Meluskey/Ausmus Part Deux
added 2/14/2001 by Todd Brody
Astros fans, including myself, rarely understand what is going on in Gerry Hunsicker's mind, particularly when he makes a decision that does not appear to make a lot of sense. I wouldn't call Hunsicker a liar, but like most general managers, he doesn't always tell the entire truth in interviews. Consequently, we don't often hear the complete story until much later -- case in point, the Meluskey/Brad Ausmus trade. If you are a regular reader of this column, you will recall that I tore that deal apart. But maybe I didn't have all of the facts when I wrote that column. And now that the facts are coming out, the deal is starting to look a little different to me.
The idle speculation was that Meluskey was traded, in part, because the veterans on the team didn't like him. There was the well-publicized Matt Mieske punch. There was the incident when Meluskey wanted to take batting practice with Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, and Sean Berry and they told him to shag flies, or shag off, or something like that. And the veterans (as well as Dirk) didn't like his seemingly constant use of profanity. Truth be told, the Mieske incident was embarrassing. But Meluskey should have had priority in batting practice over Miekse, truly one of the biggest scrubs in the history of the team. Moreover, I thought that the Astros were too passive and that it was good to have a player with a little fire in his belly and who wasn't afraid to make his concerns known. Mitch was the best hitting catching prospect that the Astros have ever had and I thought that this trade was not in the best interests of the team.
As we are approaching spring training, we are learning a lot more about Mitch as a player. And maybe he wasn't the catcher of the future. Everyone could see that he wasn't a "great" defensive catcher. He let a lot of balls go past him and he was the worst catcher in the league at throwing out runners. But it seems to go a lot deeper than that. In a recent column, Dale Robertson reported that "[a]lmost to a man, the pitchers disliked Mitch Meluskey and questioned his decision-making behind the plate."
I wasn't aware that Mitch had this problem. So I did a little hunting and found an interview with Dirk that was published in the Detroit News. In this interview, Dirk stated that "[a] lot of guys mature at a different pace, and he needs to grow up a little bit. Figuring it all out -- how to act, what's expected -- that part hasn't come as easy for him as hitting." Asked if Meluskey had problems earning pitchers' confidence -- having signs shaken off, for example, Dierker said: "[i]t was a problem for some pitchers, but I'm not saying it was a problem caused by Mitch. We talked with them and tried to explain to them," Dierker said, "that it's their responsibility to get a hitter out -- that a catcher, and they should be able to do the thinking with the pitch."
Ok, Dirk was clearly trying to avoid laying blame with Mitch, but clearly this was a problem. The pitchers didn't trust Mitch. They called off his signs. They didn't like the way that he framed the pitches that he managed to catch. And the pitching staff suffered last year. Again was this all Mitch's fault? No. But did Mitch hurt the team with his catching more than he helped the team with his hitting? Maybe. The Astros can't afford to have a repeat of this situation; not if they want to compete this year. And if Mitch can't catch, there is little room for him on the Astros. So the Astros took a gamble, and they brought back Brad Ausmus, a great defensive catcher. Brad is going to be with the team for two more years. Hopefully, John Buck, the next great catching prospect (No. 8 on Baseball America's latest prospect list), who is only 20 yrs old, will be ready for the majors in 2003. Now that the Astros don't have a high A minor league team, I would not be surprised to see Buck in Round Rock by the end of the season.
I have accepted the fact that the Astros aren't in a rebuilding stage right now. I think that they are going to resign Alou for two more years and they are going to hope to put one last run together with the great veterans that they have on the team. Is this foolishness? Time will tell. But I am not angry anymore about the Meluskey trade.
And now for the promised movie review.
