Monday, March 30, 2009
The more interesting performance came from the pitching staff: Moehler logged another solid start with 6 innings, giving up 2 runs on 7 hits. Odd stats on this appearance - no walks, no strikeouts, and 6 of the 7 hits were doubles. Arias, who got the win, pitched 2 shutout innings, giving up only a single hit. Geary threw a perfect ninth to pick up his first save of the spring. For a team whose pitching has been constantly cited as a reason for dismay, all I can say is: Keep up the good work.
Bad news for the game: Berkman is still out with a sore shoulder. I'm not sure about the shape and size of his sideburns - I'll have to get a report from one of my on-site friends with season tickets.
While I listened to this game (their 8th win in the last 9 games, starting with my trip to Kissimmee!), I worked on some of my photos. I formatted and posted a bunch of pictures from the March 20 game against the Reds on my Photo Album. Enjoy. I also redesigned the home page of my Astros Fan in Exile website to put a little more emphasis on photos, since that's really one of the strengths of my site. I don't have the depth of baseball commentary of some of my baseball blogging colleagues, but I do have original photos!
I'll keep plugging along at updating the photo pages over the next week or so, so if you want to see Astros pictures, just keep checking the site.
Friday, March 27, 2009
The facts and figures, as much as the wins themselves, support the assertion that some of us have been making all along: This team is not just a bunch of losers. The pitching has been better than I expected, and the batting is coming around. Veteran players who started out kind of slow at the plate are starting to pick up, and several of the nonroster guys are making things interesting as they compete for the few remaining open positions. One other thing that has been shown in the past two wins: My presence in Kissimmee is irrelevant - except, of course, to me!
It's a bummer being here while other people get to be the fans of the day. I've been weaning myself off of the pleasure of seeing the games firsthand - Wednesday's game against the Cards was televised; I listened to a bit of today's game on the radio while I was eating lunch. There's one big difference between earlier in the spring and now: My week in Kissimmee has really given me a huge collection of mental images of the players, as well as a couple of thousand photographs of the team.
So let's talk about the games. The past two games were both close, with the Astros either eking out the win in the ninth inning, or holding on to a precarious lead. I watched Wednesday's televised game against the Cards when I got home from work. Russ Ortiz pitched another terrific start, adding more reasons for the Astros to pick him over Capellan for that fifth rotation slot. In 5 innings, he gave up only 1 run on 5 hits, 2 walks, and struck out 4. Even that run was pretty iffy - with a runner on and two outs, left fielder Jason Michaels lost track of a fly ball and was unable to catch it to end the inning. It wasn't really Michaels' fault - the day was windy and very sunny, and other players had similar issues with fly balls. Just one of those things. Ortiz, with the help of Maysonet pulled off a nice pickoff at second base. He also stymied Albert Pujols, who was 0 for 3 against him, including a rally-ending out with two runners in scoring position. Anyway, another very good appearance for Ortiz, who (according to Alyson Footer) was battling a case of tummy virus. Eeeew.
Pudge continued to make himself popular with Astros fans, hitting another homer, a solo in the third inning. Pence went 3 for 4, with a double and a pair of singles. Neither of these guys have anything to prove, since their positions on the roster are assured. That's not true of Jason Smith and Edwin Maysonet, who are duking it out for the Astro's utility infielder spot. Wednesday's game was a great duel for the two - Smith went 3 for 4, raising his BA to .422. Maysonet, following him in the lineup, went 2 for 4, with a double and 2 RBIs.
These guys helped put a few runs on the scoreboard on Ortiz' watch, but Geoff Geary gave up a pair of runs in his 2 innings of relief, allowing the Cards to tie the game. Wright and Fulcino each contributed a perfect inning to take the Astros to the ninth. Michael Bourn's RBI single in the ninth put the Astros ahead for the sixth consecutive win. Bourn's low batting average is frustrating, but he did manage to get on base 3 times in his 5 plate appearances - twice on walks and once with a hit. Given his speed, his OBP is of greater concern than just the BA.
Today was the Astros first home game since I left Kissimmee. I am picturing my new friends (Carole, Mitch, Kevin, "Jill" and "Pat," etc.) watching Oswalt pitch on a nice warm Florida afternoon, while I was at a business meeting. I'm not jealous, but I do wish I'd been able to see Roy O at Spring Training this year. Bummer.
Oswalt, who arrived in Kissimmee this morning, did not have a very clean game, giving up 3 runs (all in the second inning) on 10 hits, no walks, and 6 strikeouts. He pitched his way out of trouble to keep the Astros in contention, with a little help from the offense.
Offensive breakthrough of the game: Matsui, who hasn't hit much of anything this spring, went 3 for 4, moving his batting average further from double digits. Tejada hit a solo homer in the 4th. But the hitter of the day honor goes to Pence, who got 3 hits (all singles) for the second game in a row. Pence's batting average has jumped from the puny low .200s to over .300 in just a few games - shows you the power of a small sample size. Pudge had his first hitless game as an Astro.
Hawkins threw a perfect seventh inning - good to have him back from the WBC! Sampson, who pitched the last two innings, entered the game with the Astros ahead 4-3. When the team scored 2 in the bottom of the eighth, things looked comfortable. But he gave up 2 in the ninth, just to make things interesting before ending the game with his first save of the spring.
I'd say more but it's almost sunset. Gotta run and light my Sabbath candles. Hope things keep going good while I'm "resting." I'll post some pictures on Sunday.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I did get a cheerful sendoff, however, as the Astros extended their winning streak to five games by shutting out the much-hated Mets 8-0. (It's a long story, dating back to my childhood.) While I make no pretense of having magical powers, it was great fun to arrive just in time for the big turn-around. My presence in Kissimmee, just as the Astros started to win, even earned me a reference in RoundRock15's excellent Misplaced Astros Fan blog. But before I talk about the game - which featured the first appearance of the Rodriguez and Rodriguez battery - I need to acknowledge the other fans who contributed to the spirited team support on Tuesday.
