Encore or Bust?

Stressing about the 'Stros begins anew

3. The Wall of Random Numbers. A row of large banners hangs near the left-field roof, adorned with digits. As a baseball fan you'd probably think these are the team's retired numbers, but a closer look would blow that theory to hell. Six numbers are retired. Two of them belong to guys you never heard of: 32 can be identified as Jim Umbricht, who died after two years with the 'Stros; and 40, Don Wilson, committed suicide (he had, according to the respected www.baseballlibrary.com, been "unfairly labeled a troublemaker after run-ins with Astro managers").

Then there's 25, belonging to Jose Cruz, who's not exactly Hall of Fame material; the 34 of Nolan Ryan, who played two-thirds of his career elsewhere and was booted out of town for demanding a $1 million salary; the 49 of Larry Dierker, who was fired unceremoniously by the team; and the 33 of Mike Scott, who -- let's face it -- cheated worse than a Florida State football recruiter.

4. The Gallery of Unpurchased Art. A store called the Home Plate Supply Company, located behind home plate, offers expensive paintings of baseball scenes. No one yet has taken them up on their offer.

Scouting Report

Astros fans are blessed with a number of quality blogs about the team; they're also able to show their style, given the rainbow jersey's domination of the hip-hop, retro-fashion scene.

We got scouting reports for the 'Stros' division rivals from Joshua Raisen of www.astroland.net, RHP Hirsch of www.throwslikeagirl.typepad.com and Willie B. Lakey of www.astrosdaily.com. For a fashion analysis of the teams, we consulted rapper Chingo Bling, a man who's proud to have pissed on the mound of then-Enron Field (in a porta-potty, while the stadium was under construction).

St. Louis Cardinals

Pros: Got Mark Mulder in Oakland's annual off-season fire sale; everyone's pick to win the NL Central.
Cons: Mark McGwire's legacy now only slightly better than Ken Lay's.
Raisen: "St. Louis has Chris Carpenter penciled in as their ace. Nothing good can come of that. Matt Morris is about as old as you can be for someone who's 30."
Hip-hop quotient: Nelly, Chingy, Murphy Lee and J-Kwon are the formidable equivalent of Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds and Walker.
Chingo's style analysis: "That bird, is he sitting on that bat? Is that what he is? Yeah, I don't know about that. I don't know about a bird sitting on no bat."

Chicago Cubs

Pros: Unlike the departed Sammy Sosa, Cubs players will actually stick around to watch the entire game.
Cons: Bullpen will treat leads with all the care lavished on AOL "free trial" CDs.
Hirsch: "I hate the Cubs so much I fully expect them to overcome their pitching injuries [and] the loss of Sosa and Moises Alou just to thwart me."
Hip-hop quotient: Breakout year for Kanye West; Common always reliable.
Chingo: "Awww, that cute little teddy bear, how cute. They got that Valentine's gift on their jersey -- not very manly."

Cincinnati Reds

Pros: Modest upgrades
Cons: Barry Larkin retired; Adam Dunn set single-season strikeout record last year (and he's a batter, not a pitcher).
Lakey: "Cincinnati could escape the bottom half of the division this year. I have May 19 in the 'Ken Griffey Jr. to the DL' pot."
Hip-hop quotient:On the underground tip, you've got DJ Hi-Tek and Five Deez.
Chingo: "That red uniform might not work in some neighborhoods -- they might want to keep that in mind when trying to be fashionable. You don't want to be in the wrong 'hood with that."

Milwaukee Brewers

Pros:Ben Sheets could have one of the best records in the league if the Brewers could score while he pitches.
Cons: The Brewers can't score while he (or anyone else) pitches.
Lakey: "The Brewers could shock the division with an upper-half finish. Of course, Astros radio announcer Milo Hamilton might also quit plugging one sponsor or another every 3.7 nanoseconds of an Astros broadcast."
Raisen: "I have never -- and I mean never -- heard of the guy they propose closing ball games with in 2005."
Hip-hop quotient: Nothing says hip-hop like Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Chingo: "I kinda like that color scheme; I like the blue and yellow -- that's very spring-ish hip-hop, if you will."

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pros:Jason Kendall's always been great. Except now he's playing for the A's.
Cons:Mathematically eliminated on the first day of spring training, just to save time.
Raisen:"First baseman Craig Wilson looks like he should've played guitar for Warrant."
Hip-hop quotient: See Milwaukee.
Chingo: "Imagine a pirate with a wooden leg trying to run the bases. I don't think that would work very good."

Bill Brown's Wild Side

Bill Brown is one of baseball's best play-by-play announcers. To viewers, though, his dry, understated demeanor and slight build leave the impression he's a buttoned-down professor off the air. Au contraire, says Jim Deshaies:

Five Things You Probably Don't Know About My Partner Bill Brown

1. When you ask him if he's ready for airtime, he always responds by muttering, "I got the streets on lock, dawg."

2. Earns extra money on off nights on the road by working hotel lounges as Elvis impersonator.

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