Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Astros

Bagwell, Raines, Pudge elected to Hall of Fame

Congratulations!

Jeff Bagwell

The most exclusive team in sports has five new members.

Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez join John Schuerholz and Bud Selig as the Class of 2017.

Today’s Game Era candidates, John Schuerholz and Allan H. “Bud” Selig were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, Dec. 4, becoming members 313 and 314 of the Cooperstown shrine.

They will join Bagwell, Raines and Rodriguez as the Class of 2017, to be inducted July 30 in Cooperstown as part of the July 28-31 Hall of Fame Weekend. The Weekend festivities will also feature the presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award to Claire Smith for writers and the presentation of the Ford C. Frick Award to Bill King for broadcasting excellence.

Since the inaugural Class of 1936, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has honored the game’s legendary players, managers, umpires and executives. Included in the 317 Hall of Famers are 220 former major league players, 30 executives, 35 Negro Leaguers, 22 managers and 10 umpires. The BBWAA has elected 124 candidates to the Hall while the veterans committees (in all forms) have chosen 167 deserving candidates (96 major leaguers, 30 executives, 22 managers, 10 umpires and nine Negro Leaguers). The defunct “Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues” selected nine men between 1971-77 and the Special Committee on Negro Leagues in 2006 elected 17 Negro Leaguers.

There are currently 74 living members.

Here’s the Chron breaking-news story about the vote, and a longer story with some reactions from the man himself.

Jeff Bagwell has autographed countless baseballs. On Wednesday, he signed his first ball with this inscription accompanying his signature: “HOF ’17.”

Bagwell, synonymous with the golden age of the Astros and one of the best first basemen of his era, was elected Wednesday to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He will be only the second player enshrined in an Astros cap, appropriately joining 2015 inductee Craig Biggio, Bagwell’s teammate for all 15 seasons of his major league career.

Overwhelmed by the news, Bagwell was at a loss for words in describing the feeling.

“It’s just kind of surreal right now,” he said.

Bagwell, 48, spoke emotionally in a terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport minutes before boarding an evening flight to New York City, where he and fellow electees Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez will share a news conference stage Thursday afternoon. The Astros icon was only two hours removed from receiving his life-changing phone call while at home with his wife and children.

[…]

“I’m still kind of in shock,” said Bagwell, for whom the Astros will hold a public rally at 5 p.m. Monday at Minute Maid Park’s Union Station lobby. “I’m excited. I’m happy. It’s just very cool.”

This year’s induction ceremony will take place July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Bagwell is the 50th Hall of Famer to spend his entire major league career with one team. He and Biggio are the fourth pair of Hall of Fame teammates to accomplish that while playing together for at least 15 years. Their company includes Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski (Pittsburgh Pirates), Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott (New York Giants) and Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle (New York Yankees).

“It’s a great day for him and his family and obviously the Astros organization and his teammates and the fans,” Biggio said of Bagwell. “He was a tremendous player who did some amazing things here, and now to have two Astros be in the Hall of Fame who played together for 15 years, it’s pretty exciting stuff.”

I didn’t realize the teammates angle. In case you’re curious, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were teammates for 10 years, from 1925 to 1934. Fifteen years really is a long time.

Bagwell was the headliner as he received the most votes, but the even better news was the long overdue induction of Tim Raines, who was on his final year on the ballot. Getting those two plus Ivan Rodriguez in clears the logjam a bit, which may help the candidacies of a few other players who fell short. I feel like I have less to complain about regarding this year’s voting than I’ve had in some time, and that to me is an even bigger win. ESPN, SI, MLB.com, and the Press have more.

Astros hacker sentenced to 46 months

Away he goes.

Former St. Louis Cardinals executive Christopher Correa was sentenced Monday to 46 months in prison for illegal incursions into the Astros’ computer database, wrapping up a case of sports-related cybercrime that a federal judge and prosecutors summed up as plain, old-fashioned theft.

Correa, 35, will report within two to six weeks to begin his sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who accepted the government’s recommended sentence in the wake of Correa’s guilty plea in January to five counts of illegal access to a protected computer.

Now the case moves into the hands of Major League Baseball, where commissioner Rob Manfred will decide if the Cardinals will face sanctions because of Correa’s actions in 2013 and 2014.

Manfred also may be asked to consider a heretofore undisclosed element: that Correa intruded into the Astros’ system 60 times on 35 days, far more the five reported cases to which he pleaded guilty, according to an Astros official.

[…]

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said he was pleased with length of the sentence. Correa could have been sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison on each count, although prosecutors agreed in return for his guilty plea that sentences would be served concurrently.

“This is a serious federal crime,” Magidson said. “It involves computer crime, cybercrime. We in the U.S. Attorney’s office look to all crimes that are being committed by computers to gain an unfair advantage. … This is a very serious offense, and obviously the court saw it as well.”

Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe, who also attended the hearing, described Monday as a “sad day for baseball” and emphasized that the Astros were the victims of Correa’s unauthorized access into a computer database that included scouting reports and other information.

Referring to Correa’s statements in January, he added, “I don’t know what Mr. Correa saw in our system or what he thinks he saw in our system, but what I can tell you is that the Astros were not using Cardinals’ proprietary information.”

Kibbe, for the first time, also acknowledged that Correa’s intrusions into the Astros computer system were more frequently than the instances set out in the information to which he pleaded guilty – 60 intrusions over 35 days, he said, from March 2013 through June 2014.

He also said the Astros would rely on Major League Baseball to complete its investigation of the Cardinals, with the possibility of sanctions against the team.

“We have full faith in his actions,” he said, referring to MLB commissioner Manfred.

See here for the background. Correa had previously claimed to have found Cardinal information on the Astros’ system while he was hacking around. There could be some effect from that if there’s anything to it when MLB wraps up its investigation and imposes any sanctions on the Cards. In the meantime, I’d say this will serve as a pretty strong deterrent to any other baseball front office folks who may have been tempted to take an unsanctioned peek at what their rivals are doing. No one can say they haven’t been warned at this point.

Take transit to the game

If you can, you should.

HoustonMetro

The transformation of downtown from a work place that empties after dark to a true community is finally underway in earnest, with residents, retail shops, and restaurants that remain open long after the lunch rush. The building boom is everywhere, and that includes the area around Minute Maid, which had been the domain of abandoned warehouses and repeating squares of blacktop.

As new development gradually alters the timeworn tableau of skyscrapers, hotels and parking lots, the matter of where to put all the cars that flood into the area – be it for work in the day, governmental dealings, or nighttime entertainment – becomes a bit less obvious. Nowhere is that more true than in downtown’s eastern precinct, home to the Astros, Rockets, Dynamo, George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green.

For the sold-out baseball games, competition for the close-in surface lots will become increasingly fierce. The Astros control about 3,000 parking spaces in their own lots east of the stadium, but high-demand games see most of those spaces sold when tickets are purchased. Parking in their lots is reserved for ticket buyers, though a small number last-minute cash sales typically are offered for lower-demand games.

Another 4,000 to 5,000 parking spaces can still be found in surface lots mostly north of the stadium. The pricing for many of them is dynamic, fluctuating game to game, or sometimes hour to hour, depending on attendance. Some parking management companies offer advance online purchase, some don’t. An Astros spokesman said that a range of $10-20 is likely for lots within a two to three-block radius.

When those lots are filled, drivers will have to look toward the garages to be found to the west and south. Costs will vary according to distance from the stadium. Fans willing to walk a half-mile can get a good deal, well below $10, though the sweaty summer months make for a challenging trade-off.

One option, which may become more common in future years, is for drivers to park on the west side of downtown in or near the theater district and take the Metro rail purple line across town. It has a stop just two blocks north of Minute Maid. A drop-off lane also is available in front of the stadium on Texas Street.

The Downtown Houston Management District says that 26 construction projects with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion currently are underway. Another $2 billion worth of projects are on the drawing board, it says. There will be a day, perhaps sooner than once thought, when a majority of the remaining surface lots will give way to new development.

[…]

Because Houston’s central business district is large, plenty of parking remains available and will continue to be. It’s just not so close anymore. Or as cheap. For high-demand games, the available lots near the stadium will go early, with the choicest locations fetching $50 or more for the most desirable games.

The eventual thinning out of the visually unappealing and space-hogging surface lots will please urban designers and downtown advocates, but no doubt will annoy some baseball fans. As [Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations] points out, Houstonians love the freedom that comes with their cars and the easier ingress and egress that these lots offer. Some may fondly recall the old days at the Astrodome, which was surrounded by acres of parking and nothing else.

But in a broader sense, the replacement of blacktop by new homes and businesses means that the decades-old dream of a lively city center is taking form. When it comes to taking in a ball game, a new way of thinking will be required.

“It’s neat to see this resurgence,” Braithwaite said of the residential development as well as new clubs and restaurants. “The city is getting life back into it. I’m excited about the urban redevelopment, but that means change. There is no getting around that.”

As was the case for lots of people with the Final Four and the rodeo, taking transit to the game is going to be cheaper and in many cases more convenient than driving. Just the prospect of paying $20 to park, never mind $40 or $50, should make most people at least consider this. It’s also in the Astros’ best interests to get people to not drive to the game if it’s feasible for them. It’s like I’ve said about bike parking in places like Montrose and on White Oak where parking is scarce: It’s in everyone’s interests for the people for whom it is reasonably convenient to take transit to be encouraged and enabled to do so. Note that you don’t have to actually live near a bus or train stop to do this. Drive to a station that has adjacent parking, like the Quitman stop (which has a small Metro-owned free parking lot) or the Ensemble/HCC stop (where there’s a parking garage), and go from there. Again, those of you that have no choice but to drive and park really ought to want everyone for whom this is a decent option to choose it, for they each represent one fewer car competing with you for a parking space and clogging up the roads after the game. Are there any park and ride buses that run to and from the games like they do for the Rodeo? If not, maybe the Astros should inquire with Metro about that. Everyone wins with this.

Astros-hacker pleads out

One chapter closes in of one of the stranger sagas I’ve seen in sports.

The former scouting director of the St. Louis Cardinals pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to hacking into the player database and email system of the Houston Astros in an unusual case of high-tech cheating involving two Major League Baseball clubs.

Chris Correa pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer from 2013 to at least 2014, the same year he was promoted to director of baseball development in St. Louis. Correa, 35, was fired last summer and faces up to five years in prison on each charge when he is sentenced April 11.

“I accept responsibility in this case,” Correa told U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes. “I trespassed repeatedly.”

“So you broke in their house?” Hughes asked Correa, referring to the Astros.

“It was stupid,” replied Correa, who is free on $20,000 bond.

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said the hacking cost the Astros about $1.7 million, taking into account how Correa used the Astros’ data to draft players.

“It has to do with the talent that was on the record that they were able to have access to, that they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to,” he told reporters. “They were watching what the Astros were doing.”

MLB could discipline the Cardinals, possibly with a fine or a loss of draft picks, but said only that it looked forward to getting details on the case from federal authorities. The Cardinals, whose chairman, Bill DeWitt Jr., had blamed the incident on “roguish behavior,” declined comment.

See here, here, and here for the background. Given that he pleaded out, I don’t expect Correa to get jail time, though perhaps a suspended sentence might be in the works. He’ll never work in baseball again, that’s for sure.

There’s still a lot more to this, however. As Craig Calcaterra notes, Correa claimed to have found Cards information on the Astros’ system when he was traipsing around in there.

That may not raise to a criminal level — there is no allegation Astros people hacked into the Cardinals’ system — but it could be relevant to Major League Baseball in a larger team-to-team information security matter. All of that depends on what Correa is saying he saw, which we do not know yet.

