February 2011

Astros full squad hits the field

The clubhouse was buzzing and full of excitement this morning as 62 players – everyone except veteran infielder Bill Hall – dressed and took the field for the first full-squad workout of Spring Training.

The players took physicals in the morning and then heard from owner Drayton McLane, general manager Ed Wade and manager Brad Mills in a quick team meeting.

“I talked to them about the opportunity we have here,” McLane said.

Wade reminded the players they have a veteran core nucleus who know what they’re responsibilities are from the standpoint of leadership, but he also told the many young players on the roster they also carry some responsibilities.

“The young guys don’t have to act like young guys,” Wade said. “They can step up and hold themselves and their teammates accountable and hold that measure of trust between themselves and their teammates and the staff and believe in themselves.”

Hall, who signed with the Astros in December, isn’t expected to be with the club until Wednesday following the birth of his child. Among the players who arrived for the first time in camp were Carlos Lee and Michael Bourn.

“It’s time to get going,” Mills said. “It’s really kind of hard to ease into those types of things because we start playing games in a week. Most of the guys are ready to go, they’ve at least been playing catch. We’re going to introduce a lot of the things and they’ll get it done. We’ll be fine.”

Here are some early-morning pictures of the players getting ready for the first full-squad workout:
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Above: Clint Barmes, Hunter Pence and Brett Wallace emerge from the clubhouse for the first full-squad workout of Spring Training.

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Above: Jason Michaels hits the field for the first full-squad workout of Spring Training.

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Above: Carlos Lee prepares to take the field for the first workout.

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Above: Brad Mills speaks briefly to the team before beginning early-morning stretch.

Myers, Happ, Wandy highlight third day

The top three pitchers in the Astros’ rotation — Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez — each threw their second bullpen session Friday. With 30 healthy pitchers in camp, the Astros have split into six pitching groups with five pitchers in each group. Myers is the leader of group one, Happ of group two and Rodriguez of group three.

Groups 1-3 threw off the bullpen mounds for the second time Friday, and groups 4-6 will do the same thing Saturday before everyone takes a day off Sunday, the first day position player reports. So far, camp has been relatively quiet, which is definitely a good thing. Manager Brad Mills likes what he has seen.

“It’s really nice to see those guys throw the ball so well,” Mills said. “It was even smoother than [Thursday]. Any time you have your top three guys in the rotation throwing on the same day and having them throw like they did, that was nice. Plus, Aneury Rodriguez and Sergio Escalona from the left side threw well, too. I don’t want to single them out because other guys threw well, but it was a good day.”

Aneury Rodriguez, a 23-year-old right-hander taken in the Rule 5 Draft, is an imposing figure, to say the least. He 6-feet-4, 200 pounds and has terrific stuff. He was 6-5 with a 3.80 ERA in 27 games (17 starts) at Triple-A Durham last year in the Rays organization and is in the hunt for the fifth spot in the rotation.

The pitchers have yet to face any hitters, but Mills said the evaluations have begun. The manager said he is in constant evaluation mode, beginning with the moment a guy walks in the door and shakes his hand to the way he carries himself among his teammates to his stuff on the mound.

“It’s a whole process,” Mills said. “You want to give the guy the best opportunity he can to perform the best he can.”

Meanwhile, Hunter Pence had his arbitration hearing Friday in Arizona, and the Astros said they should know the outcome Saturday. Pence is seeking $6.9 million, and the club if offering $5.15 million.

And what would a Spring Training blog be without some pictures? Here’s a photo gallery from the third day under the hot sun in Kissimmee:

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Above: Manager Brad Mills really gets into this drill in which he hit rag balls at the pitchers at a rapid pace. Brandon Lyon is the pitcher currently in the line of fire.

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Above: Catcher J.R. Towles after finishing a bullpen workout.

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Above: Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg (standing on the back slope of the mound) gives instruction to a group of pitchers. Oklahoma City pitching coach Burt Hooton listens in.

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Above: Pitcher Jeff Fulchino fields a ball off the mound and prepares to throw to first base. Other pitchers are lined up the background, preparing for the same drill.

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Above: 2009 first-round pick Jiovanni Mier signs some autographs for fans.

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Above: Jiovanni Mier (foreground) plays catch with Clint Barmes.

Changing routine on third day of camp

Now that all the pitchers have thrown off the mound once, Friday’s third day of camp comes with some subtle changes on the back fields. The first group of pitchers will be back on the mound again, but the pitchers will be doing different fieldings drills — such as covering the plate on wild pitches instead of working on covering first base — than they did the first two days.

“It’s always an interesting day,” Astros manager Brad Mills said.”We have a few changes we’ve made the third and fourth day, but for the mere fact they’ve gone through their rotations before, they have an idea. They’ve done a great job these first two days.”

