Results tagged ‘ spring training ’

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.

Snapshots from Spring Training, Day Three.

A month ago, it looked as if catcher Jason Castro, who had two injury setbacks over the course of one calendar year, might not be ready to start the season when Opening Day rolls around on April 6.

Today, the level of optimism is much higher. It’s more likely than not that Castro, who had season-ending knee surgery last Spring Training and foot surgery this past December, is on track to start the season on time.

This isn’t to say that he’s maintaining the same workout pace as the other catches in camp. He’s not. He’s participating in drills and catching bullpens, but on a slightly lesser scale than the rest. The goal is for him to build stamina without overextending himself, even if it means not being quite ready to play when the Grapefruit season gets underway in another 10 days.

Regardless of when Castro appears in his first spring game, the catching situation this year, so far, is light years ahead of where the team was a year ago. There is no stat line that can truly describe how valuable a catcher is to a team. He’s top lieutenant on the field and can provide a huge sense of security to pitchers. On the flip side, if a catcher is inadequate in his ability to call games and block pitches in the dirt, it can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s psyche.

Castro’s return will be a big lift for the team, and the addition of Chris Snyder, a veteran catcher, should not be overlooked. The Astros now have three catchers in a pool that also includes veteran Humberto Quintero, giving them experience, depth and a plan B. They pretty much had none of those things  a year ago.

A couple of housekeeping notes:

* The final Houston-based Astroline will air on Thursday at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown. Former outfielder Kevin Bass will join Milo Hamilton for the hour-long show, which can be heard on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

Astroline will resume the following week on Feb. 29 at the Disney Boardwalk in Orlando. Keeping with tradition, the first Florida-based show will feature manager Brad Mills.

* The first full-squad workout will be held Feb. 26, and as always, workouts are free and open to the public. Gates open around 9:30 a.m. The first Grapefruit League game will take place at Osceola County Stadium on March 3 vs. the Nationals. Workouts on home game days are closed.

* Two spring games will be televised this year: March 20 vs. the Cardinals and April 3 vs. the White Sox (at Minute Maid Park).

And we conclude with images from Day 3 on a cloudy but rain-free morning at the spring complex:

Brian Bogusevic, Jed Lowrie

Practicing fielding comebackers: Brad Mills and Kyle Weiland.

Having some between-drills laughs: Jose Altuve, roving minor league baserunning coordinator Milt Thompson, Jimmy Paredes, Jose Cruz.

PFP: Bud Norris.

Two former first-rounders: Delino DeShields (2010) and George Springer (2011).

Batting practice: J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve.

Jimmy Paredes waves to a fan.

Brandon Lyon and Jason Castro discuss Lyon's bullpen session when it ended.

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Why Livan? One word: innings.

Much of the talk so far this spring has been about how many jobs are available, at just about every position, with the exception of just a few.

Let’s just say most of the players aren’t making permanent arrangements for Houston just yet. Instead, the mantra is one of caution: “I have to make the team first.”

If anything, that uncertainty will make for a more intriguing Grapefruit League season. Not only will several infield and outfield positions be up for grabs, but the starting pitching situation could also become pretty dramatic as the spring season draws to a close.

While there are no real guarantees in life beyond death, taxes and mind-numbing traffic at every corner of the greater Kissimmee metropolitan area, barring any unforeseen trades, it’s pretty definite that three of the rotation spots are going to Bud Norris, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers.

That leaves a slew of candidates for the remaining two spots, and with that, of course, comes uncertainty about not only who will win these jobs by the time camp breaks, but also how reliable these pitchers will be over the course of a full season.

That is why a team must have more than one option and more than one plan moving forward. And that is precisely why general manager Jeff Luhnow saw enough in Livan Hernandez to sign him to a low-risk Minor League contract.

If healthy and effective, the 37-year-old Hernandez gives the Astros something they might find they desperately need a couple of months into the season: innings, innings and more innings. Specifically, around 200 of them.

Over the last five seasons, Hernandez has averaged 180.1 innings per year. The ERAs have been all over the map, from very good (3.66 in 2010) to not so good (6.05 in 2008) to respectable (4.93 in 2007 and 4.47 in 2011). What manager Brad Mills and the coaching staff like about Hernandez is his ability to do two things: keep his team in the game, and still be on the mound in the seventh and eighth innings.