That aside, the level and the amount of information Correa got from the Astros is extraordinary. The defense some have offered — that he was merely checking to see if the Astros stole something — seems like a tiny part of this compared to what he accessed. And the argument I have heard from some people that, “hey, Correa was just walking in an unlocked door, so it’s not a big deal,” is not really true. He walked in, the Astros locked it, so then he broke into Jeff Luhnow’s office, as it were, and stole the keys so he could walk back in again. That is not just idle perusing. That is a concerted effort to carry out corporate espionage.

All of which is to say that this is far from over, especially from a baseball perspective. Correa performed his duties as Cardinals scouting director for over two years while in possession of extensive amounts of Astros’ confidential information. That benefitted him personally and, by extension, benefitted the Cardinals via the acts he took on their behalf with that information in his head. And that’s the case even if he was the sole person involved. If anyone else accessed Ground Control or was made privy to the information Correa obtained, it makes the Cardinals’ collective informational advantage all the greater.

Major League Baseball needs to find out what, if anything the Astros have of the Cardinals, as Correa claims. They need to learn — as they may still learn given that the investigation and the case is not over — what law enforcement knows about anyone else’s involvement. There is still a long way to go. However, based on what is known at the moment, the data breach here was extensive and extraordinary and the Cardinals will likely be facing some stiff, stiff penalties as a result. Maybe financial penalties. Maybe draft pick penalties. Maybe some combination.

Either way, this case is way bigger than people thought it to be yesterday.

We’ll see what MLB does once they have all the information that the prosecutors gathered. Hair Balls and the Chron have more.

Cardinals identify a fall guy

The latest Hacked-Stros news.

The St. Louis Cardinals have terminated the contract of their scouting director, Chris Correa, as investigations continue into alleged hacking of a Houston Astros database.

A Cardinals’ lawyer, James G. Martin, confirmed the move Thursday, saying Correa already had been on an “imposed leave of absence.” Martin declined to comment on the reason. And he would not say whether any employee has admitted hacking the Astros, citing ongoing investigations by the club, Major League Baseball and the FBI.

Correa declined to comment.

In a prepared statement, Correa’s lawyer, Nicholas Williams, wrote: “Mr. Correa denies any illegal conduct. The relevant inquiry should be what information did former St. Louis Cardinals employees steal from the St. Louis Cardinals organization prior to joining the Houston Astros, and who in the Houston Astros organization authorized, consented to, or benefited from that roguish behavior?”

Giles Kibbe, the attorney for the Astros, reaffirmed an earlier denial that neither the Houston organization nor any previous Cardinals employees now with the Astros had taken anything proprietary from the Cardinals.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who as head of the Cardinals’ analytics department had helped build the database used here to evaluate players, has said that everything he and others did in Houston was accomplished “from scratch.”

“We stand by all of our previous comments,” Kibbe said. “We’re looking forward to the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation. I stand by all that Jeff has said on this matter.”

Correa has admitted hacking into a Houston database but only to determine whether the Astros had stolen proprietary data, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Correa did not leak any Astros data and is not responsible for additional hacks that the FBI has alleged occurred, said the source.

[…]

The source said that Correa’s involvement in the hacking began in 2013, in an attempt to determine whether Luhnow or any other former Cardinals employees took proprietary data to the Astros.

Correa’s suspicions were aroused in part by a résumé in which a job seeker claimed expertise that Correa believed could have come only from working with Cardinals data, the source said.

He used an old password from a former Cardinals employee working for the Astros to access the Houston database “a few” times but did not download data, the source said. The source claims Correa located some data on the website, but did not report it to his bosses because the information was outdated and unreliable without being redone.

The source said that others must have accessed Houston’s database if federal investigators’ claims about the number of hacking attempts are correct.

See here and here for the background. The counter-charges are interesting and I suppose could be a potential line of defense in the event this ever goes to a courtroom in some fashion. Whether it might mitigate any future punishment by MLB is another matter. The Chron story adds a bit more detail.

Giles Kibbe, the Astros’ general counsel, said in an e-mail, “We stand by all of our previous comments. We look forward to the FBI concluding their investigation.”

Major League Baseball, similarly, plans to await the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, a person familiar with the league’s thinking said. A league spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

The FBI has not commented on details of its investigation but repeated a previously issued statement: “The FBI aggressively investigates all potential threats to public and private sector systems. Once our investigations are complete, we pursue all appropriate avenues to hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.”

[…]

Washington D.C.-based attorney Peter Toren, who handles cases involving intellectual property and commercial litigation, said that were a civil case to be filed, the Cardinals might be able to allege as a counterclaim against the Astros that Astros personnel improperly used information obtained in their time as employees for the Cardinals that could be classified as a trade secret.

Major League Baseball forbids clubs from suing each other, instead directing disputes to the commissioner as arbitrator. He can then award the Astros damages.

Luhnow and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal worked with the Cardinals before joining the Astros, for whom they launched a database called “Ground Control.” The Cardinals had their own database, called “Red Bird Dog.”

“Ground Control” includes statistics, player evaluations and, at least up until last spring, logs of trade negotiations. Those logs were posted online and widely viewed at the website Deadspin last June, prompting an FBI investigation.

As first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by the Chronicle, the Cardinals had a master list of passwords, and at least one of the Astros’ departed executives did not alter his password well enough upon departure.

While Astros amateur scouting director Mike Elias also worked with the Cardinals in St. Louis and came over to the Astros with Luhnow, a person familiar with the investigation said Elias’ log-in credentials were not at issue. It’s unclear if the log-in information of both of Luhnow and Mejdal or just one of the two was in some way utilized in accessing Astros information.

Luhnow told Sports Illustrated he knows “about password hygiene and best practices” but did not directly address whether both he and his employees followed those practices to the necessary extent. Luhnow has turned down repeated requests for comment.

“I’m very aware of intellectual property and the agreements I signed,” Luhnow told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t take anything, any proprietary information. Nor have we ever received any inquiries from anybody that even suggested that we had.”

Regarding the use of information obtained while working for another employer, Toren said, “That scenario is probably the most common type of trade secret case. One employee moves jobs and takes information with him to a new job for his use. The question then is: Is the employee generally allowed to take with him general knowledge?”

Toren said courts have ruled that employees can use general knowledge and skills gained on one job when they move to their next employer. However, he said lines can become blurry over “the type of information that really belongs to the employer that goes beyond … and really is specific knowledge.”

I still say having a master list of passwords is a terrible idea, whether Luhnow and the others who jumped from the Cards to the Stros practiced good password hygiene or not. I can’t wait to see the FBI report. Craig Calcaterra, who is not impressed by Correa’s attorney’s claims, has more.

“Roguish behavior”

The Saint Louis Cardinals admit they hacked the Astros’ proprietary database.

Thursday’s tacit admission by St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. that someone in his organization was involved in hacking the Astros continued a saga that holds the potential for more tawdriness once the FBI has completed its investigation and all the details are released.

The Chronicle on Thursday learned that the Cardinals had unauthorized access to Astros information as early as 2012, a year earlier than was previously known. DeWitt, meanwhile, acknowledged for the first time that his organization played a role in accessing proprietary information belonging to the Astros, blaming “roguish behavior.”

Meeting with reporters in St. Louis on Thursday along with Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, DeWitt said his organization’s own investigation was still ongoing. He did not specify which employees were responsible, but he told club workers “we’ve all been tainted.”

“Those responsible will be held accountable,” DeWitt said, “and we will continue what we feel is a great franchise.”

The extent of the Cardinals’ reach inside the Astros’ organization isn’t fully known. But it was not limited to one or two occasions, a person familiar with the details of the investigation said. The source asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case. The Chronicle has previously confirmed two breaches into the Astros’ system – one in 2013 and one in March 2014. The FBI began its investigation after the 2014 breach.

[…]

DeWitt expressed confusion over the intrusions, which he said were limited to a handful of people. The Chronicle learned this week the list of suspects was down to four or five.

“We’re committed to getting this resolved, we hope sooner rather than later,” DeWitt said. “We’re a little bit at the government’s pace. We’re not in a position of pushing them, as you might imagine.”

DeWitt said he was shocked to learn of the scandal.

“I still don’t know the reason for it,” he said of the hacking. “I can’t come up with a reason for it. It goes against everything we stand for. We don’t know who did what here.”

See here for the background. The story suggests that the Astros could have a claim for compensation for their data loss. Let’s see how the FBI investigation goes first, and what if any action Commissioner Rob Manfred takes. I suspect we’re a long way from any resolution just yet.

In the meantime, I love the use of the word “roguish” to describe the actions by whoever did this. It reminds me of a song.

I hereby declare that the official theme song of this scandal, for its use of the word “roguish”. Hair Balls has more.

The Hacked-Stros

WTF?

The F.B.I. and Justice Department prosecutors are investigating whether front-office officials for the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most successful teams in baseball over the past two decades, hacked into internal networks of a rival team to steal closely guarded information about player personnel.

Investigators have uncovered evidence that Cardinals officials broke into a network of the Houston Astros that housed special databases the team had built, according to law enforcement officials. Internal discussions about trades, proprietary statistics and scouting reports were compromised, the officials said.

The officials did not say which employees were the focus of the investigation or whether the team’s highest-ranking officials were aware of the hacking or authorized it. The investigation is being led by the F.B.I.’s Houston field office and has progressed to the point that subpoenas have been served on the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for electronic correspondence.

The attack represents the first known case of corporate espionage in which a professional sports team has hacked the network of another team. Illegal intrusions into companies’ networks have become commonplace, but it is generally conducted by hackers operating in foreign countries, like Russia and China, who steal large tranches of data or trade secrets for military equipment and electronics.

Major League Baseball “has been aware of and has fully cooperated with the federal investigation into the illegal breach of the Astros’ baseball operations database,” a spokesman for baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, said in a written statement.

[…]

Law enforcement officials believe the hacking was executed by vengeful front-office employees for the Cardinals hoping to wreak havoc on the work of Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager who had been a successful and polarizing executive with the Cardinals until 2011.

[…]

The intrusion did not appear to be sophisticated, the law enforcement officials said. When Mr. Luhnow was with the Cardinals, the organization built a computer network, called Redbird, to house all of their baseball operations information — including scouting reports and player personnel information. After leaving to join the Astros, and bringing some front-office personnel with him from the Cardinals, Houston created a similar program known as Ground Control.

Ground Control contained the Astros’ “collective baseball knowledge,” according to a Bloomberg Business article published last year. The program took a series of variables and “weights them according to the values determined by the team’s statisticians, physicist, doctors, scouts and coaches,” the article said.

Investigators believe Cardinals officials, concerned that Mr. Luhnow had taken their idea and proprietary baseball information to the Astros, examined a master list of passwords used by Mr. Luhnow and the other officials who had joined the Astros when they worked for the Cardinals. The Cardinals officials are believed to have used those passwords to gain access to the Astros’ network, law enforcement officials said.

Emphasis mine. Allow me to put my IT security hat on for a moment: There should never be a “master list of passwords”, because writing passwords down is poor security practice. Keep passwords in your head or in a password-keeper app. Two-factor authentication is a fine idea, too. And for goodness’ sake, don’t reuse old passwords, especially if you know that someone else knows what those old passwords are. The weakest link in any enterprise system is always an end user with bad security habits. Thus endeth the lesson. I can’t wait to see what Commissioner Manfred makes of this “Spygate” allegation. Hair Balls and ThinkProgress, from whom I got the embedded image, have more.

RIP, Tal’s Hill

One of the more distinctive features of Minute Maid Park is going away.

In the relatively short, rapidly changing history of Major League Baseball in Houston, nothing in recent years has represented the Astros’ brand of baseball more distinctively than Tal’s Hill, the idiosyncratic incline in Minute Maid Park’s center field that has confounded outfielders and entertained fans since the park opened in 2000.

With the 2016 season, that landmark will be no more.

Tal’s Hill, named for former Astros executive Tal Smith and designed to replicate the quirks of 20th-century ballparks for the enjoyment of 21st-century fans, will give way to a $15 million redesign that includes a center-field observation tower, a field-level club section, and gathering spots for groups, season-ticket holders and fans who want to enjoy baseball from multiple angles rather than a single seat.