Here are the pitchers scheduled to throw on the bullpen mounds today: Brett Myers, Jeff Fulchino, Henry Villar, Jordan Lyles, Sergio Escalona, J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, Wesley Wright, Arecenio Leon, Aneury Rodriguez, Wandy Rodriguez, Wilton Lopez, Fernando Abad, Lance Pendleton and Fernando Rodriguez.

More position players are expected to arrive today, though none had reported by the time the pitchers and catchers hit the field on a warm and sunny Friday morning. Most will be here by Saturday, which is the day before the first full-squad workout.

And now for the picture of the morning. Yesterday, I posted a picture of Escalona wearing No. 44 formerly worn by Roy Oswalt. Below you’ll see Gustavo Chacin warming up and wearing jersey No. 27, which belonged to Geoff Blum the past few years (notice the ferris wheel in the background).

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Astros arms race chugging along

The Astros have 30 healthy pitchers in camp, many of whom have a chance to make the team. There will be only 12 spots on the active Major League roster on Opening Day, and the battles for the final spots in the rotation and in the bullpen figure to go down the final days of camp. Considering that Thursday was only the second day, we have miles to go.

The pitchers who didn’t throw off the bullpen mounds Wednesday were able to get on the bump Thursday, including Mark Melancon, Bud Norris, Nelson Figueroa and Ryan Rowland-Smith. Astros manager Brad Mills stood behind the pack of 10 mounds and watched this group of pitchers throw for the first time this spring.

“Bud threw the ball really well,” Mills said. “I thought the command Rowland-Smitih showed down in the zone was really good. We’ve seen some good arms the last few days.”

Mills said he didn’t get a chance to see Alberto Arias throw in a controlled setting for the first time since he underwent right shoulder surgery April 22, but he made it a point to ask the right-hander how he felt.

“He said his arm felt fine,” Mills said.

The pitching groups will alternate throwing in the bullpen the next two days before taking Sunday off. Position players work out for the first time Sunday, and they will get thrown right into the fire. Mills said the pitchers will throw live batting practice to the hitters on Monday.

Meanwhile, the position players continue to trickle into the facility. Matt Downs arrived Thursday morning, and Jason Bourgeois checked in the afternoon.

Earlier today, I posted a photo of Sergio Escalona wearing Roy Oswalt’s No. 44 jersey. It was an unusual sight, to say the least, so I’m capping today’s coverage with another unusual sight — the great beard of relief pitcher Jeff Fulchino. At least, I think that’s Fulchino behind that hair.

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Pitchers and catchers hit the field for Day 2

Under sunny skies and with temperatures rising to close to 80 degrees, Astros pitchers and catchers took the field Thursday for the second day of workouts. There were the usual fielding and bunting drills, and the 15 pitchers who didn’t throw Wednesday were scheduled to get on the mound for the first time.

“It’s always good to see the guys throw for the first time and now group two will come out and throw for their first session,” manager Brad Mills said. “There’s probably more guys in this group that I haven’t seen before so I’m going to kind of watch them throw a little bit more than I was yesterday.

“That’s always exciting and neat because you sit down and you go over reports and you see guys and all of a sudden you just want to make sure everything’s all set.”

Matt Downs, who’s vying for a utility infield role, became the latest position player to report to camp ahead of Sunday’s mandatory reporting date. Check back later today for more updates. For now, here is the morning picture of the day, and it’s a weird one. That’s left-hander Sergio Escalona wearing Roy Oswalt‘s old No. 44. Just doesn’t look right, does it?

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More Spring Training photos

The first day of Spring Training went off without a hitch Wednesday. The Astros can only hope the next 44 go just as smoothly. Astros general manager Ed Wade said everyone reported on time and in good health, with the exception of pitcher Sammy Gervacio (shoulder surgery) and infielder Jeff Keppinger (foot surgery).

There were 15 position players in camp, most of whom worked out: Hunter Pence, Jeff Keppinger, Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace, J.D. Martinez, Angel Sanchez, Tommy Manzella, Clint Barmes, Brian Bogusevic, Jiovanni Mier, Brian Dopirak, Drew Locke, Koby Clemens, Jack Shuck and Anderson Hernandez.

Here is the first day of Astros camp in pictures:

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Above: Humberto Quintero grabs a bat as he gets ready for the workout.

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Above: Manager Brad Mills makes his way to the field for first workout.

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Above: Henry Villar emerges from clubhouse for workout Wednesday morning.

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Above: Astros pitchers gather to hear instruction prior to the first workout Wednesday.

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Above: Astros manager Brad Mills addressed the media

Spring training begins

OK, it’s Spring Training for me, too. Camera difficulties — which means I forget to recharge my battery — have kept me from posting a complete photo gallery like I had planned, but I was able to snap a few photos with my camera phone and posted some of those instead. The camera will be up and running tomorrow.