The Astros will look at many candidates this spring to fill those final two spots in the rotation. J.A Happ and Jordan Lyles have an upper hand in that they were both part of the equation, for varying amounts of time, just one season ago. Lucas Harrell, Zach Duke, Kyle Weiland and Henry Sosa could see some starts this spring as well.

But it would be impossible (and irresponsible) to label any of the candidates with a broad brush, mark them down in red pen and declare them as guaranteed innings-eaters.

That’s why the Astros signed Hernandez. If he’s healthy and does well this spring, he could be a big lift for a rotation in transition.

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Randoms:

* Another day, another Astros tweeter. Harrell has joined the Twitterverse and can be followed at @lucasharrell34. On an unrelated note, he also lost a bet to a buddy a while back and can’t cut his hair for a year, which is why he looks a little unruly these days. And he’s only 7 1/2 months into paying up.

* There are more position players in camp than I can count, so I’m not going to attempt to give an unscientific number of who’s already here. But I did sneak into the batting cages today and spotted Jed Lowrie, Jake Gobbert, J.B Shuck and J.D. Martinez, among others.

(More than half of the players in there are also active on Twitter. This completely irrelevant, I realize, but it kind of made me feel like a proud den mom.)

* While a Major League coaching staff consists of only seven people (including the manager), a Spring Training staff is much larger. Nearly two dozen coaches and special assistants comprise the spring staff. That includes all Minor League coordinators and instructors and select members of the coaching staffs of the Minor League teams. For example, the Triple-A Oklahoma City manager and coaches are working in big league camp, and slowly, as cuts are made and the Minor League spring seasons get underway, they will filter back over to their regular-season assignments.

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Feeling peppy? The Astros will hold auditions for Park Patrol hopefuls on Friday, March 2 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 3 from 8 a.m. to noon at Union Station at Minute Maid Park.

The Park Patrol is an interactive squad that performs at Astros home games. Game presentation activities include t-shirt launches, prize giveaways and trivia contests, in addition to performing dance routines and “skits” with the Team Mascot.

Park Patrol members will perform these tasks live in the stands, on ballpark concourses and will be featured on the stadium video boards. The Astros Park Patrol will also make appearances at season ticket holder events, Astros in Action Foundation events, and any approved event in connection with the Houston Astros.

Qualifications:
• Must be able to perform activities and interact with fans on camera in front of 40,000+ people. Prior entertainment experience preferred.
• Squad will wear baseball-inspired, cheerleader-styled attire. Previous experience as a cheerleader, pep squad, or drill team member or some dance classes a plus, but not required.
• Individuals must have outstanding communication skills and a positive, energetic personality.
• They must also have stamina and fitness level capable of performing in conditions for several hours before and during games.
• Individuals must be available to work during Astros home games and other special events as needed.
• Must be reliable, punctual, and courteous. Good listening skills and ability to work with brief instruction required. Must also be flexible and able to handle situations with a quick and professional response.
• Those who are selected to the squad must be able to attend mandatory training sessions being held March 22 to March 25.
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And we leave you with more images from another sunny morning in Central Florida:

Thought this was pretty cool: after Livan Hernandez finished throwing his bullpen session, he hugged his catcher, Chris Wallace, and thanked him. I'm sure this is not the first time such an exchange has taken place in similar settings, but it was still a nice gesture from a veteran pitcher to a young prospect whom he just met two days ago.

Jason Castro takes BP on the back field with the other catchers in camp.

Castro and hitting coach Mike Barnett discussed the BP session when it was over.

Post workout stretching sessions often double as social occasions. Jorge DeLeon and Jimmy Paredes wrap up the day with some general chatter.

Jed Lowrie, jettisoned from Boston in the Mark Melancon trade, is one of many position players who are already here.

Bud Norris throws his first bullpen session of the spring.

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Morning links: Schafer apologizes, Crane tours Kissimmee, and Manny gets yet another chance.

Jordan Schafer did the smart thing by speaking directly with reporters about his offseason troubles immediately upon arriving to Spring Training on Monday.

