The Smell is in the Air

added 2/10/2002 by Raymond Desadier
My wife and I attended Fan Fest on Saturday and it was a pleasant experience. First, we caught the end of Talkin Baseball with Milo Hamilton, Gerry Hunsicker and Tim Purpura and as fate would have it, despite spending all year full of questions to ask Astros brass, I stood there speechless. Oh well, I did take a picture with Milo.

Next we hit the memorabilia stands that were set up along Home Run Alley. Seventeen dollars increased my Nolan Ryan and Billy Wagner baseball card collections from 517 and 2 to 525 and 15, respectively. We then visited the Astros garage sale on the Club level behind home plate and found outrageous bargains: 2001 Programs - $.25, 3 posters - $.25, Replica batting helmet, which I am currently wearing - $2. I spent $6 and walked away with what I felt was at least $20-30 worth of merchandise. A die hard like myself could easily spend thousands at such an event but I somehow restrained myself (with the help of my wife of course.)

We also had our picture taken with Craig Biggio & Doug Brocail, Lance Berkman & Chris Truby, Daryle Ward & Orlando Merced and also took some shots of Shane Reynolds, C J Nitkowski, Wade Miller and Jose Vizcaino.

It was delightful to see the players in a different environment and assess their off-field personalities. Biggio loves kids of all ages. Brocail is quite the jokester. Truby seems timid and not yet accustomed to the spotlight. Merced has the look of a ladies man. Shane was giving a tour of Enron Field to CJ, who seemed to be soaking it all in. Vizcaino seems like an all around nice guy. Miller is much bigger than I thought and had a lot of female admirers gathering for an autograph (one had a shirt that said Miller Rocks).

However, our young sluggers Daryle Ward and Lance Berkman provided the most memorable impressions. When D-dub approached the photo shoot he made a beeline for this couple holding their infant daughter. They gladly let him hold her and he seemed to enjoy it a great deal (I hope the picture turns out).

As for Lance, he was the most talkative of all of the players. We exchanged comments about Rice’s team, which happened to be playing while he posed for pictures. Ever the true Texan, he wore a Rice ball cap, blue jeans and a pair of work boots – he looked like he just left the cow pasture!

Fan Fest was a blast, and a reminder of HOW CLOSE the 2002 season truly is. Speaking of which…


The Press has had a lot to say about the two starting positions up for grabs – third base and shortstop. And while the Adam Everett vs. Julio Lugo and Morgan Ensberg vs. Chris Truby battles will be intriguing, the biggest battle of spring training, in my opinion, will be the fight for the final spot on the relief staff.

How can you not put emphasis on 9 – 10 pitchers battling for one roster spot? This struggle may even force management to carry twelve pitchers, although I’d rather it didn’t.

The pitchers with the biggest edge are C J Nitkowski and Chuck McElroy. They have more experience than the others and are also left-handed, and Hunsicker has proven that he’d rather have just any guy that was born left-handed than a competent right-hander. Kind of like a bumper sticker I saw the other day that said, “I’d rather push a Chevy than drive a Ford.” If Chuck or CJ win the job outright, I’ve got no qualms with them being on the roster, but I’d hate to see them get outpitched and still get the job due to their throwing status.

This battle in itself looks very interesting to me. Over the last four seasons, their ERA is nearly identical (CJ 4.56, McElroy 4.65), but this may be misleading. McElroy had 41 1/3 more innings during this time, and several of these with Colorado. CJ spent 1998 with the Astros (still in the Astrodome) and then spent 2 years in Comerica Park, which is also pitcher friendly. Neither pitcher has had impressive stats since 1998. ERA since ‘98: McElroy 4.87, Nitkowski 5.15.

CJ has the edge of youth, McElroy that of experience. Both are having a fresh start with a new club for 2002, and one must consider how much playing in front of the home crowd will benefit Chuck McElroy (Port Arthur native).

While these two are hoping to revive their careers, their competition hope only to continue their progression. This crowd includes Scott Linebrink, Jim Mann, Ricky Stone, Brandon Puffer, Jamie Arnold, Tom Shearn and Wayne Franklin.

I feel that Linebrink should have been on the 2001 club for most of the season and that any blemishes on his minor league stats from last season can be credited to frustration from not being on the squad. I am not condoning frustration from not getting what one wants, I am merely pointing out that he could have had a much better season if not for underlying circumstances. Although I consider Scott to be the favorite for making the bullpen, ST has yet to begin and anything can happen between now and April.

Jim Mann was flat out dominant in his first season as the New Orleans Zephyrs’ closer. He struggled in his limited major league appearances, but he was merely getting his feet wet. As long as he doesn’t overuse his fastball as he has a tendency to do, he is a legitimate contender.

Stone made quite an impression on the ball club during his late season call up last season. He has a lot of potential and should definitely see some major league time this season.

Invitee Jamie Arnold is a former first round draft pick with just over 100 innings in the major leagues. If the Astros coaching staff can work their magic on him, he may be able to revive his career.

Brandon Puffer and Tom Shearn have been putting up good numbers in the Astros minor league system for the past few years. Puffer was extremely dominant for Round Rock last season (6-1 2.07 8 Saves). This may be their chance to crack into the major leagues.

Wayne Franklin has had little going for him other than being a southpaw. But as discussed previously, that is enough to keep a job in baseball. He tends to keep the ball up in the zone and has struggled with control and getting left-handed hitters out. He has shown potential but will need to show more to return to the major leagues.

As if the choice isn’t difficult enough, if Carlos Hernandez wins a starting job over Tim Redding, then Redding may also be a candidate for the bullpen. I only hope whoever makes the club has a short rope because there will definitely be someone waiting in the wings should he fail.

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