Results tagged ‘ Roy Oswalt ’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Won’t he?

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0312_brave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew life could be this grand?

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Airing of the grievances: Houston, I have a problem.

When MLB.com was in its infancy back in the early 2000s, reporters and producers received an email from our higher-ups a couple of weeks before the start of Spring Training, giving us a list of old and worn-out cliches that we were NEVER to use in our copy or headlines.

Spring Has Sprung. Hope Springs Eternal. Baseball’s in Full Swing. And on and on.

I sent an email back, asking as politely as possible, “Can we add, ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’ to that list?”

That was (at least) 11 years ago. I can’t recall if that line ever did appear on Astros.com or MLB.com, but even if it didn’t, it’s only a small victory. Because it shows up everywhere else.

It seems that whenever the Astros (and quite possibly the Rockets, Texans and other Houston sports teams) are in turmoil, and have, well, a problem, the headline writers spend all of four seconds coming up with something that properly illustrates the issues surrounding the team in trouble.

Houston, We Have a Problem.

Neat. Congratulations. Well done. Now, please stop.

I try to picture the process by which an editor chooses that particular headline. It’s late at night, he’s editing a story about the Astros sinking in the standings. He has his index finger pressed firmly against his chin. He’s looking up at the ceiling, deep in thought. And then it hits him. His eyes light up. Yes. Yes. Yes. He smiles. He types. He inwardly congratulates himself for coming up with the most clever play on words in the history of the English language.

Houston, he writes. We Have a Problem.

Hahahahahahahaha!

How has no one thought of this before? he wonders. It’s perfect. Four decades ago, the Apollo 13 space mission was aborted because of an exploding oxygen tank, and the astronauts inside sent a message back to the command center: “Houston, we have a problem.” And now, a Houston sports team stinks.

Using “Houston, We Have a Problem” solves two issues: It is a quick fix — a convenient headline to slap onto a story and call it a night. It also allows for the editor to have to spend no time actually coming up with something creative. Or timely.

The Astros are getting a lot of national attention lately, and I do not begrudge the writers from jumping on this story. It’s not easy to do what the Astros are pulling off, losing at such an alarming pace that although they were within a game of .500 as late as the end of May, they’re now on pace to surpass last year’s club record 106 losses. It’s mind-boggling. So I understand the need to follow along.

While the Astros are being shoved into the unfortunate national spotlight, this seems like as good a time as any to try to at least attempt to ceremoniously retire “Houston, we have a problem.” Heck, if the Rangers can launch an entire in-stadium campaign to kill the Wave, the least we can do in the Bayou City is wipe out a worn-out cliched phrase that should have gone away around the same time The Brady Bunch went off the air.

The phrase isn’t even accurate. The actual words uttered by the Apollo 13 crew were “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That is less dramatic, obviously, because it indicates there was a problem, but there isn’t one anymore. That wouldn’t work for headline purposes. Readers aren’t going to be nearly as interested if they think the problem that once existed has been solved.

So, “Houston, We Have a Problem” works better. And the Astros have complied over the years by giving the headline writers plenty of opportunities to use it. Consider:

2000 — The Astros, coming off three straight division titles, move into their gorgeous new downtown ballpark and spend the first half of the season on pace to lose 120 games.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2001 — Larry Dierker, in his fifth year of managing, watches his Astros get swept, again, in the Division Series. Rumors swirl that he will be fired. He is.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2004 — Roy Oswalt and Michael Barrett have a contentious relationship, which creates friction between the Astros and Cubs and adds a delicious subplot every time the two teams meet. Oswalt throws at Barrett during a game at Minute Maid Park, is ejected, and Jeff Bagwell gets mad at Oswalt for getting thrown out of a game during a time the Astros are making a push for the Wild Card. Bagwell’s never spoken out against a teammate, ever. Houston media is all over it. (No, not really.)

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2006 — Coming off a World Series appearance, the Astros cannot recapture the magic and are not in any kind of race, until the last week of the season when the Cardinals help out by putting together an eight-day nose dive.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2007 — the team is worse, and Phil Garner is fired.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2008 — hellooooo Hurricane Ike.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

2009 — the oldest roster in baseball costs $100 million and finishes fifth.

“Houston, We Have a Problem.”

In short, we get it. Houston is the Space City. Astronauts live here. There are times when the Houston sports teams aren’t very good. “Houston, We Have a Problem” was once clever and apropos.