The first Fans of the Day are Maria and Alfred from Houston, who were there all decked out in Astros jerseys and hats. This is their first-ever Spring Training, and they are having a great time. I am sure that this will be the first of many March trips to Kissimmee for them.
The other Fan of the Day is Tony from Melbourne, who sat next to us at the game. For those of you who are not familiar with Florida geography, Melbourne is where the ubiquitous US 192 (AKA Irlo Bronson Highway) deadends at the Atlantic. Tony and some of his pals from Melbourne were playing hooky from work on a gorgeous sunny day - who can blame them? An amateur shortstop, Tony wasn't totally sure that he qualifies as an Astros fan, but after I offered him this place of honor in my blog, he decided to convert (at least for this game). Hopefully, his boss won't read my blog and figure out that Tony wasn't home with tonsillitis after all.
Now let's talk about baseball... A couple of years ago, the Astros featured a "Q and Q" (Qualls and Quintero) battery. This year, they have "Rodriguez and Rodriguez" - Wandy and Ivan. Given the dominence of Latino players in the big leagues, the Q Battery is probably more rare than a R and R one, but it might be the first time that the Astros have actually had a pitcher throwing to a catcher with the same name. (I sent a question to Alyson to ask about that - if you know the answer, comment on this blog.) I don't think that anyone will get them mixed up though, since both of them go by their first name or nickname - Wandy and Pudge. At any rate, the first appearance of R and R together was a great photo opportunity, and I snapped quite a few shots of them before and during the game: warming up, pitcher-throwing-to-catcher shot from behind home plate, and a little tete-a-tete on the mound. (These will all make their way into my Photo Album as I have time to post them.)
The first pairing of the R and R battery was good for both of them. Wandy R, coming back from his strained intercostal thingy, pitched a terrific game - 4 shutout innings, giving up 2 hits and 2 walks, and striking out 2. Meanwhile, Pudge R had a crowd pleasing day at the plate, hitting his first homer as an Astro, with a single thrown in for good measure.
Wandy was backed up by a very fine collection of relief pitchers: Hawkins (welcome back from the WBC!), Valverde, Brocail, Brydak, and Arias, each of whom threw one scoreless inning. Arias came the closest to giving up a run, allowing two hits and a walk, before wiggling out of the ninth inning without letting the Mets get on the board. The pitchers were backed up by some very nice fielding work, including four double plays that erased the few Mets players who dared to get on base. Even if it was the traveling squad of Mets players, not all their starters who got out of the long bus trip, kudos go to the pitching staff for shutting them down completely.
The Astros did a nice job at the plate to keep this from being another down-to-the-wire 1-0 game. While either of their single-run innings (the 3rd and 6th) would have sufficed to win, the big six-run inning in the middle made this game quite entertaining. The fifth inning featured Pudge's home run and Blum's 3-run double. It also included a crazy run that resulted when Bourn singled, then made it all the way home on a fielding error. (His OBP could be better, but that guy sure can fly!)
Anti-Sampson Watch: Berkman was clean-shaven and went 2 for 3 - two singles and a walk. After leaving Kissimmee, I'll be able to use the box scores to assess Berkman's hitting but it will be hard to link it to his facial hair quotient without regular photos. I wonder if Alyson would be willing to post a daily mugshot?
Two other notables at Tuesday's game: Ex-President Bush was back again, sitting behind home plate with team owner Uncle Drayton. I particularly enjoyed the way that Hunter Pence stood right in front of the former Leader of the Free World to take his on-deck swings. But for me, while I applaud Bush Sr's taste in baseball teams, the bigger thrill was seeing Jeff Bagwell at the game. (Hey, I'm a lifelong Democrat.) In uniform -- not the usual flowered cotton shirts -- Bagwell spent much of the game sitting with the coaches.
Okay, enough blogging. I have a couple of thousand photos to go through, and to pick a hundred of so to post on the Astros Fan in Exile Photo Album. It will probably take me a couple of weeks to go through all of them - keep checking back on the website to see new pictures.
Monday, March 23, 2009
It's kind of difficult to compete for attention with a former president, but there were actually some other notable Fans of the Day at the game today. Boot Woman -- or Linda as her friends and family know her -- is an Astros fan who lives in Dallas. Yet she withstands the temptation to just give in and cheer for that Other Texas Team (which was coincidentally owned in the past by #43), and stays true to her Astros.
Also key to the fan support for Monday's win over the Marlins were Ann and Mike, my other Fans of the Day. They've been coming to Astros Spring Training for the past four years. Although now a big Astros fan, Ann admits to having an ongoing fondness for the Braves, who play on the classier end of US 192. However, she limits herself to a surreptitious tomahawk chop or two - it's really hard to break old habits.
With these great fans cheering for them today, the Astros didn't have much of a choice: They just had to reel in those wily Fish. They fought back time and time again, as the Marlins fought hard. But the Astros persevered, and managed to land their fourth "W" in as many days.
The player of the game was Lance Berkman, who smacked two long balls out of Osceola County Stadium. (See my previous blog entry for an explanation of Berkman's increasing power.) The first was a solo shot in the third inning, putting the Astros ahead 3-2. Florida bounced back with a 5-3 lead in the fourth. Berkman's two-run homer helped the Astros retake the lead in a three-run fifth inning.
