The 2014 Houston Astros: The Good and The Bad

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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The Astros haven't made the World Series yet, but the team's definitely better
And so another Astros season is in the books. Another season of good, and bad, of head-shaking stupidity and inexplicable thinking. Of outstanding individual performances and huge steps back. The team made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which projected the Astros would win the World Series in 2017. But it's still 2014, so let's take a quick look at some highlights and lowlights of the season.

THE HIGHLIGHTS:

1. The Astros won 70 games, a 19-game improvement over last season. The team didn't lose 100-plus games for the first time in four seasons, and the team finished in front of the Texas Rangers in the AL West standings. The Astros were only the fourth worst team in the majors this season, beating out not only the Texas Rangers, but also the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

2. Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve entered the Astros record book. He owns the team record for most hits ever in a season. He's also the first Astro to ever win a batting title, playing (despite the express wishes and orders of the Astros front office) yesterday to hold off Detroit's Victor Martinez. Altuve played nearly every game this season, and he was an All-Star.

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The Chron's Evan Drellich Does a Great Job With a Tough Beat

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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In which I say nice things about the Houston Chronicle
I remember a Astros game from way back in the early 1990s, back when the team was really bad, but rebuilding. I don't remember the exact year, or the exact day beyond it being a midweek day game against the Montreal Expos (I think it's this game). The Dome was empty and lifeless, and the game wasn't on television. I remember the game because of a Ken Caminiti play, Caminiti drifting under a pop foul, falling into the stands to make the catch and the out.

It was a spectacular play. One of those plays that's makes even jaded video guys and sportswriters stand up and loudly applaud. The next day I checked the Houston Chronicle, and the game story by Neil Hohlfeld captured the play, and the game, in vivid color. I saw the play in person, but the description of the play was such that even if I hadn't been there, I'd be able to recreate the thing in my head.

Hohlfeld, who died several years ago, was always my favorite Chronicle beat writer. He was on the beat before everything went internet, but he had the ability to capture the game, to keep readers on top of the news about the team, better than just about anybody who posts day-to-day on the web. He didn't try to curry favor with management, or ownership, or with the players -- not that I could tell, at least. I even remember the team fan club getting mad at him when he mocked some of their banners that hung in the Dome.

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Root! Root! for Root Sports Houston!

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Say hello to the new name of CSN Houston.
If Judge Marvin Isgur approves the bankruptcy plan proposed for CSN Houston, Houston sports fans will be able to watch the Rockets this season. They'll no longer be able to watch the Dynamo, or any of the Houston-centric sportscasts aired by CSN Houston, but the return of the World Poker Tour should make up for that, right?

Word came down Tuesday that if the plan is approved, 75 of the network's 105 employees will lose their jobs. That includes most of the on-air talent and the behind-the-scenes personnel such as camera and graphics operators, producers, statisticians and other support personnel. These people aren't required for DirecTV/AT&T operations because with these entities, local product is strongly discouraged.

Most of Houston never had the chance to see CSN Houston because of disputes between network owners and the other various cable/satellite providers over the cost of distributing the network. AT&T/DirecTV will tell you the cost was too high. Astros owner/network partner Jim Crane says that that price point was established by Drayton McLane and Les Alexander so they're the ones at fault, and Crane has filed a lawsuit against McLane alleging fraud because of this. And if you talk to McLane, he'll strongly dispute this contention. But no matter who was at fault -- something that may be known only after many years of lawsuits -- the fact remains that over 60 percent of the Houston market was unable to view the network.

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When It Comes to the Astros, Reporting the News Doesn't Mean Forcing a Negative Narrative

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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Yeah, so Sports Illustrated kind of glossed over some of the internal issues.
It appears the Astros will win 70-plus games this season. It appears the Astros won't finish with the worst record in Major League Baseball for the fourth season in a row. It's possible that Jose Altuve will be the MLB batting champ and that Chris Carter will the MLB home run champ. The starting pitching is better. George Springer is the real deal. Hell, it's possible the Astros might even get that whole stupid TV thing finally worked out.

Those are the positives upon which Astros fans should focus. But just focusing on the positive doesn't provide the complete story. For the complete story, one also needs to know that the manager was just fired. And that No. 1 draft pick Brady Aiken was not signed over a supposed, undocumented injury, or that the Players Association has filed a grievance over the failure of the Astros to sign Jacob Nix, another draft pick.

It's important to know of the rift between the front office and former manager Bo Porter and it's important to know that not all of the coaches or players buy into the front office's perceived lack of commitment to fielding a competitive Major League club. A fan needs to know that players and front offices across the majors believe the Astros care not about the players but only about numbers. And yes, it's a big deal that a group of supposed geniuses couldn't keep their state-of-the-art database from being hacked.

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CSN Houston Still Dying, But Drayton McLane Got Paid

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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Believe it or not, somebody did make some money off this debacle.
So it came to pass yesterday that the multitude assembled before the judge. The multitude being a mass of 23 attorneys representing Comcast and CSN Houston and the Astros and the Rockets and DirecTV and AT&T (many more listening by telephone) appearing before Judge Marvin Isgur, each hoping for yet another say in the never-ending round of hearings arising from the bankruptcy of CSN Houston.

The topic of the day was a plan that's been filed to bring the network out of bankruptcy with new owners, AT&T and DirecTV. Of more specific discussion was a Disclosure Statement, a document that is sent to all creditors disclosing details of the plan so that the creditors can vote to adopt or deny the plan. One current owner, Comcast, isn't happy with the plan or the disclosure statement. Another creditor complained that the disclosure statement really didn't disclose anything. So it came to pass that nothing is yet resolved. The network is no closer to exiting bankruptcy, or to appearing on televisions where it's not before been available.

