By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The Houston Astros who will take the field in 2008 represent a new era for a city that had grown accustomed to its baseball stars, not to mention the eventual disappointment provided by those stars.
You knew what you were getting: Bagwell not driving in runners in scoring position late, Biggio not reaching routine grounders, Clemens not bothering to travel to away games. And, despite 40-plus years of learning, each year fans' hopes would build that the postseason would end in a World Series title. Each year it wouldn't.
But those were the old Astros, the ones who still had links with the Astrodome and rainbow shirts. These new Astros — with new stars, a new manager, a new front office — are going to have to define what the post-Biggio/Bagwell era looks like.
So far, it must be said, it doesn't look like much.
1. Whose team is this? Is the laid-back Lance Berkman, the last of the Killer B's, ready to step up to a leadership role?
2. Will the Miguel Tejada trade turn out to be an all-time bust? Getting an aging All-Star the day before he's named as a steroid user is, so far, new general manager Ed Wade's big move. Will he ever live it down?
3. Just how high are the scores going to be this year? The Astros' pitching stinks. There's no other word for it. But the rest of their line-up promises to produce a ton of runs. So expect a lot of four-hour, 14-11 games with seven pitching changes and lots of dingers. As opposed to, you know, real baseball.
4. Is it some kind of ominous harbinger when your starting second baseman goes on the injured-reserve list because of "anal fissures," an injury possibly first on the list of Injuries We Don't Want to Know About? We're guessing yes.
5. Is it another kind of ominous harbinger when your hotshot right-fielder crashes through a plate-glass window on his way to his home hot tub during spring training and has to put up a headline on his blog saying "I Did Not Consume Any Alcohol"? Maybe. Although "I'm Just Really Clumsy" would have worked too, even if you don't want it to apply to your hotshot right-fielder.
The biggest question of all, of course, is: What's the bottom line this year? How good will the Astros be?
The consensus is: You don't want to know.
Keep No Hope Alive
It's difficult to find much optimism for the Astros' chances this year among baseball experts, but if there is one slim reed of hope, it is the fact that they play in the single suckiest division in the major leagues.
The NL Central was won by the Cubs last year, which is the baseball equivalent of "anything can happen." Get yourself a few games over .500 and you're looking like a king in the NL Central.
So what else you got? Not much.
"If a fantasy draft was conducted of the 30 starting rotations in major league baseball, the Astros would be among the last half-dozen teams taken," says Charlie Pallilo, radio host and baseball guru of KBME 790. "Roy Oswalt is magnificent. The rest of the group includes not one guy with anything beyond ordinary stuff, not one guy who is young with any significant upside."
That doesn't sound too good.
Let him establish his bona fides: "To this day, I have never felt such utter despair and slack-jawed despondency as I did when the Astros lost to Pete Rose's Phillies in the 1980 playoffs...I have learned that the baseball gods are fickle creatures indeed, and that for every good thing they grant us (Mike Scott's no-no to clinch the division title), they exact a price in return (Jose Lima's 2000 season)."
Breen, too, takes a look at the pitching rotation and covers his eyes. "To shine a light on just how underwhelming our pitching looks this year, not only is Woody Williams apparently not going to be watching this season from the comfort of his Barcalounger in his living room, he's apparently going to make our starting rotation."
And that's not all: "Not only is he going to make the starting rotation, he's not even slated for the [low-ranking] fifth spot. That distinction is likely to be bestowed upon Shawn Chacon. What kind of Teflon ego will that guy need to be able to get up every day and go to the ballpark knowing that he's a worse pitcher than Woody Williams?"
(Woody Williams, for those who don't follow the Astros closely, is the aging pitcher who followed up a crummy 2007 season with an even worse 2008 spring training. The critics may be too harsh, though: Unlike some other Astro pitchers this spring, Williams at least flirted with getting his ERA into the single digits.)
(On the other hand, just as we went to press, the Astros released Williams. So maybe there's hope for Chacon's ego yet.)
The Astros' biggest asset this year is their offense. That, of course, depends on whether Berkman can recover from a sub-par 2007, Kaz Matsui can recover from his anal fissures, Tejada can recover from pissing off Congressional committees investigating steroids, and new centerfielder Michael Bourn can recover from the inevitable lame stream of "Bourn Identity" headlines and comments. (If we had to pick which of these setbacks we'd most like to have to recover from, it'd be Bourn's.)
"If Bourn turns out to be a good (great not needed) leadoff man and Tejada is productive and remains eligible for employment in this country," says Pallilo, "this should, by a good margin, be the best Astro offense since 2004."
A great offense and terrible pitching. In other words, the Astros have become the Texas Rangers.
And we all know how good the Rangers have been for, like, forever.
Fun at the Ol' Ballpark
Good hitting and bad pitching means one thing: long, long games.
Lots of drawn-out counts at the plate, as batters patiently wait for a mistake. Lots of walks and people on base. Lots of mound conferences, lots of pitching changes with the ensuing warmups and delays.
All of which is nice when you're the team batting, but this will also be happening when the Astros are on the field trying to stop the other guys from scoring.