In 1972-ish.

Isn’t it time to move on?

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2. Call Weezie. We’re movin’ on up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rinse, repeat.

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

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

____________

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

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

New:

1011_scoreboard.JPG

Old:

1011_old_scoreboard.JPG____________

3. Miscellany:

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

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

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

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

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

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From the photo vault:

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


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And now playing left field, hitting cleanup, Roy Oswalt.

Roy Oswalt pitched the day before the Astros arrived to Philadelphia for their four-game set with the Phillies, so everyone naturally assumed that the right-hander would not be playing against his former team this time around.

But after Ryan Howard was called out on a check swing in the 14th inning, and after he went ballistic, and after he was ejected by third base umpire Scott Barry and after he had to be restrained from chasing after Barry, the Phillies found themselves in a bit of a pickle: they were out of position players and had no one to replace Howard at first base.

For several minutes no Phillies players were on the field. They were still in the dugout, and for a split second I thought, are they protesting the Howard ejection? Soon it became pretty apparent that they were waiting for manager Charlie Manuel to decide which of his very limited options would be the best to play defense in the top of the 15th.

About a minute later, a ripple went through the crowd and filtered up to the press box as everyone realized that it was Oswalt emerging from the dugout, and he was headed to left field.

Two things struck me at that moment: 1) this had instantly turned into one of the greatest games I’ve ever witnessed and 2) the ballpark was still nearly three-fourths full of Phillies fans, despite the late hour and length of the game. A thunderous cheer erupted as Oswalt ran to his position in left field, and soon, the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go Oswalt.”

As if truly scripted, the first ball (hit by Jason Castro) went right to Oswalt. He fielded it cleanly, threw it back to the infield and cracked a smile as he received a standing ovation from the crowd. All of the Astros players were pressed up against the railing in their dugout, clearly amused by this strange twist of events involving their former teammate.

Oswalt was inserted into the cleanup spot and was due to hit fifth in the 16th inning. Jeff Fulchino recorded two quick outs, but he walked Placido Polanco, bringing Chase Utley to the plate. Clearly, with two outs and Oswalt on deck, the only option was to put the tying run on base and walk Utley. And even though that made perfect sense, I couldn’t help but wonder if the adrenaline rush Oswalt surely was feeling at that moment was going to give him enough oomph to hit one out of the park.

It wasn’t. Oswalt grounded out, and the Astros won the game, 4-2. It took five hours and 20 minutes, 15 pitchers and 533 pitches, and I have a feeling we’re going to be talking about this one for a long time.

Facts and figures from the win:

It was the longest game of the season for both teams. It was also the longest game at Citizens Bank Park since July 2, 2004, when the Orioles and Phillies played 16 innings.

The last time the Astros played a game this long was July 6, 2008, when they lost to the Braves in Atlanta in 16 innings.

The Astros are 7-4 in extra innings this year.

Wilton Lopez’s career-best scoreless streak ended at 20 innings when he allowed a solo home run to Jimmy Rollins in the ninth inning. Lopez’s streak was the longest active one in the Majors.

Carlos Lee has hit safely in 11 straight games at Citizens Bank Park and is hitting .404 over that span. He also has 23 RBIs in his last 24 games.

Tim Byrdak has pitched eight straight scoreless innings, spanning 10 games.

The Phillies trade got a lot more interesting when the Blue Jays jumped in.

Got this tweet from @comahan13:

“Wow they flipped Gose for Wallace? That’s a great move if it’s true, and almost single-handedly changes my opinion of all this.”

That was exactly my reaction when I heard the Astros traded one of the Phillies prospects they acquired for Roy Oswalt for a 6-foot-2, 205-pound first baseman — a former No. 1 draft pick whose future is at first base.

My original reaction to the players the Astros acquired in the Oswalt trade wasn’t so enthusiastic. I was glad they received J.A. (pronounced “Jay”) Happ, a bona fide Major League ready pitcher, but when I looked at outfielder Anthony Gose’s credentials, he seemed so much like Michael Bourn and Minor League outfielder Jay Austin and I was wholly disappointed that the Astros did not go for a slugging infielder, something sorely lacking in the upper levels of their farm system.

Then the Astros flipped Gose to Toronto for infielder Brett Wallace, a power-hitting corner infielder. He appears to be a blue-chip offensive player who hasn’t established himself at a particular position, and he’ll report to Round Rock immediately to begin honing his skills at first base.