The battle went back and fourth, as the Fish scored 4 in the sixth, then the Astros matched that with 4 of their own in the bottom of the seventh. Each team added one more run for good measure in the eighth, pushing the score to 10-8, Astros ahead. That's where things stood when, in the middle of the ninth inning, the stadium announcer proclaimed that the game was over and in the books. However, since the Marlins still had a pitcher who needed work, they would play the bottom of the inning anyway. Or, as the announcer called it, "free baseball." (Nothing interesting happened, and it was not included in the box score.)
Obviously Berkman was not solely responsible for the Astros' double-digit score. Special kudos go to Michael Bourn, who went 3 for 4, with 3 RBI, and his 8th stolen base of the spring. Another light hitter, JR Towles, also had a good day at the plate, hitting (a double and a single) and scoring in both of his at bats. Matsui hit a double - that might be the first time that I've seen him hit once since I've been in Kissimmee. Tejada went 2 for 4 with a double and single. All in all, a great team effort and some nice crooked numbers.
With a final score of 10-8, this was not a pitchers' duel like yesterday's game. Astros starter Mike Hampton pitched 5 innings, giving up 3 earned runs on 7 hits, no walks, and 4 strikeouts. Chad Paronto pitched to 3 batters in the sixth, allowing 2 of them to get on base before being removed due to an injury. He was obviously unhappy about being taken out; he booted the ball across the field in frustration. Gilbert De La Vara finished off the inning, but not before giving up an inside-the-park home run, allowing Paronto's runners to score.
Chris Sampson pitched a perfect seventh inning, and Houston had some fun in the bottom of the inning, to earn him the win. Bud Norris, who got roughed up in his 1/3 of an inning on Friday, finished off the game. He had much better luck today, giving up one run on a solo homer in his 2 innings on the mound, and earning the save. (Although I was sitting right over the Astros dugout, a great location for shooting pictures, I just had to get out of my seat to position myself to get this photo of Bud, who's actually Not-So-Lite. I couldn't resist it.)
For those who like to bash the Astros this year, I have to note: Giving up 8 earned runs doesn't sound too hot, but only 3 of the runs were allowed by pitchers who are likely to be on the roster in April. I'm not giving up on this team yet - I've been pleasantly surprised by the pitching since I've been here.
Next up: The hated Mets. (It's a long story.) And more hated, leaving Kissimmee after the game to go home.
It's the change in Lance Berkman's facial hair.
Last Wednesday, the day we arrived in Kissimmee, Berkman was wearing what appeared to be a two-day beard and the Astros lost yet again. Fast forward to Friday, when Berkman was clean-shaven, but still sporting gigantic muttonchops - he hit a home run in that game and the Astros won. Now look at today's game: The Fat Elvis sideburns are gone, Berkman hit two home runs, and the Astros won again. See the evidence for yourself:
A quick scientific analysis seems to indicate that Berkman is the opposite of Sampson (the Biblical one, not the pitcher): Less hair, more strength, and more success for the team.
Disclaimer: I have to be honest, since the new Administration in Washington has vowed to get rid of the abuse of pseudo-science in the promotion of fanciful beliefs. I actually don't have any idea how Berkman has been decorating his chops over the past few weeks, since I wasn't here. He could have showed up with whiskers like Bagwell's in 2000 for all I know. This is what I've been saying all along: If you aren't here at Spring Training, you can't really see what's happening. If only I could just call in sick for the rest of Spring Training, I could actually collect the evidence to back up this wild hypothesis, that Berkman is really the Anti-Sampson.
More importantly, I would have so many more observations about the team's strengths and weaknesses, on-field personalities, and maybe even an assessment of which Astro is most likely to replace Brad Ausmus in the fantasies of female fans and readers of Outsports.com. The Spring Training box scores and the few sentences that appear in Astros.com or the Chronicle after each game just aren't enough. There's just not enough information there, and definitely not enough pictures. (Thank Alyson Footer for the ones she's posted on her blog!)
So Berkman's hair probably doesn't have anything to do with anything. But who knows what might happen if Wednesday (after I've gone back home), he decided to shave his head?!!
Fan of the Day is Baylen from Omaha, who was at the game with his granddad. Baylen was wearing an Astros hat - courtesy of the Sunday stadium giveaway - and his grandfather admitted that he was just developing his loyalty to the team. We were sitting in the first row, right over the Nats dugout, and Baylen really, really wanted a game ball. When he finally got one, that was step 1 in cementing his fandom. But I'm hoping that seeing himself featured on Astros Fan in Exile will make him a lifelong fan-atic of baseball, Spring Training, and of course - the Astros!
To round out our set of Killer B's we have Bill, Bill, and Bob. Bob is Carole T's significant other, and felt left out that she got Fan of the Day credit Thursday without him. (Well, she was the one who recognized me!) Anyway, these guys surely contributed plenty of cheers (if not beers) to the game Sunday, resulting in...
Let's talk about baseball: First of all, welcome to Pudge Rodriguez, who caught his first game in an Astros jersey today. Batting second in the lineup, he pleased the crowd with a base hit in his first at bat.
Today's game was all about pitching. The Astros started with Brian Moehler who looked very sharp, despite getting smacked with a hard-hit ball in the first inning. He stayed in to pitch a very economical three innings of no-hit ball: His pitch-count was 27, but I could swear that one inning he got out with about 3 pitches. According to reports after the game (thanks, Alyson!), it's just a bruise and he hopes to get his work in with a couple more Spring starts. After 14 innings, Moehler's got a 1.29 ERA and a WHIP of 1.00 - not a bad showing for a starter who was a nonroster invitee last March.
Jeff Fulcino, who the Astros picked up from KC, came in to pitch the other two innings that had been planned for Moehler. He gave up only one hit, no runs, no walks. Fulcino's also having a terrific spring: He has pitched more than 12 innings in 8 appearances (one as a starter), with a 2.19 ERA and a WHIP under 1.00.
