Encore or Bust?

Stressing about the 'Stros begins anew

Last year was an unforgettable roller-coaster ride for Astros fans. The season started with hopes higher than ever before; it soon plummeted to a dismayingly long slump that left the team for dead; it ended with a record-setting rush of wins and a first ever playoff-series win.

Being the Astros, of course, it also ended with a loss.

But they came within one game of the World Series. How does 2005 shape up? Let's just say 'Stros fans aren't as hopeful as this time last year. Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman are hurt; Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent are gone; Bidge and Bags are one year older.

Still, last year's adrenaline-rush finish, with screaming crowds rocking Minute Maid Park, has left fans eager for the new year to start.

Of course, we consulted astrologer Lilly Roddy to see what the future holds. Last year she correctly predicted a knockout season for Roger Clemens, a deep summer slump for the team, a change in management and no World Series.

Once again, we filled her in on some details, like players' birthdays and the fact that the baseball season does not extend until December.

Bottom line: no World Series. Clemens will have another good year, despite a rough start. (His chart -- like, we're guessing, most 44-year-olds' charts -- also shows him susceptible to "a stretched muscle or torn ligament," she says.)

Pettitte is in a cycle of injuries and won't heal soon, but Roddy has a solution. "He might be a person that they could use -- oh, I'm just so non-baseball-oriented, but -- like a pinch hitter," she says. "Don't they have those sorts of things? Or somebody who comes in and, like, helps out or, you know, plays some position." (A $10-million-a-year pitcher as a utility infielder -- why didn't manager Phil Garner think of that?)

The Pettitte deal may turn out to be a bust. "If he were my client, I would be talking to him about totally restructuring his life and going into a different business," she says. Of course, the über-Christian Pettitte would have already totally restructured his life if he became Roddy's client.

Other quick insights: Owner Drayton McLane is facing heart problems; early October "is a tough time" for Garner (yikes); and as far as the Astros' overall team, "If somebody speaks out of school, they don't last there" (as Billy Wagner could tell you).

"I'm just concerned about the end of August/September time," she says. "And if that's, like, the end of the season, then that would, like, make them not do so well."

Sounds great.

Jim Deshaies's New Rules

Jim Deshaies is a former Astros pitcher and current analyst on the team's TV broadcasts. He hereby -- duly noting any credit due Bill Maher -- offers five new rules for attending baseball games:

1.Just because your belly is the size of a billboard doesn't mean you have to paint and expose it. If your belt size approximates the length of the third-base line, please, please remain shirted at all times.

2. Stop doing the Wave. It started 25 years ago and was thought to be a fad. Fads aren't supposed to last 25 years.

3. Don't feel compelled to "dance" to "YMCA." Some of you can't keep up or have forgotten how to spell it. If you fit these criteria, feel free to sit this one out.

4. If you need food or drink, please wait at least until the batter's turn is over. I'm sitting in the stands last year -- bases loaded, Lance Berkman at the plate, the pitcher is ready to make his pitch -- and suddenly four guys directly in front of me decide it's time for a cold beverage.

5. Kool uses a walker, and the Gang can't remember where the bus is parked. I think it's time we put "Celebration" to bed.

Ballpark Tour

This will be the Astros' fifth season at what is now Minute Maid Park, which means that Houstonians have another dozen years before we begin getting told how outdated the facility is.

Stadium tours are available, but we're not sure if they point out our favorite places at the park.

1.Tilman Town, formerly known as the Crawford Boxes. When the park first opened, this section at the end of the left-field line was a determinedly quaint paean to the band-box ballparks of old. Now it's a berserk multicolor display to the Lord of Tacky, Tilman Fertitta.

Casino owners have visited Minute Maid and said, "Man, I wish they would tone things down a bit in left field." Donald Trump has said, "It's a bit much."

Tilman, on the other hand, has said, "Goddammit -- I see a square inch out there that is not plastered with the name of one of my restaurants. Fire my ad guy immediately."

New additions for 2005 include a white-tiger cage (if you're sitting next to it, eat hot dogs at your own risk) and a Ferris wheel. Also, patrons will be charged extra if they choose to watch the game.

2. The Turn of Shame. We've all done it: gotten tickets for the upper deck when funds were low or tickets were hot. Getting to those seats requires taking a pair of escalators, one to the club level and then one to the nosebleed sections. Few things put you in your raggedy-ass place better than the brief interlude between escalators. Turn right and you see the club section, where the rich and idle nibble crudités, sip white wine and lounge on Eames chairs. But you, you worthless slug, are turning left, up another escalator to a cramped seat 17 rows high. Luckily there's an armed SWAT team standing by at the landing to make sure none of the bootless and unhorsed dare to enter the magical realm of the well-to-do.

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.

3. Slugs down six raw eggs and rattles off 25 one-armed push-ups right before airtime.

4. Frequently boards team charters clad in leather with face painted like favorite rocker, KISS's Ace Frehley.

5. Has large "Mi Vida Loca" tattoo on left arm.

Deshaies's Bullpen Musical Mistakes

Five songs you don't want played in the stadium when your closer comes charging out of the bullpen, according to Jim Deshaies:

5. "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond

4. "I Am Woman," Helen Reddy

3. "Seasons in the Sun," Terry Jacks

2. "Billy Don't be a Hero," Bo Donaldson

And No. 1: "You Light Up My Life," Debby Boone.

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