Astros have second-half opportunity

By now, the Astros are no longer a surprise. Sure, their a surprising contender in the AL West, an unlikely presence in the American League postseason picture.

But as the second half kicks in tonight, they’re not going to sneak up on anybody.

ESPN profiled their second-half hopes, so it must be legit, right?

To be honest, I’m feeling kind of 50-50 regarding the Astros’ hopes for the rest of the season. Obviously, they’ve put together a team with some talent and a group of players who produced pretty well over the first half … except for the six-game losing streak right before the All-Star break. The were in first place from Opening Day, right up to the last game when they slipped a half-game behind the Angels.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Astros. They’ve had key injuries (George Springer, Jed Lowrie). They’ve struck out a lot … really, a lot, liked leading MLB.

But they’ve had solid showings from established players like Jose Altuve, and they’ve benefited from great contributions from new additions like Carlos Correa.

If they can keep this up, if all of these guys stay on track and the injured players come back and perform, there’s no reason the Astros won’t be making postseason plans.

But …

I’m not so optimistic that I can ignore a nagging feeling inside that comes from knowing that it’s possible, possible I say, that the wheels could fall off. Young players could slump and struggle, other injuries could crop up, the pitching staff could come back to earth.

Hopefully, the Astros can get off to a quick re-start here and erase the memories of the six-game slide. I’d like to see them back in first, or at least fighting it out with the Angels. What I don’t want to see is them fall behind by five or six games and then start pressing. That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Still not sure about Jenner

Bruce JennerEver since the news broke that Bruce Jenner was planning to “transition into a woman,” I’ve had a very difficult time getting my brain to really understand the situation.

Remember, in 1976, when Bruce Jenner won the decathlon at the Montreal Olympics, I was 13. He was “the greatest athlete in the world,” as decathlon gold medalists are often called. He was on the front of the Wheaties box. He was everywhere.

Sure, the time since his gold medal has been a long and winding road. And though I’ve never watched a second of that Kardashian show crap, I’ve heard enough about the train wreck he’s been living among over the past few years.

But this, transitioning to a woman, is just too much. If he came out as gay, I’d be less stressed. The idea that someone who succeeded so mightily as an athlete, who claimed a title held in such high regard by men, would somehow opt to become a woman, is just too strange for me.

What it does tell me is that success in athletics does not always come as a result of the kind of toughness that we normally assume a person must possess. Bruce Jenner worked hard and put in the hours of training in order to succeed. But his ability to focus on that victory did not cement in him a lifelong approach to life that we would have expected.

And… he’s OUT!

The sun was high in a clear blue sky without a single cloud in it. It was on a the warm side, about 85 degrees, and everyone was sweating only five minutes after getting out of the car. The kids on the Little League baseball team were straggling in, some on bikes and others driven by a parent. A Parks and Recreation guy was just finishing up drawing the baselines with lime from a little push machine. I was standing behind the cage, a backstop made of cyclone fencing. Off the first base line was a little five step bleacher and a few of the parents were settling on it to watch the game. Our team was called the Marmots and the opposing team was named the Cheetahs. Each of the teams were decked out in regulation uniforms, the Marmots in red and white, the Cheetahs in purple and white. I walked out to the pitcher’s mound, which was actually a depression in the dirt rather than a raised hump and dropped a skinny white rectangle of rubber that marked the closest the pitcher could get toward home plate.

“Did you measure that?” hollered a father from the bleachers. He was wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey over jeans. His most noticeable attribute was not his shaved head, but the fact that he was the approximate size of a two bedroom Winnebago.

“No tape.” I said. The Youth Sports Association was short on funds and therefore short on equipment. The little sledge I used to stake out the bases and home plate was mine. I felt lucky that the Association provided the bases, aluminum bats and a few balls. The kids had uniforms because we parents were required to purchase them, along with an “approved” mitt from a specific vendor with a contract. Seeing the price of the uniform, elbow pads, glove, batting helmet and rubber cleats explained why the owner of the store drove a Mercedes.

“Ya gotta measure that.” yelled the dad. “You can’t just take a guess. I mean, how’re these kids supposed to learn the game if you don’t follow the rules?”