Valverde was tough - after allowing a triple, he struck out two to shut down the Nats without any scoreboard damage. I was hoping for a bit of an emotional display, for the sake of my camera, but he just gave a tiny little self-satisfied clench of the fist to end the inning. Brocail, Wright, and Geary each pitched a hitless inning to complete the shutout against the Nats.
As tough as Houston's pitching staff was, the Nats were matching them inning by inning. Special kudos to John Lannon, who threw the first 6 scoreless innings, to keep his 0.00 ERA intact.
It looked like the Astros might break it open in the eighth inning, loading the bases before Towles struck out looking to end the inning. Down to the bottom of the ninth, it was starting to look like someone was going to need to decide whether to take the tie or plan an extra inning... With one out, speedster Bourn on third base, and Newhan on first, Erstad hit a ground ball. Newhan charged into second, breaking up the Nat's attempted double play, while Bourn dashed in to score. "Walkoff fielders choice" doesn't have quite the same cachet as, say, "walkoff three-run blast" - but hey, this spring, we'll take it and say "Thank you, Darin!"
For those of you who were hoping to see some awesome photos of this game, courtesy of my new camera, be patient. Here's my picture of the game - not yet even formatted. I've always wanted to take one of those flying shortstop photos and almost fainted when I realized I'd finally got one. I have lots more good ones to post, but haven't had a time to format and upload them yet. Check my website Photo Album later - I'll get some more posted after the game tonight.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
We sat in the first row of Section 104 Friday, next to Mitch and Kevin. They are retired and split their time between Albany NY and Florida, where they are Section 104 Season Ticket Holders. Like my colleague RoundRock15, Mitch and Kevin aren't actually from Houston - they just chose to be passionate Astros fans. Kevin had a great time at Astros Spring Training some years back, when he sat in the row behind the Enron contingent, and got to meet a lot of the players. After that, he was hooked and they've been regulars for years. That's given Mitch a lot of time to collect quite an amazing set of autographs on her hat. Her bear's jersey is reserved for a very special autograph, though - Jeff Bagwell's. This girl's got good taste!
After the game, as my sister and I were about to take our own self portrait with the field behind us, Jim, a nice man from Houston, offered to snap the photo for us. His wife Pat asked me, "Aren't you that Washington woman with the website?" Turns out that we had sat near them last year at Spring Training. Pat used to teach journalism at Houston's Westbury High School, several years after I graduated from there. Small world. They are also Astros Spring Training regulars.
Now about baseball... While our enthusiastic cheering contributed to the outcome of Friday's game against the Reds, the bulk of the credit surely belongs to Russ Ortiz. He threw six shutoutl innings, giving up only one hit and striking out two, making a strong argument for his place in the Astros rotation. Chris Sampson followed with a pair of scoreless innings.
Meanwhile, the Astros put some runs on the board, starting in the second inning with catcher Quintero's RBI single. Ortiz, batting for the first time this spring, followed with an RBI single of his own. In the sixth inning, Berkman hit his first homerun of the season, a two-run blast that gave the Astros a 4-0 lead.
The Reds did not threaten this lead until the ninth inning, when Bud Norris gave up 2 runs on a walk and a pair of doubles in a third of an inning. In a normal Spring Training, Cooper might have just left him in to tough it out, risking a loss. But winless since February, Coop didn't chance it. He pulled Norris, and brought in Fulcino who ended the thread without further damage. After the Sabbath ended tonight, I immediately checked Astros.com, and saw that Houston beat the Blue Jays 9-7 today. So the Astros now have a 2-1 record since I got to town. Let's see where it goes from here... Isn't baseball fun?
Coming Up: The Nats. I promised pictures to all my Washington area Nationals fans, so I have to remember to photograph the Other Guys at the game tomorrow. We're sitting behind home base, in Section 112, so I'll be safety net-challenged. Hopefully I can get out of my seat to shoot some pix without attracting too much attention from the old guys who tell you to sit down.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Yesterday, as I was snapping photos of Lo Chia-Jen (the Astros new acquisition from Taiwan), a lady tapped me on the shoulder and asked "Aren't you Astros Fan in Exile?" I almost fainted. Who would know that. She looked really familiar, so I asked, "What's your name?" and when she answered Carole, I remembered her - we sat together at Spring Training last year, in Section 103. Carole comes down to Florida for two months a year, and has season tickets for Spring Training. Being a working stiff, that's still but a fantasy for me.
My second special fan is my sister Elizabeth, who you might have seen on my photo album, smiling (and posted next to a pair of minor league butts on the bleachers) at the practice field. Elizabeth is not a regular reader of this blog, so I can confide here that in my family she's known as the "Sucker of the Year." That is, the family member who got stuck accompanying me to Spring Training. Ostensibly though, she's here as my guest, in celebration of her VSB (very special birthday - enough said). Elizabeth, like me, grew up in Houston, using the Dome as a good place to get out of the brutal summer heat. On all other days, we were devotee's of Lowell Pass, who was the Astros radio broadcaster back then. Anyway, greetings to Carol and Elizabeth - hope we get to see the Astros beat the Reds today!
Thursday, March 19, 2009
1. See if the practice field was open to fans.
2. Get lots of locally-grown produce at the Kissimmee farmers market.
3. Make the annual pilgrimage to the Monument.
4. Go to Cocoa Beach. (This was for my sister, who's from beach-deprived Colorado.)
The practice field was open to fans this morning. Once we got there, most of our other plans went out the window. We spent hours watching pitching practice, one-on-one and group coaching, and a pair of minor league practice games.
There were plenty of gargantuan lenses being lugged around, some by fans and others by pros. I chatted briefly with Ben from Round Rock, who's here with a contingent of reporters and photographers to check up on the Express players. He and the other serious photographers will probably attest to the veracity of the old saw: "Size does matter." (At least with lenses.)
