Monday, June 10, 2013

June 8- Houston Astros



There are a lot of stupid moments that have taken place in Major League Baseball history, but very few of them were able to make me cock my eyebrow as much as what took place on November 17, 2011. It’s one of those moments where I remember exactly where I was when “the news” broke. In fact, I was lying on my right side as my tattoo artist Felix the Tat was putting in the finishing touches on the National League side of my MLB tattoos as I was wishing my brother Adam a happy birthday via text message. The entire irony of what I was doing came to full fruition the second I got a text message from my friend Scott Landis (@ScottCLandis) who broke the word on the story that I had been dreading they’d make official since it was first announced earlier that year. “The Houston Astros will be playing their final season in the National league in 2012.”

In the months to follow, especially when my stock took off in my MLB Fan Cave campaign, I received a flurry of questions from fans and journalists in regard to the Astros tattoo that I have on my left hip, “so now that the Astros are in the American League, what does that mean for the tattoo you have? Are you going to have it grafted over?”

The first time I heard these questions I laughed. Upon the 10th time I couldn’t help but tell people how stupid they are for asking that question. It wasn’t my intention to be insulting when I said it. It was all just a matter of a lack of research on their part. You see, one thing that everyone seemed to forget in the whole League switch melee is that I had designed my tattoos in the format that 1996 never ended. By this I mean I had the Milwaukee Brewers on the AL side to begin with as they never should have been moved in the first place.

And just like the Brewers, even if it was announced before I got the ink done, I still would have put the Astros on the side in which they were first brought into the league. After all, it’s MLB’s fault by screwing everything up in the first place by adding two NL teams (Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins) in 1993 as opposed to an AL and NL. What’s most interesting about the Astros move is that MLB could have fixed the ever-growing problem easily by moving the Brewers to the AL Central, where they belong, and the Kansas City Royals to the AL West and still have the three divisions with five teams each format that they were trying to assemble. Why the Royals you might ask? Well, since their inaugural season in 1969 the Royals had always been members of the AL West. From then until 1994 the Royals won six western division titles and a World Series in 1985. Since the divisional realignment in 1994 they haven’t won a thing. Even more interesting is that the Royals were the first team approached to switch to the NL at the end of the 1997 season, but they declined.

While my plan to correct everything back to the way things originally were may seem incredibly selfish, the reality is that in the long-run it would actually be financially beneficial to all parties involved. For starters, the Brewers would be able to go back to putting out new product and once again cash in on their 1982 AL Championship run without it looking awkward as current members of the NL. The Royals can once again take heed of the fact that their still, statistically, the second best team in the AL West, and probably improve up their seasonal fortune on the field by not having to face Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers so often throughout the season. But the biggest reason comes in with less money spent in regard to travel for the teams. I realize that’s kind of a frivolous thing to bring up, but with teams like the Oakland Athletics and the Royals who love to stretch every penny. Granted, in the case of the Athletics and Angels we’re literally talking about a 100-200 mile difference. But still!

There is a reason why I brought all of this up and it has to do with the date and the numbers I marked on my cap. MLB first started interleague on June 12, 1997 as the Texas Rangers squared off against the San Francisco Giants at The Ballpark in Arlington. With interleague one of the for sure matchups that occur every season is for every team to play their “rival” as assessed by MLB, not necessarily the fan bases. This is why you get such classic “storied” matchups of the San Diego Padres taking on the Mariners every season. When it came to the Astros, one would think that the Rangers, their in-state counterpart, would have met this standard. Nope! The Astros and Rangers wouldn’t face one another until four seasons after interleague first started. On June 8, 2001 the Rangers hosted the Astros for the first ever Lone Star Series (Lone Star Showdown sounds better) which ended with a 5-4 victory for the Astros.

The Astros first introduced these caps at the start of the 2000 season as one of the accoutrements for their first season at their new stadium, The Ballpark at Union Station. This of course was its first name before becoming Enron Field (2000-2002), which then became Astros Field (2002) until they sold the naming rights to Coca-Cola in July of 2002 in which it has been Minute Maid Park ever since. The really weird thing about this cap is that the Astros used at both home and only the road, it mostly depended on which uniform they were wearing. From 2000-2012 they definitely wore it on the road with their grey jerseys which said Houston written across the chest; however, whenever they wore their black pinstriped uniforms at home, they also donned this cap. In these cases it relied mostly upon who was pitching that day.

