $2 million.There are still approximately two bullpen spots and the two backup outfielder spots to fill. That doesn’t leave a lot of extra money to play with, but whatever wiggle room they have should be spent on a starting pitcher, and I would like to see them once again pursue Randy Wolf.

In Wolf, the team would be getting a veteran pitcher who has had success here and is, most importantly, healthy. They pulled their offer to him last year when the economy went in the toilet, and they took their chances on Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz. That didn’t pan out.

I’d rather spend a little extra on someone healthy and have a rotation that can survive the realities of this organization — the promising pitching prospects are still working their way through the system and will not be ready in 2010. That leaves them with little Major League-ready depth, which means they simply have to strengthen what they do have at this level. A Randy Wolf would be the perfect No. 3 to slide in behind Oswalt and Rodriguez and ahead of Norris and Moehler.

That’s my two cents. What say you?

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Random pictures from a weekend of baseball at Minute Maid Park:

Michael Bourn, Sean Berry and Ed Wade have a laugh during batting practice.

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Roy Oswalt signs autographs for young fans.

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The Astros honor Kaz Matsui for logging his 2,000th career hit…

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…And Carlos Lee for his 300th career home run.

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Puma addresses a crowd of at least 5,000 on Faith and Family night.

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Rough night for Bazardo, Hampton. Carlos hits 300.

The Astros had their eye on Yorman Bazardo as early as last offseason, when they offered him a Minor League contract and an invite to big league Spring Training. But Bazardo received what he felt was a more enticing offer from the Phillies, took that one, and spent the spring in Clearwater.

Bad mechanics and poor numbers led to the Phillies releasing Bazardo about a week before Opening Day. His representatives went back to the Astros, who briefly considered sending him to extended spring in Florida. With too many players there already, they instead assigned him to Triple-A Round Rock.

Bazardo, working with Express pitching coach Burt Hooton, started the season in the bullpen and eventually moved to the rotation. Prior to his callup to the Astros on Friday, he became one of Round Rock’s best performers.

Bazardo was brought up to the big leagues to serve as the long reliever, but his first outing Saturday night was long only in terms of pitches thrown (41) and minutes on the mound. His performance was wholly unimpressive — one inning, three hits, five runs (three earned).

Quite frankly, I was surprised to see Bazardo in the game, considering beforehand, manager Cecil Cooper said he was going to try not to use him. Bazardo had started for the Express three days earlier. “Probably not tonight,” Coop said of Bazardo’s availability. Definitely (Sunday).”

A right knee sprain forced Mike Hampton out of the game in the second inning, which necessitated Bazardo’s hasty entry. After the game, Coop took full responsibility for what happened next. “I’ll take the heat for that,” he said. “I talked to the young man, Bazardo, about not pitching today and we got into a situation where we needed him. He sucked it up.

“The kid just pitched (three) days ago — 75 pitches. Today would probably have been a side day. I was hoping to get through a couple of innings with him.”

Said Bazardo: “It’s obvious my stuff wasn’t there today. I tried to get out of the inning. Hopefully, next time I’ll do better with two, three days of rest. I’ll be fine.”

It’s important to note that while Bazardo is young, he’s not exactly inexperienced. He’s been with the Marlins, Tigers and Phillies and failed to stick with any of those organizations. The Astros felt he had enough to offer to take a chance on him, and it’s likely they didn’t envision him working his way onto the big league staff this quickly.

It’s probably prudent to remember that Bazardo is not the true “prospect” that Bud Norris is. In my opinion, it’s important to keep those two separate when talking about the future of this rotation. That said, I’d like to see Bazardo pitch, fully rested, many more times before passing judgment. 

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News and notes:

Puma is getting antsy to return to the field. Asked by reporters about his sore calf, he responded: “If a grizzly ran out of that room right there, I could beat all you guys up the stairs.”

Hampton has a lateral meniscus sprain in his right knee and left the ballpark to have MRIs on both of his knees. The Astros expect to have the results Sunday.

A tip of the cap to Carlos Lee, who became the third Astro to log his 300th career home run (also Pudge and Puma). Even better, the fan who caught the ball gave it back to him, in exchange for a signed bat. “The woman who caught it, it was her son’s eighth birthday,” Lee said. “So, Happy Birthday Hunter.”

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