Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Sparks Notes

New Logo Appreciation

A new logo on a uniform doesn’t mean much until you can see it move on the shoulders of a hitter as he gets ready for the pitch, against the backdrop of full stands, infield dirt or outfield grass.

Today, the Astros played their first Spring Training game. Their new logos on new uniforms are electric. I felt giddy to see them in motion after so much idle consideration. They were animated like they were plugged into the wall. The classic nod and the modern touch lived well together in the game’s time unfolding. The orange is so much more distinct than the brick red, and the navy blue is such a stronger foundation for the brightness of that orange.

Whatever happens to this team in 2013, the uniforms are boss.

Chris Carter: smooth swing, confidence in the box. I am excited to see him pepper the Crawfish Boxes.

JD Martinez: he’s documented as choking up on the bat until his hand heals. He also seems to have quieted his pre-swing stance and preparation as well. Given his grimy finish, this is not surprising. I saw him lace a sharp liner up the middle, so I’ll go ahead and predice .290/25/100, just like I did last year.

Lucas Harrell: pitching on the razor’s edge.

It’s good to be back.

Crawfish season

It’s been a few days since I’ve watched the Astros play. A confluence of summer activities kept me away from the Rangers series. On one hand I wanted to see the Rangers given that they are THE dynamic team in the Major Leagues and they are our rivals, no?, and our soon-to-be division mates. On the other hand, having handed them several easy losses. On the third hand, there was the win on Saturday night–which I missed on account of a giant mound of crawfish on a paper plate I was consumed with consuming while a Zydeco band urged me on–sure does look like a fun one. I don’t hate the guy, but I’m glad to beat the young Brian Wilson protege Derek Holland, who has crafted himself something of the easy target for non-Ranger fans. As I think it was Tom Scharpling said about I don’t know who, guys like Holland are funny…for athletes. It’s not like they can carry any kind of segment, as Holland proved in his painful appearance on a local weather report at some point during the offseason. His approach was to quickly revert to his (middling) Harry Caray impression at the first sign of comedic trouble.

For Lucas Harrell to hold Josh Hamilton hitless is the kind of miraculous accomplishment that I don’t even want to have seen, because the reality would surely pale in comparison to the holy shining light that glows on the achievement in my imagination.

J.D. Martinez. started the year hitting like a professional hitter ready to take hold of the number three spot in the order and let Mr. Luhnow build up around him like a heavy stone column. I was prepared–the overexcited fan of professional-grade hitters that I am–to grant him that position as a given and move on to more exciting projects like finding the vegetarian food booth at Minute Maid Park or counting the giant oranges in the MMP Express when all of a sudden J.D. started swinging the bat like he had always just gotten his pupils dilated at the eye doctor. The pitcher winds and throws…the pitch is called a ball…and Martinez swings and misses. J.D. brushing them with a piece of hay as they passed. J.D. was possessed to distraction by the refrain of an LMFAO song or he couldn’t find the vegetarian food stand either. Who in the name of Purpura knows what went wrong but the head and the hands and the heart were utterly out of sync. In the games I watched against Milwaukee he could have maybe dented a He-Man lunch box with the cuts he took. I’m glad to read that he had a knock in Saturday’s game, and to his credit, he still supports an on-base average about double anything Jason Michaels’ in the last few years, so the potential to regain his Professional Hitter label is there. There are occasions in baseball when it’s so obvious that the mental side of the game has swallowed up the physical side for a particular player, and for J.D. it really is a case of the hitting yips. Not bad luck, not poor performance, but an honest breakdown of the focus/non-focus Zen state that it takes to be good on a consistent basis.

I figure once he connects with a few line drives in a row it will knock loose the dried sap that’s closed off his chakras, and he’ll be back to form at some point.

Can we say the same for the Astros? They’re sneaking away from the .500 plateau that did for a little while feel realistic. They’ve won three out of their last five and that’s pretty good against the best team in baseball and a division opponent.

In the meantime, the visions of retro splendor on Friday nights should be plenty to sustain. Bud Norris will pitch against Matt Garza and the Cubs tonight, May 21, and oh hey look see the Cubs are worse than we are! I was frankly shocked to learn that Alfonso Soriano was still a starter on that team. I’ll take El Caballo’s contract over the deal CHC made with that guy any time.