The other prospect in the deal, shortstop Jonathan Villar, will go to Class A Lancaster. He was described by general manager Ed Wade as having “very significant tools — speed, good hands, above average arm. Good instincts to hit.” Villar is a step behind ’09 first-round pick Jiovanni Mier, who’s playing at Class A Lexington.

I received a lot of questions from you throughout the day on Thursday, so let’s get cracking…

Q: Looking at the season Wallace is having at AAA it looks like a great trade. Any idea why Jays would trade Wallace for Gose?

My take: It comes down to the individual needs of an organization. Some teams have a surplus of players at one position and can use that to replenish another area that isn’t so strong. I’m not an expert on the strengths and deficiencies of very Major League team, but it appears the Jays had a need for a speedy top-of-the-order outfielder, and the Astros already have that in Bourn and Austin.

Q: If Wallace is all that, why is he on his fourth organization?

My take: Valid concern. But if you look at the transactions, he’s been in the middle of some pretty big deals. The Cardinals drafted Wallace as their first-rounder in ’08 as a third baseman, but over the course of his first season, it became pretty obvious he didn’t have much of a future at that position. First base better suited him, but he was obviously blocked by the best hitter in the game and one who isn’t going anywhere for a long, long, time in Albert Pujols. So Wallace became both expendable and a huge trading chip for the Cardinals, who included him in a package to get Matt Holliday from the Athletics.

Wallace was then traded to the Blue Jays for Michael Taylor, who had just been traded to Toronto as part of the Roy Halladay trade.

So, in essence, Wallace isn’t so much someone that teams want to get rid of as much as someone who helps them fill important needs elsewhere. From what I’ve been told by friends who cover some of the other organizations Wallace has played for, he’s the real deal offensively. Projects to hit for a high average and most importantly, he has power. The knock on him is his defense, which Wade acknowledged during Thursday’s press conference: “There’s some finishing school left to be attended on Brett’s part. There are some rough edges to clean up. This is a pretty special bat as far as we’re concerned. He needs to learn his position. That’s why we have player development system, to help these guys in all phases of the game.”

Q: What does this mean for Lance Berkman? Are the Astros going to try to move him for prospects?

My take: While I do not believe this necessarily pushes Lance out the door this season, this definitely protects them for 2011 and beyond. Berkman has a $15 million club option for ’11 (with a $2 million buyout), and judging from his offensive production this year, it would be hard to imagine the Astros picking up that option. In fact, you can pretty much bet they won’t. So either they try to re-sign Berkman at a lower cost after this season, or they find someone more economical to take over at first base. Wallace gives them that option.

There has been speculation that now that they have Wallace, the Astros will try to trade Berkman between now and Saturday’s trade deadline in an effort to get something, anything, for him. There is a report that the White Sox might be interested. We’ll see. Like Oswalt, Berkman has a full no-trade clause and I haven’t been given any indication he’s anxious to get out of here just yet. That said, there’s plenty of time between now and Saturday at 3 CT, so we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.

Q: I know it’s part of the business, but how do you deal with the trade of someone you’ve covered for years?

My take: It depends on the player to be honest. This one is sad for me because I’ve known Oswalt since the day he was called up nearly 10 years ago, and we’ve been close friends for most of that stretch. At the same time, this trade was inevitable and I’ve had it in my mind for so long that he’ll eventually be moving on — longer than anyone can imagine — that as I sit here in the press box a couple of hours after the trade was finalized, I’m kind of numb to it. It wasn’t a matter of “if” on Roy, it was a matter of “when.”

Over the years, saying goodbye to players gets easier, because you learn it’s just part of the business. I remember being pretty upset when the Astros traded Mike Hampton after the ’99 season and Jose Lima in 2001 and really, really bummed when the offseason of 2003 produced trades of two of my all-time favorites in Billy Wagner and Geoff Blum. And obviously, Craig Biggio’s last game in ’07 and Brad Ausmus’ last game in ’08 were sad, sad, sad. But for the most part, you get used to the revolving door of players that come in and out of the organization and if you stick around as long as I have, your favorite players eventually reappear as coaches and broadcasters, so there’s always that to look forward to.

Q: So does Milo call J.A. Happ “Happie?”

