Anything You Can Do…

Go ahead, offer Lucas Harrell a challenge.

One week into Spring Training, Harrell felt like he’d pitched himself “out of contention” for the fifth spot in the Astros rotation.  At least that’s what he told my partner, Brett Dolan, in a post-game interview.

A few weeks later, the rookie worked himself back into the rotation.  By Opening Day weekend, he was the Astros second starter.

Four weeks ago, on a cool Friday evening in Los Angeles, the right-hander navigated 7.1 dazzling innings against the Dodgers.  Harrell stifled the best team in the National League that night while never inducing a swing-and-a-miss.

That impressive performance was recently outdone by another Astros rookie.  Lefty Dallas Keuchel authored the club’s first (and only) complete Saturday afternoon; an 8-1 win over the Cleveland Indians. Consider it a worthy challenge.

Not to be outdone, Harrell did Keuchel one better with a 1-0 shutout over the San Diego Padres last night.

This morning, I can’t help but wonder what Harrell might do next.

Not that it came easily for him.  Harrell dodged a bullet when left fielder JD Martinez gunned down the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning.  The righty was wobbling.  A walk loaded the bases — no room for error now — forcing Harrell to dig a little deeper.  With two outs, Nick Hundley worked the count to 2-2 as fans came to their feet.  Harrell reached back and blew a 94 MPH fastball past a flailing Hundley to end the game.

Game over.  But what will Harrell do next?

Harrell’s shutout stands as the best performance by an Astros starter this year.  It was the first time in seven years of pro ball that Harrell had even pitched a complete game.

But then, maybe Harrell was just trying to keep up with his teammates.  Astros starters have been on a roll lately.

ASTROS LAST 10 STARTS (since Keuchel joined rotation)

  • 6/17 – 5+ IP, 1 R (Keuchel)
  • 6/18 – 6.0 IP, 2 R (Happ)
  • 6/19 – 7.0 IP, 2 R (Rodriguez)
  • 6/20 – 7.0 IP, 2 R (Lyles)
  • 6/22 – 7.0 IP, 1 R (Harrell)
  • 6/23 – 9.0 IP, 1 R (Keuchel)
  • 6/24 – 7.0 IP, 1 R (Happ)
  • 6/25 – 6.2 IP, 5 R (Rodriguez)
  • 6/26 – 6.1 IP, 1 R (Lyles)
  • 6/27 – 9.0 IP, 0 R (Harrell)

That’s a paltry 16 runs over 70.0 innings for a 2.06 ERA.  The Astros are 5-5 during the stretch.

……………………………………………….

Pitching hasn’t been the only bright spot lately.  The Astros lone run last night came on a Matt Downs home run in the third inning.  It was good thing, too.  The Padres retired the final 18 Astros hitters to finish the game.

The Astros have knocked out 11 homers in their last five games.  They have 26 home runs in their last 18 games.

……………………………………………….

I’ve never been to a baseball fantasy camp, but I’m told they are awesome.  Luckily for you, the Joe Niekro Foundation is putting together a doozy of a camp in late September.

Campers spend five days playing ball with Hall of Famers like George Brett, Ozzie Smith and Gaylord Perry.  Sounds phenomenal to me.

The camp is designed to help raise money for the Joe Niekro Foundation which is “Knuckling Up for Aneurysm Research.”  Good fun, great cause.  Check it out.

ALSO: Follow me on Twitter @daveraymond4

Houston Let’s Fix this Problem

Thanks to the Astros, interleague play will never look the same again.

Hallelujah.

Let’s face it, interleague play’s biggest flaw is that it always looks the same.  After 16 years of trying, Major League Baseball has failed to deliver what it promised.  Maybe the Astros can fix that.

By moving to the American League West division next season, Houston will provide a balance between the leagues and provide Bud Selig the chance to give baseball fans what they’ve wanted.

Baseball fans love their teams, without a doubt.  They religiously follow the daily ups and downs and to invest themselves in their local heroes.

Baseball fans also take great interest in other teams and visiting stars.  Maybe they like to root against them, maybe they’re interested in seeing the worlds best performers.

How else do you explain the attendance bump when the Yankees go to Anaheim?  Or when Barry Bonds filled random ballparks on Tuesday nights?  What’s the explanation for the way fans show for interleague play?

Give Bud Selig credit, that much he gets.

Baseball fans love baseball.  Cardinal faithful in St. Louis are fascinated to see a player like Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki.  The folks in Denver come out to see stars like Derek Jeter.

But interleague play has failed to accomplish its mission:  bring every team to every city.