But with such great material - hundreds of very buff young men playing baseball - it would be virtually impossible not to take a lot of good pictures, even with a point-and-shoot. I have a new camera - a Canon SX10 (10 megapixels, 20X optical zoom). It's not the souped-up DSLR of my dreams, but so far I'm pleased with the pictures. I've posted some of my practice field photos on the Photo Album of my website.
A few words before you click off to go look at the photos. I tried to post a set of pictures that were representative of the practice field experience, from a fan's perspective. There are a whole lot of farm-team players out there, and the vast majority of them are not the hot prospects that get written up and photographed by the baseball press. There are lots of players that most of us have never heard of - and maybe never will. The magic thing about the practice field is seeing hundreds of young men who all have the same dream. The hard thing about the practice field is realizing that most of those hundreds of young men will never experience that dream coming true. (Hey, I'm a mom, with sons their age.)
I was very democratic in selecting players to photograph - I just took pictures at all the fields, and posted a selection of them. Other than Biggio (an obvious photographic target), I didn't particularly seek out any particular people to photograph. Some of the brand-name prospects you might want to see are still with the big league team anyway. Hopefully, for those of you who aren't here in Kissimmee, these pictures will give you a sense of the fan experience, wandering around the practice field and watching baseball players in the making.
I especially like to photograph coaches working with the players and watching them play. There's no place like the practice field for photos of coaches at work - both the regular coaches and special guests. Last year I was lucky to be in Kissimmee when Jeff Bagwell was there, and I got great photos of him coaching the minor league players. This year I was equally lucky: Craig Biggio was out on the field working with some of the players and watching the practice games with the coaches.
Anyway, if you like the few pictures I've posted here in the blog, check out the Photo Album, where there are more pictures in a little larger format. Let me know (by way of comment) if you like them.
As for the rest of our plans, by the time we got to the farmers market, they were closing. We did make our pilgrimage to the Kissimmee Monument, which is a singularly ugly edifice. We go there every year. (I will have to do a future blog just on Kissimmee sites.) We didn't make it to the beach; instead I spent the afternoon drinking merlot and cropping photographs while my sister swam a couple of million laps in a pool that was designed for families to splash in.
Tomorrow: The Reds. We'll be sitting in Section 104, Row 2, behind third base. If you're at the game, I'm easy to recognize. I'll be the only person in the stadium wearing a Hebrew Astros hat.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
After the long months without baseball, I'm finally here in Kissimmee. I'm sitting by the pool after the game (yet another loss - I didn't bring the Astros any magic to change that apparently), watching my sister swim laps, and reviewing the pictures I took at today's game. Right now I'm just enjoying the sense of relaxation that comes from being in a warm place where baseball exists. I left my office Blackberry in Maryland, with the Away message on.
But you didn't come to this blog to hear about my alpha waves... So now at long last, having seen actual players on the field, it's time to write about baseball.
After growing up with the Astros in the early years, when they didn't make a regular practice of winning games, I've learned to always try to find something to like in a game. Even in this game - yet another non-win in an almost awe-inspiring series this spring - there were some good signs. The best thing in this game: Mike Hampton's five solid shutout innings. He gave up only four scattered hits, didn't walk anyone, and struck out two. An effective and healthy Hampton would be a huge boost to a team that doesn't have a whole lot of dependable starting firepower that doesn't start with "O." He was followed by Valverde, who also looked good in his hitless inning.
Brocail and Geary did not fare as well. Brocail ran into trouble in the seventh, giving up a pair of hits and a walk. He wasn't helped by two Yankee steals on his watch. End result: Two earned runs and the loss of the Astros' precarious 1-0 lead. Geary was just unlucky - he threw a scoreless eighth, but got in trouble in the ninth. He might have escaped unscathed, but a couple of sloppy plays (one of which was marked an error) resulted in two more Yankee runs. However, that was just insult; the game was lost in the seventh, since the Astros failed to score again.
There's not much to talk about offensively. Jason Smith continued his spring spree with a triple in the first inning, the first of his two hits in the game. Carlos Lee hit him in for the Astros' only run. No hits today for Brian Bogusevic (he walked and stole second), but he did make a nice defensive play with an outfield assist from right. The Astros ran through several catchers, none of whom did a whit at the plate. With so many catchers to choose from, one might have guessed that someone would rise above at Spring Training. Not so, apparently; I hear that the Astros are acquiring Pudge Rodriguez, despite all of the recent denials. Hopefully, Puerto Rico will be eliminated from the WBC, so I'll get a glimpse of him while I'm in Kissimmee.
A few more observations from the game: The Yankees are good for filling the house. It was standing room only, with what seemed like more blue shirts than red ones in the crowd. (And - annoyingly - a whole table full of Yankees hats in the Astros gift store.) Whenever the game is against the Yankees, I always end up with seats in the upper deck, even though I buy my Spring Training tickets at the start of the presale. This time I was behind home plate in the first row of the upper deck - a great spot for watching the game, but less ideal for photographing it because of the safety netting. I've sat behind home plate before - you either have to creep down to the first row and stick the end of the lens through the netting or you have to manually focus. Not in the mood for either today, I just let my new camera try to focus and hoped for the best. About half of my pitcher photos were focused on pitchers; the rest were focused on the net. I took a preponderance of photos of Berkman fielding, since first base was beyond the netting - these were the only game pictures I took today that weren't scored by black netting.
This was the first of three games I'm attending with my younger sister Elizabeth, this year's sucker - I mean guest - at Spring Training. She's here to celebrate her 32nd birthday (in some numerical base better left undisclosed) and hang out with me. I didn't think that it was nice to abandon her the very first day to take pictures from my favorite shooting spots. So I took relatively few pictures at today's game. I've posted a few here, and a few more in the Photo Album on my website.
