October 2005

One day in October

As it it turns out, Oct. 17 is an auspicious day in the history of the Astros and their manager Phil Garner. It was Oct. 17, 1960, when the National League awarded Judge Roy Hofheinz title to the new Houston franchise, christened the Colt .45s, which started play at the outset of the 1962 season.

It was on Oct. 17, 1979, that Garner’s Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles at old Memorial Stadium to win Game 7 and the World Series, the last one for both Garner and the Bucs.

"I didn’t realize that, but tell me more," Garner said with a laugh in the interview room prior to Monday night’s climactic Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals, who came into the game at Minute Maid Park trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Pops

Garner was the Pirates’ second baseman that evening in Baltimore and had a hit, a walk and a run scored in four plate appearances. The final score was 4-1.

"But I didn’t win the game," Garner said. "A guy named Willie Stargell hit a home run."

The late Stargell smacked a two-run homer during the sixth inning off Orioles starter and losing pitcher Scott McGregor. "Pops" also had a fourth-inning double and went 4-for-5 with the homer, a double and a pair of RBIs.

It was one of those series. The Orioles came out of the middle three games in Pitsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium with a 3-2 lead, but were then outscored 8-1 by the Pirates in the final two games at home. Garner started all seven games, played every inning and had a monster series, batting .500 (12-for-24 ) with four doubles and five RBIs. But Stargell, the future Hall of Famer, was the series MVP, giving him the trifecta for 1979: MVP of the World Series and the NLCS and a regular-season tie with Keith Hernandez.

So much for 1979. Perhaps not so much for Oct. 17. Stargell passed in 2001 at 61. Garner is 55 and on the precipice again 27 years later. — Barry M. Bloom, MLB.com

Connected by rally towels

Bushes2_2In the primo seats at Minute Maid Park sit two First Ladies — Barbara Bush, wife of former President George H.W. Bush, and Carol Garner, wife of Houston Astros manager Phil Garner.

Mrs. Bush sits next to her husband in the Diamond Club area directly behind home plate, while Mrs. Garner sits to the left of the Astros dugout. Two sections and 20 rows of seats separate the two, but they are more than aware of one another’s presence before Game 4 of the NLCS on Sunday afternoon.

As the Astros took the field prior to Game 4, fans stood and waved their rally towels to the tune of "Lose Yourself" by Eminem. Through the sea of rally towels, Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Garner found each other. Mrs. Bush waved and gave her towel a shake, and Mrs. Garner returned the gesture with a shake, shake, shake of her own.

You’ve got to hand it to the 81-year-old ex-Prez … every time an exciting play occurred, he waved his rally towel with as much vigor as the younger fans in the stands. He also smooched his wife for the second consecutive day when the cameras caught the former first couple on "Kiss Cam." — Alyson Footer / MLB.com

Memories of ‘Coop’

CooperWatching Cecil Cooper hit some ground balls to Astros infielders during batting practice Sunday at Minute Maid Park brought back memories of the days when he was the sweet-swinging first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers.

"Coop," now the Astros’ bench coach, was a member of that rollicking, slugging Milwaukee outfit of the early 1980s, known affectionately in the upper Midwest as Bambi’s Bombers and then Harvey’s Wallbangers — respective titles bestowed on clubs managed by George Bamberger and Harvey Kuenn.

Those teams routinely pulverized their American League foes, the stretch from 1978-83 highlighted by a seven-game loss to the Cardinals in the 1982 World Series. The lineup included the likes of Hall of Famers Robin Yount (shortstop) and Paul Molitor (third base), along with catcher Ted Simmons, second baseman Jim Gantner, and outfielders Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas and Charlie Moore.

Cooper was a five-time All-Star from 1979-85, had over 200 hits three times and finished his career as a .298 hitter with 241 home runs and benefited from hitting third in the lineup behind Molitor and Yount to accumulate 1,125 RBIs.

And for you True Blue Brew Crew fans out there, he’s still got that classic left-handed swing even hitting ground balls to infielders, and he still wears that familiar number 15 on the back of his jersey (conveniently vacated in Houston by Carlos Beltran). — Paul Bodi / MLB.com

Just hardball

NunezAfter Abraham Nunez took it on the quad in that collision with Jason Lane in Game 3, it seems a lot of Cardinals fans were up in arms that Lane went after their guy. Dirty play, they said. Scott Rolen in 2002 all over again, they said. They called the radio stations. They e-mailed sportswriters.

It’s understandable looking through Cardinals-colored glasses, especially with Nunez out of the Game 4 lineup. But take a step back, people.

Says here that play was such a confluence of factors — short throw, big man going first to third, gutsy third baseman throwing himself in harm’s way. It was happening so fast, Lane couldn’t have gone after Nunez if he tried. It was a hardball play, simple as that.

It was an accident, and nobody in the Cardinals clubhouse was complaining afterward, or putting a bounty out on Lane or anything like that.

Hey, maybe if Jeff Suppan buzzes Lane in that first at-bat, all those Cardinals fans will be right and it really was perceived as dirty by the players. But nobody in the press box or either clubhouse Saturday really thought or said anything of it, honestly. And if Tony La Russa wasn’t fired up about it, that should tell you something.

It’s just another frustrating injury for the Cardinals. That’s it and that’s all. — John Schlegel/MLB.com

What a gamer

BushesPucker up, Mr. President. No one is safe at Minute Maid Park.

Kiss Cam, the popular in-between innings feature that is shown on scoreboards throughout the league, was in full force for Game 3 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday. You’ve seen the gag — cameras pan on couples, and the couples kiss. Some peck their beloved. Some, mugging for the cameras, give a long, lingering smooch.