“I could use a hand.” I said. “You wanna come out and pace it off for me?” His answer was a wave of his hand like he was swatting away a mosquito. I actually really could use some help, this was my very first day as a coach. The regular coach got caught up in a divorce and plead his way out of duty when his wife took custody of his son. That’s how Youth Sports got its coaches –it got parents of kids who wanted to play to step up to the plate, as it were. My son Aron wanted to play and so there I was. I had a general idea of how baseball was played, but I wasn’t really into the sport to the point that I understood all of the rules.  For the most part I saw it as one kid tried to hit another with a projectile and the target kid tried to smack the ball into kids standing on little pillows arranged in a diamond. If they missed, there were a couple of kids in the outfield who would run after the ball and throw it halfway back to the pitcher. It was the luck of the draw who got it the rest of the way.

Once the bases were all in place, their positions evidenced by circular depressions similar to the pitcher’s mound, I got the clipboard with the scoring sheet and the list of team members. Their positions had been already assigned, and listed next to their names. The catcher was a stocky boy named Tony, heavy for his eleven years. He was easy to recognize as the catcher because he had shin guards and a mask. I sent him to home plate and then called the rest of the kid’s names and sent them to their positions. Standing on the pitcher’s mound was a guy who looked like a parent at first glance. A closer look told me it was a kid, but he had to be almost six feet tall when the rest of the team was lucky to make five feet standing on their toes. I walked out to the mound. “How old are you?” I asked him. He smiled a bashful grin and said he was eleven, going on twelve. I was five eight and I was looking up to talk to him. “Are you sure?” I asked him.

He yelled “Dad!” and the behemoth in the stands stood up and lumbered over with the plodding pace of a wildebeast.

“Whassa matter Bill?” he asked.

“Coach wants to know if I’m really eleven.” said the kid.

Bigfoot looked at me and said “The kid’s tall for his age. You gonna hold that against him?”

“No, it’s just a surprise to see someone his size. He looks like he should be playing on a high school team. Maybe college.” Maybe even the pros, I thought to myself.

“So, he can play? You’re not gonna hassle him?”

“Nope. But if the opposing team’s coach complains you might need to come up with proof of age. Otherwise they can claim a win by default.” I had no idea if that was true, but it sounded like it could be and I was talking to Mr. Regulations. He nodded and grunted and ambled back to his place in the bleacher mumbling something to the effect that if the other coach complained he’d rearrange him like a jigsaw puzzle.

The Cheetahs were first at bat, and a skinny little guy about four feet tall timidly moved to the plate, taking practice swings. His name, according to the sheet was Alain. Everyone seemed ready to go, so I yelled “Play ball!” The Cheetah coach held his hands in a time out gesture.

“You gonna ump this game? I don’t think a coach can be the umpire.” He was fanning through pages on his clipboard. Apparently he had a copy of the rules. I was glad someone did.

“No, I was just getting the game started.” I replied.

“We need to get a few parents to act as umpires. The Association didn’t have anyone for us. We need to pick out at least two, one for home and one for first base.” he said.

“Okay, you wanna get ‘em?”

“Sure. I got a couple parents of my kids who can do it. I mean, unless you think they’d play favorites.” he said.

“How about we each get one and we switch them up each inning?” I proposed. He shrugged and said okay by him. We each went off to our respective bleacher and called for volunteers. None of my team’s parents came forward until I said that if we didn’t provide an umpire then the opposing team would provide both and did they want to risk unfair calls? Finally a lady named Laura said she’d do it. I asked her if she knew the rules and she said she was a diehard Sox fan. I took that as credentials and led her over to meet the other coach. He had two fathers ready and willing to make calls. We played paper, rocks, scissors and Laura took position behind the catcher and Dave, one of the opposing team dads headed for first base.

“Play ball!” hollered Laura, sounding remarkably authoritative. She was forty-something, medium build, and had brown hair tied in a French Braid.