As for the Astros, they’re at work. There are 31 pitchers and six catchers on the fields at Osceola County Stadium, throwing in the bullpen and working on their bunting skills. Some position players are here, too. Jeff Keppinger has a walking boot following surgery, and Angel Sanchez and Anderson Hernandez are here, too. So is Jiovanni Mier.

More to come later, but for now enjoy some photos:

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Wade addresses spring hot topics

Astros pitchers and catchers hit the field tomorrow for their first workout of the spring, with position players joining the fun on Sunday. I’m hopping a plane for Kissimmee today and will begin reporting on Spring Training first thing Wednesday morning. This one-man team will be reporting from Kissimmee for more days than any other Houston reporter, so check the blog and Twitter www.twitter.com/BrianMcTaggart often for updates for all the latest news.

Also, I’ll be on the Astros’ official pregame show on the flagship KTRH (740 AM) this year with Matt Thomas once a week, as well as making a weekly appearance on the the morning show of Matt Jackson and Adam Wexler on KBME (790 AM). My first segment airs at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, so be sure to listen.

Finally, Astros general manager Ed Wade recently had a question-and-answer session with media prior to his departure for Kissimmee. He addressed several hot-button topics in advance of Spring Training, and some of his responses to questions are listed below:

Q: What’s the No. 1 thing you want to see at spring training, beyond position battles and things like that?

A: “Health. It would be great if you had three layers of depth and could cover yourself if you had major breakdowns, but we need to stay healthy. We’re pressing some kids right now to step up and fill some roles that are challenging. If we have to go beyond some of those kids and dip down even further it might get a little bit tough. I think every general manager, every organization going into Tpring Training hopes that the offseason plan survives long enough to at least be implemented Opening Day. Sometimes you don’t even get to Opening Day. We saw that a year ago when Lance Berkman had the knee issue and opened on the disabled list. There’s no guarantees those things aren’t going to happen, but health plays a big part of it.”

Q: Will the sheer number of bodies in camp (63) have any impact on the way camp is run?

A: “We haven’t snuck any new guys in on, particularly Brad Arnsberg, in the last two weeks or so, so I’m sure he’s got his schedule and game plan in place. A lot of the younger players who we’re bringing in are coming in knowing they’re not going to make the club. At least we’re going to tell them they’re not going to make the club and we ask them to get used to surroundings, put their foot in the water a little bit and let the staff become familiar with them. I think everybody benefits in the process of having them there, but there’s enough of those guys we’ll be able to shuffle them around a little bit and make sure the ones we’re counting on to break with the club in April are ready to go.”

Q: Can you address the first base situation? Obviously, [Brett] Wallace is going to have to prove himself, but you have [Brian] Bogusevic and Carlos [Lee] whom you would be comfortable with.

A: “To me, the perfect-world scenario was that Brett Wallace comes in and wins the first base job and is our guy and Carlos is the everyday left fielder and we’re not worried about mixing and matching in left with Carlos at first, or trying to push Bogusevic harder to play more. I know we’re going to get Brett every opportunity to win that job, (but) a lot of things will get answered if indeed he does step up and does that.”

Q: What does winning a job entail? I know it’s sometimes tough to evaluate results in Spring Training.

A: “You can’t look at the stat sheet every day and figure out if a guy is performing at an adequate level or not. It’s the total body of work that you see in Spring Training with regard to work ethic, which is not going to be an issue. [And] adjustments, and we know Brett needs to make adjustments as every young players does. There are some adjustments he needs to make and this kid has hit everywhere, so he’s been challenged before to make adjustments. It won’t be a stat sheet. If it was based on a stat sheet, a whole bunch of us wouldn’t have to fly to Kissimmee. We’d just sit back in the office in Houston and wait for the stats to come in and put the club together that way. Millsie and the coaches are going to have huge input in this, and Millsie and I will talk several times a day and we’ll talk about these issues, whether it’s Brett Wallace or Fernando Abad. What do we do with Fernando Abad? He just went 7-1 in the Dominican, a lot of it was as a starter. What’s his role on our club? Do we put him in the bullpen? Do we roll him out and let him compete for a starting job? Those are things that we’ll have to address… .”

Q: Will Henry Villar require a similar-type discussion?

A: “Yeah, a little bit, but I just think what Fernando did this offseason, all of a sudden you’ve got to say, ‘Wow, this is pretty significant.’ Philosophically, I’m a believer – I’ve said this before — I’m a believer that if a guy shows a potential for being a starter you exhaust those possibilities. That said, there are a lot of guys who begin their big-league careers in a bullpen setting and wait their turn to come in a rotation and then step in and have very significant careers. Somebody reminded me the other day that we had this conversation a couple of years ago about Bud Norris. People had seen Bud in the Arizona Fall League and he was a one-inning guy, two-inning guy in the Arizona Fall League and ‘Man, this guy might be the back end of the bullpen guy.’ Well, back end of the bullpens can get expensive, bullpen guys are far less expensive than starting pitchers, and starting pitchers make a lot of money for a reason ’cause there aren’t very many of them around. So if we have a chance to have a couple of these guys who either break in our rotation or at some point move into our rotation it’s a lot more advantageous to the club to have them as starter versus have them as middle relievers down the road.”