Did you know that in 16 years of interleague play, the Padres have never been to Toronto?  That’s ridiculous.  The Rangers haven’t gone to St. Louis (during the regular season, anyway).  The Dodgers never visited old Yankee Stadium.  Worse, they haven’t even been to new Yankee Stadium.

Are you telling me that Yankees fans wouldn’t have been interested in seeing Joe Torre return as the skipper of a proud NL franchise?

Then again, fans were entertained by the Tigers and Pirates six times this season.  Or punished.

The Braves have never been to Kansas City.  I could see some story lines there, too:  Braves’ president John Schuerholz returns to the place he made his name as Royals GM. He runs into ex-Braves there – including Royals GM Dayton Moore, manager Ned Yost, and Jeff Francouer.

But then, what could be more compelling than the Red Sox and Marlins for six games?  A lot.

In 16 years, we couldn’t figure out how to get the Twins to Atlanta?  Come on.

So take some pride, Astros fans, because your team is giving Selig a chance to fix the problem.  Somebody had to do it.

With the Astros  squaring Major League Baseball’s two leagues at 15 teams apiece next year we’ll see interleague matchups all season.  I’m not here to debate the merit of interleague play in general — that’s something we can delve into some other day.  For the moment, let’s even forget the various flaws presented by year-round interleague (like an interleague series on the final weekend deciding post-season spots. Ugh.).

Instead, let’s think about what that could mean for the schedule.

Done correctly, one AL division would align with one NL division and they’d rotate every year.  Teams would be assured of playing every team from the other league once every three years.  Competitive fairness would be restored.  The so-called “natural rivalries” can take a back seat for now, as far as I’m concerned.  When those rivalries come together in future years, the intensity will only heighten.  It could be great.

Attendance for interleague games was 15.8% higher than other MLB games this year.  And overall attendance is up 8.1% in 2012.  Selig is on the right track.

But stop telling us that the Tigers and Pirates are natural rivals.  We’re not that dumb.  Give fans what was promised 16 years ago – a chance to celebrate the great talent on every team in the big leagues.

I guarantee fans will come out to watch.  Right?

Myth, Legend and my Dad

I’m not one of those guys who remembers everything.

Come to think of it, that could be a bit of an occupational hazard.  Many announcers seem to have an ability to recall dates, names and events with great clarity and accuracy.  That’s not me, unfortunately.

I’m more of an in-the-moment kind of guy.

I stay up late.  My conversations meander endlessly.  Lord knows I’ve never met a stranger, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a bartender wipe down the tables and turn up the lights.

“You don’t always have to wait until the last dog is hung,” my dad used to caution me.

I’m not sure I ever knew what he meant, but it was probably good advice.

MAY 31, 1980

It rained that day in Chicago.  A lot.  I know that because my parents drove me there as an 8-year old kid.  For some reason they also brought my brothers — aged ten and four.  It was a big deal, driving 1,000 miles from our tiny western-Nebraska town to this bustling city.

Turns out my dad had designs of taking his three boys to a ball game.  Maybe he’d mentioned it, I can’t remember.  I was pretty distracted by my Star Wars action figures and — you know — rocks, shoelaces, candy and whatever bright, shiny thing entered my field of vision.  I was the ultimate flibbertigibbet.

My dad played it cool, though.  He led us through Wrigleyville and let the excitement build all around us.  The rain did little to dampen the experience.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing and smelling.  Loud men hawking shirts.  Vendors in every direction outside the ballpark.

Candied nuts!!!

My dad bought us big league replica hats outside Wrigley.  Since I did whatever my older brother did in those days, we got a couple of those sweet black-and-gold Pirates pillbox caps.  My four-year brother liked the bird logo and chose an Orioles cap.  We went inside.

The place just smelled right.  Our seats were right down front.  And it kept raining.

My little brother’s hat didn’t fit — even at the tightest setting.  So dad pulled out his lighter and melted the plastic together in the back.  Perfect.

We ate hot dogs and watched the grounds crew and asked Dad lots of questions.  He wasn’t a huge baseball fan, but he knew the basics.  Unfortunately for him, I wanted to know everything.  When he couldn’t answer my question about the umpires having an “NL” on their hats, he went for help.

“National League,” he said.  “They are umpires for National League games only.”

As far as players went, he told me to keep an eye on the big red-headed third baseman for the Phillies:  “He hits a lot of homeruns.”

That’s all I needed.

Mike Schmidt blasted a ball way over the right field wall early in the game.  It was a moonshot.  I soaked it all up — along with a huge soda, candied nuts and who-knows-what-else — in amazement.  Dad was right.  It was more than a homerun, though.  It got up in the wind and sailed an impossible distance.