Dave Borkowski, one of the Astros' relief pitchers, has already been quoted as saying the coaching staff has told him "to be ready from the first inning through." (Borkowsi's career ERA as a reliever: 5.68.)
So how are you, the Astro fan, supposed to pass the time during your four- or five-hour stay at Minute Maid?
1. Cuddle up with your date throughout the game, so the "Kiss Cam" operator will pick you when the time comes. When the time does come and all eyes in the stadium are on you, have your girlfriend dive face-first into your lap. Hilarity ensues, although you may have competition for your girlfriend the rest of the game.
2. Count exactly how many advertisements are displayed throughout the stadium. Then count the number of bricks that somehow do not have an advertisement on them. See which is more. (Don't bet on the bricks.)
3. Reminisce about those olden days of yore when Milo Hamilton was still in the radio booth even though he was obviously well past his prime. Then look in the booth to see Hamilton still there, probably announcing that the new pitcher is Dizzy Dean.
4. Consume your eighth beer of the night, even if it means no bicycle for the kid this birthday. It will help you imagine the Astros as a contender, at least until the buzz wears off.
5. As the clock ticks on towards 11 p.m. with no end in sight to the game, consider that at least you're getting your money's worth timewise. You're getting twice as much baseball as some joker going to a 2-1 pitcher's duel!!
At Least Someone's Happy
"There are several factors that go into determining the amount of food fans eat at the ballpark, [and] one of them is the length of the game," says Aramark spokesman Greg Healy, who's a bit on the cautious side when it comes to saying anything that might impugn the product the Astros put on the field. "Others include the team record, who the opponent is and the time of the game."
But despite Healy's reticence, food vendors adore a long game. The guys selling Fenway Franks used to love Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who was known for frequent and lengthy trips to the mound to consult with his pitchers.
Healy won't talk about the process Aramark uses to figure out how much food to prepare, but we're guessing it involves Game Day memos like "Warning: Roy Oswalt is NOT, repeat NOT, pitching today. Prepare accordingly."
Aramark is ready to take advantage of the time-outs with some new offerings this year. At Minute Maid Park, that includes "Ballpark Sliders," mini-hamburgers apparently based on White Castle. Hopefully with less grease.
Aramark is also "going green" this year, among other things recycling their Minute Maid Park frying oil so it can be used as bio-diesel fuel.
So go ahead and chomp down on those fries. It may not be healthy for you, but it's helping the environment. Some sacrifices have to be made.
Help Is (Not)on the Way
All right, so the team that the Astros put on the field Opening Day is likely to struggle. Surely they can get some help from their farm system, right?
The Astros' farm system, not so long ago the envy of baseball, is in a shambles. Prospects have been traded away, bad draft picks have been made, budget cutbacks are starting to pinch.
In 2002, Baseball America magazine, which follows this stuff very, very closely, ranked the Astros as having the third-best farm system among the majors' 30 teams. Now it's ranked 29th.
"You can't get much worse than that," says Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis.
Callis tosses around words like "disaster" when describing recent Astro drafts.
"They haven't drafted as well as they used to the last few years," he says. "And they used to be on top of Venezuela as well, the only organization there really, and they haven't brought any talent out of there of note in the last couple of years."
The Astros traded away a bunch of prospects to get Tejada from the Baltimore Orioles; if they had waited a day, until his steroid allegations emerged, maybe they could have got a lower price.
But that's not the only time they've been unlucky. In 2005 they had the 24th pick in the draft and were hungrily waiting to pounce on Oregon State outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Instead the Red Sox took him with the 23rd pick, and he batted .360 in the postseason for them last year.
"Shoot, he'd probably be playing centerfield for the Astros right now," Callis says.
But it's not just bad luck that's killed the farm system. "It's kind of a killer combination," Callis says. "They're spending less money, and they're being less effective. Sometimes if you're spending more money you can be less effective and still come away with more talent, but they haven't done a great job and they're spending less, so they're really feeling it."
Callis, for what it's worth, isn't all that enamored of new GM Ed Wade. "I guess the diplomatic way to put it is I don't think he did a good job in Philadelphia, and just from talking to people in baseball, I haven't been blown away; I haven't liked some of the moves he's made since taking over in Houston," he says.
Gosh, the upbeat, optimistic hits just keep coming, don't they? How about if the Astros decided to go back to their roots of having a strong farm system to develop young talent; that wouldn't take long, would it?
"It's tough, it takes — you could turn it around pretty quick if you had a draft where you had extra picks and really hit on them and made a bunch of trades for prospects, but realistically it probably takes a minimum, unless everything really goes your way, three to five years to turn it around," he says. "The problem is, even if they had the best draft in baseball in 2008, you're not going to feel the impact of that at the major-league level for at least three years and more like five. So they're not going to get much help from the farm system anytime soon. It's probably going to be a little bleak for a while."
Hey, thanks, guy. Way to stomp on that last little piece of hope.
It's a Hit
If the Astros' season turns sour quickly, fans shouldn't feel totally forlorn — they'll at least have the new Larry Dierker musical to look forward to.