Schafer was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia during a traffic stop soon after the season ended. He’s currently taking part a court-ordered pretrial intervention in program and if he completes it without incident, his record will be cleared.

In this Brian McTaggart report on MLB.com, Schafer was contrite, apologizing to the Astros for the spot he put them into and thanking them for standing behind him.

“I got caught up in a bad situation, and hopefully I’ve learned from my mistake and moved on and become a better person for it, and hopefully we don’t have any more instances like that,” he said. “Hopefully, I can be a good role model and learn from this.”

Schafer is active on Twitter, and if you follow him, you were able to see first-hand, thanks to the magic of Twitpics, that he was serious when he said he put on 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. You also received this tweet from him as he turned in for the night:

“Goodnight twit fam, busy day n I’m beat. Good to finally get everything off my chest n move on. Thanks 2 all of u 4 the support. Muchluv.”

Other notables:

* George Springer, the Astros’ first-round pick from last year’s Draft, has reported to camp and will be one of a handful of top prospects spending some of the spring with the big league club. Springer won’t make the team this year, but the experience of going through a Major League Spring Training could be valuable for him, as well a few other key figures who could be a big part of the Astros’ future, including Jonathan Singleton, Jonathan Villar and DeLino DeShields, among others.

* For 90 days, Jim Crane, along with his partners, has owned a baseball business. Monday, he finally owned a baseball team, writes the Chronicle’s Zachary Levine. Crane spent the day in Kissimmee on Monday, taking in his first Spring Training. By all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed himself.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I hadn’t been in a locker room in a long time, but you never forget what it’s like.”

* When word traveled through the baseball world that Manny Ramirez was looking to make a comeback, I surmised that 30 of 30 teams would pass on him. After all, he’s turning 40 in May, right around the same time that he’d be eligible to play his first game after serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

I was wrong. Twenty-nine of 30 teams passed on him, leaving just the Oakland A’s ready and willing to take a chance on Manny being Manny. The contract is almost commitment-free: it’s a Minor League deal, which means it’s non-guaranteed, and it’s worth no more than $500,000.

Risk-free, yes. But is it even worth it to take that chance?

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Astros notes: Rotation tweaks, Barmes’ hand, and what they’re Tweeting

The Astros are down to less than a week’s worth of Spring Training
games, and with that comes some mild tweaking of the pitching staff.

Brett Myers will start in a Minor League game on Saturday rather
than face the Nationals on the Major League side. The logic behind Brad
Mills’ thinking is the same he has for why he’s starting J.A. Happ
on Tuesday in Oklahoma City instead of on Monday against the Phillies:
no need to show the opponent too much of what they’ll see in the
not-too-distant future.

Happ’s first regular-season start will arrive on Sunday, April 3 in
Philadelphia, whom the Astros are also playing on Monday in Clearwater.
The Phillies are already familiar enough with Happ’s work. No need to
show them everything he has a few days before they see him again — when
the games actually matter.

Myers has faced the Nationals once this spring already and will probably
see them again at some point during the season. The starting pitchers
have long shaken off the offseason rust and are looking now like they
might look a month from now. So protecting them this time of the spring
isn’t a terrible idea.

“I know there’s a good chance he’ll face (the Nationals) twice during
the season,” manager Brad Mills said of Myers. “Do we want to expose him
that much during the spring? That’s kind of what we’re looking at.”

So while the regular season rotation will be Myers, Wandy, Happ, Norris
and Figueroa, the rotation for the final five games of the exhibition
season will be Henry Villar, Wandy, Norris, Happ and Figueroa.

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The Astros will collectively hold their breath and cross their fingers and any other cliched trick as they await the results of x-rays that will be taken on Clint Barmes’ left hand Saturday morning.

Barmes was hit by a pitch during the Astros’ game with the Yankees in Tampa on Friday and while he felt “sore, but promising” after his exit, he’s hoping the hand is just deeply bruised, and not broken.

“It hit me pretty square,” Barmes said. As soon as he got to first base, he felt the hand swell and immediately went to the training room to ice it.

Stay tuned.