Luke Skywalker couldn’t have hit it that far with a lightsaber!

My dad explained that it was harder for Schmidt to hit a homer the opposite way like that.  He usually pulled balls to the other side of the diamond — left field — for his homeruns.

Even then, I found that insight fascinating.

Dad ran out of cigarettes about the time the Phillies were to come up again in the later stages of the game.  He needed to reload.  I asked if we could wait until Schmidt led off the next inning.

Poof! My life would never be the same.

We all watched in awe as Michael Jack Schmidt turned on a pitch and shot it like a bolt of lightening into the left field bleachers.  A solo home run in a blowout game.  Schmidt’s second of the afternoon.

Things get a little fuzzy from there.  My dad bought some smokes and we floated out of Wrigley Field having enjoyed a magical day together.

No, I don’t remember everything but I’ll never forget that day.

MORE THAN A HERO

That’s the thing about baseball.  It possesses the unique power to make something more than heroes out of its players — it creates mythology and legend.

My dad could have said, “Watch Dave Kingman,” or “Keep an eye on Steve Carlton.”  Either would have been fine.  Or Schmidt could have just as easily punched out twice and rolled into a double play.

Instead, two men made good that day.

Hercules, CF Bats: R Throws: R

That Mike Schmidt came through the way he did, on that specific day, is something no one can explain.  I didn’t have the words to describe it then, and I’m no closer to finding them today.

It’s as if my dad conjured Hercules himself.  Then, as if on cue, this red-headed Greek God (with an oddly Germanic name) slayed a nine-headed Lernaean Hydra (maybe the nicest thing anyone ever called the 1980 Cubs) with two mighty clouts.  Right in front of my very eyes!

I was mesmerized — indeed, hooked — on baseball.  No way to get it out of my blood now.  I was going to be Mike Schmidt, or Dale Murphy, one day.

DECEMBER 12, 2011

About six months ago, I got the toughest writing assignment of my life.  I had to write my dad’s obituary.

I was with him, on and off, in our tiny little Nebraska town for the last three weeks of his life.  Ironically, a baseball-related obligation pulled me away for a couple days in December.  I swung through Houston to check on my wife and kids as I circled back to my childhood home.  I arrived the morning of December 12th.  I was about 12 hours too late.

It’s okay.  He lived one hell of life.  For better or worse, he lived it on his terms.

My dad always said, “If you have to smoke, you might as well be fooling around on all fours with a rattle snake.”

To be sure, my dad and I had fairly divergent personalities, but we connected in some profound ways over the years.  I’m so thankful he lived long enough to know my three boys; what a blessing.

In those last few weeks, though, we reached deeper than in all the previous 40 years.  We shared some important thoughts and emotions.

We dug out a few Johnny Carson tapes.  I gave him one last Jim Ignatowski impression.  We drove around looking for pheasants.  Sometimes we just sat in silence as dusk eased into our little valley.

We talked about baseball.

What a great and mysterious game.  It connects so many of us in ways we don’t even understand.  From that first game at Wrigley Field, I think my family realized what baseball meant to us.  Our summer vacations began to revolve around trips to Seattle (Kingdome), New York (Yankee Stadium), Boston (Fenway) and others.  My parents bought season tickets when the Rockies came to Denver.

Dad with his boys again, 12 years later. Rockies Opening Weekend. I’m rockin’ the stripes.

Admittedly, I never became Dale Murphy or Mike Schmidt; my little brother ended up being the good player.

There’s only so much magic one man can rustle up.

My dad filled me with quite a spirit, though.  He took risks, worked hard and trained his aim as high as humanly possible.  Then, when I chased my dreams like a wild man, he was always right by my side.

There were days when I struggled to make sense of my dad.  I couldn’t stand those damn cigarettes.  Now I see that he and I are much more similar than I could have ever imagined.

I didn’t really want to be Mike Schmidt.  I wanted to be the man who made Mike Schmidt magic.

Maybe that’s why I like guys like Jose Altuve so much.  I want him to be a hero — no, legend — to some small kid listening to the radio.  I want that kid to know that magic really does happen.  People might call him “pequeno gigante” one day.

Or better yet, he could grow up to be like his dad.

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STATS SUNDAY

My original vision for this blog was to examine numbers, strategies and baseball conventions.  Not surprisingly, I got distracted.  Without further ado, let’s commence with our first “Stats Sunday.”

• Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie hit a 2-2 pitch for his 13th homerun of the season last night in Arlington — most among all shortstops in MLB.  A remarkable 10 of those HRs have come with two-strikes in the count.