Bill, on the mound, wound up and zapped a fastball that went right by the batter who swung a full second behind the ball’s passing. The ball made a whap! sound as it connected with the catcher’s mitt, the force bowling Tony over backwards into the backstop. He got up, dusted off and returned the ball to Bill with some pepper of his own. I smiled that Bill shook his hand out after catching Tony’s return. The next pitch hit the little guy, Alain, smarlty on his batting helmet. The helmet flew off and Alain tumbled sideways to the ground. I ran over and checked on the little guy. He stood and brushed a buildup of dirt from his uniform and smile weakly at me. I asked him if he was okay and he smiled again and nodded. Laura told him to take his base.

“Hey Bill,” I said, “let’s take it a little easy, okay? You got a lot of power and your buddies here don’t weigh enough to stand up to the inertia of those pitches of yours.”

“Dad!” he yelled. “Coach wants me to lay down on my throws.” Bigfoot lumbered back out to the field. The opposing coach joined the conference at the mound. A discussion ensued about Bill’s ability to throw the heat and how the rest of the kids were, like, half his size. The opposing coach, a guy named Randall, asked Bill’s dad how old his kid was. Dubious about the answer, he asked for proof. Bigfoot started poking Randall’s chest, forcing the coach to step backwards at each prod. Randall, who was average build was still getting annoyed with the verbal abuse he was getting along with the pokes in the chest.

“You need to take your seat or I’m gonna have the ump eject you from the field.” said Randall. Bill’s dad looked over at me.

“He’s got a point. We’re trying to make this fun and teach sportsmanlike behavior. I think you better sit down.” Then I did the unforgivable, I called up our team’s standby pitcher and told him to relieve Bill. The boy, another eleven year old named Bernt, looked pleased and went to the mound and held his glove out to Bill for the ball. Bill, not happy about being relieved, threw the ball well over the backstop where it disappeared into the parking lot. Laura came out from home plate and told him he needed to take the bench for two innings for bad behavior. All of the kids in the infield and standing in the dugout areas were now watching the developments in earnest. Bill reached out, grabbed Laura and pushed her down on the dirt, landing hard on her rump. She immediately hooked a thumb over her shoulder and told Bill he was ‘outta here.’

Wildebeast looked at me and said “You gonna let some skirt fuck up the game? My son can win this thing for the Marmots, no problem. Without him, the rest of these losers stand no chance.”

“Hey man, my son is one of the people you’re calling a loser. I think it’s time for you and your kid to hit the bricks.” I no sooner finished the sentence and Bill’s dad threw a left that hit me like a side of ham fired from a cannon. He was stepping toward me to hit me again when we all heard a pank! noise. The angry dad looked confused and fell over face first into the ground. From behind him appeared his son, holding one of the aluminum baseball bats.

“He was gonna hurt people.” said Bill. He was hyperventilating.

“Whoa, whoa! Kiddo.” I said. Blood was pouring out of my nose and my teeth were stained red from a split lip inside my mouth. “You can’t go hitting people with baseball bats.” Bill, who was standing by with a shocked expression shook himself as if to clear his mind.

“My dad had it coming.” he said. “My mom hits him and he hits her with stuff all the time. It’ll be okay.” He looked at his dad, trying to lever himself back up to his feet. “Look, Mr. K., I really want to lay. Can I stay? I’ll play left field.” I looked at Randall and Laura, who Randall was helping get her feet.

“I don’t know…” she said.

“Well, I’m for letting him try. But I think dad needs to hit the showers.” I said. Randall was nodding.

“Dad there definitely needs to go. I’m gonna file a grievance with the Association and get him banned from the games. But Bill definitely needs to sit out a while. I don’t think much of being pushed.”

I looked over at the kids, and both teams seemed to be packing their stuff. “Look, the kids came out here to have fun. Let’s let ‘em all play.” Randall and Laura looked unsure, but then one after the other, they said okay, so long as the wildebeast left the sports field. Bill’s dad said he wasn’t going anywhere, and if he chose to leave, he’d take his son with him –that they had some talking to do. We were discussing that when a county deputy sheriff nosed his patrol car onto the field and stopped just short of the cluster of adults in discussion. It took a minute to bring him up to speed and he spun Bill’s dad around and bent him over the hood of his patrol unit. He put nylon cuffs on the oversized giant and read him his rights.