My take: After consulting with Baggy, Millsie, Keppie, Blummy and Bournie, put me down for “yes.”

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Randoms:

* Happ finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting by the baseball writers in 2009 after posting a 12-4 record and a 2.93 ERA over 35 appearances (24 starts).

* Happ, a former Phillies third-round pick, was on the disabled list this season with a flexor strain, but was activated about a week ago after making five rehab starts.

* Happ will start Friday’s game against the Brewers at Minute Maid Park.

* Villar hit .272 over 100 games at Class A this season with 18 doubles, four triples, two home runs and 38 stolen bases. He was signed by the Phillies as a non-drafted free agent in 2008 and has tallied 82 stolen bases over 204 career games, mostly as a shortstop.

* Wallace played in the Futures Game during All-Star Week in 2009 and was named to the Arizona Fall League All-Prospect team in ’08. He played college baseball at Arizona State University and was named Pac-10 Player of the Year in both 2007 and 2008. In ’07, he captured the conference’s Triple Crown, hitting .423 with 16 home runs and 78 RBIs while leading his club to the College World Series.

Where will Oswalt go? Not even he knows.

There are two times of the year that baseball beat reporters looks forward to the least: the Winter Meetings, and the couple of weeks leading up to the non-waiver trading deadline.

The Winter Meetings are probably the least painful of the two, only because they’re quicker. You arrive on Sunday, you leave on Thursday and with the exception of the few who cover the more proactive teams, you usually hang around the lobby all day only to be told by your general manager at the end: “We didn’t make any moves.” It’s mind-numbingly boring, but it goes pretty quickly.

The trade deadline is far more excruciating, because it drags on and on and on, and if you happen to cover one of the teams that is looking to deal a prized player, you have to wade through the daily reports, sift through the rumor mill and separate fact from fiction in order to get to something that resembles the truth. There are accurate reports out there, of course, but also a handful more that are some variation of false, or exaggerated, or, some cases, greatly understated.

I’m fairly certain those covering the Astros beat will be glad when Aug. 1 arrives. The trade deadline is Saturday (July 31) at 3 p.m. CT, and most likely, the Roy Oswalt saga won’t end long before then.

If you believe everything that’s being reported out there, Oswalt:

1. Will not approve the trade unless the team he’s going to picks up his $16 million club option for ’12;

2. Is willing to restructure the contract to make that $16 million club option for ’12 a more reasonable undertaking for the new club by deferring money;

3. Will not let the $16 million club option stand in the way of being traded and is OK with the club not picking up the option;

4. Won’t approve a trade to the Phillies;

5. Will approve a trade to the Phillies;

6. Won’t approve a trade to anyone but the Cardinals;

7. Will go to any team that he deems a sure-fire World Series contender;

8. Will only accept a trade if the new team has Evian water, yellow M&Ms, seedless red grapes and umbrella drinks waiting at his locker on days he pitches*;

9. Won’t go to either New York team because the Big Apple is a little too much for this southern down-home guy;

10. Would prefer the Yankees to anyone but probably won’t end up there because the Yankees aren’t interested;

11. Isn’t going to be traded anywhere, because the Astros’ demands are too high.

(*Kidding on No. 8. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.)

I have said from the beginning that I’m not buying the ’12 option being a deal-breaker. If he wants out as badly as we think he does, would he honestly say no just because the new team won’t commit to picking up an option for a season he may or may not pitch (he’s long maintained he’d like to hang it up after ’11)?

To me, the biggest hurdle as we near the non-waiver finish line is the need to get Oswalt’s approval before a trade can be made. We’ve referred back to the Randy Johnson trade in ’98 a lot lately for obvious reasons, but there are glaring differences — mainly, that Johnson did not have a no-trade clause and therefore did not need to be consulted before the deal was made. The Mariners were in the middle of a game and someone came over to him in the dugout, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “you’re going to Houston.”

The trade deadline this year is three hours before gametime, so it’s not as if Oswalt will have to be pulled from the dugout for a consultation. But if the Astros take this down to the wire and make an 11th hour deal, that might not give Oswalt any time to think it over. Will he need time to ponder? Who knows. But it’ll be interesting to see how this ends, and given all of the moving parts involved, it wouldn’t shock me if Oswalt was still here on Aug. 1.

Oswalt tells reporters affirmatively: “location doesn’t matter.”