Lowrie’s two-strike prowess is unmatched right now in MLB.  His 10 HRs are twice as many as the next closest SS (J.J. Hardy has five) and two more than any other hitter at any position (A. Dunn, C. Granderson, D. Ortiz have eight).

What’s more, his .569 slugging percentage with two-strikes is also tops in the majors (assuming at least 25 ABs).  Jerry Hairston, Jr. is the next closest “shortstop” with a .489 SLG%.

• Astros fans are likely aware that 2B Jose Altuve has the top average (.319) and most hits (82) among MLB second basemen.  I bet they’d be surprised to find out that his .467 slugging percentage is second only to Yankees’ 2B Robinson Cano.  Even Atlanta’s Dan Uggla (.463 SLG%) — he of 11 HRs — trails Altuve.

• If it seems like forever since Carlos Lee played in a game, it’s understandable.  Last time we saw him, Lee was sporting a 1977 Astros rainbow uniform.  Last night, the Astros donned their vintage 1986 unis.

Lee’s return to the lineup couldn’t come quickly enough for manager Brad Mills.  In Lee’s 13-game absence, the Astros averaged 11.2 strikeouts per contest — up a whopping 51% over the first 52 games o the season.  Not surprisingly, walks were down 29% over the same period (from 3.1 BB/gm to 2.2 BB/gm).

There has been some good news: scoring and homeruns are up.  The Astros averaged 4.8 runs and 1.3 HRs per game without Carlos Lee.  They were scoring 4.1 runs on 0.8 HRs with him.

Go figure.

• One last little tidbit from the Matt Cain perfect game on Wednesday.  ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark used data to confirm what we believed to be true that night: Gregor Blanco’s catch behind Cain in the seventh inning was as impossible as it looked.

Stark points out: no right fielder has caught a ball hit that hard to that part of ANY park during the last three seasons.  Lots of interesting stuff in the article.

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HAPPY FATHER’S DAY

Hope you all enjoy a great Father’s Day.  Bring some baseball along on the radio and I guarantee everyone will have fun.  In the meantime, I give you a few last quotes either by or about dads:

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed me.” –Jim Valvano

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from you. That’s never possible.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

***

Keith Hernandez: “Really, you know my mom’s one quarter Cajun.”

“Uh, my father’s half drunk.” — Elaine Benes, Seinfeld

***

“Remember who you are.” — Mufasa, The Lion King

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you.

Last thing for you today.

It’s a picture of my dad — taken last summer.  There he was, in the splendor of the Rocky Mountains on a gorgeous summer afternoon.  I believe he had just floated some rapids with my mom and brother.  Funny…I love his sly look, but I hate those damn cigarettes.

How Cain I Resist?

It’s 4:35am CDT and I haven’t gone to bed.

I saw something 12 hours ago that I thought I’d never see in my big league career.  We were still three hours from first pitch of a game I’ll never forget.  That’s when Giants starter Matt Cain took a most unusual approach to his typical pre-game preparation.

His drive splashed down 315 yards away in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay.  I asked several other starting pitchers if they’d ever try something like that on the day they were scheduled to start.  Let’s just say I didn’t find any takers.

Anyway, the Giants just happened to be hosting an on-field promotion with PGA pro Dustin Johnson.  Roughly 200 people crowded around to watch.  I was one of them.

Brian Sabean — General Manager for the San Francisco Giants — was another.  Cain begged his boss to let him take one swing.  Sabean acquiesced, but sat 20 rows up in the stands and refused to look.

Roughly five hours later, Cain was mobbed near the mound as more than 42,000 fans unleashed mighty roar.  The 27-year old righty had just thrown the first perfect game in the history of one of baseball’s proudest franchises.  This is what those last few moments looked and felt like for Siri, or whomever it is who lives inside my iPhone:

Since the New York Gothams first suited up in 1883, no member of the now-Giants franchise had ever retired all 27 hitters in a game.  Christy Mathewson didn’t do it.  Neither did Juan Marichal.  Forget about Carl Hubbell, Gaylord Perry, Tim Lincecum and, well, you get the point.

As is tradition, the Hall of Fame asks for the pitching slab.  Long after the crowd had gone, I watched them remove it.  Now you can too.

Fans and participants will forever remember this game.  One of the most perfect in perfect-game history.  They’ll remember Gregor Blanco‘s impossible diving catch in the seventh inning which robbed Jordan Schafer of a triple.  They’ll remember how the cold air and wind knocked down a sure homerun off the bat of Chris Snyder in the sixth inning.