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From the Astros Twitter files: 

Hoping Duke’s loss was all a figment of imagination:

@CJAstros23 Please tell me I was dreaming last night and duke didn’t get smoked by 20??? Someone please lie to me

One teammate admiring another’s athleticism…

@hunterpence9 If you don’t think pitchers are athlete’s check out @hyphen18 core routine… #CrazyAussie

…and that teammate’s response:

@hyphen18 It’s my ’7 minute abs routine’

Tri-City ValleyCats relive 2010 and get their rings.

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If the season the Tri-City ValleyCats had in 2010 is a foreshadow of things to come in Houston, more fruitful times are ahead of the Astros, at many levels of the organization.

Maybe the Short-Season A ValleyCats’ New York-Penn League championship title received minimal fanfare while the Astros were wrapping up their season last September. But their accomplishments were well-documented within the organization, and celebrated Tuesday night at the Astros’ Minor League complex in Kissimmee.

In the Major Leagues, it’s customary to hold a ring ceremony for a League and/or World Series championship early the next season. But in the Minor Leagues, most of the players who comprised a championship roster for one club have moved to a new team, and new city, the next year. Instead, the logical time to celebrate a title is during Spring Training, when the players are all together, regardless of where they might end up on opening day.

By all accounts, this ceremony had perfect attendance. Nearly every player from last year’s Tri-City team was there, in addition to the ValleyCats front office, the entire Astros’ Minor League staff and most of the Major League front office — around 120 total.

(Watch video from the banquet here)

“What you guys accomplished was really special,” said Fred Nelson, the Astros’ Director of Player Development, during his opening remarks to the players. “We don’t know where you’re going to be a year from now, or maybe two or three years from now in your life. But the ring you’re going to be getting tonight cannot be taken away from you.”

Added general manager Ed Wade: “Everybody in the office in Houston, everybody connected to player development, was paying a lot of attention to what you guys were doing in Tri-City. It hasn’t happened a lot in this organization, but it’s going to happen a lot more often.”

The banquet included a video that showed the highs and lows of the regular season, the intensity of the playoffs and the euphoric celebration after the ValleyCats clinched the title. What really struck me while watching the video wasn’t so much the timely hits or great plays that led them to the title, but rather the collective laughter from the players in the room as they watched the footage of the celebratory pile on, the crazy dancing and yelling in the clubhouse and the time-honored tradition of dousing each other with bubbly beverages — in this case, sparkling cider.

While I’m sure it was a lot more fun for the players when they actually won the title, it was still highly entertaining for this outsider to watch them relive the moment.

(And the rings are gorgeous.)

Video images

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Ring ceremony: Jake Buchanan and ValleyCats Vice President/General Manager Rick Murphy.

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Ryan Cole

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Oscar Figueroa (with ValleyCats president Bill Gladstone in background)

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Telvin Nash

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Group shot…

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…holding up their rings.

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Last minute ticket info as we near the Spring Training finish line

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As we inch toward the beginning of the regular season, we’d like to pass along some information about the upcoming exhibition game at Minute Maid Park, along with a couple of ticket tidbits you may have missed…

March 30 vs. Boston Red Sox

Before Brad Mills joined the Astros, we didn’t see much of the storied AL East Red Sox beyond an Interleague series every four years or so. But I sense it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen more of the Red Sox in the last two years than we did in the 15 years prior, now that Mills is in the mix.

For a baseball fan living in Houston, that can only be viewed as a good thing. While having the Royals and Blue Jays as our exhibition guests at Minute Maid Park for the better part of a decade was nice and all, it’s simply more fun to have a team like the Red Sox in town. And they’ll be here March 30 at 7:05 CT (in addition to a three-gamer in early July.)

Click here to reserve your tickets for the final exhibition game of 2011…

Also, we’re offering a First Pitch sweepstakes for the Astros-Red Sox game. Fans can text “pitch” to 26099 for the chance to throw out the first pitch on March 30. The contest ends Thursday afternoon and the winner will be notified on Friday.

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If you’re more focused on the regular season, check out this new cheap ticket, premium game package: The Opening Day 3-Game Hot Pack.

The package includes a ticket to Opening Day (April 8 versus the Marlins), a ticket to the June 28 game versus the Rangers and July 3 versus the Red Sox.

Details can be found here…

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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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Astros notes: FanFest, Myers, Bourn…and your Opening Day first baseman.