But I'm itching to give my new camera a real workout. So E and I will spend Friday afternoon's game roaming around the stadium, taking pictures from different spots, and trying to duck the old guys who keep telling you to go sit down. (I am sure that most of these old guys are retired businessmen, who used to terrorize their secretaries, and now lack anyone but their wives to boss around. So they fill this need by becoming petty tyrants in stadium staff shirts.)
Tomorrow's an Away game. Elizabeth and I are going to see if we can get into the practice field in the morning; if so, I'll have a lot more photos to post. Then we'll do a few of my other favorite things down here - make a pilgrimage to the Kissimmee Monument, buy produce and artisan dog biscuits at the Farmers Market, and then go to Cocoa Beach for some waves. But we'll be back for more baseball on Friday against the Reds.
Hope all goes really well for a speedy recovery for Aaron Boone.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
It's March 17. In some circles that's cause for wearing green and drinking beer in Irish pubs. For me, it's the day I've been waiting for over the long winter months: Travel day to Astros Spring Training. Never mind that the Astros haven't won a regular (non-WBC) Spring Training game since the first one back in February. One win, fourteen losses, and two ties - not inspiring, but no matter. On Opening Day, they will have the same 0-0 record as everyone else.
They've had weeks now to assess the non-roster invitees, to give the prospects from the farm a chance to strut their stuff, and to wait for some of the regulars - Oswalt, Lee, and Tejada - to come back from the WBC. So let's just say that a lot of the guys who were trying out for spots on the roster aren't going to be on the field come Opening Day. The current crop of catcher wannabees has been so ineffective that none of them are likely to play that day - the current gossip is that (despite copious denials) the Astros are signing Pudge Rodriguez after all. The pitching rotation is kind of shaking out - with Russ Ortiz and Jose Capellan pulling ahead of the rest, including injured Brandon Backe. Nobody's hitting much, but hey - we've seen that act before.
There's something totally different about Spring Training games that aren't even televised and Spring Training games that you see in person. It's easy not to care too much about losing when you just see the box score and a few game notes and gossip from Alyson's blog. There's always something to like, someone who's impressing the coaches, or at least some excuse - well, he (the goat) is going back down to the minor league camp any day now. But when you're there in person, of course, you want your team to win.
I got an email from Alyson Footer - she wrote: "If they start winning when you get here, I'll consider you the magic potion!" It's hard for me to imagine that the Astros are going to lose all five games when I'm at Spring Training. (I don't think that's really egotistical; it's just a lack of imagination.) I won't be really surprised if they start winning when I'm there though -- halfway through Spring Training, you'd expect to see the kids migrating back to the minor league camp, and the nonproductive invitees invited to leave. You'd expect to see more playing time by the regulars, and more innings from the intended starting rotation. In short, you'd expect to see your Opening Day team start to jell, and maybe even start to win...
In any case, I'm well equipped to document it: I have a new camera. For the fifth year in a row I thought about - and then decided against - moving to a DSLR. Too heavy, too expensive, too much trouble to learn to use. There's always next year. In the end, every other year, I just upgrade to more megapixels and more X optical zoom. This time, with a jump from my 6 meg and 12X to 10 meg and 20X, the camera is already feeling more like a SLR than a point-and-shoot. I played with the new camera a bit yesterday when I got it home from the store. But snapping shots of my husband and the dog, or macro closeups of the instruction booklet isn't really satisfying. I want to be taking pictures of slides into second (or better, home!), big homerun swings, pitchers in motion. What I really want is the chance to photograph Oswalt on the mound, but for that Team USA needs to lose so he can come back. I'm not that into the WBC anyway.
So I'm packing my bags, counting the hours, flying later this morning. Next posting from Kissimmee...
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Even the bullpen contributed at the plate - in the fifth inning Jose Valverde stretched what looked like a double into a three-bagger, then stole home on the next pitch with a head-first dive to the plate. Manager Cooper was delighted with the offensive energy, but not to the point of encouraging foolish risks: "I'm glad that I decided to let the pitchers bat today. The DH is a stupid American League thing anyway. But I'm fining Valverde for sliding into home pitching-hand first - what good would he be to us if the catcher had turned his pitching hand into Swiss cheese with his cleats?"
It's difficult to pick a Player of the Game, when so many players contributed at the plate. Matsui went 3 for 4. Bourn hit two infield singles, and stole second bath times; he hit a double in his third at-bat and stole third. Berkman, Pence, Smith and Boone all connected for multiple extra-base hits. Towles, in the most innovative at-bat, swung at a slider that bounced on the plate. He did a complete sommersault, managing in the process to hit the ball, which skidded past the diving Braves third baseman. The acrobatic Towles ended up standing on second, right-side up, with a double.
It would have been hard for the Braves to have topped this phenomenal offense, but they didn't have a chance against a totally dominating performance by starting pitcher Moehler and the Astros bullpen. The Braves only managed two singles and a walk in the first 8 innings. After all of the Houston pitchers had gotten in their work for the day, Cooper -- apparently embarrassed by the lopsided score -- decided to move Towles to the mound for the final inning. "I thought it would be educational for him to see the game from the other side," Cooper said. Towles gave up 4 runs, 2 of them unearned, on 7 hits, 4 walks, and 3 hit batters before the afternoon game finally ended, just as the sun was setting over Osceola County Stadium.
NOTE: I think I may have gotten a few facts about today's game confused. What can I say? Today was Purim, a Jewish holiday that is celebrated by reading the Biblical Book of Esther, giving charity to the poor, giving gifts of food to friends, and by drinking wine to the point where one cannot tell the hero of the story from the bad guy. Or in baseball terms, imbibing to the point where one cannot tell an Astros blowout of epic proportions from just another loss in Spring Training 2009. You know, now and then, a little confusion goes a long way...