The Astros, who will pay for the alterations to the publicly funded ballpark, announced plans for the redesign Thursday afternoon. The ballclub will solicit bids next week for the project, which required approval from MLB and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

Tal’s Hill lasted 16 years as a defining characteristic of Minute Maid Park, drawing praise from some for its throwback elements but criticism from others as a nuisance, an eyesore and even a danger zone, even though no one was ever injured flagging down a well-hit ball.

[…]

Eliminating Tal’s Hill will allow the Astros to move the center-field fence in from 436 feet, the deepest in Major League Baseball, to 409 feet, at roughly the outer edge of the current warning track.

Seating capacity will be reduced by about a hundred seats, but eliminating Tal’s Hill, with its 30-degree incline, will create more space for the Astros to entertain fans at, potentially, premium prices.

[…]

Elements of the redesign include:

A field-level club in center field with about 50 seats, located behind a 10-foot-high outfield fence.

A new section of seats atop the field-level boxes, on the right-field side of the batter’s eye backdrop in center field.

Moving the Budweiser-sponsored patio section from behind Tal’s Hill to atop the batter’s eye along the Home Run Alley concourse section.

A 92-foot tower with a winding staircase, enclosing an elevator between the main concourse and mezzanine equipped with LED lights and, at the top, the Astros’ name and logo.

A smaller, self-contained section of mezzanine seats in center field, replacing three sections of current seats that will be removed as part of the redesign, and about 35 feet of ribbon boards that will display team statistics, plus an icehouse-style bar and concessions area.

Additional retail stores, bar areas and concession stands on the main concourse and space that could house, among other things, a public set for Root Sports Southwest pre- and postgame broadcasts.

This related Chron story mentions the Hill’s homage to Crosley Field, the old home of the Cincinnati Reds, which had a notorious incline in its outfield. I once read a story about Babe Herman, a colorful outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1920s and 30s who was much better with a bat than with a glove. His manager, Wilbert Robinson, a/k/a “Uncle Robbie”, once had a friend and former Reds outfielder give Herman some tips on how to navigate the hill at Crosley Field. At the game that night, a batter hit a fly ball to deep right with runners on first and second. Herman expertly ran back to catch the ball, then fell flat on his face as he tried to throw it back into the infield. The runners rounded the bases as the ball rolled away from him during his pratfall. After the inning, Robbie accosted Herman in the dugout. “What happened? I thought he showed you how to go up that hill!” he yelled. “Yeah, but he didn’t show me how to come back down,” Herman replied.

I have no idea if that’s a true story, but really, does it matter? I kind of liked Tal’s Hill, but it was far enough out there that it was easy to ignore most of the time. I hadn’t given it much thought since the stadium formerly known as Enron Field first debuted, with Tal’s Hill the subject of much fanfare and derision. The main effect of this change will likely be to make Minute Maid even more homerun-friendly than it is now, though probably not by much. What do you think? Hair Balls, Sean Pendergast – both of whom are happy to see Tal’s Hill go – and Swamplot have more.

Losing our sports history

This is sad.

The original championship banners for the Rockets and the WNBA’s defunct Comets remain on display at Toyota Center, as do banners saluting both teams’ representatives in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

After that, Houston’s legacy of pro sports banners gets a little fuzzy.

The latest collection of banners to depart the city left in 2013 with the Aeros. The minor hockey team was moved by the NHL’s Minnesota Wild to Des Moines, Iowa, when the team could not reach agreement on a new Toyota Center lease with the Rockets.

Team officials said the Aeros’ 2011 banner for winning the American Hockey League’s Western Division title is on display at the Wild’s training center in Des Moines.

As for the other Aeros banners, they are presumed to be in storage in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, although team officials could not provide details on their location. A team spokesman, in fact, was not familiar with any banners that existed other than the 2011 flag.

Regardless, Toyota Center once was home to banners commemorating the 2003 Calder Cup title, the 1999 International Hockey League Turner Cup title, the 1974 and 1975 Avco Cup titles won by the World Hockey Association team, and the retired No. 9 jersey worn by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who played for the WHA Aeros.

[…]

NRG Park spokeswoman Nina Jackson, asked this week about the location of the Astros memorabilia, said, “Nobody knows anything about any banners.”

There was no indication whether the banners were sold during the Astrodome “garage sale” in 2013 and, if not, whether they still are stored somewhere within the building.

Similar questions surround the Oilers’ championship banners and retired number banners. The Oilers left Houston after the 1996 season for Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesman for the Tennessee Titans said the Oilers banners have not been seen in storage in Nashville.

So thanks to two relocated (and renamed) franchises plus one that changed its home stadium, a lot of tangible pieces of Houston’s sports history are at best in unknown locations. The obvious solution to this would seem to be a local sports museum, whose first task would be to try and track down these things that no one will admit to having at this time. Maybe this story will be a catalyst for someone with the money and the inclination to pursue that. Until then, at least we still have people who remember that these things did once happen.

Hall calls for Biggio

Third time’s the charm.

Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio were elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Tuesday, the first time since 1955 writers selected four players in one year.

Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz earned induction on their first tries, and Biggio made it on the third attempt after falling two votes shy last year.

Steroids-tainted stars Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa remained far from election.

Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner with 303 victories and 4,875 strikeouts, was selected on 534 of 549 ballots by veteran members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. His 97.3 percentage was the eighth-highest in the history of voting.

Martinez, a three-time Cy Young winner, appeared on 500 ballots (91.1 percent). Martinez was 219-100, struck out 3,154, led the major leagues in ERA five times and in 2004 helped the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.

Smoltz was picked on 455 ballots (82.9 percent) and will join former Atlanta teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who were inducted last summer along with Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. Smoltz, the 1996 NL Cy Young winner, was 213-155 with 154 saves, the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves. He went 15-4 in the postseason.

Biggio appeared on 454 ballots, 42 more than the 75 percent needed and up from 68.2 percent in his first appearance and 74.8 percent last year. He had 3,060 hits in 20 big league seasons, all with the Houston Astros.

The quartet will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 26. The BBWAA had not voted in four players in a single year since selecting Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance 60 years earlier.

I’m guessing you could win yourself a few beers at your favorite sports bar with the trivia question “Who was inducted to the Hall of Fame the same year as Joe DiMaggio?” (In case you’re wondering, Gabby Hartnett was a catcher in the 20s and 30s for the Cubs, Ted Lyons pitched for 20 years with the White Sox – check out the season he had in 1942, when he was 41, it’s the sort of stat line you’d never see anyone have today – and Dazzy Vance was Sandy Koufax 40 years before Sandy Koufax was Sandy Koufax.)

I have to say, other than my usual spittle-flecked rant about steroid hysteria, I have few complaints about this year’s voting results, which if you’ve followed this blog for awhile is saying something. The three top non-qualifiers – Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines – all improved their standing over last year, and ought to be in decent shape for 2016. I’d have voted for those guys and a few others over Smoltz, but he’s deserving and would only have been left off my ballot this year because I’d have been limited to ten selections. Biggio, Johnson, and Pedro were all no-brainers. In addition to his prowess at the game, Craig Biggio was also the inspiration for the greatest sports-related blog of all time. He was Hall-worthy just for that, to be honest. I don’t expect to say this again any time soon, but well done, writers. Now get over your steroid idiocy and get to work electing everyone else that belongs. The official HOF announcement is here, the MLB.com story is here, and Hair Balls, Pinstripe Alley, Charlie Pierce, and Ultimate Astros have more.

Somebody doesn’t like something about the Astros

I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to conclude from this long but mostly unsourced screed about how the Astros are running their team.

The Astros have become one of baseball’s most progressive franchises as they try to rebuild and avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow’s radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.

“They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it,” said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with Baltimore. “When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there’s going to be some opinions about it, and they’re not always pretty.”

The criticism, through interviews with more than 20 players, coaches, agents and others, comes in two parts:

On the field, the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a “modified tandem” system, a development strategy unique in baseball.

Off the field, the Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.

The central question is how much criticism should be inherent to their process and how much should signal trouble in a game where word of mouth spreads quickly?

“Ninety-five percent of what we do is very similar to what all of baseball does,” Luhnow said. “We’re being a little bit different for very good reasons in some areas that we think are important.

“It doesn’t affect our ability to make people happy at the big league level. It just doesn’t. It affects their ability to perform better and be more prepared. That’s at least our hypothesis, and what we believe. And to tie that together with (how we handle) contracts is ridiculous.”

As far as the shifting goes, we all know that the basic idea for this dates from the 1940s, right? Lots of teams are employing it heavily these days, due to a combination of much better data about where each individual batter tends to hit the baseball plus a crop of managers and GMs that are willing to do what the plain facts say they ought to do. As the widespread deployment of this tactic is still new there are sure to be adjustments and countermeasures taken along the way, but for now whatever griping there is about it – the story basically had none – is the usual reactionary BS that tends to dominate baseball conversations. This is why we can’t have a better Hall of Fame balloting process.

As far as the “tandem rotation” system in the minors goes, that’s another stathead pet rock that goes back at least 30 years. The basic idea behind it is to develop young arms while minimizing the risk of injury. For all the advances we’ve made in tracking and measuring what happens on the field, we still have no idea what causes some pitchers to thrive and others to blow out their arms. A team that can crack that enigma, or just show some tangible advantage over doing what everyone has always done, will reap a huge benefit. I have no idea if this particular idea will work, but it can’t hurt to try, and the minors is the place to do it since player development and not a team’s won-loss record is the primary goal.

It almost feels silly to even discuss these things because despite being prominently mentioned early in the story, the rest of it has nothing to do with them. I guess those things are proxies for the real gripe, about how the Astros evaluate players and handle contracts.

When players are first promoted to the majors, they need not be paid more than the standard minimum salary of $500,000. Once in the majors, a player’s service-time clock begins, which eventually will determine when he is eligible for salary arbitration (three years, or two-plus in some special cases) and free agency (six years) – both vehicles for bigger paydays.

The Astros have benefited from making contract offers to young players at low rates and holding back players in the minors for service-time reasons.

Last year, Jose Altuve, signed a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal (the Astros can extend it to six years) that made him even more valuable than his statistics alone – players who are productive and inexpensive are the game’s most valuable commodity.

Top prospect George Springer, who was promoted to the Astros after the season started, will not be eligible for free agency until he is 30 after the team delayed his move to the majors. The Astros said service time wasn’t a factor in the move that could potentially save them millions.

The Astros saved themselves money. But the question is whether the team handles these matters in a way that fosters confidence, and how much they should care about that perception in a business worth half a billion dollars based on a core product of 25 players.

“Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria,” one player agent said, echoing the comments of others. “They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective, and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.

“They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, ‘This is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.’ ”

Extension offers for players who have little or no major league experience have grown in popularity in recent years as teams try to get them at a bargain price, and the Astros have made several such offers.

The premise is not what some agents said bothers them, but how the Astros approach dealings and appear to handle clients.

Springer had an offer last year that reportedly was worth about $7 million guaranteed with the potential to earn more. The Astros also have made third baseman Matt Dominguez an offer worth $14.5 million for five years, plus two options, and outfielder Robbie Grossman received at least one similar offer – $13.5 million for six years plus two options, a person familiar with the offers said.

None of the players accepted. Luhnow has a policy of commenting on contracts only if a deal is finalized.

None of this is unusual. Every team does it to some extent. Offering multi-year extensions to young players that might sign for huge amounts elsewhere once they become free agents is standard practice now, to the point that teams like the Yankees that have traditionally done business by signing such players have had to make adjustments because the free agent talent pool ain’t what it used to be. Generally speaking, teams make this kind of offer to their rising stars with a year or two left in their team-control years – it doesn’t make sense to do it much earlier than that. If the Astros are insulting or alienating the kind of players they’d like to retain at a competitive salary, they’ll find those players will choose instead to play out the string and sign with another team. It’s just too early to say whether they’re headed down that path or not.