Luhnow to Win Later

Put me on the spot and I still can’t name the new Houston Astros general manager from memory. Jeff Loon–, uh, Lunny–. Something Jerry? I know more about the Texans’ twelfth-string quarterback than I do the new head of the Houston Astros.

It’s Jeff Luhnow, of course. Add a ‘z’ and you’ve got Jeff Luhz-now, a role that the guy accepted so hastily it may well have been built into his contract (a 4-year deal).

“It’s a responsible plan,” Luhnow said in his introductory press conference, in reference to his game plan. “It doesn’t steal from the future to make things a little bit better in the present.”

Luhnow’s speech could pass for the deputy mayor’s annual address at the Elks Club Lodge in Lake Wobegon. But this deputy mayor is gonna gut the system. He even looks the part of the unassuming hatchet man. He’s taking over baseball’s equivalent of General Motors, and his job is to return a crap factory to its former glory. Not a job for a cowboy or a biker rebel. It’s an inside job, a quiet restructuring.

The next step–now that the guy has declared his unyielding patience and sensibility–is excitement. Excitement for the tumult of a team full of youngsters can bring. Excitement to watch a group of nobodies take to the field and stir the pot against all odds. Excitement about the first pick in next year’s draft. Excitement about our last year in the NL, and our future in the AL.

You’re in the front door, Luhnow, now it’s time to turn on some Zeppelin and rearrange the furniture!

The Edge of Adventure

It is just about official that the Houston Astros will move to the American League in 2013.

It’s real, like it or not. I feel like a child who’s been told by his parents that they’re moving across the country. Unseen powers will dictate whatever adventure lies ahead.

The move is not positive or negative; it just is. Astros fans will chase a new horizon. Change is inevitable. Unlike the proverbial child from above, I can embrace the complexity of the change.

The American League is no demon, nor is the designated hitter. I watched AL baseball for a couple of years, and it is a fresh field to till. There will be new players to learn, new visual experiences to cultivate–even watching on television trains the eye to take comfort in a familiar stadium setting. There will be a change in routine. The DH leads to a different attitude as the lineup turns over. Great hitting wins out.

If Lance Berkman would never hit without playing the field, that isn’t so much my problem. He certainly didn’t resign and forfeit his paycheck while occupying the designated hitter position in New York.

Next year, we’ll play in the NL, we’ll draft in the highest slot available, we’ll feature a new hitter, we’ll scour the West coast. The wine of novelty will overrun the cup.

This is not only the end of something, but the beginning.

Remember the Astrodome!: Texans, the Astros, and the Spirit of the West

“Few fans will be happy with the move to the American League.” – Chip Bailey on Ultimate Astros

Chip Bailey’s statement above is a strange one for sure, tinged with the kind of naivete and close-mindedness that represents the least adventurous of Astros fans. The assertion that a change to the AL will apply to almost all Astros fans, and cause them to grumble and moan at the injustice of it all, is presumptuous beyond measure. Perhaps Mr. Bailey will cower at the prospect of a new coast to conquer, but he should hardly apply his own quaking to the city as a whole.

In response to a general sense of unease amongst the Astros faithful, I’m calling for a more adventurous attitude, one befitting a proud state and an even prouder city. Houston is hardly a place to rest on its laurels and accept the fate that dusty history ordains. Rather this is a city of redefinitions, from the sprawling madness of its unzoned streets and the fearless richness of the local cuisine, to the gleam of luxury automobiles and the shine of our glass skyscrapers. Limitations are for others, not for us. History shouldn’t weigh us down, but lift us up.

I’m not suggesting there wouldn’t be growing pains if the Astros were to shift their gaze westward. There is a lot of NL Central charm and history that we’ll miss, like the bitter and feckless Chicago Cubs and their neverending melancholy, the St. Louis Cardinals and their history of having players who play for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers and their legacy of changing leagues and representing the city of Milwaukee, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and their funny caps from a while back. Did I miss anybody? There are a lot of teams to remember.