Happy Purim, y'all!
Sunday, March 8, 2009
The Astros won their first game.
They haven't won any real games since then. In fact, they've lost a bunch of games pretty spectacularly, especially the Away games that fill the lineup card with prospects and invitees trying out for a place on the roster. They're probably in line to set a record for the most runs walked in.
Maybe subconsciously I'm waiting for the Astros to win, for when Spring Training really starts...?
Maybe. But I think it's actually much more fundamental than that: I can't see anything. For all that I complain that watching games on the computer limits my view to what the producer thinks I should be interested in, at least I can see the regular season games. There have only been a couple of Astros Spring Training games televised. So it's hard to really see what's going on - who's hitting the ball hard - even if the ball is caught, who's making the great plays, who's swinging wild and crazy. There's radio coverage, but I've only been able to listen in to a few of the live broadcasts - they mostly play in the afternoons when I'm at work. So I'm not really even hearing the KTRH guys tell the story. And even those guys are still getting back in shape - in today's broadcast, they didn't catch on until the last inning that Backe had left the game after two (not three) innings. They said Hensley and Backe look a lot alike on the mound. I guess they'd know - they can see the game and I can't.
Well, not yet. I'll be at Spring Training in 10 days. One week, five games, and hopefully a morning at the practice field too. That ought to give me enough opportunity to have something more meaningful to say about baseball than "The Astros lost again today."
What I'd like to be saying is that some prospect sure looks good, but some of those prospects are probably going to be in minor league camp by the time I get there. I'd like to be getting a good look at the invitees too, but some might be cut by the middle of Spring Training. That's the price of going the second half. I'd also like to be saying that Carlos Lee sure looks strong or Tejada's in good shape, and most of all, that Roy Oswalt is still The Man. But due to the WBC this year, I'm not sure which of them is going to be back by the time I get there. And I'd really love to say that it's heartwarming to see Jeff Bagwell in uniform, out on the practice field with the minor league guys - but I don't know if he'll be there the week I'm in Kissimmee.
Guess I'll just have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, there are Alyson and the Chronicle guys, and a gazillion blog commenters - most of them annoying, but a few with ideas worth reading, some with blogs of their own. And of course there are always the numbers. Somewhere in the stats and box scores there are hidden stories. It's just hard to pick them out, sitting out here in Exile.
Guess I'll just have to wait and see.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
My young-but-wise rabbi says that some sermons are informational and some are inspirational, and it's important to know the difference. Blogs are similar - if Spring Training Heaven was supposed to be inspirational, this one is all information. Boring and dry perhaps - but hopefully useful!
How to Get There on a Budget
I'm really talking here about how fly there on a budget, since I'm coming down from the Washington DC area. One consideration is that there are multiple choices for airports. While the Orlando Airport (MCO) is closest - not far at all from the ballpark, Tampa (TPA) is just an hour or so away. Another thing to remember: There's generally no discount for buying round trip tickets, so you can get one-way flights into one airport and out through another, depending on the prices and schedules that best fit your needs. The past couple of years, I've flown into Tampa, picked up my rental car, driven to Kissimmee where I stayed, and then flew out from Orlando, turning in my rental car at the airport there. (More on rental cars below.) I've got cousins in Tampa, so it's a good excuse to visit family. But mainly, it just turned out to be better flight options for me.
Another consideration, when looking for good deals on flights: Tuesday and Wednesday are generally cheaper days to fly than Sundays. In a previous blog entry I wrote about how to pick what dates you want to go to Spring Training - mainly based on finding clumps of home games. If you can arrange for mid-week travel, staying over the weekend, you'll find much better deals on flights.
I generally take an evening flight home, following an afternoon game. If the game is over around 4 PM or so, you can be at the airport - about 13 miles away - in less than half an hour. You can even grab some dinner first and still return your rental car, get through security, and make an 8 PM flight without hassle.
Where to Stay on a Budget
There are a gazillion hotels, motels, resorts, "resorts," townhouses, condos, etc. in Kissimmee! Not in the town itself, which is pretty small, but in the greater area referred to as Kissimmee. There are more hotels/motels per square acre there than just about anywhere in the country! Why? I'll give you a hint: Search for Kissimmee hotels on your favorite travel site, and you'll see many of the usual hotels with titles like "Maingate" or "Maingate East." What gate? The gate to Disney. Kissimmee is where the people who go to Disney stay!
There's a nonstop row of places to stay, of all types and price ranges, from scuzzy to swank. Most of them are on or adjacent to US Hwy 192, AKA Irlo W. Bronson Memorial Highway. This is a long stretch of road, with a ton of traffic, and (despite the "highway" moniker) traffic lights at every intersection. Hwy 192 runs from just past Disney on the West, past the turn to the Stadium about 20 miles east, and then on to Melbourne (Florida, not Australia) on the Atlantic Coast. The higher the numbers get on Irlo Bronson, the closer you are to Disney - and the farther you are from Osceola County Stadium. Big numbers are great if you're there for Disney World, but me, I'm there for baseball. The prices kind of go along that line too - as you get closer to the Holy Disney Empire the hotels get fancier and more expensive.
The trick - if you're watching your budget - is to find someplace nice and comfortable that's reasonably priced. "Comfortable" is kind of a relative term - reflecting your age, lifestyle, tolerance for noise, interest in partying, etc. I'm a married female who goes to Spring Training with my husband or adult sons or (this year) my sister who's celebrating a round-number birthday. I like cleanliness, availability of fridge and microwave, and highspeed Internet access - so I can update my blog and post my photos. I don't like rooms (and guests) who rent by the hour and loud music after 2 AM. I also don't care about fancy soap or entertainment facilities at the hotel, although an exercise room is nice. I also want to spend under $100 a night, so that leaves out the luxury hotels. That's just me (boring and frugal) - you might have other ideas about what's comfortable or nice.