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Family Day

The Astros held their annual Family Day on Sunday before the finale with the Reds, a session I call “An Hour of Chaos” — the good kind of chaos, where little kids are given free reign of the field. (Although I’m assuming Family Day isn’t such a happy day for the grounds crew.)

Family Day is pretty simple: players families come to the ballpark early and the kids run around the field for an hour, play whiffle ball, run the bases and pose for family pictures. Junction Jack, not surprisingly, is a pretty popular guy at this event.

Some images from the event:

Bryson Bourn hangs out with Bud Norris before heading out for family day.

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The Bourns.

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The Blum girls — Mia, Ava, Audrey and Kayla, are fired up to see Junction Jack.

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The Michaels family: Jason, Pamela and Payton.  

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Carlos Lee was having a nice family moment with his wife and kids…

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…and then one of his sons started pounding him with an inflatable baseball bat.

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The littlest Puma, Abigail Berkman, makes her Minute Maid Park debut.

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First base coach Bobby Meacham and his granddaughter.

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Brett Myers pitches to his son.

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Oswalt hangs out with his daughters.

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Berkman and his daughter, Carly.

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Yankee Stadium: As good as advertised.

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Television announcer Bill Brown summed it up nicely when I asked him what he thought of the new Yankee Stadium before Friday’s game:

“The concourses are wide, the field looks great, the access is wonderful. For $1.3 billion, it should be.”

And it is. The ballpark is gorgeous, worth every penny, whether you’re looking at it from a fan’s perspective or from a player’s perspective behind the scenes. Upon first glance, it reminds you a lot of the old Yankee Stadium, only (obviously) more modern. The white facades that were such a part of the old place have been resurrected in the new. And since it’s less than two years old, it’s still sparkling clean.

Enjoy the images, as well as the video we captured from the new ballpark

Blum, Keppinger, Pence

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The famous Lou Gehrig speech…this picture hangs near one of the main entrances at Yankee Stadium.

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The view from the visitors dugout.

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Jason Michaels, Jeff Keppinger.

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Carlos Lee.

 

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Roy Oswalt, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. And Chris Sampson.

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An outside view of the entrance at Yankee Stadium.

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A shot of the press box. You’ll notice Astros writers Brian McTaggart and Bernardo Fallas.

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It’s slightly ironic that the Astros are making their first trip to the Yankees’ new stadium this weekend, considering their first and only trip to the old one was this same weekend seven years ago.

Friday marked the seven-year anniversary of the six-pitcher no-hitter the Astros completed against the Yankees. The game that was historical on many levels and hysterical on still more, considering before it had even ended, speculation that George Steinbrenner was going to fire the hitting coach had already circulated around the press box and on the radio airwaves. Only in New York.

Three things stand out to me about that night more than any other:
1) Jeff Kent did not know it was a no-hitter until Billy Wagner told him once the last out was made. Kent, not exactly Mr. Congeniality to begin with, looked at Wags with an expression that was a combination of surprise, confusion and disapproval. Why in the world would Wagner pound his glove and then raise his fist in the air after closing out one of hundreds of games he’d appeared in by now? Kent: “What the heck are you doing?” Wags: “Dude. We just no-hit the Yankees.” Kent, breaking into huge grin: “Really?”

2) Octavio Dotel recorded four strikeouts during his inning of work, after one batter had reached on a wild pitch.

3) That night, Brad Lidge schooled some of his teammates on the historical meaning of what had just transpired. Lidge, a history buff, already knew plenty of obscure stats that put the no-hitter in perspective. The next day, he arrived with five or six more facts about the no-hitter that no one knew before. The guy was a walking encyclopedia. 

That brings us to the cool tidbit of the day, courtesy of media relations All-Star Sally Gunter: Two of the six Astros pitchers to contribute to the no-hitter seven seasons ago were in attendance at Friday’s game. Roy Oswalt was in the Astros dugout while former Astro Pete Munro (a native New Yorker) watched the game from the stands.

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Back to 2010…random tidbits from the pregame session with Brad Mills:

Carlos Lee will likely DH during Saturday’s game. A lot of you asked, rightfully, why Jason Michaels wasn’t playing left with Lee, with his shaky defense, isn’t DH-ing. Mills said Lee really wanted to play in left for at least the opener but would definitely DH for at least one game this series.