Personally, I’ll remember that Cain was loose enough to drive a golf ball a mile into the Bay before the game.  I remember that he never once shook off his catcher, Buster Posey.

My prevailing memory of the night, however, will not be what Cain did on the mound.  It will be what he did when no one was watching.

Leading 10-0 and six outs away from perfection, Cain led off the inning by hitting a ground ball to third base.  He could have jogged it out.  No one would have cared.  Instead he busted his tail down the line — giving the same determined effort he’d ask of his teammates.  He risked potential injury and fatigue just as they’d done for him.

Matt Cain will forever be remembered as the man who threw baseball’s 22nd perfect game.  How could they forget?

I hope, however, that some young ballplayer might also remember the way Cain accomplished the great feat.  I hope someone remembers him for trusting his catcher and running out groundballs.

Matt Cain accomplished something spectacular Wednesday night.

While the world prepared to celebrate him, Cain chose to honor his teammates, his opponents and this unpredictable, unbelievably beautiful game.

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PERFECT PERSPECTIVES

• I ran into plate umpire, Ted Barrett, after the game.  In chatting about Matt Cain’s performance, I asked if he’d ever seen a perfect game before.  He had the plate for David Cone‘s perfect game on July 18, 1999 when the Yankees beat the Montreal Expos 6-0.  Barrett is the only umpire to be behind the plate for two perfect games.

• Barrett and crew member Brian Runge worked Philip Humber‘s perfect game in Seattle in April.  Runge had the plate for that game.  They also worked Cain’s 1-hitter against the Pirates this year.

• Runge’s grandfather, Ed Runge, was on the umpiring crew in 1965 when Don Larson threw the most famous perfect game of all-time: the Yankees 2-0 win over the Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series.

• I also saw Gregor Blanco after the game.  He told me that he didn’t think he was going to make the catch on Schafer’s ball in the seventh inning:  “I just kept running as fast as I could.  That’s all I could do.”

• In over 250,000 games and 143 years of Major League baseball only 22 pitchers have ever thrown a perfect game.  I realize that I’m rounding a lot of numbers here, but that gives fans a 0.009% chance of seeing a perfect game at any time.

• The 10-0 score of Wednesday’s game represents the largest margin in a perfect game.

• Matt Cain is the only pitcher to score a run in a perfect game.  He singled and scored in the sixth inning.

• Here’s what my scorecard looked like:

• I had a blog post more-or-less prepared as the game started last night and never submitted it.  It’s almost more intriguing with the ability to look back now.  I had a little fun with our good buddy, Jim Deshaies, too.  You can read it below.  I left it untouched.

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AROUND THE HORN (O’ PLENTY)

Today’s edition of Everybody Reads Raymond features a cornucopia of observations and curiosities.  Frankly, it’s difficult to pull myself away from the distractions of what I consider to be one of the greatest cities on the planet — San Francisco.  The Astros are in town for a three-game series with the Giants, the US Open is underway at the historic Olympic Club (which features the greatest cheeseburger you’ll ever eat) and discarded gravestones and broken tomb markers are washing up on the shores of Ocean Beach.

Yes, you can see just about anything in this eclectic city.  Except, perhaps, homeruns.

AT&T Park — home of the Giants — is easily the most homer-resistant park in the big leagues.  Prior to Tuesday’s game, San Francisco fans hadn’t seen the home club hit one over the fence in nearly a month.  The Giants went 6 consecutive home games which included more than 500 at bats without a homerun.  It represented the longest such drought since the team ventured out west in 1958.

The last team in baseball to go that long without a homerun in their home park?  The 1990 Houston Astros.

First baseman Glenn Davis hit 22 HR that year.  Franklin Stubbs knocked out 23 as the everyday left fielder.  The 1990 Astros featured a 27-year old Ken Caminiti at 3B, but he only hit 4 HR that season.  Despite the pitching-friendly dimensions of the Astrodome, I was surprised to learn that lineup had such a tough stretch.

I could blame it on Jim Deshaies.  After all, he didn’t hit any homers in 1990.  As many of you know, JD still holds the major league record for most career plate appearances (373) without an extra base hit of any kind.  Then again, we don’t expect pitchers to do a lot of hitting.  Right?

(gulp)

Someone forgot to mention that to Madison Bumgarner.  The big left-hander had never hit one out in his big league career.  Until last night.

With the Astros leading, 1-0, in the bottom of the third, Bumgarner got a fastball down the middle from Bud Norris.  He didn’t miss it.  In fact, he launched it through the chilly San Francisco air into the bleachers in left field to tie the game.  Fine, so maybe pitchers can hit.  I’ll amend my earlier claim and say that pitchers-turned-broadcaster can’t hit.