Dierker, who has been a pitching star, manager and announcer for the team, has long been known as a writer. He's done columns and books and takes it seriously — in the pre-Internet days he could be seen in the downtown public library, scouring old magazines and newspaper microfiche.
But a musical? By someone who doesn't play an instrument, much less read music?
"It's kind of hard to explain how a tune comes into your head," he says. "But I used to do a lot of taking popular songs and replacing the words in them, and then somewhere along the line I started to come up with new tunes."
For Old Stories, the baseball musical he's working on, he would write lyrics and then sing his idea of the tune to local jazz pianist Paul English.
English would then pretty much change it completely, Dierker says. ("In most cases for the better," he adds.)
Dierker isn't annoyed at that — in fact, talking with him, it becomes clear he's remarkably clear-eyed about his theatrical effort.
"It's a crap shoot, I knew that going in — the chances of it getting on a stage are 50-50 at best," he says. "That's what every playwright probably faces unless you're Andrew Lloyd Webber or Sondheim."
There have been two packed and successful readings of the musical at Stages, but Dierker is taking that with a grain of salt. "That was kind of misleading — the people there were all mostly relatives or friends of the cast or the musicians or me...Most people were predisposed to like it," he says.
Dierker also, unlike some musical wannabes, realizes that theater is a collaborative thing where everyone from the director to the choreographer, the actors and the producers gets a say. "It's not like writing a book — it's more like being on a team again," Dierker says.
The show, about one team's season, features a hotshot rookie, an aging star with a struggling marriage, and a Cinderella run to the pennant. The music ranges from country to jazz to doo-wop, although the creative team is discussing whether that eclecticism hurts or helps.
Where did the urge to write a musical come from?
"Growing up, my mother was a big fan of musicals — we listened to all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, the Lerner and Loewe shows," he says. "We'd go to shows in L.A. at the Hollywood Bowl, and those albums were the music she'd play at home."
As an Astro, Dierker would catch the occasional musical on a New York road trip, although his personal tastes tended more toward country and blues. Once he decided to tackle the Broadway genre himself, he's been renting videos of as many productions as he can.
"I'm finding myself very much at sea," he admits. "I know a lot about baseball but I don't know that much about theater. Of all the things in my life that seemed challenging, this has been by far the most difficult...When I started out I had a bunch of songs about baseball, and it ends up about half those songs get tossed out and new songs get added about the different characters and relationships."
Currently Dierker is in the tweaking stages — discussing, among other things, whether a full production should be done on the somewhat small space at Stages, or whether he should try for a bigger venue that could handle the large-cast production he envisions.
"The story, too, keeps changing and evolving," he says. "You see what gets a laugh, what falls on deaf ears. You reshape it as you go."
Okay, okay — enough about musicals. (Even if they are about baseball.) How are the Astros going to do this year?
"Nobody knows," he says. "The one thing we do know is they have a whole bunch of new players, which I think for me, at least, increases the curiosity factor because I kinda felt like I pretty well knew who the players were and how good they might be in the last few years. This year I don't know what to expect."
Beyond a lot of runs for everybody?
"Well, that's the obvious thing — people think they'll score a lot more runs and they worry about the pitching, and it may turn out that way. But a lot of times seasons turn out a lot different than the way you anticipated."
True dat. Since it's safe to say we weren't expecting this season to include a Larry Dierker musical.
The Best Skippers
We don't want to end on a downer. Maybe the Astros will put up enough runs to outscore most opponents, at least until the postseason when the pitching toughens up. (Did we just use the words "postseason" and "Astros" in the same sentence? We must be giddy.)
Maybe Hunter Pence, who teased with flashes of greatness when he finally was called up from the minors last year, will fulfill his promise. (Providing he doesn't have any more hot-tub-related accidents.) Maybe Ty Wigginton will prosper at third, new catcher J.R. Towles will be able to handle a shaky pitching staff while replacing the offensive black hole that was Brad Ausmus, maybe Lance Berkman takes the team on his back and makes it his.
Remember, in the NL Central, anything can happen.
"There is no plausible case to be made that this is a playoff team," Charlie Pallilo says, "but sometimes stuff just happens. Granted, this would require a whole lot of stuff. But who had Colorado winning the pennant last year at this time?"
The Astros' history of managers has been mixed, at best. Who were the best? Here's Pallilo's top three:
1. Phil Garner — "Only-ever playoff success in franchise history happened on his watch, so he has to get credit for that. A little too much by-feel as a tactician, but I felt he set a solid tone for the ballclub."
2. Larry Dierker — "Four division titles in five years. Melted down in the final postseason, but not his fault nobody ever hit in the playoffs for him."
3. "Hal Lanier — I wasn't down here yet, but he was very well regarded as a tactician. Learned under Whitey Herzog. Also regarded as an a-hole by many, which helps explain why he never got a second shot as a big-league manager."
So Pallilo's top three picks are: the guy who got fired last year, a guy who collapsed of a brain tumor in the dugout and an a-hole. Sounds very Astro-ish.
Then again, you might disagree with his picks. Go ahead and argue them. You'll have plenty of time to do it during the pitching changes at Minute Maid this year.