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The Astros have announced details about this year’s FanFest, which will take place April 9 and 10 in conjunction with Opening Weekend at Minute Maid Park. The events will take place primarily on the main concourse and will include autograph sessions, Talkin’ Baseball seminars with broadcasters and staff, silent auctions and the popular annual Garage Sale.

Admission is free each day with the purchase of a game ticket. The game on April 9 begins at 6:05 p.m. CT and at 1:05 p.m. CT on April 10.

Proceeds from the autograph sessions, Garage Sale and Mystery Grab Bags will benefit the Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park. Additionally, in-stadium and online auction proceeds will benefit relief efforts in Japan.

The list of, and schedule for, former and current players who will sign autographs will be announced in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, here are the basics:

Saturday, April 9:

* FanFest begins at noon, with gates opening at 11 a.m. This day will feature four autograph sessions, two from noon to 12:50 p.m. and two from 1 p.m. to 1:50.

* Each session will include autographs from four current players for a donation of $20 per session. Alumni will also sign.

* Other activities: Garage Sale, Mystery Grab Bags and auctions and face painters, clowns and other free activities for kids.

Sunday, April 10:

* Gates open at 11:30 a.m. Astros alumni players will sign autographs (current players sign on Saturday only).

* Other activities: Garage Sale, Mystery Grab Bags and auctions and face painters, clowns and other free activities for kids.

Tickets to the April 9 and 10 games are on sale now with prices starting as low as $7 for adults and $1 for kids ages 3-14.  Game tickets are available online at http://www.astros.com, at the Minute Maid Park Box Office on Texas Avenue or by phone toll free at 877-9ASTROS (877-927-8767).

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Myers to start Opening Day

The news that Brett Myers will pitch the first game of the regular season came as a shock to exactly no one, but it was still nice to hear Brad Mills make it official before the game in Jupiter on Friday.

Logic would dictate that Mills will have his rotation set up in a righty-lefty-right-lefty format, which would probably mean pitchers one through four would be Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ. But that doesn’t mean that’s how the rotation will look in another two weeks.

Mills hesitated to reveal how the pitchers will line up, probably because Wandy has been sidelined with shoulder tendinitis. However, Wandy has been cleared to start Tuesday’s game, and if you count out the days following that start, assuming he’ll be pitching on normal rest, that would put him on schedule to start April 1. Since that day is taken by Myers, it would make sense if Wandy pitched the next game.

Stay tuned.

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Other notables:

* Angel Sanchez’s back is still bothering him and he did not play on Friday.

* Michael Bourn, who has been hampered this week by a sinus condition, was back in the leadoff spot on Friday. Mills said before the game they’d be keeping an eye on him: “With this heat, it would be easy for him to get run down.” Bourn was 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored against the Marlins.

* One Killer B leaves, another arrives. Jeff Bagwell left Kissimmee on Friday but plans to return the final week of Spring Training. Meanwhile, Craig Biggio is here for the weekend. Both are special assistants to the GM.

* Congrats to Jason Michaels and his wife, Pamela, on the birth of their son, Logan James. Little “LMike” arrived on St. Patty’s Day, weighing in at a robust eight pounds, seven ounces and measuring 20 inches.

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Links worth clicking:

* When you have a chance please read this delightful piece from Jerry Crasnick about Astros pitchers and their coach. It perfectly captures Brad Arnsberg and his relationship with his pitchers.

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* Heading into Spring Training, first base wasn’t Brett Wallace’s job to win as much as it was his to lose. He was penciled in as the starting first baseman when he arrived to Kissimmee, but with less than two weeks remaining before Opening Day, you can chuck the pencil and mark it in red ink.

From the feedback I received from readers throughout the spring season, there seemed to be a feeling that Wallace was competing with Carlos Lee for the first base job. That was not the case. Lee showed he could play a pretty good first base last season and was considered a Plan B for that position — but only if Wallace showed he wasn’t ready for the full-time job.

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Wallace would have had to have a monumentally terrible spring for that to happen. Instead, he’s had a fantastic go of it, hitting .364 through Friday’s game in Jupiter (where he went 2-for-4). He’s got it all but wrapped up.  

MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez has a nice write up on Wallace here.

