- Gary Miller, MLB commentator
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Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker is one of the most disarmingly honest men in his profession, and perhaps no one this side of Brian Cashman is under more intense pressure to not only make the postseason, but go deeply into the playoffs. The Astros have still never won a postseason series. As Hunsicker himself puts it, "this is probably the last shot for this group of players, and we're not going to deprive them of that."
There are natural comparisons between Hunsicker's deal last week to get Carlos Beltran and the one six years ago to get Randy Johnson. The similarities, in Hunsicker's view: both were very dramatic trades, involving All-Star caliber players, and somewhat shocking considering the Astros weren't regarded as a frontrunner in either derby to obtain the high impact, free-agent-to-be. In fact, the noted Antigua-based wagering Web site, betWWTS.com, listed the Padres as 7-2 favorites to win the Beltran sweepstakes, followed by the Yankees at 4-1, Red Sox 6-1, Marlins 8-1, Dodgers 10-1 and Mets 11-1. Even the White Sox were given a 15-1 chance of diverting Beltran within the division, and the 12-1 odds he wouldn't be traded at all were better than the Astros' chances, but Hunsicker beat the odds again.
But there are far more differences than similarities, the most notable of which to Hunsicker is that in 1998, the team was in first place and he was looking far enough ahead to envision Johnson matching up against the Yankees' lefty-laden lineup. This time the deal was not only before July rather than at the deadline, but also with Houston scuffling, making it in Hunsicker's eyes, "riskier" and possibly more important than the Johnson deal. While the core of the "Killer B's", Bagwell and Biggio, are still around, their contracts are now an impediment to the future, and with Roger Clemens on loan possibly only for this season, the Astros may be facing a dramatic facelift as early as 2005. While Houston had hopes of retaining Johnson in that offseason, especially after going 10-1 as an Astro, Hunsicker acknowledges it's unlikely Beltran can be retained.
Another major difference, Beltran is represented by Scott Boras. You can't do more than Beltran has in his first week with a new team, but the Astros have still lost more than they've won in spite of his heroics. Hunsicker declares he's not an advocate of changing managers when things aren't going well, even in the face of a growing chorus to replace Jimy Williams in Houston print, and radio talk show circles.
Another factor in Williams' favor is the perception that Houston has "one of the best clubhouses in baseball." To a man, when asked how Beltran was welcomed when he joined the team last week in Arlington, Astros players used that phrase, as did Beltran himself. Roger Clemens has dramatically altered the dynamic of the group, but only in a positive way. This week at Wrigley Field, he pulled both fledgling shortstop Adam Everett, and franchise-legend Jeff Bagwell aside to clue them in on how pitchers view them. He told them pitchers are thinking the same things on the mound that they're thinking in the batter's box, and that if you have confidence in your ability to do damage at the
plate, the pitcher will sense that. Everett was amazed when Clemens told him he remembered him from the Astros series at Yankee Stadium last season, and that he "showed us something." Clemens shared that most pitchers would give up an extra-base hit to Everett, and think, "what the heck happened?" instead of fearing what he can do in a run-producing situation. Day by day, pitchers are picking up on what Clemens learned last summer, and he wants his shortstop to know it will only get better when Everett himself believes and approaches at bats with confidence and a focused plan of attack.
The Astros' ongoing struggles were all that could dampen the spirits of Mike Lamb this week. One of a growing list of Cal State Fullerton alums in the major leagues, Lamb's last season with the Titans was in 1997 when George Horton first took over the program that has produced notable big leaguers like College World Series MVP Phil Nevin, college player of the decade Mark Kotsay and Jeremy Giambi. Fullerton was put on the map by Augie Garrido, Horton's former boss, who coached the Texas team the Titans stunned in the championship series. Lamb didn't give too much grief to UT alums Clemens and pitching coach Burt Hooten, but he didn't spare Everett, whose South Carolina Gamecocks lost to Fullerton in Omaha, or the "other" USC alums Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane, who were members of the Trojan's 1998 title team that didn't even make the regionals this season. That's a fate even Titan alums felt awaited the southern California school as recently as late March, when it still had a losing record. In fact,
Lamb's father Bob umpired one of the Titans' Big West games, and said as much. Lamb's dad still umpires a handful of Division I games, along with Division II and III games, and some California League games. Aside from the Longhorns on the team, most of the Astros converted to Fullerton fans -- even Mike Gallo of former archrival Long Beach State, whose "Dirtbags" were upset in their own super-regional by Arizona.
Craig Biggio is playing his fourth position in his 16-season career, moving over from center field to left to accommodate Beltran. An All-Star catcher and second baseman, Biggio has struggled defensively in Houston's spacious Minute Maid Park center field, especially with the infamous "Tal's Hill." He's battled back problems as an infielder, and
sore knees this year, which wasn't helped by having to cover so much ground. In getting acclimated to the outfield, Biggio watches the best, studying Jim Edmonds when he moved to center field, and watching his old teammate, Moises Alou, this week in Wrigley. He hasn't had time to take many balls in left, with all the rain in last week's interleague series at Arlington preventing pregame preparations. Although Biggio said Alou's an opponent now and not as forthcoming with tips, Moises could be seen just before game time Wednesday giving his old friend a last-minute tutorial on how to deal with Wrigley's glaring afternoon sun. As far as positioning, Biggio gets help from third-base coach Gene Lamont, and also draws an imaginary line straight out from first and second base to left field for most hitters. He also says there's often a circle worn into the outfield grass, similar to the crop patterns made famous in the movie "Signs," which gives a significant clue to the best positioning in a given park.
With the Fourth of July Nathan's hot dog eating contest looming Sunday in Coney Island (ESPN, noon ET), I'm reminded of my favorite pregame meal so far this season ... Sandy Alomar wolfing down not one but two dogs just prior to a start behind the plate for the White Sox. Must be working. Alomar appears rejuvenated, and playing so well that the Sox were willing to give up Miguel Olivo in the Freddy Garcia trade. Sandy chooses the All-American hot dog despite his background in the Cleveland organization, notorious for its pregame selection. Even on the road, the Indians clubhouse has an assortment of food items and snacks four shelves high that gives new meaning to the phrase "kid in a candy store."
Barry Bonds is famous for his lair in the Giants clubhouse, featuring a leather recliner and complete video setup. It led to one of the more surreal scenes last season when Barry was relaxing before a game and happened to be watching "SportsCentury's" feature on Hank Aaron, followed immediately by his own. Bonds bristled at the opening
line describing his personality as about as huggable "as a cactus," but watched intently at the chronicles of his own life and career, as well as that of the man he's persistently closing in on for the game's most cherished record. Hard to believe Bonds could see the litany of racism Aaron went through in his pursuit of Babe Ruth's mark, and honestly
compare his own "struggles" to that ... but he does.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.