Much better.

Bumgarner didn’t seem satisfied to simply put an end to the Giants’ power-outage.  He pitched pretty well, too.  There’s nothing fancy about the guy either.  He’s just a hulking 22-year old boy from the quiet countryside of North Carolina.  He speaks with a drawl that you’d swear he’s faking.  He gave his wife a five-day old bull calf for a wedding present.  He also throws in the low-90s and features one of the best sliders in Major League Baseball.

In his 7.2 innings of work, Bumgarner struck out 12 Astros hitters and did not issue a walk.  It’s been a while since a Giants pitcher posted a double-digit strikeout effort on the same night he homered.  Would you believe 27 years?

In front of fewer than 3,000 fans on August of 1985, Mike Krukow went the distance at Candlestick Park.  He hit a solo homerun and punched out 12 hitters.  The Giants won 4-2 that day…over the Astros.  Amazing symmetry.

Oh, and Mike Krukow is a beloved broadcaster for the San Francisco Giants.

I’m starting to run out of excuses for JD.

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GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

The Astros will not have to face Tim Lincecum in their series at AT&T Park.  The two-time Cy Young award winner is 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA against the Astros in the eight starts he’s had against them.  No one would blame Astros fans for rejoicing.

Ironically, this is the year to face the Giants superstar.  He’s struggled to a 2-7 record with a 6.00 ERA in his 13 starts.  The Giants are 2-11 in games Lincecum pitches.

San Francisco is 33-16 in all other contests; a winning percentage of .673 which would dwarf that of any other team in baseball.

On Wednesday, the Astros draw Matt Cain.  His numbers pop off the stat sheet again this year.  However, he’s never had success against the Astros.  In seven starts against Houston, Cain is 1-3 with a 4.69 ERA.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

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MEMORIES

When the Seattle Mariners completed a six-pitcher no-hitter last week, it reminded many of the Astros similar accomplishment against the Yankees in 2003.

I checked the box score of that ’03 contest and noticed that current White Sox manager Robin Ventura was lifted for a pinch hitter in the ninth inning.  Ventura was a left-handed hitter and the Astros used Billy Wagner in the ninth.  I asked Ventura about it on Sunday.

“I don’t remember much about the game, except that every time I looked up they were using another pitcher,” Ventura said.

He didn’t even remember that he gave way to a pinch hitter in the game.  When I asked Ventura about the perceived controversy surrounding Yankees hitting coach Rick Down after the game, he again claimed no memory.

“Heck, [George] Steinbrenner wanted to fire somebody everyday.” he said. “

Funnyball

So an Ivy Leaguer, a rocket scientist and a writer walk into a room…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  On second thought, don’t.  The setup is usually better than the punchline anyway.

The Houston Astros, fresh off a 106-loss season in 2011, stood boldly at the front of the line on the first day of the 2012 MLB amateur draft, Monday.  Months of evaluation, discussion, interviews and analysis came to a head in front of a global audience right around the time you were sitting down for dinner.

A chicken in every pot.

Oh, but you wouldn’t find any chickens in the Astros draft room.  It was a packed house; full of scouts, executives, media and a bunch of computers.  That’s what most people saw, I’m guessing.  Computers.

Therein lies the irony of the Astros first pick.  The triumvirate of General Manager Jeff Luhnow (the Ivy Leaguer) along with Sig Mejdal (the rocket scientist) and Mike Fast (the writer) form the foundation of a decidedly new baseball front office.  A very simplified perception among folks paying attention is that these new guys are computer nerds.  The type of guys who’d spreadsheet the breakfast menu to make an “efficient choice.”

Not so fast, my friend.

Onlookers might be deceived by all those laptops and graduate degrees decorating the room.  We’ve all seen (or even read!) “Moneyball.”  It’s obvious: young baseball executives make calculated, data-driven decisions and swap out scouts for algorithms. College stats are more accurate in projecting talent than high-school stats.  Pitchers matriculate to the big leagues faster than position players.

Any fool knew that the Astros were going to pick Stanford RHP Mark Appel with the first pick of the draft.  He put up good numbers in college.  He’s a pitcher.  He fit perfectly into a spreadsheet.

In a world were so much rides on public perception, the Astros gave it no consideration.  Instead they trusted in things perhaps only they perceived.

It was the Astros ability to see more than numbers and talent that drove their decision on draft day.  They looked at college superstars, high school phenoms and pedigreed athletes of all kinds.  They collected first-hand accounts, read reports and interviewed coaches.  They ran the numbers.  Then — at the very last second — they delivered the punchline.