Matt Lindstrom had back spasms was unavailable to pitch during Thursday’s game in Denver. He felt better the next day in New York, but he was again deemed unable to pitch that night (which didn’t matter, since there was no save situation).

Consider Lindstrom day-to-day. Each day, Mills will check with him after he loosens up and throws during batting practice, and his availability will be decided before the game.

Radio announcer Milo Hamilton doesn’t travel with the team, but he makes exceptions when the Astros play in a  new ballpark that he’s never visited. Milo’s broadcast of the Astros-Yankees game on Friday marked the 58th different ballpark he’s called a game from.

Tough times for Astros as the losses pile up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oswalt pitches, Astros win. A nice break from the norm.

Roy Oswalt leads the Major Leagues with 10 quality starts, having pitched at least six innings and held opponents to three or fewer runs in every outing. That’s all well and good and interesting to a degree, but quality starts don’t mean anything without quality wins, which as we know have eluded Oswalt, and the Astros, more often than not this year.

That’s why it was nice to see the Astros score runs early and often Wednesday night against the Brewers. Oswalt got comfortable immediately, in what turned out to be a typically dominant outing.

The best thing for Oswalt to do is continue to be dominant, which will make him that much more attractive for potential trade partners, should the Astros decide to deal Oswalt before the July 31 deadline. It’s still unclear if the Astros will find a team that fits all three very important criteria: a) can take on Oswalt’s hefty salary, b) has enough young talent to offer in return and c) is a team Oswalt would agree to go to. But the odds of the Astros getting value on their return, should they choose to trade him, increase exponentially the more dominant Oswalt is from here on out.

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Some upcoming events to mark on your calendar:

Praise in the Park

The Astros are bringing Gospel music to Minute Maid Park on Saturday, June 5, with their Praise in the Park event, with a portion of the ticket proceeds benefitting the United Negro College Fund.

The program begins at 2:30 and includes a special Gospel concert, featuring Houston native James Fortune, Vickie Winans and “Houston’s 100 Voices of Praise”. Fortune is a Stellar Award nominee and winner of two prestigious ASCAP Awards for Gospel Song of the Year. Winans is a Grammy-nominated, Stellar Award and NAACP Award Winning artist.

Immediately following the concert, fans will enjoy a Heritage Expo including displays from the Negro League Baseball Museum, the Buffalo Soldier’s Museum, The Ensemble Theatre and many more.

For more information about Praise in the Park, click here.

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National Moment of Remembrance

Major League Baseball will be observing a National Moment of Remembrance on Monday, for three reasons: 1) to remind all Americans on Memorial Day the importance of remembering those who sacrificed their lives in serving their country; 2) provide an opportunity to join this expression of gratitude in an act of unity; and 3) make Memorial Day more relevant, especially to younger Americans.

Games played Monday afternoon will pause precisely at 3 p.m. (local time) in order for the host teams to play a one minute video in observance of a Moment of Remembrance, to honor those Americans who have sacrificed their lives in serving their country. The Astros are hosting the Nationals that day at 1:05 p.m. CT, so assuming the game moves at a normal pace, the game will probably be in the sixth or seventh inning when the video runs.

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And finally, I received this note from Astros fan Sam Restivo when the Astros were in Los Angeles last week. It’s a moving tribute to his grandmother, who spent a large portion of her 94 years passing her love for the Astros on to her family:

I wanted to let the Astros know that one of their all-time biggest fans has passed away.  My grandmother, Clementine Schattel Barton, died on Sunday at home in Houston at the age of 94.  She took me to my very first game at the Astrodome in 1988 and she never, ever missed a game on TV (or an opportunity to yell at it when the boys weren’t playing well!).  She had been a fan since the very beginning, having lived in and around the Houston area her entire life.  Every morning after a game, we’d read through the box scores in the Chronicle together and talk about who was or wasn’t playing well.  She passed her love and passion for the game onto me as I never miss a game either, even though I live in Los Angeles.

My friends at DodgerVision in LA sent me the attached picture of the tribute they did for her at the stadium and I would be honored if you would consider reposting it on your blog.  She was the most loyal of fans and I’m so happy she had the opportunity to see them go the Series in ’05.  She rooted for everybody from Jimmy Wynn to Nolan Ryan to Biggio and Bagwell.  As her health deteriorated over the past decade, she could no longer attend any games but would still be up in arms if anybody tried to change the channel at home! She meant the world to us and the Astros meant the world to her.

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