What was really amazing about this story was just how few people were quoted in it. One unnamed Astro, one unnamed agent, and two former players – Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris. Lots of potential axes to grind in there, but no objective outsider/analyst perspective, other than one positive statement about the effect of the shift defense. I have no idea what we’re supposed to make of this. Sure, it’s easy to point at the on-field performance, but we all know they started from a point of having zero talent. They’re finally developing that talent now, and it would be nice if they could keep the players they grow. It’s fine to point out that their managerial style – talking contract negotiations here, not player positioning or pitcher rotations – might be a hindrance to that. There was so much smoke in this piece it’s hard for me to say if that’s a legitimate concern or a bunch of mindless nattering by the handful of malcontents that every organization has. If it’s the former, there will be plenty of visible evidence for it soon enough. I’m not going to worry about it until then. Chron columnist Randy Harvey, who sees things more or less as I do, and PDiddie, who sees it differently, have more.

Lance Berkman

Former Astro and Rice Owl Lance Berkman hung up his spikes this week.

Lance Berkman
(credit: Photo Mojo on Flickr)

Lance Berkman, who starred at Rice before becoming one of the most clutch hitters in Astros history, is retiring after a 15-year career in the major leagues.

“He’s going to go down as one of the great players in Astros history,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman during the team’s playoff runs in 2004 and 2005. “A local Texas kid, goes to Rice, makes good, comes to the big leagues. He’s been a fabulous player in the big leagues, and he’s done it all with a touch of class.”

It was at Rice where Berkman’s smooth swing first got noticed. He hit 41 homers in 63 games as a junior and was drafted in the first round (No. 16 overall) by the Astros in 1997. Just two seasons later, Berkman was in the majors to stay.

From 2000-09, Berkman hit .300 for the Astros, averaging 31 homers and 103 RBIs.

“There aren’t many better in this generation,” baseball historian/statistician Bill James said at the time.

Among switch hitters, Berkman ranks among the best of all time. His career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .943 is second only to Mickey Mantle’s .977 among switch hitters, and he ranks third among switch hitters in on-base percentage (.406, behind Mantle and Roy Cullenbine) and fourth in home runs (366, behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones).

No question Berkman was a great hitter. But is he a Hall of Fame player? There’s certainly local sentiment for that. My gut intuition was that his career was a little short and left his overall numbers, especially the kind of counting stats that tend to most impress Hall of Fame voters, a bit below the standard. Cliff Corcoran took a deeper look and agreed with that.

Berkman ranks second in baseball history among switch hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances in OPS+, behind only Mickey Mantle, and fourth among switch-hitters in home runs (behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones, though Carlos Beltran will likely pass him this year). However, he doesn’t fare quite as well in the other cumulative stats (which covers everything from hits to wins above replacement), and that reveals the soft underbelly of his Hall of Fame case. For the bulk of his career, Berkman was a tremendously productive hitter, but not only did he play just 15 seasons, he only played in 140 or more games in eight of them.

[…]

Berkman’s retirement doesn’t come as a great surprise, particularly given how close he was to hanging it up a year ago. It does leave us with the question of whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS stats say no. Berkman’s 51.8/.38.9/45.3 career/peak/JAWS scores all fall short of the standard at first base and left and rightfield, his three primary positions (he also played 166 games in center early in his career, which yielded this gem on Tal’s Hill).

It may be surprising that Berkman doesn’t at least meet the standard on peak score, but the combination of the offense-heavy era in which he played, the Astros’ move to the hitter-friendly Enron-cum-Minute Maid Park in 2000, and some brutal fielding scores undercut those impressive statistics above. That, in combination with his short career, make the Hall seem like a longshot for Berkman, though he may get some extra points from the voters for his postseason performance, being a switch-hitter, and for his personality and honesty with the press.

In terms of a comparable candidate, one player that jumps to mind is Edgar Martinez. The legendary Mariners DH was also an undeniably great hitter who also had a memorable postseason moment, made essentially no contribution on defense by virtue of having been a designated hitter for the bulk of his career and had a similarly short career (just 12 qualifying seasons). Martinez hit .312/.418/.515 (147 OPS+) in his career to Berkman’s .293/.406/.537 (144 OPS+). Berkman hit more home runs (366 to doubles-hitter Martinez’s 309), but Martinez, perhaps crucially, surpassed 2,000 hits while Berkman did not (2,247 to 1,905). Martinez also played in more games (2,055 to 1,879) made more plate appearances (8,674 to 7,814), and had superior WAR (68.3 to 51.8) and JAWS scores (55.9 to 45.3). Martinez can also stake claim to being the greatest ever at his position, even if that position was designated hitter. Despite all of that, after five years on the ballot, he has yet to surpass 36.5 percent of the vote.

Edgar Martinez is a good comp, but I think it’s fair to say that Jeff Bagwell belongs in the Hall of Fame before Berkman gets there. He’s got a case, and I’ll be interested to see who argues for him in five years’ time, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate or insulting to say that the Big Puma was a great player and a fearsome hitter who falls a bit short of Cooperstown.

One thing for which there should be no argument at all is for Berkman to retire as an Astro. The team needs to make this happen.

The Astros should sign Berkman, give him his No. 17 to wear one last time for a farewell news conference, and let him retire as one of them, at home in Houston, where he belongs.

Berkman was a clutch hitter who gave the Astros many happy endings. Now they can give him one.

“He’s really an Astro,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman in Houston for parts of four seasons, including the teams that reached the playoffs in 2004 and the World Series in ’05. “He knows it. We all know it.”

That is the mother of all no-brainers. The Yankees did this last year for Hideki Matsui, who was a popular and well-regarded player that made key contributions to the 2009 World Series win and the 2003 LCS win over the Red Sox, but is hardly a franchise cornerstone. Whatever you think about the Yankees, they do this sort of thing right. If the Stros want to ensure at least one sellout crowd this year, they need to start planning for Lance Berkman Day at Minute Maid. (They should be planning JR Richard Day, too, but that’s another story.) It’s great that the team wants to bring Nolan Ryan on board, but one way or the other they need to give Lance Berkman a proper sendoff. Make this happen, y’all.

No BGO for HOF

Missed it by one vote.

One of the most majestic induction classes in the history of the National Baseball Hall of Fame was set on Wednesday with the announcement that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were elected by eligible writers of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, all of them by big margins.

On the ballot for the second time, Craig Biggio, who had 3,060 hits in 20 seasons, all with the Astros, did not get the necessary 75 percent, falling two votes shy of induction.

Already to be inducted in July are three of the greatest managers of all time — Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, all selected by the Expansion Era Committee last month.

That means six living members are heading toward one of the grandest Induction Weekends from July 26-27 in Cooperstown, N.Y. The results of this year’s BBWAA vote were in stark contrast to that of last year, when the writers didn’t elect anyone.

Maddux and Glavine, a pair of 300-game winners who pitched the bulk of their careers for the Braves, were the favorites, but the 571 voters outdid themselves by also adding Thomas. It was the first time since 1999, when Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett were elected, that the writers put three first-time eligibles into the Hall.

Maddux, who won 355 games, the eighth-highest figure in Major League history, saw his name appear on 97.2 percent of the ballots, falling short of the all-time mark still held by Tom Seaver, who was elected on 98.84 percent of the vote in 1992. Glavine, who won 305 games, fourth-most among left-handers, was at 91.9 percent, and Thomas, a first baseman and designated hitter, who batted .301, hit 521 homers and amassed 1,704 RBIs in 19 seasons, 16 of them with the White Sox, finished at 83.7.

I’m going to take a break from all the ranting and airing of grievances about the deserving candidates that didn’t get elected and the idiocy of the voters, for this year at least. Biggio becomes the first player to miss being inducted by a single vote, which at least bodes well for his future. You aggrieved Astros fans, go vent your spleen at Ken Gurnick, you’ll feel better. How much better off we’d all be if he had given his vote to Deadspin instead. Congratulations to the three supremely qualified new members, and better luck next year, Bidge. Hardball Talk has more.

Crane sues McLane

This ought to be fun.

Jim Crane’s Astros ownership group filed a state court lawsuit Thursday against former Astros owner Drayton McLane, Comcast and NBC Universal, accusing them of fraud and civil conspiracy and accusing McLane’s corporation that owned the Astros of breach of contract in conjunction with Crane’s 2011 purchase of a 46 percent interest in the parent company of Comcast SportsNet Houston.

The suit accuses McLane, who sold the Astros and his CSN Houston share to Crane in 2011 for $615 million, of selling “an asset (the network) they knew at the time to be overpriced and broken.” It also says Crane was “duped” when he bought McLane’s network interest based on what have been proved to be “knowing misrepresentations” and “falsely inflated subscription rates.”

“Ultimately, fans of the Houston Astros have been injured because defendants’ misrepresentations leave (Crane) with an impossible choice: accept the broken network as is and deprive thousands of fans the ability to watch Houston Astros games on their televisions, or distribute the game at market rates and take massive losses out of the Houston Astros player payroll – thereby dooming the franchise for years to come,” the suit adds.

[…]

Crane’s suit alleges McLane and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander demanded in 2010 that Comcast charge a base subscriber rate for CSN Houston in Zone 1 – the area around Houston where Astros and Rockets games can be seen – that Comcast said was too high. In fact, the suit said, the rate was so high Comcast feared it could not convince other distributors to carry the network.

Comcast eventually agreed to the inflated base rate, the suit said, in return for a most favored nation clause, which ensured Comcast it would always pay the lowest base rate of any distributor.

Faulty business plan

Crane, according to the suit, was not aware of these facts when he was negotiating to buy the team in 2011 and that Comcast, NBC Universal and McLane agreed to “conceal material information” about the network’s business plan.

The suit also accuses Jon Litner, group president of the NBC Sports Group, of making false and misleading claims the CSN Houston business plan was achievable, even though they were based on what the company knew were inflated subscriber rates.

Crane became aware of the 2010 demands by Alexander and McLane, according to the suit, during a December 2012 meeting in New York City, about a year after he bought the team and three months after the network launched.

The suit asks that McLane’s McLane Champions corporation be ordered to repay Crane’s group for losses that have resulted from alleged breaches of the group’s purchase agreement – including, presumably, more than $30 million in rights fees the Astros failed to receive in 2013 and what Crane says is the “artificially inflated price” he paid for McLane’s network share. Court testimony indicated CSN Houston was valued in 2010 at $700 million, with McLane’s share valued at $326 million.

I haven’t followed it here on the blog, but CSN Houston has been plagued with problems, mostly stemming from the fact that nobody other than Comcast carries it. That limits its reach to about 40% of Houston-area viewers, which also limits ratings and ad revenues. Mayor Parker has tried to facilitate talks between Comcast and other carriers to resolve this, but has had no luck. The infamous game nobody watched probably didn’t improve Crane’s mood about the station. The Astros have been trying to get out of this deal but aren’t on the same page as the Rockets, who are also stakeholders in CSN Houston. Four Comcast affiliates have filed for bankruptcy stemming from that action. It’s all a big mess, is what I’m saying. I have no idea what happens from here, but I’ll be watching. Sports Update and Hair Balls have more.

On the Astros’ Wives Gala

What Nonsequiteuse says:

I’m really upset that the Houston Astros have left the Houston Area Women’s Center in the lurch as far as the gala this year. I know the people and the programs that will suffer without those funds, and let me tell you, it will hurt.

I’d like to suggest some constructive next steps the parties involved in this meltdown might take to not just repair the damage, but to launch a new partnership that is beneficial to each party and the larger community.