I’m kidding, of course, and I love the NL. But it’s important to remember, in this 50th Anniversary year of the Houston Astros franchise, the frontier spirit that forged the team, and the state of Texas. Alamo heroes Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Travis weren’t bearers of old and dusty standards trying to protect the status quo. They were weirdos from the hinterlands of young America, who trekked through the woods to Texas because they wouldn’t have anybody else and nobody else would have them. They moved west because they could give a damn about back east. They weren’t afraid of the freshest, most unknown territory in the world, and they never cowered in the face of dramatic change.

Judge Roy Hofheinz, the driving force in the formation of the Astros existence, identity, and world-famous home, would as soon have brushed his teeth with barbed wire than settle for the status quo. As a judge and a mayor he pushed continually for forward motion, for better or worse but often for the better. When selling the MLB on a Houston franchise, he carried around a scale model of the Astrodome because he knew it would blow their minds. After it did blow their minds, he proceeded to build the weirdest, wildest architectural creation ever seen, based on a premise so absurd that few understood what the ramifications would be. When we sit comfortably in our padded, air-conditioned, luxury boxed seats at Minute Maid Park watching an outdoor game inside, we can thank the Judge and his refusal to accept the grumbling of the masses as rote.

I’m not ready to equate a move to the AL with pure progress, per se, and heck, it might not even happen. But it would be a grand adventure, and one that we should match in spirit as Texans. We would strike out west to places barely known. We would play our fellow Texans with great regularity and flourish as true rivals. We would watch a professional hitter practice his scientific art, rather than suffering the foolishness of a pitcher at the plate.

For all of its charms, the Midwest isn’t our home. It has been a resting point, a place to catch our breath while we cast an eager eye towards the setting sun.

The Foregone Conclusion in a World of Doubt

I was a good inning into the Astros-Rockies game on the DVR, enjoying a peaceful Sunday baseball game a few hours after the fact, when the playback froze up and created the digital equivalent of a chewed up tape. I was frustrated, all set to dig into the game, but I let it go and moved on to other distractions. Thanks, crappy cable box. You saved me from a sorry drubbing at the hands of what should have been a punchless Rockeis team. In the words of David Coleman over at The Crawfish Boxes, “Whatever you do, stay away from the box score.”

So instead of digging into that hot mess any further, I will now consider the most joyful moment I’ve experienced in weeks as an Astros fan: Brett Wallace’s mammoth home run from Saturday night:

The Houston Astros’ on-again off-again first baseman Brett Wallace swung the bat on Saturday night, and hit the ball. Nobody moved. Fielders who should have been sprinting in pursuit of the long fly instead trotted aimlessly and craned their necks to watch its path. The mechanisms that should have sprung to life when the ball was put into play seemed like they had rusted out.

The game had not broken. There was not a gas leak at Minute Maid Park that dazed the Colorado Rockies outfielders (besides, the roof was open). What happened was that Brett Wallace established a conclusion foregone: he hit a no-doubt home run. Wallace hit the ball so hard that the outfielders felt no need to feign chasing the ball to the wall. Center fielder Dexter Fowler moved with the vigor of a 50-something weekender nearing the end of a 2-mile jog.

This Astros baseball season has squeezed questions and uncertainties against accumulating losses, endless new faces, and bureaucratic filibustering. Consistency has come only in the form of ineptitude and loss (losing ballgames and losing players). The period of time spanning the instant Wallace hit the ball to the instant it clattered far away into the deep right center field seats was among the few–and it may be the only–gathering of seconds during which it felt okay to be an Astros fan.

The no-doubt home run is a tool of the bold and successful. Prince Fielder is this year’s Professor Emeritus of No Doubt Studies, with the swagger to match the mileage, and it’s not a coincidence that he’s on the Brewers, this year’s paradigm of a well-run franchise. Wallace’s shot was a momentary respite from the struggles of the season; a hint at the promise in his powerful build. Without checking, I’d say this was the only no-doubter of Wallace’s career. He took off out of the box like a shot and settled into a quick-paced shuffle around the bases. Nobody can know if he got into one in spite of himself or if it’s an indicator of some hitch that his time in the minors helped resolve. For a few seconds, it didn’t matter. Doubt was not a factor in that small equation.