The Astros chose Carlos Correa, a 17-year old kid from Puerto Rico, with the very first pick of the draft.

Funny thing about it is that no one really saw it coming.  (Well, almost no one.  It’s worth pointing out that Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus saw Correa as the top talent, but even he was a little surprised.)

It was a bold pick.  In a group of five players considered to be in the running, Correa might have been the longest shot to be crowned number one.  No one from Puerto Rico had ever gone first in the draft.  He was the youngest player in the group.  His numbers would be difficult to interpret in any meaningful or predictive way.  What Luhnow did on Monday night didn’t look like anything we saw Brad Pitt doing in the blockbuster movie.

Maybe this was Funnyball.

Watching on the MLB Network, I heard audible gasps from the hosts’ open mics.  Correa appeared stunned at first and floated to the podium to hug Commissioner Bud Selig.  What a moment.

When Luhnow made his first public remarks about Correa I kept hearing things about “work ethic” and “attitude.”  The Astros GM referenced personal interaction with Correa’s family.  When asked about comparable players, Luhnow demurred.  He downplayed comparisons to the point of suggesting Correa might one day have to move to third base.

Then I heard Correa talk.

He spoke about his dad working so hard to help him develop. He talked about waking up at 5:00am every morning to walk to the McDonald’s parking lot where a bus picked him up and drove him to school at the baseball academy.  He was a 4.0 student who, when asked who he models his game after didn’t hesitate to answer Derek Jeter.  Why?

“Because he’s so good away from the field,” Correa said. “That’s important to me.”

Interesting.  What about the notion of moving to third base one day?

“I can play either, but I want to play shortstop,” Correa said. “I want to reach the big leagues as a shortstop. So I have to work hard to keep my agility and my feet quick and keep my body in shape to be a shortstop.”

So the Astros drafted a talented young player. (Any of their potential choices would have been considered talented.)  They chose a talented young player who wants to be great in an Astros uniform AND be great when he’s not in uniform.  That strikes me as a quality of considerable merit.

What’s more, one can see that being drafted was not the finish line for Correa.  He’s driven to work harder to make it as a shortstop at the next level.  He’s a young man who knows first-hand the meaning of sacrifice and hard work.  I’m guessing his upbringing and experience will provide him plenty of motivation to realize his great potential.

Tough to put those things in a formula.  The computers didn’t dictate this selection.  If you go back and look at the draft-room picture again you’ll see a lot of faces you don’t know.  There were more scouts in the Astros draft room on Monday than had ever assembled there for this annual event.  Luhnow and his staff wanted it that way.

It’s funny how this game forces you to think about your perceptions sometimes.

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SPEAKING OF TALENT

See if you can connect these dots.

While the Astros were in Denver last week, I found this street performer after enjoying breakfast with my mom.  Not exactly your typical ploy to scam a few bucks of tourists and passersby:

It got me to thinking about Jamie Moyer.

The Rockies announced that Moyer had been designated for assignment on Memorial Day.  It made me wonder if his career might finally be over.  Had anyone else been paying attention, they would have wondered the same thing.

A week later, as MLB celebrated the infusion of exciting young talent on draft day, it was quietly announced that Moyer had cleared waivers and had been released.  The juxtaposition could not have been more obvious.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Thing is, Moyer wasn’t ready to quit.  The Baltimore Orioles signed him to a minor-league deal yesterday and he’s going to give it another go.  You have to love this guy.

Moyer never threw hard.  In his heyday, the left-hander brought the heat somewhere in the mid to upper-80s in terms of MPH.  He relied on deception and guile.  As he’s gotten older, the velocity has dropped even more.  This year his fastball has averaged just over 77 MPH.  That’s his fastball, for crying out loud!  As his velocity has decreased over the years, Moyer has had to become more and more creative.

To the surprise — even delight — of many, he has.

Just like Arthur Rubinstein.

Rubinstein was possibly the greatest classical pianist of the 20th century.  To wit, if one wandered the streets in Poland you wouldn’t hear Rubinstein, but you might see him immortalized there.

I thought of the sculpture when I heard that guy in Denver.  Then I made the connection between Rubinstein and Moyer.

As the pianist grew older, he could tell his fingers didn’t work as fast as they did earlier in his career.  So he compensated.  In the passages preceding the fast ones, Rubinstein would slow down just enough to make the following passages seem faster by contrast.  Sure, he played slower than in the old days, but his delivery and touch was so deft, so subtle, that no one noticed.

Rubinstein performed to great acclaim longer than most in his profession.  That is, if you consider playing to sold-out music halls until the age 89 to be notable.