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Female ballplayer throws batting practice, promotes Baseball for All.

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Of all of the life lessons Justine Siegal can pass along to the many kids she’s impacted over the years, perseverance could very well be at the top of the list.

Sure, Siegal initially had no choice but to take no for answer when she first reached out to all 30 teams with a request to throw batting practice to Major League hitters during the next Spring Training. She sent emails, and she received no responses. Well, she did get one — “it was a beautiful email,” she said. “Telling me, politely, no.”

But Siegal was encouraged that at least someone did read it. So she pushed on. She reached out to people she knew who might have an “in” with general managers. She showed up at the Winter Meetings. She got some one-on-one face time with club execs.

“People started warming to it,” Siegal said.

First, Oakland A’s. Then her hometown Indians. The Rays, Cardinals, Astros and Mets soon followed. By those teams saying yes, Siegal, a 36-year-old former high school and amateur baseball player, became what is believed to be the first woman to throw batting practice to big league hitters.

Siegal threw a round of BP to Astros hitters on the backfields at Osceola County Stadium Saturday morning. The Astros were the fourth team she threw to, but it was “the first time I’ve done this where I haven’t felt nervous when I started,” she said.

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The batting practice experience helped Siegal fulfill one lifelong goal, but ultimately, her main purpose is to bring awareness to her organization, Baseball For All, which provides girls and women the opportunity to get involved in baseball as players, coaches and umpires. Her web site, baseballforall.com, details many opportunities for girls to play in tournaments and participate in camps and academies.

“They don’t want to just watch and wear a pink jersey,” Siegal said. “They want to be a part of baseball.”

Siegal, who was the first woman to coach men’s professional when she coached for the Brockton Rox in 2009, has received a positive response from all of the teams she’s worked with this spring. The Rays “almost made it a home run derby,” she recalled. “It was a really light atmosphere, with Coco Crisp leading the way. They were having a good time with it. That’s what I wanted — for them to enjoy the experience.”

Siegal wears a patch, dedicated to the memory of Christina-Taylor Green, on her left sleeve. Green, who was killed during the shootings in Tucson in January, was the only girl on her Little League team and had aspirations to become the first female Major League Baseball player.

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“When she was shot, a lot of parents reached out to me, wanting to know what BFA was going to do to help,” Siegal said. “I knew I wanted to do something. Then I heard about the patch.”

Asked how the Green family reacted to the attention the patch is receiving as she tours the different spring training facilities, Siegal said simply, “They gave me the best compliment possible — they said they’re very proud of me.”

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Play was halted for about 15 minutes on Saturday after a female fan apparently was hit in the head by a foul ball. She was tended to by the on-site EMTs and taken away on a stretcher. There was no indication how severe the injury or the fan’s condition available. We will provide an update when we receive word.

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Promotional updates:

On March 14 vs. PHI, the first 2,000 fans will receive Astros drawstring backpacks presented by Holiday Inn Main Gate East…Kid’s Run the Bases!, for children ages 5-12, will be featured twice this Spring on March 20 and 27 immediately following the game…the March 20 will feature $1 hot dogs and free Astros posters, presented by Florida Operation Lifesaver, while supplies last…Military Appreciation Day, presented by Outback Steakhouse, will be March 27, as well as free Astros posters presented by Florida Operation Lifesaver, while supplies last.

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Sunday

The Astros will play their fifth of six split squad games on Sunday, with half the team going to Disney to play the Braves and the other half traveling to Lakeland to face the Tigers.

The pitchers scheduled to throw in these games are:

ATL: RHP Bud Norris, RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP Jeff Fulchino, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Fernando Rodriguez, RHP Henry Villar.
DET: LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith, RHP Aneury Rodriguez, LHP Wesley Wright, LHP Gustavo Chacin, RHP Enerio Del Rosario, RHP Jose Valdez.

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Finally, here are some images from Saturday’s activities at Osceola County Stadium:

Hunter Pence
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Pence, Carlos Lee
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Oswaldo Navarro, Bill Hall
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J.D. Martinez

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Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg works with Wesley Wright.

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Lining up for the anthem.

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Astros are on Facebook
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Ch
eck out Astros witticisms at AstrosOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com  

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