The last couple shown during Kiss Cam on Saturday was former President George Bush and his charming wife, Barbara. The sellout crowd went nuts when the former first couple appeared on the JumboTron, and being the loyal Astros fan that he is, President Bush leaned over and gave his wife a quick kiss.

No one ever said the President wasn’t a team player. — Alyson Footer / MLB.com

Fight on to victory

Usc_ndThe scene in the Astros’ clubhouse after their 4-3 win Saturday was raucous and loud, but not because they beat the Cardinals. No, the excitement stemmed from USC’s win over Notre Dame, which triggered ongoing trash-talking in the friendly confines of Houston’s locker room.

Brad Lidge attended Notre Dame. Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane are products of USC. Following the game, chaos ensued.

"This was the biggest college football game of the year, as far as I’m concerned," Lidge said. "That game didn’t work out, but fortunately, ours did. So, I’m happy."

There may or may not have been a friendly wager on this game. Lidge hinted dark days are ahead for him.

"I might have to wear some USC pantyhose around the locker room," he said. "It’s going to be bad." — Alyson Footer / MLB.com

Pregame buzz

BushAll the Killer B’s were there during batting practice Saturday afternoon as first pitch for Game 3 of the NLCS at Minute Maid Park approached.

B-G-O. Bagwell. Berkman. And Burke, the newest B creating a buzz around Houston.

Oh, one more: Bush.

Let’s not forget former President George Bush. He was there, too, shaking hands and showing his support for his hometown team. He also shook hands with Cards manager Tony La Russa, though word is he got in some trouble with Barbara for showing any allegiance to the enemy in red.

As game time approached, Bush showed his true allegiance by showing off to the crowd the lining of his sports coat — an American flag.

Even with all the B’s around, the buzz leading up to the game was different than it was a year ago, still palpable but not as overwhelming. Last year for Game 3, it was the first NLCS game in Houston since, well, before there was any President Bush — back in 1986. This time, it’s more like business as usual, which, of course, is great news for Astros fans.

Now, about that drone that comes through the sound system at Minute Maid Park during the game when any of the Killer B’s come to the plate: This might sting a little, but, honey, that sound’s enough to bug you into a case of the hives.

On that note … on with Game 3. — John Schlegel / MLB.com

Back to that New York string again

The Astros and Mets expanded into the National League in 1962. And since then, the Astros have had one name change and two ballpark changes, but have never been to the World Series. The Mets were born in the Polo Grounds, moved to Shea Stadium in 1964 and won the World Series in 1969 and 1986. They’ve been there four times in 44 years, while the Colt .45s, ah, the Astros haven’t been there once. And the Mets still remain in that decaying oval of a ballpark where the airplanes soar overhead and make so much noise it could rouse the dead.

Darrell_porterIn all due respect to Cardinals fans, they’ve won the World Series nine times, as recently as 1982, and were in it last year only to be swept by the Red Sox, which should be worth at least a lengthy St. Louis curse. If they win it all this year, they could become the first team in Major League history to hoist a flag at the conclusion of the last season played in their old ballpark, leaky and creaky Busch II. The Yankees have won it 26 times, all of them playing at Yankee Stadium, but who’s counting? (See, I had to get the Yankees into this blog.) For equal time’s sake, the Cardinals defeated the Yankees in 1964 at Busch I, two years before that old yard closed.

So I’m torn. Romantically, I’d like the Cardinals to do it, but pragmatically, I’d love to see the Astros start catching up with the Mets. Fair is fair, you know, in love and postseason baseball. — Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com

A sweaty fraternity

Treadmills_1Spend enough time around Major League Baseball and you see the same faces at the game’s major events. The national media and baseball executives form a fraternity where everybody seems to know everybody on a first-name basis.

That doesn’t mean just at the ballpark. You see this in airports, in hotels and in restaurants.

While it is a privilege and pleasure to be at these events, life on the road isn’t easy. Most journalists arrive at the park around four hours before game time and work until early hours of the morning. This plays havoc with eating habits. Most grab a good lunch before heading to the ballpark, then grab a snack after finishing work.

This is not good for the waistline, this eating right before going to bed, as we all know. So a good many sleep a little late, then head to the fitness center in the hotel by mid-morning, or go for a long walk or jog.

So imagine this sight Thursday morning at a downtown St. Louis hotel. It’s about 10:30 a.m. Central time when your MLB.com correspondent walks into the fitness room. There are three others already there in various states of sweat. One is Peter Gammons of ESPN. Another is Steve Lyons, the FOX TV analyst. The third is former Major League umpire Jim McKean, who’s now an umpire supervisor for MLB.

Needless to say, the old baseball stories were flying around the room. After all, that’s what a fraternity is all about. — Paul Bodi / MLB.com

Where it all began

CruzAstros first-base coach Jose Cruz knew Thursday might be the last time he sees Busch Stadium, and the old facility holds special memories for Cruz.

In 1970, a then 22-year-old Cruz made his Major League debut with the Cardinals for Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst. Cruz would spent five years with the Redbirds before he was sold to the Astros following the 1974 season. It was with the Astros Cruz would spend the remainder of his 19-year career.

Cruz and bullpen catcher Stretch Suba are the only uniformed Astros employees who have been with the organization through all nine of the team’s postseason appearances.

"I have a lot of good memories of this place," Cruz said. "Back then it was (an) AstroTurf (field), not grass. Been a lot of great games here, but for me, it’s the place where I got started."

Cruz went 1-for-6 with an RBI single in Houston’s 16-inning loss to the New York Mets in Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series. When asked how that game compared with Sunday’s 18-inning clinching win over Atlanta in the NLDS, Cruz didn’t have to think about his answer.

"They were both unbelievable games," Cruz said. "But (Sunday’s game) was much better because we won." — Jim Molony / MLB.com