But as the documents continue to pile up, as the billables continue to grow, as jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance, one thing has become crystal clear amid the chaos. CSN Houston may die, but Drayton McLane is the greatest salesman ever to have graced this planet.

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Will Astros Games Soon Be Viewable On Your IPad? Maybe

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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MLB's Advanced Media is a great option for watching games, unless it's your home team
The Associated Press reported last week that Major League Baseball may be close to ending parts of its idiotic blackout policy that prevents people living in a team's home market from seeing that team's games. Calling it an incremental step, the head of MLB's online business, Bob Bowman, stated that people would be able to stream the home team's games on mobile devices or through online services such as MLB.TV.

There's just one slight catch, however. For fans to watch the games of hometown teams on their iPads or through MLB.TV, they will have to prove that they have a subscription for a cable or satellite operator that carries that particular team's regional sports network. And if you're thinking, hey this does me no good because I have DirecTV and DirecTV doesn't carry CSN Houston, well, you're right, it doesn't do you any good. And if you live in Las Vegas and wonder why you have to subscribe to the costliest DirecTV bundle option just so you can watch the Padres, well, you're still equally screwed.

"Everyone's trying to solve it," Bowman told the AP. "If our hands were 4 feet apart three or four years ago, they are now 6 inches apart. We're moving in the right way. We continue to talk. The dialogue is professional."

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Here's a Few Suggestions to Fix MLB, Not that the New Commissioner Asked

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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There's about to be a new guy running Major League Baseball.
Rob Manfred was appointed the new MLB commissioner last week. And even as the news was announced, the speculation began as to what Manfred could do to improve the sport, seeing as how he's not old and ancient like Bud Selig, the man he's replacing. Not that he's asked me, but I have a few suggestions, so...

INCREASE THE SPEED OF PLAY

Baseball's always been a leisurely game, but crap, no 1-0 nine-inning game should ever take over three hours to play. There's been talk about cutting down on coaching visits to the mound, on the number of pitchers who can pitch in an inning, and other such stupid nonsense. But here's a simple suggestion: Enforce the damn rule book.

Rule 8:04 is simple and to the point: If the bases are empty, a pitcher has 20 seconds to throw the pitch. If he doesn't, the umpire is instructed to call a ball.  And rule 6.02 instructs the batter to remain in the batter's box, and that if he refuses to step back into the box upon an umpire's request, then a strike should be called.

If we really want to improve game speed, let's enforce the rules before implementing others.

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Miss Texas and Mo'ne Davis Establish the Two Ends of the "Throws Like a Girl" Scale

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Screen shot from MLB's YouTube video
Throw like a girl?
For decades now, right or wrong, the phrase "throws like a girl" has been part of the American lexicon.

I am not here to say that it's okay to use that phrase (lest I somehow alienate all of my female readers and listeners out there -- I love you all), but I'm not here to say that the phrase should be completely forbidden (lest I somehow come across as less of a manly man's man to all of my male readers and listeners -- I actually don't love all of you, some of you are real jackasses).

Have I said someone who's not actually a girl "throws like a girl" before? Yes, yes I have. Do I feel badly about it? Well, as the father of a quite athletic 16 year old daughter, I kind of do.

(I also kind of don't. See me catering to every demographic? God, I'm good.)

Here's the thing, though -- I don't need that phrase. There are a number of other ways to poke fun at the lack of athleticism in most of the male species, ways that don't impugn the entire female race for throwing a ball like a broken windmill. If the phrase "throws like a girl" went away altogether, I'd be fine with that.

And for the last couple weeks, Mo'ne Davis has been performing great works to eradicate the American male parlance of that term.

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Let's Debate the Argument that the Astros Have Killed Baseball in Houston

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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Have the Astros killed baseball in Houston?
Former Astros beat writer Steve Campbell let loose with a series of tweets on Friday morning regarding the Astros that should be shared with a larger audience, and which should be addressed off-Twitter. The basic point of the tweets was that the Astros are killing baseball in Houston, noting that the most positive PR moment for the team over the past half decade has been the new uniforms, and that depending on a winning franchise to restore fan interest makes for a lousy business model.

The Astros have been nothing but a bad team making bad PR moves, compounded with the CSN Houston debacle, that has made the team "irrelevant to people's lives." Campbell further compares the Astros to the newspaper industry, stating that "it is hard to turn the tide once you've turned off people because you put out a deteriorating product AND went into cost-contain (READ: do things on the cheap mode). It makes people angry, and rightfully so."

It's not a given he tweets that the Astros will actually become a winning team, and that if "the underlying premise is that you're going to have to be a championship team for people to care, that's a pretty lousy model." If Houston were still a baseball city, he concludes, people would care no matter what, but it appears that there's just no fan interest.

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Are the Astros Planning Front-Office Changes?

Categories: Baseball, Sports

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Is somebody getting fired?
Is the job of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow in danger? Probably not. The Astros are on a current pace that will have them lose less than a 100 games this, so that's progress. The team probably won't get the first pick in the amateur draft this season -- thank you for reaching new levels of suckiness Rockies and Rangers -- so more progress.

But Fox Sports' well-connected and well-respected MLB reporter Ken Rosenthal, stated that Luhnow's job status is something to watch as the season comes to an end. And while Rosenthal doubts that Luhnow need worry, if something happens, it should not be a shock.

Rosenthal's premise is simple: The Astros are a bad team; the front office bungled the Brady Aiken situation; Jim Crane wants to win; and Crane's new, key advisor is Nolan Ryan, who comes from a bit of a different baseball background and mindset than Luhnow. Throw in the fact that Ryan's son Reid is the team president, and voila, a new general manager seems to be almost inevitable.

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