You can read the basics at KHOU (which broke the story), CultureMap (and an update here, with comments from the Astros), the Houston Press (which brings in some additional elements of recent developments with the ball club), and undoubtedly many other places. Great, long history and details on the Houston Chronicle. But the quick history:

  • The Astros, through their Astros’ Wives organization, traditionally held a black-tie gala benefiting theHouston Area Women’s Center, our region’s oldest,  largest, and exceedingly well-respected nonprofit organization supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence and educating the community on how to create a world free of such violence.
  • The gala has happened for so long, and been so well-received by the community, that the proceeds have become a key line item in the agency’s annual operating budget.
  • The ball club just announced that it is “officially” disbanding the Astros’ Wives, and that the club will redirect its charitable focus toward troubled youth and inner-city baseball programs.
  • KHOU broke the story [Tuesday] morning.

My thoughts, which I hope might form the basis for constructive move-aheads:

Fill the Gap
The immediate need is making sure HAWC has the funds they need to finish their budget year. Making do without the gala proceeds is like asking a team to play without a shortstop.

Let’s not wait for the team to act. You can donate here. Share the link once you’ve kicked in your bit, and remember, even $15 or $50 helps.

You should read the full post by Nonsequiteuse for a number of ways that this can be fixed or mitigated. The HAWC does great and necessary work, and it doesn’t deserve to be left hanging like this. While the Astros Wives Organization is a separate non-profit that is not affiliated with the ballclub, surely Jim Crane could have given the Women’s Center more notice about this change in policy. Maybe one last gala for old times’ sake, then part ways with plenty of time for the HAWC to plan for the next year. Failing that, there are some fine ideas in NS’ post, so check it out. I hope we can all come together and find a way forward for the HAWC this year.

UPDATE: More this morning, on the Astros’ response and what could have been done about the things they brought up.

UPDATE: Sean Pendergast piles on.

You have a strange definition of “only”, Bud

Or maybe it’s your definition of “logical”, I’m not sure.

But while first-year manager Bo Porter continues to fire up his players and general manager Jeff Luhnow oversees year one of a complete organizational overhaul, many longtime Astros fans continue to criticize the club’s impending American League debut.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig said Tuesday he fully understands fans’ complaints and sympathizes with their pro-National League pull. But Selig told the Houston Chronicle the only “logical choice” for baseball was to relocate the Astros to the AL, and he believes fans won’t question the move five years from now.

“The American League is very attractive,” said the 78-year-old Selig, who plans to retire Dec. 31, 2014. “We had a division number of six (teams) in the National League Central. And all the National League clubs had complained to me for a long time: ‘Commissioner, this isn’t fair. The other (divisions) are either five, and one division only has four.’ … And it made no sense.”

[…]

Selig said the primary reason for the Astros’ AL relocation came down to simple geography. With St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, the Astros were the odd team out. According to the commissioner, the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers and Reds have “tremendous” rivalries. The Astros did not, he said, because of their isolation.

“The teams left in the National League Central all had a geographical (base) – there was a relationship. Houston was sitting down there; there was no relationship,” said Selig, who stressed he made the decision in the best long-term interests of baseball. “And I understand they’ve been in the National League for a long time, and I’m sympathetic to that. But we had to move a team, and … the fact of the matter is when you looked at all the other things that could happen, the only logical thing was for Houston to move. … I didn’t have an alternative.”

I can think of at least three reasonable alternatives, none of which would have necessitated the need for all-season interleague play, as we will now have with an odd number of teams in each league. Note that the Cincinnati Reds get their traditional rival the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as their Opening Day opponent. Baseball could have done any of the following:

1. Left things as they are. The divisions have been unbalanced since they were created in 1994, with the NL Central having a sixth team since 1998. Why did we hear so little about how “unfair” this was until there arose an opportunity to impose a condition on a somewhat sketchy new buyer? Every team in the NL Central has won the division at least once since 1995 with the exception of the pathetic Pirates, and the number of teams in the division is the least of their issues. I don’t buy the premise that there was a problem that needed to be solved.

2. Expand to 32 teams and go to four four-team divisions in each league. This would solve the balancing issue, and would make scheduling easier to boot. You could use it as an impetus to get rid of that silly interleague play altogether, since all that really does is vary each teams’ strength of schedule, which is a definite competitive liability for some teams each year, and make rainouts harder to make up. There’s plenty of money in baseball these days – the biggest problem is bottom-feeding owners – and no sign of that reversing course any time soon. I’d nominate Montreal as one expansion location, as that might help MLB make up for the grievous sin it committed against them a decade ago; I don’t have a clear favorite for a second franchise location, but there are plenty of potential sites. I can understand why the owners might not want to do this, but it’s surely a logical possibility.

3. Use divisions for scheduling purposes only and ditch them for playoff seeding. This is basically what the NBA does, where the top eight teams in each division qualify for the playoffs and winning your division carries no special benefit. MLB could simply take the four teams with the best record – or the top five, with #4 and #5 playing that one-game death match as they do now for the right to advance – and be done with it. This deals with the “unbalanced division” problem and almost certainly ensures that a team with a losing record cannot make the playoffs. It can’t dilute the concept of a “pennant race” any more than the three-division/wild card setup already has.

So there you have it, three logical alternatives to shifting (or shafting, depending on your perspective), the Astros. Maybe the league switch was the “best” solution by whatever criteria Selig and MLB had, and maybe it was the only solution that could get sufficient political support to actually happen. But it sure wasn’t the only logical solution. So happy Opening Day, at least for those of you who can see it.

How cursed is Houston as a sports city?

What curse?

So another Super Bowl is history, and as you might have noticed the Houston Texans were not be playing in the game. This continues an unbroken streak of Houston football teams not making it to the Super Bowl, some in particularly heartbreaking fashion. The Astros have never won a World Series, having only won one pennant in fifty-plus years of existence. Were it not for two NBA titles by the Rockets in the 90s, the city of Houston would be completely championship-free for the major sports. You may be wondering how Houston compares to other big league sports cities in this department. I was, so I did a little research to find out. I limited myself to the last 40 years, mostly because ancient history is only of so much comfort to most fans. (For what it’s worth, Bill Simmons uses a 35-year period for assessing true wretchedness.) With that in mind, here’s what I found. Let’s start with the cities that have had nothing to celebrate in that time span.

Cleveland

Franchises – Browns (two versions, NFL); Indians (MLB); Cavaliers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

Buffalo

Franchises – Bills (NFL); Sabres (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

San Diego

Franchises – Chargers (NFL); Padres (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

Seattle

Franchises – Seahawks (NFL); Mariners (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – SuperSonics (NBA), 1979

Any discussion of cursed sports cities has to start with Cleveland. Their last title of any kind was a pre-Super Bowl NFL championship by the Browns in 1964. Since then, they’ve had The Drive, The Fumble, the relocation of their team to another city where it then went on to win a Super Bowl a few years later plus another this year, and all that is before we discuss the Indians (last World Series win 1948) or the Cavaliers. See here, here, here, and here for more. Really, there’s no question about it. No other city is in Cleveland’s class when it comes to sheer sports misery.

Buffalo is first runnerup, though I doubt anyone in Houston will offer much sympathy to them. Besides the Bills losing four consecutive Super Bowls, not to mention the Music City Miracle, the Sabres are oh-for-two in Stanley Cup finals, with the most recent loss being as controversial as it was gut-wrenching for their fans. They’re not quite in Cleveland territory, but they’re closer than anyone else. San Diego has lost two World Series, both times getting swept by teams of the ages (1984 Tigers and 1998 Yankees), and one Super Bowl, but it’s hard to think of anyone in San Diego as being cursed. Seattle managed to never win a pennant despite fielding teams that featured as many as four future Hall of Famers plus Jay Buhner; I include them here since their one title was won by a franchise that has since relocated.

And here are the teams that have won one or two titles, thus putting themselves in a similar class as Houston:

Atlanta

Franchises – Braves (MLB); Falcons (NFL); Hawks (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Braves, 1995

Phoenix

Franchises – Cardinals (NFL); Suns (NBA); Diamondbacks (MLB); Coyotes (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Diamondbacks, 2001

Kansas City

Franchises – Royals (MLB); Chiefs (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Royals, 1985

Indianapolis

Franchises – Colts (NFL); Pacers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Colts, 2007

New Orleans

Franchises – Saints (NFL); Pelicans (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Saints, 2010

Minneapolis

Franchises – Twins (MLB); Vikings (NFL); Timberwolves (NBA); Wild (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Twins, 1987 and 1991

Tampa

Franchises – Rays (MLB); Buccaneers (NFL); Lightning (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Buccaneers, 2003, and Lightning, 2004

Milwaukee

Franchises – Bucks (NBA); Brewers (MLB); Green Bay Packers (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Packers, 1997 and 2011

Houston

Franchises – Astros (MLB); Texans (NFL); Rockets (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Rockets, 1994 and 1995

Out of that group, I’d probably rank Minneapolis and Kansas City as more cursed than Houston. The Vikings are also 0-4 in Super Bowls, with several other heartbreaking playoff losses, the Twins can’t get past the Yankees, the North Stars won the Stanley Cup after relocating to Dallas, and the Timberwolves watched Kevin Garnett win two NBA titles with the Celtics. Both Kansas City teams have been poorly run for years, though the Royals are a little better these days. New Orleans would have had a decent claim to superior cursedness before their Super Bowl win; as long as Drew Brees can play at his level, they’ll have a chance. The other cities for the most part don’t inspire much sympathy. Atlanta may have the hapless Hawks and the feckless Falcons, but they also had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Indianapolis replaced Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck and rebuilt a contender after one season. Tampa and Phoenix haven’t been big league long enough to inspire real misery. No city that roots for the Packers can truly be cursed.

So, putting it all together, I’d probably rank Houston as the sixth most cursed city, following Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Your mileage may vary, but that’s how I see it. How would you rank the losers?

The Hall of Fame and guilt by association

John Royal hits on one of the least admirable traits of Hall of Fame voters.

There are some voters out there once again claiming that Jeff Bagwell used ‘roids, and these same folks are claiming that Craig Biggio used them as well. How do they reconcile these statements with the truth that there’s no evidence that either cheated?

They use the eye test and the guilt by association standards. So because Bagwell bulked up and started hitting homers. He’s guilty. And while Biggio didn’t really bulk up, his power numbers also spiked; ipso facto, they both used PEDs. They were also teammates with Ken Caminiti, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens, thus they must have used steroids.

This extreme stupidity has so far kept Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame, and could possibly keep Biggio out this year. And while this line of thinking is moronic, it’s kind of interesting to see if it’s going to keep being applied over the next several years, and if it is applied, will it be applied to all eligible players.

Take next year’s ballot. Among those on the ballot will be Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, two of the best pitchers of the ’90s — they’re also acknowledged as two of the best ever. There have never been any allegations of either of these two taking steroids. Just as there was no suspicion on Biggio while he played. But what makes Maddux and Glavine any different than Biggio?

Both Maddux and Glavine played on teams with Ken Caminiti, Gary Sheffield, and David Justice, who used steroids. Sure, neither Maddux or Glavine looked like they used steroids, but by the unwritten rules being established, neither Maddux or Glavine should be inducted into the Hall of Fame because they are steroid users. And that same argument should apply in about five years when Chipper Jones appears on the ballot.

And if Craig Biggio is supposed to have used steroids because he played with Caminiti, Clemens, and Pettitte, then watching the fools explain why they won’t apply the rule to Derek Jeter when he’s up for induction is going to be like watching a train wreck.

Let’s look at the list of superstar PED users Jeter has been teammates with: Clemens, Pettitte, Justice, Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Chuck Knoblauch, and the Johnny Appleseed of steroids, Jose Canseco. If the excuse for Biggio is guilt by association, then it must be a without a doubt fact that Jeter juiced, and as such, he can’t go into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the national media and the New York baseball writers will have the vapors if anybody attempts to besmirch the sainted Jeter like this.