The first year I went to Spring Training, I found an article in the Washington Post travel section that purported to list the 25 best cheap places to stay in Orlando. I was looking for someplace inexpensive where I could have a separate space for my slightly grouchy adult son. I picked a bright pink Howard Johnson's in the 4800 block of Irlo Bronson (Rt 192), where I got a 2 BR/2 bath + kitchen "suite" for about $75 a night. It was serviceable, not too scuzzy, not too nice either. I looked elsewhere the next year, and found the Baymont Hotel (5100 block), where I got a room with a fridge and microwave, free Internet, plus a hot breakfast, for about the same price. People there were friendly and helpful, room was clean. I liked it so much that I went back to the same place the following year. It had been bought by Best Western, but was pretty much the same. Both of these places are about 7-8 miles from the stadium.
Last year, though, I decided that it was silly to be staying at hotels that are closer to Disney than to the ballpark. I found a "resort" that was walking-distance (about a mile) to the stadium, with 2 BR/2 bath full kitchen townhouses that go for under $100 a night. Note the quote marks on "resort": The Villas at Fortune Place are nowhere in the vacinity of being a "resort" so if that's what you want, pick something else. It's very boring looking from the outside - a townhouse city with palm trees - but inside the townhouses are comforable and furnished with the usual Florida casual stuff. The exercise room is minimal, and while there is highspeed Internet, it's only next to the pool. (There were always more people sitting on the porch with their laptops than in the pool.) It's next door to a Publix grocery and across the street from a Latino grocery - very convenient, since you have a kitchen. The best part for me was easy access to the stadium and to the practice fields - about a five minute drive, tops. You could even walk and save the hefty parking fee. The main "disadvantage" of this place seems to be that it's so far from Disney - which I consider to be a blessing. Anyway, overall it was a good place to stay, within my budget, and meeting my needs, and I'm planning to stay there again this year.
Rules of thumb for picking motels: Watch out for places that are pink (check the online photos), or have the word "flamingo" in their names. The online travel web sites (I like tripadvisor.com) generally have customer comments and ratings, which can be very helpful. But they are unmoderated comments, so you have to take the ratings with a grain of salt. Who knows who is really writing those glowing reports (the motel staff?) or the "roaches and mildew" complaints (the competing motel accross the street?)? If you find some fantastic place for $39 a night, let me know - I've never had the nerve to try one.Saving Money on Your Rental Car
If there's public mass transit in Central Florida, I haven't found it. You need a car. Last year I learned a huge lesson about saving money on rental cars: If you pick up your car outside of the airport, it may be much cheaper. Last year, I saved about $100 off my weeklong rental by picking my car up at the Budget lot just outside the Tampa airport (a 5 minute taxi ride). I returned it to the Orlando airport without an additional charge. You can also Google to find discount codes, sign up for a free member card (not a credit card), or look for coupons to knock the rental cost down further. But the main cut in price came from picking up the car outside the airport. Last year I reserved a compact car, and got a black PT Cruiser that had just come in (6 miles on the odometer) - it was really easy to find in the stadium parking lot amidst all of the white Ford Focuses and silver Hyundais! It was $160 for the week.
The only gotcha: These locations, unlike the airport rental car desks, don't stay open all night long. The one in Tampa closes at 6 PM, so if you have a late flight, it's not a good option.
How to Go to Games on a Budget
Don't bother. You're going there to see baseball, right? So buy the best tickets you can, preferably the first day they go on sale in January. Better yet, find the presale password, and buy the best tickets available two days before they go on sale in January. (Mysteriously, the tickets for the Yankee games will already be almost sold out...) In the scheme of things, the difference between the cheapest seat and most expensive isn't going to make or break your budget.
If you are reading this in March, you can probably just get your tickets at the stadium and save yourself all those annoying fees that Ticketmaster adds on ($4 per ticket, plus $4 per order - and each game is a separate order!). Other than the Yankees games, I doubt they're going to be sold out.
Here's my personal favorite place to sit: Section 103 - right behind the Astros bullpen. If you get a seat up close, the relief pitchers will be sitting right in front of you. Great place to shoot photos of guys scoring or stealing second base, left-handed batters, pitchers (either hand), and the antics of the third base coach. I could write a whole blog just on taking pictures at Osceola County Stadium - maybe I will! If you look at the Spring Training photos in the Photo Album on my website, you'll see why.
Supposedly you can't bring food into the stadium, but that rule really seems to apply to bringing in food that they sell there. I always bring my own food, since I keep kosher, and I generally don't have a problem taking it in. (They do search bags.) You can bring in bottled water. I always buy a case of bottled water when I get to Kissimmee (the tap water is disgusting) and stick a few bottles in the freezer to take to the games. (If you rent a place with a kitchen or even a coffee maker, use the bottled water to make coffee!)
Splurge and buy a Spring Training cap at the stadium store. But better yet - buy a copy of the Astros Media Guide. It's about ten bucks and will provide hours of pleasurable bedtime reading, if you are really really nerdy and sabermetricious. (Yes, you can get the Press Pass for every game free online, but it's hard to cuddle up with the computer.)
And by the way, you can go to the practice fields (on days there are no games) for free. It's fantastic - lots of players, and a lot fewer fans.
Time for bed - tomorrow's a work day. Next time I'll write about what else - besides baseball - there is to do when you go to Kissimmee. (Promise: It will not include anything about Disney.)