101

There’s something nicely symmetrical about 101. Tack it to a pitcher’s fastball and it’s the stuff of elite closers, in Billy Wagner territory. On the map it’s a stretch of near-coastal Western highway that is, in my mind, the gateway to some of the most sublime driving in the country. In Willard Scott’s hands, 101 is a miracle of human endurance.

In Astroville, 101 is a pop out to a left fielder, a ground out to third, and new heights of mediocrity. 101 losses rattles around like an empty soda can in the bed of an old pick-up truck. A loss like last night’s wasn’t without merit. JD Martinez hit a home run to right field, and Chris Johnson hit one to left. Every bit of confidence is an asset for these young players. Bud Norris pitched okay, then left the game with a threatening injury, and his season is likely over.

Francisco Cordero, pitching himself in the twilight of a big contract, shut down the young Astros easily, and the game set like the sun over the water.

As the Astros prepare to play this afternoon–another set against the Reds under cloudy skies–they look at their last game on the road this year. They’ll make the trip home, then make their own trips home, each of them, to study the map this off-season, searching for a choicer route.

The Wandy Waffle: We Did the Right Thing

Rarely in life do you get a chance to hit the figurative reset button and correct a wrong, but when the Rockies claimed Wandy Rodriguez off of waivers yesterday, they were basically begging Ed Wade to hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE on the original contract.

Instead of hitting CTRL-ALT-DELETE, Ed Wade is going to try and tinker around with some crappy virus scan software while his computer grinds to a paralyzing halt.

While this commentary from Sean Pendergast over at the Houston Press’ Hairballs got a good laugh out of me, I thought I’d offer my counter position.

Pendergast, a sports radio host on 1560 The Game (my new favorite radio station, BTW, and an intriguing entry given its relationship with Yahoo! Sports, one of the staid sports presences in the blogosphere/online baseball environment), has taken an extreme stance, to be sure, and I’m the type to avoid extreme stances. Pendergast admits himself that the Wandy deal is a really good deal, and that Wandy is a very good pitcher. To give that away for nothing valuable in return would seem the equivalent of throwing money away. It’s sort of the inverse of the Roy Oswalt situation that has left us paying his salary while he plays elsewhere. To hand over Wandy to the Rockies would be essentially handing them the savings outright. We may be rebuilding, but I don’t think that warrants literally handing over value to an opponent. Value is value, and given the cost savings the Astros will soon enjoy given that we’ll have no veterans left on the team, we can surely live with the Wandy price tag and its high value level.

I’m not arguing that it’s a great deal, as Wandy’s going to age and probably won’t be same pitcher in a few years. But to jettison the Wandy now with no return would be to a) ignore his trade value this winter, as obviously there is interest in the deal from other teams and b) show a short-sighted view of the potential of a young team to have a breakout year, in which a strong pitcher like Wandy can have a huge impact. Rebuilding does not mean blind demolition. It means getting younger value for your older players if you’re able to, and finding good value when you do keep on veterans.

Wandy is a great pitcher, with a pretty good contract in place. Whatever the state of the team, under few circumstances should such a player be shipped off as thought he was Carlos Silva.

Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone

I just came across this Ultimate Astros story by Steve Campbell from a few days ago, via Astros County, which discusses Carlos Lee, and El Caballo’s slow ride into the sunset of Astros prominence.

“You can’t control the game,” Lee told Campbell. Caballo’s relaxed attitude about his fading ability and the fading fate of the team’s win-loss potential has an almost Eastern feel. ” I’m pretty easy-going about it,” he said. “What other people say, what other people do, you can’t control that.” The term control seemed to pepper the conversation. There’s no control in baseball. No outcome is predictable, nothing is sure. Players can control their effort, and that’s all, which is why we criticize Lee’s effort. But he’s a big guy, whose maximum effort still won’t look like Hunter Pence’s.

We believe we know Caballo’s heart. He claims we don’t, and he’s right. We want control, too. We can’t have it. Thank goodness.

Says Lee: “You want to win games. You don’t want to be a loser. But sometimes, that’s the way it goes. You can’t control the game.”