I have heard the Bagwell/steroids “accusations”, though I don’t know how much effect that has had on his enshrinement prospects. Honestly, there are a lot of baseball writers out there who just flat don’t get how good Bagwell was, and how much his stats were depressed by the Astrodome early on in his career. The type of voter who never votes for anyone in his first year of eligibility will probably be enough to keep Biggio out this year, but if the same steroids silliness gets attached to his name, who knows what could happen after that. As if I needed another reason to hold this process in contempt.

Biggio on the ballot

Former Astros great Craig Biggio will make his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot this year.

Ballots for the 2013 Hall of Fame class will be issued this week to media members; candidates will officially be announced Wednesday. Results will be disclosed Jan. 9 for a controversial list of names that will include first-timers Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa.

Biggio also is a first-timer. And if he receives a once-in-a-lifetime confirmation call — a thought he’s playing down — the lifetime Astro who spent 20 major league seasons with the organization and is employed as a special assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow said Monday the moment will be humbling and surreal.

“It’s an incredible feeling. It’s hard to put into words,” Biggio, 46, said during a news conference at Minute Maid Park. “I just loved to play the game. I would’ve played it for free if that’s what I had to do. I just enjoyed the game for what it was. It never was anything to do with trying to get yourself in the Hall of Fame.”

Biggio can submit quite the résumé for potential Hall enshrinement. The highlights: 3,060 hits, 1,844 runs and a .281 batting average during 2,850 career games that saw him play catcher, second base and the outfield.

“I’ve been very lucky and fortunate to be around good people, a great organization,” Biggio said. “It was a lot of special memories at a special time.”

[…]

With Bonds, Clemens and Sosa dominating conversation about a potential 2013 class that includes several former stars linked to performance-enhancing drugs, some believe Biggio could sneak into the Hall in January as a safe, respected choice.

The flip side to that is that the ballot is “too crowded” with Hall-worthy candidates, which may prevent Biggio from being elected because the voters don’t like to vote for too many candidates in a given year. Biggio’s teammate Jeff Bagwell has supposedly suffered from the BBWAA’s short attention span as well. I find the whole thing ridiculous, but that’s the Hall of Fame for you. I think Biggio’s case for inclusion is clear, and I hope it doesn’t take the writers too long to figure it out.

Mills and Clemens

Enjoy your paid time off, Brad Mills.

General manager Jeff Luhnow and owner Jim Crane see no reason to wait until the season ends to begin the search for the next Astros manager after Brad Mills was fired and replaced by interim skipper Tony DeFrancesco.

Some candidates might not become available until after Oct. 3 — or after the World Series should their employers advance far enough — but the search begins now and interviews will likely start during the season for those unattached.

“Right now, we’re at the very first stage, which is gathering information,” Luhnow said Sunday. “Once we get past that stage and determine which candidates we want to speak to, there’s going to be a lot of factors involved in that.

“There’s no reason to wait, so we’re going to move as fast as we can.

“We’re going to be working diligently on that for the remainder of the season and into the offseason or however long it takes.”

Crane said the Astros have four or five candidates in mind but have not compiled a list, which is expected to be larger than that once phone calls start today.

That Mills was fired isn’t a surprise. Changes in ownership almost always mean changes in management, and it’s not like Mills has a long record of managerial success to mitigate against that. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any manager from John McGraw to Casey Stengel to Bobby Cox getting a whole lot more out of the talent on hand. Still, I am curious what the actual case against Mills was, since no one is saying anything bad about him and I don’t recall seeing anyone argue that he’s been a failure. When a club is in complete tear down and rebuild mode, you need a manager that’s good at teaching and who won’t unnecessarily risk the health of his players to win a game that in the long run doesn’t mean much. I don’t know if Luhnow and Crane didn’t like what they saw with Mills or if they just wanted to get their own guy in there. Not that it really matters, as whoever they bring in is unlikely to still be there when the team finally turns it around. That’s usually the way these things go in the process, and with the Astros years away from being competitive, I’m pretty sure that’s how it will go here. Best of luck to whoever will be nurturing them in the interim.

Then there’s Roger Clemens.

Roger Clemens, whose remarkable 30-year baseball travelogue has taken him from Houston to Austin, Boston, Toronto, New York and points in between, will make his next stop in Sugar Land.

Clemens, 50, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner who last pitched in 2007 and was last in the public eye for his acquittal on federal perjury charges earlier this year, will return to the mound on Saturday night to pitch for the minor league Sugar Land Skeeters.

Clemens threw for about 90 minutes Monday morning at Sugar Land’s Constellation Field and pronounced himself ready for his comeback against the Bridgeport Bluefish, which along with the Skeeters plays in the independent Atlantic League.

[…]

“It is a fun, local, one-time kind of thing,” said Clemens’ longtime agent, Randy Hendricks. “The hitters will let him know Saturday if he should pitch another game.”

Whether it is indeed a one-time curtain call or a return to action that could at some point lead to Clemens’ return to the major leagues, it is an unexpected swerve in the career of one of baseball’s most charismatic yet polarizing athletes.

“We’re going to take things one game at a time and see where they lead us,” said Michael Kirk, operations manager for the Skeeters. “I am fascinated to see what happens this weekend, and we’ll take it from there.”

I think a little Pete Townshend is appropriate here:

“After the fire, the fire still burns
The heart grows older, but never ever learns
The memories smolder, but the soul always yearns
After the fire, the fire still burns.”

There’s two ways for an athletic career to end: For the athlete to accept that it’s over and move on, and for the athlete’s performance to make it clear to anyone who might think of hiring said athlete that it’s over. Neither has happened yet with Roger Clemens. As long as he’s got the fire, and until the objective evidence says otherwise, I say what the heck. For all we know he may still be a viable option for the Astros a few years down the line when they’ve finally put together a team that can win again. Or perhaps sooner than that, as Campos speculates.

So here’s the deal. If he does OK in a couple of outings, the ‘Stros will pick him up for three games in September when they can expand the roster. The ‘Stros will let him start against three non-contending clubs at The Yard – Cubbies, Phillies, and San Luis (soon to be non-contenders) – and they will let him pitch four or five innings and sell out The Yard. It is gate money the team wasn’t counting on. They will pay The Rocket the minimum but since he’ll be an MLBer, he’ll be knocked off the Hall of Fame ballot for the next five years and won’t have to face the humiliation of not getting the votes next January to join the Hall of Fame. By 2018, some of the old school BBWOA members won’t be around to leave The Rocket off of their ballot and the most recent Rocket memory will be of the 2012 Comeback at The Yard. That’s not a bad strategy if you ask me. Plus, at least it would be something to look forward to at The Yard this September.

That actually makes a lot of sense, for all involved. We’ll see how it goes.

Retire #50!

I was enjoying this story about JR Richard, was was inducted into the Astros Walk of Fame at Minute Maid on Friday night, until I got to these paragraphs:

The Astros have been more liberal than most teams in retiring numbers, and the list of pitchers so honored includes Larry Dierker, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott and a pair who died prematurely in Don Wilson and Jim Umbricht.

Richard hopes his No. 50, which has been given to nine players and now bullpen coach Craig Bjornson since Richard retired, will be next.

“When it happens, it happens, but I would like it to happen as soon as possible,” Richard said. “And the reason why I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn is because when you look at the statistics, my number should have been the first one retired.”

Team president George Postolos said in an email Thursday the one embedded in Texas Avenue is the only honor on the table right now.

“For this season, we are going to keep the focus on the Walk of Fame and the celebration of our 50th anniversary, and we are very pleased with how the program has worked so far,” Postolos wrote.

He added he is pleased with Richard’s work at the Astros’ Urban Youth Academy and other charity events.

Richard hopes to work in a more permanent role for the Astros and said he had brief conversations with the new regime upon its arrival but nothing has materialized.

“I ask. I’m not to the point of begging,” he said, adding that his goal is to “enhance the younger ballplayers or whatever the case may be. To be able to fit in and hold a part and a position. … Not just to be there.”

I had to do a doublecheck, but sure enough Richard’s #50 is not one of the Astros’ retired uniform numbers; that list will likely be augmented by Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt at some point down the line. My mind absolutely boggled at the thought that Richard had not yet been so honored. It’s not just that he was a very good pitcher for a five year stretch from 1976 to 1980, it’s also the tragedy of what might have been. It’s not hard to imagine him following the path of Randy Johnson, another tall, dominant, late-blooming flamethrower who became an elite hurler after gaining better control over his pitches, and finishing a Hall of Fame caliber career a decade later with 250+ wins and 3500+ strikeouts. (It’s also not hard to imagine arm trouble finishing him off by the time he was 33 – he’d thrown a whole lot of innings over those five seasons – or given his rocky relationship with team management a trade or free-agent departure to a stadium that wasn’t as pitcher-friendly as the Dome.) But sometimes these things are about more than just the numbers. Richard was a one of a kind pitcher, with a unique and compelling life story following the stroke that ended his career and nearly killed him. He’s an indelible part of Astros history. They should fully embrace that. John Royal, who I must say is wrong about Jimmy Wynn, an excellent and vastly underrated hitter whose numbers were completely obscured by the hitters graveyard and deadball era he played in, agrees.

No more Not-Stros

Glad we got that settled.

New owner Jim Crane ended a week of speculation and rare attention on a national level and anticipated backlash among Houstonians, saying he would not change the name of the club – a possibility he floated last week.

“You asked for change and we added several fan friendly initiatives last week and we hope you like them,” Crane said in a video message to season ticket holders. “We will continue to listen, and to look for additional ways to improve on and off the field.

“One thing that we are not going to change is the name. We received strong feedback and consensus among season ticket holders and many fans, and we will not change the name Astros. The Houston Astros are here to stay.”

Crane said he would consider the franchise’s second name change last Monday at a press conference to announce lower ticket prices and the end of the ban on outside food at Minute Maid Park.

You can watch the video here. I had said this wouldn’t go over well, and an unscientific Chron poll confirmed that fans were strongly against the idea. Of course, if the real idea was to remind people that they did still care about the Astros, then mission accomplished. Just don’t do it again, OK?

The Houston Not-Stros

Oh, hell no.

Even more drastic changes could come next year, when the [Astros move] to the American League.

Possible transformations include new uniforms and logos, changes to the playing field and “Tal’s Hill” in center field, and even a re-evaluation of the name “Astros,” which the team has used for the last 47 years of a 50-year history.

“We’re taking a look at everything,” [new owner Jim] Crane said when asked about the potential name change. “We’re going to do a study on it. We’re going to study the information, both from our fans and from all sorts of marketing people. I’m not saying we’re going to change. We haven’t made a decision. If the change is going to come, it’s going to come next year.”

I assure you, this will not go over well. Many people are already upset at the forthcoming change to the American League. Save yourself the money on the study.

Yes, I know, the team changed its name once, from the Colt .45s to the Astros, back in 1965. That was a long time ago, and it was a three-year-old franchise updating its name to fit a brand new, first of its kind stadium. That team had no history to leave behind, and the move into the Astrodome made the name change make sense. There’s no parallel here. Besides, the other time a team changed leagues, the Milwaukee Brewers kept their name.

Geek that I am, I got to wondering how often teams changed names. Often, the name change was accompanied by a relocation – the Expos became the Nationals, the Senators became the Rangers (and an earlier version of the Senators became the Twins before that), the Pilots became the Mariners, and the Browns became the Orioles. For teams that remained in the same place, the name changes I could think of were:

The Tamps Bay Rays dropped the “Devil” from their name in 2008.

The Oakland Athletics became the Oakland A’s in 1970, but then reclaimed the “Athletics” name in 1981.

The Cincinnati Reds were briefly known as the “Redlegs” during the 1950s. Yes, this was a craven response to McCarthyism and the hysteria over Communism.

The Boston Braves, which had numerous other nicknames early on, were known as the Bees from 1935-39, before becoming the Braves again. They remained the Braves through relocations to Milwaukee and then Atlanta, as the Athletics kept their name after moving from Philadelphia to Kansas City and finally to Oakland.