“Wait a minute!’ he shouted. “I’m the one got hit.” The deputy didn’t reply, he just pulled the big man upright, marched him to the back door of the unit and put him in the car.

The deputy came back over to the group. “I’m going to take him to the substation and hang onto him for a couple of hours and let him go. I don’t think we need to take it any farther than that. Anyone object to this?” he said. We all shook our heads no, and the deputy smiled and walked back and got in his vehicle. With a quick wave, he pulled off the field and left. People pushing and calling names and getting thunked with bats was not what this was supposed to be about. I looked over and saw Bill was sitting cross legged in the dirt by himself. I went to him.

“I’m sorry.” he said, his eyes tearing up. “I saw him punch you and, …well, I had the bat –I didn’t think.” he said.

I put an arm around him. “You really shouldn’t use a weapon like that. It just escalates things. You get what I mean?” He nodded. “Okay, what do you say we go play some ball.”

The game started back up, this time with a different pitcher. The Marmots lost the game, but not because they didn’t try. Up at bat after sitting out a pair of innings, Bill nailed a grand slam with the bases loaded and one of the parents got the action on video with their phone. I hoped it would go a ways towards placating Bill’s dad. In spite of some excellent plays we still were short two points for the game but the kids took it well. As both teams dove into the snacks that designated parents from each team brought, the kids intermingled and kept the good mood going.

The following weekend when we gathered to play, we came up short a player. Bill was absent.  When the next week came and he again hadn’t shown for the game or the two weekday afternoon practices, I inquired about him with the Association office. They told me that Bill had been withdrawn from the roster. I felt badly about that and thought I might go over and speak to his parents to see if they’d let their tall and lanky kid play again. I knew he enjoyed the sport. The office secretary told me not to waste my time when I asked for the address.

“Bill’s parents are divorcing and the boy has moved with his mother over to Marysville. If he plays, it’ll be on a team across the state.” she told me.

“That’s a shame.” I said.

“Maybe it was for the best. His father got arrested.”

I felt heat in my cheeks and mentally kicked myself thinking I should have been better at diffusing the situation. I wondered about the deputy who said he was just going to hold him for a cooling off period. “That’s awful.” I told the woman.

“Awful? That man beat his wife so badly she had to go to the hospital!”

“It wasn’t about the scuffle at the ball field?”

She looked at me with some confusion. “There was a scuffle at the field?” I explained about the shoving match and the punch. I neglected to mention the bat incident. “No, no.” she said. “Apparently Bill’s dad had a history of abuse. He hit both his wife and son and I think he had a drinking problem too.”

I drove home thinking about everything. That poor kid was a standout for his size, probably having a rough time fitting in because he was so much taller than the rest of his peers. He struck me as a good kid; sure,  he didn’t strike me as malicious in spite of popping his own father with a baseball bat. I recalled that he’d said his parents hit each other with things fairly often. Understanding the chain of family dynamics, I wondered what kind of guy Bill would grow up to be. Sometimes kids are another link and sometimes kids break the chain.

I think it’s the luck of the draw.



Astros at 2/3 point

Geez. 35-69 after 108 games. It's almost impossible to remember my last look at the train wreck we call the 2012 Houston Astros, when I recalled how they were so close to .500 at 22-23. They stumbled to finish the first 54 games at 23-31.

Since then, they have just been pathetic. There is no positive spin here, other than the "rebuilding phase" cop out. They went 12-38 over the second third of the season. But they have been worse than the record reflects.

They have the potential to be one of the worst teams in major league history. Their run differential is already one of the largest ever, and there's no reason to believe they won't finish the season below .300.

Plain and simple, the Astros are awful.

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Bad on so many levels

Astros fans, there is no silver lining to Wednesday night's loss.

The Astros slide to 10 games below .500.

The Astros get no-hit, perfect game style, by the Giants and Matt Cain.

Worst of all though, the morning-after comments are a mixture of praise for Cain's achievement and this zinger … "But it was only the Astros."

Wow. No hits AND no respect.

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Astros stumble to close opening third of season

On May 26, the Astros were 22-23 and they were in a 6-6 tie with the Dodgers in LA. I had predicted 25 wins for the Astros over the first 54 games of the season, and my prediction looked like a lock.