So here’s to Moyer continuing to fool hitters with his baffling slow stuff for another…what, 40years!

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YOUR MEMORIES?

I’m working on compiling an array of personal memories of the Astros vs. Dodgers 22-inning game from June 3, 1989.

If you were there or remember watching it at home or listening to it on the radio…or just remember the hubbub, drop me a line.  I want to know what you did that night.  Did you last through the whole thing?  Did you pass out on the couch?

Maybe you were traveling or out with friends or at a relative’s house.  Whatever your memories — the more personable the better — I’d love to hear them.  So leave a comment or send me something on twitter.

@daveraymond4

I look forward to reading all of them!  Thanks!

Gotta Have Heart

This week, I sat down for a casual chat with Vin Scully.

One name he brought up without any prodding was J.R. Richard’s.  Vinny was recounting the many brilliant young pitchers the Astros ushered into the ‘Dome back in the day.  He bemoaned the truncated career of Larry Dierker, the tragic end to Don Wilson’s life and then stopped at the thought of J.R. Richard.

He broke your heart.” -Vin Scully

He certainly did.  Anyone who ever witnessed him pitch wanted to see more.  None of us got enough.

I was just a kid in small-town Nebraska back then.  My older brother and I thought J.R. was the most dominating player who ever walked the planet.  He was six feet, eight inches tall with a wingspan at least as freakish as the Celtics’ Robert Parish.

Maybe it just seemed that way.

Richard’s fastball hit 103 mph.  He could hold four or five baseballs in one hand.  He brought Bob Gibson’s glare and intimidation to a new generation of hitters.  When he got down to business, he was flat-out dominant.

In Richard’s first big league start against San Francisco, he struck out 15 Giants hitters.  Willie Mays fanned three times that day.  So did All-Star catcher Dick Dietz, aka “The Mule.”

……………………………..

ASIDE: The Mule made for excellent copy.  Remind me to tell you about the day in which he showed me how he got the nickname.  Let’s just say it involved me flying from the mound into foul territory.

……………………………..

Mays was later asked by his mentor, Monte Irvin, what it was like to hit against J.R. Richard.  The Say Hey Kid summed it up in one word:

“Impossible.”

I’m pretty sure he was serious.  J.R. Richard went on to become the starting pitcher for the 1980 NL All-Star team. His legend was only in its infancy, and a place in Cooperstown seemed a reasonable goal.

“In my mind, he was as fearsome a pitcher as ever played,” said Scully.

Back in Nebraska, my brother and I played a lot of pick-up games in a vacant lot up the street.  The other kids wanted to be Pete Rose or Dave Parker or Steve Garvey.  We wanted to be James Rodney Richard.

My brother always got his way.  In protest, I’d be Biff Pocoroba.

That meant my J.R. Richard moments played out in private.  I’m sure the neighbors wondered about the gangly 80-pound kid throwing imaginary 100 mph fastballs against the wall.  That same goofy kid spent hours trying to palm as many baseballs as his larger-than-life hero.

My fastball never touched two-thirds of Richard’s velocity.  I never palmed more than a couple baseballs.  But today I got the last laugh on my brother.

A boy and his hero.

The Astros honored J.R. Richard tonight at Minute Maid Park.  They unveiled his star on the new Astros Walk of Fame.  He threw out the first pitch — as hard as he could — before the game.

J.R. Richard crushed my hand with his grip.  He spent a chunk of his busy afternoon telling me stories and basking in a day designed to honor him. He told me about a high school game in which he hit four homers and pitched his team to a 48-0 shutout win.  Turns out, he never lost a game prior to playing professionally.  He also offered loads of optimism and insight about today’s Astros.

Sure, my brother always got to be J.R. Richard when we were kids.  Today I got to be with J.R. Richard.

Richard broke a lot of fans’ hearts when his career came to a terrifying halt in 1980.  We wonder what he could have accomplished, had he not fallen to the Astroturf while having a stroke.

Through many tough breaks, poor decisions and lonely moments after his career, J.R. Richard never lost his enthusiasm or competitiveness.  He’s an associate pastor now.  He helps young players learn baseball.  Optimism percolates with every smile.

He broke a few hearts, no doubt.  His hurt for a time, too.

Tonight the Astros and J.R. Richard made bold steps toward mending a sadly fractured relationship.  He was emotional.  Fans were reassured.  Baseball proudly sung his praises.

I didn’t get a chance to tell J.R. during our broadcast, but I suspect I speak for many when I say that my heart burst with joy to see him in a rainbow uniform.