In 1933, the Brooklyn franchise officially became the Dodgers after previously being known as the Grays, the Grooms, the Bridegrooms, the Superbas, and the Robins. Let me just say now that I will drop my own opposition to an Astros’ name change if Jim Crane agrees to call the team the Houston Superbas, if only because I would love to know what a Superbas team mascot might look like.

Go back further and there are more and more examples of name changes. Even the New York Yankees were once known as the Highlanders, a name that was supposedly hated by New York’s many newspapers because it was impossible to fit into a headline. There’s plenty of examples of name changes, but none that I can see for a longstanding franchise that isn’t going anywhere. I personally would prefer the Astros make history in other ways than that. Hair Balls, which focuses on the positive things that were said like lower ticket prices, cheaper beer, and the ability to bring your own food and beverage into the stadium, and Greg, who’s with me, have more.

Sports Authority will not impede Astros move to AL

One of the odd side stories that came out after MLB officially approved the sale of the Astros to Jim Crane was this contention by attorney Kevin W. Yankowsky of Fulbright & Jaworski that the Astros’ lease at Minute Maid Park required them to be in the National League. At the time, Sports Authority Chair J. Kent Friedman said it was an “interesting analysis” and that he’d have their legal beagles look it over. It didn’t take them long to kick it out.

On Tuesday, McLane and Crane completed the transfer of the Astros.

[…]

Crane said he will attend the winter meetings. One thing he won’t have to deal with is any challenge from the Harris County Houston Sports Authority over the Astros’ move to the AL. A partner from Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. last week said a move to the AL would violate the terms of the lease at Minute Maid, but the HCHSA said in a release that its legal team has a differing opinion. Withholding consent for the Astros playing as an AL team, the HCHSA determined, would be “unreasonable.”

Here’s the Sports Authority’s full response:

The Lease provides in Section 5.1(a) that the Astros have the right to use the Stadium for “the operation of a Major League Baseball franchise.” There is no reference in this Section to league affiliation. Further, as defined in the Lease, the term “Major League Baseball” expressly includes the National League, the American League and all Member Teams. In addition, Section 5.1(a) of the Lease expressly uses the uncapitalized word “franchise” instead of the capitalized, defined term “Franchise.” Only the capitalized, defined term “Franchise” is limited to a National League franchise. The uncapitalized term “franchise” is not so limited. Finally, the reference to “Baseball Home Games” (basically defined as Astros baseball games as a member of the National League) in Section 5.1(a) of the Lease is not a limiting phrase. Rather, it is used as an example of a use incidental to the use of the Stadium for the “operation of a Major League Baseball franchise,” not as an exclusive use. This interpretation is confirmed by the use of the phrase “including, but not limited to,” which precedes the phrase “Baseball Home Games.”

Accordingly, the Astros are permitted under the Lease to operate a Major League Baseball franchise in either the National League or the American League and to play their games in the Stadium attendant to such operation. Therefore, the Sports Authority is not in a position to prevent Major League Baseball from potentially moving the Astros to the American League.

The Astros transfer to the American League does require a minor change to the Non-Relocation Agreement to confirm that the Astros cannot play any home games outside the Stadium in violation of the Non-Relocation Agreement. The Astros have agreed to this minor change.

Even though the Astros cannot assign their interest in the Lease or mortgage their leasehold estate in most instances without the consent of the Sports Authority, the Sports Authority may not unreasonably withhold its consent. The Sports Authority’s withholding of its consent based solely on a potential Astros move to the American League could be considered unreasonable and therefore a violation of the Sports Authority’s covenant not to act in an unreasonable manner in this regard.

I don’t know, I have a hard time believing this will be the end of it. I just have a feeling that there’s a lawsuit out there to force the issue. I certainly could be wrong, I have nothing more than my gut to go on, but this is what I think. What do you think?

MLB approves Astros sale

It’s official.

Jim Crane’s $610 million purchase of the Astros from Drayton McLane was unanimously approved by Major League Baseball’s owners this morning.

All that remains is a formal closing of the transaction, which likely will take place early next week. At that point, McLane’s 19-year ownership of the club will end.

As we know, this not only means that the Astros will be changing leagues, but that the MLB playoff format will change as well.

Two wild card teams will be added to Major League Baseball’s playoffs no later than 2013, the same year the Houston Astros will begin play in the American League.

Commissioner Bud Selig announced Thursday that baseball’s owners unanimously approved Jim Crane as the Houston Astros’ owner. As part of his agreement to buy the club, Crane will shift the Astros to the AL after 2012, creating two 15-team leagues.

“It’s a historical day,” said Selig, whose new format ensures that an interleague game will be contested “from opening day on.”

Selig did not offer specifics on the schedule or playoff format, but said his committee for on-field matters favors the one-game playoff among wild-card teams in each league, saying it would be “dramatic.” The additional wild cards could be added for the 2012 season, but will be in place by 2013 for sure.

I’m not a hidebound traditionalist by any means, but count me among those who thought the current system, which as noted before produced two of the most compelling playoff races we’ve seen in a long time, was working just fine and didn’t need any further tweaking. But never let it be said that MLB and Beelzebub Selig are letting moss grow on them.

A potentially troublesome, or at least potentially hilarious, side item here has to do with the Astros’ lease at Minute Maid Park.

An Astros move to the American League could violate the team’s lease agreement with the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, according to a local attorney.

Kevin W. Yankowsky, a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., outlined his findings from a review of the lease in a Tuesday letter to J. Kent Friedman, the Sports Authority’s chairman of the board.

Yankowsky, an Astros fan since the 1970s, will make a presentation at the Dec. 1 Sports Authority Board of Directors meeting urging a strict enforcement of the Astros’ lease to play their home games at Minute Maid Park. The wording of the lease agreement, Yankowsky said, spells out that the Astros cannot play at Minute Maid as anything but a National League team without receiving prior consent from the Sports Authority.

[…]

“My position would be: (The Sports Authority) simply ought to refuse to renegotiate their lease,” Yankowsky said. “All they have to do is stand on their rights and let Major League Baseball know that come 2013 they intend to stand on their right. Then it’s up to baseball.

“Baseball can either sue the Sports Authority or give in. The Sports Authority doesn’t have to sue anybody. They can sit back and say, ‘We’ve got a valid lease, and this is what it says, and we’re going to enforce it.’ ”

Citing provisions from a 2000 agreement that expires at the end of 2029, Yankowsky said the terms spell out that the home team — the Astros — be a National League franchise.

[…]

“In the simplest form, what this means, in my judgment, is come opening day of 2013, the Sports Authority can refuse to let them play because it’s not a permitted use of the stadium,” Yankowsky said. “They can quite simply lock the doors and say, ‘No, it’s not a permitted use.’ The play of Major League Baseball games, by definition, are limited to games in which a National League team is the home team.”

Friedman called it “an interesting analysis” and said he has asked the Sports Authority attorneys to review the matter.

“We’ll take a hard look at it,” Friedman said. “If there is a legitimate legal position to be taken by the Sports Authority that benefits the community, we ought to take it. If it’s a stretch or if it’s something that ultimately doesn’t benefit the community, then that’s not what we should be doing. But that’s easy to say. How to sort through all that remains to be seen.”

While I applaud the outside-the-box thinking here, I have a hard time seeing this as anything more than a minor annoyance for MLB and the ‘Stros. Let’s be honest, this is the sort of problem (if it really is one) that is solved by whacking it with a checkbook until it dies. There’s a negotiated settlement in someone’s future, if it comes to that. I hope I’m misunderestimating Attorney Yankowsky’s interpretive skills, because I love me some misdirected chaos, but I’m not holding out much hope. Greg has more.

Astros almost to the AL

It’s happening.

Prospective Astros owner Jim Crane and his group of investors have reached an agreement with Major League Baseball that would shift the franchise to the American League, two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed Friday.

One person familiar with the situation said the transfer of the team from Drayton McLane to Crane is on the agenda at next week’s owners meetings in Milwaukee, but negotiations over the final details likely will continue until then. The Associated Press, citing two people who spoke on condition of anonymity, also reports the sale is on the owners’ agenda and that part of the sale agreement would involve the Astros moving to the AL effective in 2013.

The AL agreement would appear to be the final hurdle for Crane to close a deal he and McLane announced May 16. The Chronicle reported Nov. 4 that the $680 million purchase appeared to be headed for approval Thursday, with the AL negotiations being one of the final sticking points. The Astros have been in the National League since 1962 and the Central Division since 1994.

Spokespersons for Crane and MLB declined comment.

“If it’s on the agenda, then the deal is done,” one person with knowledge of the situation said.

“They usually don’t get this far unless it’s something that’s going to be acted on,” another person with knowledge of the situation said.

Assuming no further delays, it ought to be made official this week. I still don’t understand why anyone wants to have an odd number of teams in each league, and I don’t understand why I haven’t seen more about how this will drastically affect scheduling. I guess we’ll know more soon.

Astros to the AL update

I remain puzzled by this.

Major League Baseball is discussing with prospective Astros owner Jim Crane possible compensation for agreeing to move the team to the American League.

Three people familiar with the negotiations said on Thursday that MLB has broached the subject with Crane, who in May reached an agreement to purchase the team from Drayton McLane for $680 million. One industry insider said MLB representatives floated $50 million as a possible compensation package for Crane and his group of investors to move the team from the National League. It is not known if MLB has formally offered the $50 million, or if such compensation would come from a reduction in the sale price or by other means.

The discussions would suggest that MLB commissioner Bud Selig has moved past vetting the Crane group and will attempt to finalize the sale.

“Baseball seems very interested to cause this to happen,” an industry insider familiar with the negotiations said on Thursday.

That would constitute a significant shift from August, when MLB removed a scheduled vote to approve the sale from the owners’ meetings agenda. A person familiar with top MLB officials’ thinking said concerns about past business practices of Crane’s companies remain a point in contention in approving the deal.

Another industry insider contends MLB has been using past EEOC complaints and settlements involving war profiteering as “a bargaining chip” to leverage Crane into accepting a move to the AL as a pre-condition to taking over the team. Selig and the MLB Players Association have stated a desire for two 15-team leagues that will allow for the addition to two wild-card playoff teams. One of the 16 NL teams would have to change leagues for that to happen, and there have been no volunteers. With a pending sale, coming off the worst season in franchise history (56-106), the Astros would appear to be susceptible to persuasion to sever ties with the NL that go back to 1962.

Let’s put the question about the extra playoffs aside for the moment. It’s ironic that this is being discussed at the end of the season that featured the two most dramatic playoff races of the wild card era, but the shift in emphasis from the regular season to the postseason is a ship that sailed so long ago it’s on its third round trip by now. What I don’t understand is why 15 teams per league, which will necessarily mean interleague play year round, is considered desirable. If you want balanced divisions, I’d rather make like the NFL and expand to 32 teams with four four-team divisions per league and no wild card, or two eight-team divisions with the top two from each making the playoffs. Failing that, if interleague all the time is where we’re heading, then let’s drop the pretense of having separate leagues, essentially a fiction these days given that there are no more league presidents, and adopt saner schedules as folks like David Pinto have advocated. That would mean coming to a decision one way or the other on the DH – as a lifelong American League fan, I’m for it as I’m sure the MLBPA would be too – but that’s a debate I’m willing to have and to lose if it comes down to it. The current proposals are to me the worst of all possible worlds, which means I’d better start getting used to it. At least having the Astros in the AL would mean I’d get to see the Yankees every year. Even for me that’s not worth the ridiculousness of it all, but you take your silver linings where you can find them.

MLB realignment?

Well, this is interesting.

A simple form of realignment being seriously considered has been raised in the labor talks between Major League Baseball and the players’ association, according to four sources: two leagues of 15 teams, rather than the current structure of 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the American League.

According to a highly ranked executive, one consideration that has been raised in ownership committee meetings is eliminating the divisions altogether, so that 15 AL and 15 NL teams would vie for five playoff spots within each league. Currently, Major League Baseball has six divisions.

