Heading For Home

added 9/21/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Home, where my thoughts escaping
Home, where my music's playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.
- "Homeward Bound", Simon and Garfunkel

Baseball is the only American sport with a home. Perhaps that's because baseball is a family sport unlike any other. Home is never far from the baseball player's mind, whether it be to join a spouse and children or parents and friends.

Home will factor into the decisions of a lot of Astros, past present and possibly future, this off-season.

Let's start with Jeff Bagwell, the former star and current batting coach whose arrival in the Houston dugout coincided with the uptick in the Astros' fortunes. Some players have credited Jeff with giving them a better approach to hitting. He wants them to think through their at bats and to be more patient.

Bagwell is under a personal services contract to Drayton McLane but he has not decided whether he'll return to the dugout next season. Particularly when he is on the road, Jeff wishes he could be home with his wife and children. Will Bagwell return for another season?

Then there's Bagwell's heir to first base, Lance Berkman. When he agreed to be traded to the Yankees in July, Berkman made clear he wanted the path open to return to Houston in 2011. But do the Astros want him back? They have a young hitter, Brett Wallace, who needs experience and the Astros also want Carlos Lee to spend more time at first base.

There are rumors that Berkman may retire if he can't return to his Houston home as a player. I hope that's not true because I think he still has some good baseball left in him. But such is the lure of home that, once you leave, you long to come back. Meanwhile, one can bet Jim Croce's old ballad "New York's Not My Home" is somewhere on Lance's iPod.

On the other end of the career spectrum is pitcher Barret Loux. The recent Texas A&M star was drafted sixth overall this June by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Barret had a contract with them largely in place but then failed his physical and was left unsigned.

In an odd circumstance, Loux is now a free agent and recently worked out in College Station for 15 clubs, including the Astros. It's likely he'll sign with the team that offers him the best contract but I suspect the Houston product would prefer to be an Astro and play close to home if the Astros make him a satisfactory offer. His parents have been helping him through the ups and downs of the past year and I think he'd like to reward them with some seasons near their home.

Another player with that sort of decision to make is pitcher Chris Sampson. The Channelview native left the minors and then later returned to the Astros' farm system, pitching all the way up to the major leagues. But he now faces a crossroads as a free agent who is unlikely to return to the big leagues as an Astro. He recently started his own business so he has the choice to keep trying to further his pitching career, or transition to the new opportunity he has made for himself.

Teammates Micheal Bourn and Jason Bourgeois grew up in Houston and enjoy playing before the hometown fans. While Bourn's place in the Astros' outfield is secure, the prospects for Bourgeois are not as solid. Bourn's friend, Carl Crawford, will be a free agent this winter and will surely consider coming home to Houston. Will the Astros make him an offer? And if Crawford signs will that ruin Bourgeois' chances for staying an Astro?

Then there's Manager Brad Mills. He's a California guy and his home is near Exeter. Yet, baseball has taken him far from home this decade, first as a bench coach with the Boston Red Sox and now as the skipper of the Houston Astros. Mills goes home to Exeter every winter but he knows his career can't advance if he doesn't make the sacrifice to work far away from home.

For non-contending teams, this is the time of year when most players - both young and old - look to soon put away the bat and glove and enjoy the comforts of home, at least until Winter Leagues or Fall Leagues begin.

As tempting as it is to want to be home, the competitive will to test themselves at the highest level of the game cause most men to leave the nest for another year and ply their trade somewhere in baseball. They all know eventually they'll have to leave the game, which is why many don't exit until they have nowhere to turn.

It's the sort of job that requires long separation from family and friends but it also offers the chance to continue being part of a game that often pays well for people who are the best at their jobs. For most, the question will be whether the pursuit is worth another summer far away from home.