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Posts Tagged ‘Houston Astros’

Jim Crane has begun his tenure as Houston Astros’ owner, and the franchise’s 50th year, by firing Tal Smith, a long-time baseball executive who had been with the team off and on since its inception. Although the more significant move was the dismissal of general manager Ed Wade, whose four years in Houston were punctuated by losing, Smith’s pink slip symbolically represents a new era in Houston baseball.

Astros' GM Ed Wade (c.) and President Tal Smith (r.) will not be a part of the new era in Houston baseball.

Older Yankees’ fans might recall that Tal Smith served as the team’s executive vice president and right hand man to de facto GM Gabe Paul from 1973 to 1975. However, the relationship between Paul and Smith went back long before the two joined forces in the Bronx. The two men first met in 1960, when a then 27 year-old Smith was trying to land his first job in baseball. Paul, who was GM of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, rebuffed the solicitation, suggesting Smith first learn shorthand if he wanted a job. At the second meeting, however, Paul was forced to relent when the young would-be executive triumphantly returned three months later having acquired the skill.

Smith followed Paul to the expansion Houston Colt 45s (as the Astros were then called) in 1962. Although Paul quickly moved on a few months later to become GM of the Cleveland Indians, Smith made Houston his home. For the next 13 years, the young executive gradually climbed the ladder with the Astros until his former boss, who had been instrumental in brokering George M. Steinbrenner’s recent purchase of the Yankees, came calling.

In November 1973, Paul hired his former protégé to be his top assistant. Paul had just spent his first season in the Bronx, and was still trying to get a handle on how the organization structure would work, particularly in light of Steinbrenner’s growing involvement. Considering the franchise’s rapidly expanding front office, Paul was probably as much in need of an ally as an assistant, but regardless, the two men proved to be a very effective team as they gradually rebuilt the Yankees over the next two seasons.

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The Houston Astros have been relegated. After losing 100 games for the first time in franchise history, the team’s rapid descent in the N.L. Central has culminated in a transfer to the A.L. West. Talk about a tough crowd.

Drayton McLane and Jim Crane shake hands on a deal to sell the Astros. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

Ironically, in a year during which the Astros were mostly irrelevant on the field, the franchise has become the linchpin for some of the most significant changes in recent baseball history. Luckily for major league baseball, former team owner Drayton McLane was anxious to sell because, otherwise, Bud Selig’s master plan probably could not have been implemented.

While purists often criticize Bud Selig for moving too fast, more casual observers accuse him of dragging his feet. In reality, however, Selig has been a master compromiser. Since his early dogmatic failures, including the 1994 World Series cancellation and the aborted attempt at contraction, Selig has accepted his role as a facilitator and successfully taken the middle road. Always willing to make a change, but not too much, the commissioner has made an art out of completely alienating no one.

By moving the Astros to the A.L. West, Selig has once again negotiated a master compromise. Now, baseball can move forward with its plan to expand the playoffs by adding two Wild Cards and pay lip service to both sides of the aisle. To a purist like me, the one-game wild card round is really nothing more than a de facto extension of the regular season that actually has the effect of making the division more important, and by extension, restoring credibility to the 162-game schedule. To more casual observers, however, baseball can market the expanded playoffs as a competitive balance initiative with the added benefit of an exciting winner-take-all segue into the real postseason. In that sense, the added wild card, and the abbreviated play-in game that will result, is really nothing more than a lead-in to October.

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A.J. Burnett tied a major league record shared by 54 others when he struck out four batters in the sixth inning of last night’s game against the Rockies. In addition to becoming the first Yankee to accomplish the feat, Burnett also became only the second pitcher to do it on at least two different occasions (he previously turned the trick on July 5, 2002 as a member of the Marlins). However, don’t blame Chuck Finley if he isn’t impressed. The Angels’ and Indians’ lefthander did it three times.

Chuck Finley struck out four batters in one inning on three different occasions.

Four strike outs in one inning is a rare enough feat. Since 1876, there have been 3,545,338 major league innings, so, in order to display the frequency of this accomplishment, scientific notation is needed. Considering the difficulty of getting four and the logistical barriers to five, Burnett’s shared record might be one of baseball’s most unbreakable. Just don’t tell that to Cliff Johnson.

On April 7, 1976, one day before the start of the regular season, the Houston Astros played an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in the New Orleans Superdome. The Astros starting battery that afternoon was Joe Niekro and Cliff Johnson, a utility man who played defense with his bat. The combination of Johnson’s suspect glove and Niekro’s knuckleball proved to be a recipe for a very unusual inning.

In the opening frame of the pre-season finale, Niekro faced six batters and struck out five. How was that possible? Johnson also had five passed balls in the inning, including two on third strikes. Had the game taken place one day later, the Astros’ knuckleballer would have owned one of the most improbable records in major league history. Even without the historical implications, Johnson had an inning he’ll probably never forget.

It was just a tough pitch to handle today. It was doing a little bit of everything. He was throwing it harder and the break on it was different.” – Cliff Johnson, quoted by AP, April 7, 1976

Although that inning in New Orleans wasn’t one of Johnson’s best moments in the big leagues, it might have been the turning point in Niekro’s career. Up until that point, the righthander was a journeyman already on his fifth major league team. Once known as a control artist who featured a more classic repertoire of fastball, slider and curve, Niekro was now in the process of reinventing himself as a knuckleball specialist.

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