A source who has been briefed on the specifics of the labor discussions says that the players’ union has indicated that it is open to the idea of two 15-team leagues, but that the whole plan still hasn’t been talked through or presented to the owners.

“I’d still say the odds of it happening are less than 50-50,” one source said.

Apparently, the Astros have been identified as the NL team that could change leagues, from the six-team NL Central to the four-team AL West, where they’d be joined with the Rangers. I’m not a big fan of this idea, mostly because I don’t think more interleague play would be advisable, but if we’re going to think about changing alignments and schedules, I’d prefer an approach that’s both more radical and more simplistic. David Pinto wrote a series of three articles for the Baseball Prospectus back in 2007 that proposed abolishing the leagues and going to five six-team divisions that made a lot of sense on many levels, and allowed for easy expansion to boot. I’d love to see the discussion be broadened to include such ideas. What do you think?

Start ’em young

Jordan Lyles, whom the Astros hope will be a big piece of their future, has arrived.

The Astros took an injury to lefthander Wandy Rodriguez as a cue to summon Lyles to make his first major league start tonight against the Chicago Cubs. At 20 years, 7 months and 12 days, Lyles will be the fourth-youngest pitcher to take the mound for the Astros.

His teammates view this development with a mixture of excitement and amazement.

Much of the excitement comes from the aplomb with which Lyles handled competing for a spot in the starting rotation during spring training. The amazement kicks in when considering where they were mentally, physically, geographically and developmentally at age 20.

The kid had a solid outing, which I’m sure made Sean Pendergrast and a bunch of other people happy. What interested me about this was seeing the list of other similarly young pitchers who had made their debuts with the Astros in years past. Here’s the list, which was only in the print section, with how they did in their careers:

Pitcher Years Wins Losses ERA WAR =========================================== J. Dahl 1 0 1 16.88 -0.7 L. Dierker 14 139 123 3.31 38.1 C. Zachary 9 10 29 4.57 -1.2 J. Juden 8 27 32 4.81 -0.9 L. Yellen 2 0 0 6.23 -0.8 J. Ray 9 43 30 3.61 5.2

“WAR” = wins above replacement. An MVP season is about 8 WAR in a season, an All Star is five or more, a worthwhile starting position player should contribute at least 2, and anything below 0 is literally a waste of a roster spot. As you can see, the precedents for Lyles aren’t terribly encouraging. Larry Dierker is obviously a best case scenario. Jim Ray had a couple of decent seasons as a reliever. We’ll never know what Jay Dahl might have been, as he died in an auto accident two years after his debut, at the age of 19. The others – Chris Zachary, Jeff Juden, and Larry Yellen – didn’t amount to much. Strictly speaking, one All-Star quality player out of six isn’t such a bad batting average, though in this case the Stros need it to improve. I’ll be rooting for Jordan Lyles to live up to his expectations.

Astros sold

With everything else that’s been going on I’ve only been peripherally aware of the ongoing sale of the Astros to a new owner, which is now official.

Jim Crane stood behind the microphone Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, in his first moments as the new owner-to-be of the Astros, and spoke from his heart about dreams coming true, of his love for baseball and of his determination to produce a winning product for Houston fans.

And then Crane headed to his seat, only to be hooked back to center stage, with evident glee, by outgoing owner Drayton McLane.

“Don’t leave,” McLane said. “You’re just getting started. You’re just beginning, but this is the fun part right here.”

If he didn’t know it, that was Crane’s first hint that life in Major League Baseball will be considerably more high-profile than his role over the past three decades as broker of supply chain services for business and industry.

Crane, 57, had few specific answers for Astros fans because he will not take the keys to the franchise until the $680 million acquisition is approved by MLB owners. But he indicated he will apply the lessons he learned as a pitcher at the University of Central Missouri in the 1970s and as the founder of two successful companies, most recently Houston-based Crane Worldwide Logistics.

“Baseball teaches you a lot of values, and I tried to use a lot of those values, especially in how we ran the business,” he said. “We try to operate as a team. We weren’t afraid to work harder, harder than the other guys, and we stay persistent. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Welcome aboard, Jim Crane, and best of luck getting the Astros’ ship pointed in the right direction again. My guess is that we’re looking at three to five years minimum, given the still-barren (though better than it was) nature of the farm system. Hope the honeymoon lasts long enough to tide him over till then.

As for outgoing owner Drayton McLane, I think Sean Pendergast summed up his tenure pretty well. Let’s just say that I hope Crane builds on the good things, of which there were quite a few, and leave it at that.

Dynamo “Your Name Here” Stadium

In a conversation with the Chron, Tim Leiweke, the president of Dynamo co-owner AEG, discusses the next big item on their to-do list:

The naming rights is the next task at hand and it will be a hot priority, but we expect to be under construction at the end of the year. And believe it or not we are hopeful to open June 2012.

[…]

The naming rights become key because without them we are going to struggle on this project. We have made a decision not to tie everything into if we sell the naming rights. So much of the risk is going to be dependent upon the contractually obligated incomes that we are going to create in the stadium.

We have all of the agreements we need to sign and we have all of the revenue that we need to lock in and that is going to be an important part. We are fortunate that we have a bunch of people interested (in naming rights).

A couple of them are based here. They see this as an opportunity to be a good corporate citizen and at the same time it makes good financial sense to them. I think because of the nature we are financing this unlike any other stadium that we have built, people like the fact that we are stepping up in the private sector and bearing most of the load here.

They see themselves here as aligning with the right kind of project that won’t have a lot of controversy. They certainly see soccer as the sport of the future because 45 percent of the fans are Hispanic so we have a few of the companies that are very focused on our Hispanic audience.

Anyone want to try to guess whose name will eventually get attached to Dynamo Stadium? Let’s just hope they have better luck with this than the Astros had.

Don’t play ball with the state of Arizona

What Kevin Blackistone says.

About 10 years ago, the NCAA made one of its most bold and upright decisions: it refused to allow any more of its postseason tournaments, like March Madness, to be held in South Carolina until the state stopped flying the banner of the long defeated racist Confederacy in the face of 21st century societal progress.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams explained at the time that the organization wanted to “ensure that our championships are free from any type of symbolism that might make someone uncomfortable based on their race.”

As such, it is time for the governors of college athletics to expand their postseason ban. Arizona should be next, immediately.

The University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., should lose the BCS National Championship Game scheduled to be played there next January unless Arizona legislators rescind soon and for good an anti-immigration law they just passed that gives police the right to stop and search for documents anyone police suspect of being in the country illegally.

After all, that law means racially profiling people who appear to be Hispanic, no matter what Arizona lawmakers claim. That means making an entire group of people, as the NCAA spokesman said, uncomfortable in Arizona because of their heritage. That’s unquestionably wrong.

In my previous post, I mentioned former Arizona Governor (and world class bozo) Evan Mecham, whose racist antics cost his state a Super Bowl, among other things. Evan Weiner recalls that, and notes that there are other sporting events that may – ought to – be yanked until the Arizona Lege makes amends.

The Glendale, Arizona stadium, that is the home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and hosted the 2008 Super Bowl, is one of the 18 cities that has been proposed for use by USA Bid Committee in an effort to win the FIFA World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.

Houston is on that list as well, with the Dynamo ownership being on the USA Bid Committee. Note to local activists: Why not put a little pressure on the Dynamo to raise a stink about this? If there’s going to be any real blowback against Arizona for this bit foolishness, it’s got to come from the grassroots, and this is a good entry point. Here’s their contact info:

HOUSTON DYNAMO FRONT OFFICE

1001 Avenida de las Americas, Ste. 200
Houston, TX 77010

Phone: (713) 276-7500
Fax: (713) 276-7572
E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter
Facebook

Let them know, politely, that you don’t want any Arizona city included on the USA Bid Committee’s list for the FIFA World Cup, and that you would like the Dynamo to take a stand on the matter. If you’re a Dynamo fan, especially if you’re a season ticket holder, make sure they know that as well. They have an interest in keeping their fans happy. Obviously, the Dynamo haven’t done anything wrong, but this is how stuff gets done.

And Astros fans can get involved, too.

Major League Baseball is set to hold its 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks play, and activists are calling on MLB to pull the game out of Arizona in protest of the new law. The idea is being espoused by activist bloggers at Daily Kos and Change.org, hosting a petition on its website to move the All-Star Game out of Arizona.

Some are calling on baseball fans to boycott at least one MLB game. A Facebook group is specifically calling on fans to boycott the Arizona Diamondbacks’ May 7 home game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The group wants the D-Backs to state a position on the new law.

There’s hashtag, #AZMLBB, being used on Twitter for discussion of this movement.

Unfortunately, the Astros do not display Contact information as prominently as the Dynamo do, so you may have to figure out the best way to let them know how you feel yourselves. They’re on Facebook here. As with the Dynamo, they too will want to keep their fans happy. Stace has more.

Montgomery County gets in the minor league act

We know about Sugar Land’s plan to build a stadium for a minor league baseball team. They’ve now been joined by a neighbor to the north in that pursuit.

The East Montgomery County Improvement District signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ventura Sports Group and Sugar Land-based Wallace Bajjali Development Partners to build a stadium in Montgomery County with the intention of hosting independent minor league baseball in 2012.

The site would be in Porter just off the U.S. 59 feeder road near the proposed intersection with the Grand Parkway extension.

According to the parties involved, the ballpark — located on 42 acres of land purchased by Wallace Bajjali — would be part of a larger development, which could feature a hotel, dining and retail.

“We bought this land knowing it was a growth corridor,” said David Wallace, CEO of Wallace Bajjali and former mayor of Sugar Land.

As the story notes, Venture was the runnerup in the Sugar Land process. I guess there’s only so many outfits that do this sort of thing.

The project is a mix of private funds with public money, which McCrady said could come from a parking tax, a venue tax and/or a sales tax.

Remember what Oliver Luck said a few weeks ago? I wonder how the mix of public and private funds will compare to that for Dynamo Stadium, assuming it ever really does get built.

Like in the Sugar Land plan, the first pitch will not be thrown by any major league club’s prospect. Only independent leagues will be considered.

The Astros declined to waive their right to block an affiliated team from moving into their metropolitan area in the Sugar Land case.

“We had heard time and time again that the Astros were not interested, so we didn’t approach them,” [Ventura managing partner Mark] Schuster said.

Yeah, I’m curious as to what the Astros think about all this. It’s not clear to me that it wouldn’t have been better for them to want affiliated teams in their area, like the Yankees and the Mets have. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: Houstonist has more.

More on the Sugar Land minor league baseball push

Here’s an update from the Chron to last week’s news about Sugar Land’s pursuit of a minor league baseball team.

The preliminary discussions about the ballpark put it in the Class AAA compatibility range, typically requiring a seating capacity at least in the high four-digits, but the exact capacity is among the features that will be sorted out during the 90-day period, which ends in mid-May.

Which league will make the expansion or relocation to Sugar Land is the biggest question.

For now, it seems clear it will not be a team affiliated with a major league club. Sugar Land is part of the territory controlled by the Astros, so they can block any move of a competitor’s minor league club, and they are not inclined to bring one of their own affiliates to the area, according to Thompson and Opening Day Partners chairman Peter Kirk.

What will most likely happen, assuming this does go forward, is for a team from one of the independent leagues – the Atlantic League and the American Association, which seems to be the better geographic fit, are mentioned – to move or create a team there. These are AAA teams, so you’ll get an overall better quality of baseball than you’d get from a lower-level farm team, but what you won’t get is a peek at the Astros of the future. Odds are you’ll get a number of recognizable names, guys who used to be on a major league team and are trying to catch on with one again. It ought to make for an interesting mix. The city and the developer are in a 90-day negotiating window with the intent of having a facility ready by Opening Day 2012, so we’ll know soon enough what will happen.