As a general matter, I don't like most movies about sports ("The Longest Yard" and "Little Big League" are notable exceptions). It seems to me that movies about sports rarely attain the drama achieved in the game itself, and as a consequence, these films often disappoint. But I saw a movie a few weeks ago that got me thinking about the way that I watch sports and my relationship with the Astros and to a lesser degree, the Rockets and Titans. (Yes, I still am a fan of the Titans). And since there aren't going to be any spring training games for a couple of weeks, I thought that I would tell you about this movie -- Fever Pitch -- starring Colin Firth, which I highly recommend. (P.S. I just found out that the movie was based on a book written by Nick Hornby, the same person who wrote High Fidelity -- a great book and a pretty decent movie as well. In typical fashion, I bought the book and I am going to read it over the weekend.)
This is an English movie, but that, in and of itself, shouldn't dissuade you from renting the movie because the relationship between a fan and his team is, to a large degree, universal. Moreover, despite the fact that the movie is about sports, you are going to be able to convince your wife/girlfriend to watch it because there is a love story involved and because Firth, who played Mr. Darcy (don't ask), is really popular with the ladies. I am going to give away the ending, so if you don't want to know what happens, stop reading. Truthfully, however, the movie isn't that unpredictable, and you will probably enjoy the movie even if you read this column.
Briefly, the movie is about a high school teacher, obsessed with the Arsenal football ("soccer") club, a team that hasn't won the English Premier League championship in a very long time. The teacher, played by Firth, became a fan after his father (his parents are divorced) took him to see a match, but ultimately, Firth's character becomes a much greater fan than his father ever was. He experiences tremendous emotional highs and lows based on the outcome of the soccer matches and his girlfriend recognizes that he will never feel such highs and lows with her. And she leaves because of his unwillingness to make her a greater priority in his life. At the end of the movie, Arsenal, in a complete upset, wins the championship. She is swept up in the victory parade through the streets of the neighborhood surrounding the stadium, the two meet at the parade, and they get back together. In the last scene, the two are walking together and he explains that when Arsenal won the championship, his relationship with the team changed. The monkey on his back -- the lack of a championship -- was no longer there. His childhood obsession is gone. And he believes that he will be able to live a normal life.
A lot of the scenes in this movie hit home for me -- the way that he totally ignores his girlfriend when the game is on (he even curses at his girlfriend when she tries stopping by his apartment during the championship match), the fact that his main criteria in looking for an apartment is the proximity of the apartment to the stadium. And it is definitely worth the price of the rental just so you can laugh at these scenes. But more important, I wondered a lot about the last scene in the movie. Do you become more obsessed with each passing year ending in defeat? And does your relationship with the team change when you finally win the championship after years of disappointment? I don't know if I am an obsessive Astros fan, but I will readily admit that I have become a greater fan with each passing year. But is this because of the pressure that builds up with each passing year ending in defeat or simply because with each passing year, there are more tools out there (like the internet) that let you follow the team in ways that you never could before.
For a couple of minutes after the closing credits for Fever Pitch finished rolling by, I thought about what life would be like after the Astros eventually win the world series, after the victory parade downtown; what life would be like during that off-season, where there is no where to go but down. Maybe complacency would set in. Maybe I would have a hard time getting up for the next season.
And then I realized that it would never happen. There are fans of teams like the Red Sox and the Cubs who revel in the fact that their team is cursed. New York Rangers fans used to be like that, and then when the Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup, interest in the team waned. The Rangers broke the curse, the fans lost interest. I think that if the Cubs or the Red Sox ever win the World Series there will be a lot of fans that lose interest in those teams.
I have the great privilege of being an Astros fan. Despite the fact that I am thousands of miles away from Enron Field, I am an Astros fan for life. Hope springs eternal for me at the start of every spring training. I am going to sit on the edge of my seat during every game. I am going to root like hell for every hit and every run and every victory. When the Rockets won their two championships I was rooting just as hard the year after and I was pissed off when they didn't win it all. And I am still mad at Hakeem because I think that he has mailed home the past few seasons. And I know that if you are reading this column, you feel just like me. We bleed orange and blue and brick and sand.