Then A.J. Ellis goes deep for a three-run walk-off, and the Astros drop eight in a row.

With a sweep-avoiding win Sunday over the Reds, the Astros finish the Beginning of the season at 23-31.

On the bright side, they are on pace to exceed the 63-win over/under mark set by Vegas handicappers. Jose Altuve has been a positive, batting .316 out of the gate. Jed Lowrie has been a pleasant surprise with 9 homers and a .291 average.

The Astros are a respectable 8th in the NL in team batting, and the team ERA of 3.99 is a not-so-horrible 10th in the league.

Prior to this most recent skid, with the .500 mark in sight, there were even whispers of words like "competitive" and "relevant" in connection with this team.

But now, it's going to be hard to get on any Astros bandwagon. This group has proven that the bottom can drop out at any time, and when it does the Astros go from scrappy to crappy in a hurry.

My 75-win prediction is still within reason. Barring an extended collapse, the Astros won't be the worst team in baseball. Thanks to the Cubs, they have a good chance not to be the worst team in their division.

However, nothing we've seen over the first 54 games should have any Astros fans looking at the Reds' 7.5-game lead over Houston and thinking "Hmmm, seven and a half games isn't that big a lead."

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Spurs Win = Free Coffee

I love this promotion. The folks at Valero have a success on their hands.

The day after a Spurs playoff victory, it's free coffee at any San Antonio area Valero location. Last year, with the Spurs getting knocked out in the first round, there wasn't much time for this promotion to get any momentum.

But this time around, the Spurs are 10-0 in the playoffs, and you can see the lines on mornings after a win.

Even though we have free coffee every day in our office, I HAVE to stop by Valero and take advantage of the offer.

Besides, how much do we spend on gas at Valero?

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Outlook for these Astros

How do you put it nicely … I don't expect the 2012 Houston Astros to be nearly the colossal train wreck that many people are predicting.

So, that's a positive outlook, relatively speaking.

Vegas set the over/under on Astros wins at 63. So if you're betting the under, you're saying the Astros will lose 100 games again this season.

But I'm not buying the under. Give me the over. I'm predicting 75 wins for this team.

I'd break down their roster, except that I don't know any of them well enough to go into too much detail. Wandy Rodriguez will be the leading pitcher, and he'll have a respectable ERA and a losing record, thanks to pitiful run support.

Carlos Lee will be overpaid. I'll predict Jose Altuve will be a bright spot offensively … unless he's not.

All things considered, I think 23 wins in the first third of the season will be a good start for this group. Then in the middle 54-game stretch, 27 wins. And the 'Stros will limp in with 25 wins over the final third of the schedule.

75 wins. Not “good,” but competitive in stretches, but also capable of a 6-game losing skid at any moment.

They won't have the worst record in the majors. But they won't scare the division leaders.

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Mack Brown Fails Mythology

My morning commute was ruined by a quote that came from Texas head football coach Mack Brown. Sure, I don't think anyone has ever held Brown in high regard as a great thinker or scholar, but this is something he needs to get straight.

He mentioned in an interview that penalties “have been one of our Achilles' heels lately.”

OK, here's the deal. You can only have ONE Achilles' heel.

Back in mythology, Achilles was a great and seemingly invulnerable warrior because he had been dipped in the River Styx. But, he was held by his heel when he was dipped, so that spot would be his only weak point. The rest of him, immortal. The ONE heel, his ultimate downfall.

So, if you've got three or four areas on your team that are causing you to struggle or lose, you don't have three or four Achilles' heels.

If you're playing perfectly in all other phases, but you're being brought down by ONE aspect (i.e. penalties, turnovers, special teams, weak quarterback play from numerous 5-star recruits), THAT'S your ONE Achilles' heel.

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Astros Finish … Finally

56-106. Worst record in baseball. Seven games worse than the Minnesota Twins.

Their records by thirds? 20-34, 15-39, 21-33.

So, they played “better” over the final 54 games. Yippee, that's a real run toward excitement.

What do we have to look forward to? Rebuilding under a new owner, probably a new front office, moving to the AL West.

I guess about the most positive outlook might be that it can't get much worse.

Can it?

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