2001 was the beginning of what should have been the Astros domination of the NL Central for well over a decade. They came close at times, but alas, things have sadly gotten back to the way it used to be back when they were the Houston .45s. As much as people want to say that the 2000s Astros relied heavily upon the Killer B’s and some solid pitching from Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, there are two guys who played a major impact in the team’s success. Two guys who rarely get the credit they deserve… until now.

#14- Back in 1994 the Mariners selected a third baseman with a lot of promise out of Redondo Beach High School in the 61st round of the amateur draft. Being chosen that late he had a flurry of options, and elected to take the smarter route by enrolling at USC to play for the Trojans. In 1998, his senior year, he and the Trojans won the NCAA National Championship over then-PAC-10 rival Arizona State. This particular player is still the only Trojan to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season. With the championship and a few stellar seasons under his belt he re-entered the draft in 1998 and was selected in the ninth round by the Astros. On September 20, 2000 during 40-man roster call-ups, Morgan Ensberg made his Major League debut wearing #2 as a pinch hitter for Chris Truby. Ensberg would only play in four games that season and spend all of 2001 and half of 2002 in AAA with the New Orleans Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League.

With a new outlook and a new number (#14), Ensberg played in 49 games in 2002 and batted .242 with three home runs and 19 RBI. In 2003 Ensberg and regular third baseman Geoff Blum were alternated at the hot corner, with Ensberg having the better offensive season. That year he hit .291 with 25 home runs and 60 RBI in 127 games, a fine breakout year. In 2004 Ensberg’s numbers dipped a little bit, merely from the power output perspective, but by 2005 he was back on his game.

As I mentioned above with the Killer B's (Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman), it’s pretty easy to see how a guy like Ensberg wouldn’t get much attention for his accomplishments, All three of the other guys had all ready had established careers and had been in the running for, or won (Bagwell in 1994) a NL MVP award. In 2005, the only year the Astros had ever made it to the World Series, Ensberg was the man. That season Ensberg played in 150 games and hit a solid .283 on the year. He paired that with career highs, and team high in home runs (36) and RBI (101). Seriously, the next closest in home runs was 26 by Biggio and Jason Lane, and the closest in RBI was Bagwell with 82. Bagwell missed the majority of the regular season and Ensberg did what he could to fill in. Besides a trip to the World Series, Ensberg was rewarded with his one and only Silver Slugger award, his only trip to the All-Star Game and a respectable fourth place finish for the NL MVP award.

Ensberg would only play for three more seasons: one-and-a-half more years with the Astros, a half season with the Padres after being traded and a short tint with the New York Yankees. These days he works for the Astros as a developmental specialist with the Lancaster Jethawks, the team’s advanced-A affiliate in the California League.

#15- Despite being signed as a free agent by the Astros in 1991 at the age of 16, it wouldn’t be until September 1, 1997 that Venezuelan-born outfielder Richard Hidalgo would make his MLB debut. Hidalgo was a powerful hitter, with good instincts in the outfield and a strong throwing arm. He was supposed to be an all around player in all areas, but a congenital knee defect changed those plans. After hitting .306 and .303 in his first two seasons, Hidalgo had a disappointing 1999 campaign with a .227 average, although he showed some power with 15 home runs in 383 at-bats. He required season-ending kneecap surgery.

Hidalgo blossomed in 2000, when he hit .314 with 44 home runs and 122 RBI. Despite the solid numbers Hidalgo only finished 20th for the NL MVP that season. His numbers dipped a bit in 2001 (.275, 19, 80) and 2002 (.235, 15, 48), but in 2003 he returned to good form both at the plate and in the field. He posted numbers of .309/28/88, collected three homers in a game, and led the Majors in outfield assists with 22, while committing only four errors. Once again he got the short end of the stick by only finishing 18th for the NL MVP that season, not even a Gold Glove award.

Hidalgo split the 2004 season between the Astros and the Mets, hitting .239 with 25 homers and 82 RBI. A highlight of the 2004 season was a Met record of home runs in 5 consecutive games, 3 of them in interleague games against the Yankees. In 2006, he signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles, but left the team before the season started, when his wife became ill. Hidalgo requested to be released from his contract, allowing to him to go to Japan where he would have a starting role. In the 2006 off-season, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs reportedly showed interest in signing Hidalgo. In January 2007, the Astros signed him again, this time to a minor league contract. This second tenure was short-lived, as Hidalgo was released by the Astros on March 25, 2007, after refusing a minor league assignment. Despite being drafted so young, Hidalgo’s last game came at 30 years of age. Wild.

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