Q: How comfortable are you with your bullpen depth at this point considering some of the changes that took place during the offseason?

A: “I like it. I would love to have [Matt] Lindstrom still here. We had to do some things economically and Matt was sort of a victim of that. There’s somewhat of an unknown with regard to our bullpen, but that’s okay because there are some really good arms that we’re putting into the mix there. I like what we saw out of [Mark] Melancon last year when he was up here. We just talked about guys like [Henry] Villar and Abad and Alberto Arias looks like he’s going to be healthy and capable of competing. If he can get back to pitch the way he did before he had the health issue, that’s a huge chip for us at this point. So there’s always variables in a bullpen, and I’m one of those guys who’s sort of bullpen obsessed (and) that you can never have enough quality to cover those. It used to be the eighth and ninth inning, and now it’s the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. I think we have the same type of quality and depth – albeit somewhat unknown commodities – that we’ll be able to cover those innings.”

Q: With no Lance and no old guard, what do you need or expect Hunter Pence to be?

A: “I expect Hunter to be himself. A lot of what Hunter is going to do as he evolves into a leader is going to be by example. When the truck got packed (Friday), we didn’t pack any pom-poms. We’re not expecting anybody to go down there and wave pom-poms in the clubhouse. I think it’s a case of guys showing up and showing that they belong there and exhibiting a work ethic that not only the younger guys, but their teammates look over and see what this guy is made of, what he’s all about. Whether it’s Hunter or Michael Bourn or you name the guy in the room, I think a lot of it is showing the confidence you belong there and leading by example. I think a guy like Hunter really benefitted by having an opportunity to spend time here with Darin Erstad. Darin’s been gone now for over a year, but I think his impact from the standpoint of a guy at the end of his career, the end of a tremendous career, who still suited up and played the game – whether he was playing once a week or how he played when he was playing 162 games a year – I think Hunter paid a lot of attention to that and hopefully some other guys did as well. I don’t think you have to be, and I’ve said it before, I don’t think you have to have eight, 10, 12 years of big league service to be a leader. I think it’s a matter of how you go about your business. It’s tough for extra guys to be leaders. It’s easier when you’re putting the uniform on every day to exhibit that level of leadership. Sitting watching a Penguins-Capitals game on TV, the captain of the Penguins [Sydney Crosby] is 23 years old. It’s a pretty important leadership role in that sport and their guy Crosby is 23, so if there are some young guys who could step up and do it the right way, my message is have at it. Let’s go. Go ahead and do it.”

Q: In many ways it might be semantics to some people, but you talk about Brett (Wallace) as having to win the job, but is it his not to lose or is it a different mentality from a player in keeping a job versus winning it?

A: “I think he’s got to come in saying ‘You know, they gave me two-plus months of an opportunity last year to lock this job down and I still have some ground to cover.’ I would hope guys don’t coming in saying, ‘It’s my job to lose,’ ’cause to me that’s sort of a passive way of handling it. To me, you come in and you say, ‘There’s a chance here for me to begin a very significant big-league career and I’m going to take full advantage of it every single day. I’m not going to coming in saying, boy I hope I don’t go 0-for-4 today.’ I want a guy to come in and say, ‘I’m going to get three hits today. Whether it’s the fundamental drill we do on the back field or whether it’s the five or six innings I get to play today, I’m going to put my best foot forward and then let them make the decisions.’ I don’t want guys to be passive. You’re afraid to do something you never step off and take advantage.”

Q: Your Rule 5 guys (Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton), would they be in the bullpen picture as well?

A: “Both guys at this point in time I think we’ll look at them initially form a starting standpoint because both of them have very limited bullpen experience, particularly Pendleton. So when we start talking about the bullpen and the mix and the rotation, Figgy [Nelson Figueroa] did a real nice job for us. [Ryan] Rowland-Smith, we signed him knowing he probably profiles as a starter. As I mentioned, we’ve got guys like Abad and [Jordan] Lyles coming in and he will be given every opportunity to put his best foot forward as well. We’re going to be open-minded on a lot of fronts. We’re going to be down there for a long time and hopefully we’re making really tough decisions at the end of the spring or reaching back to the Minor League camp to fill holes and going out to file a hole from the outside, which is always possible. The last 10 days of Spring Training, you can do some things with your bench and your bullpen. The key pieces have to come from the guys who show up on the 16th and the 20th.”

Q: How much do you think you know about Chris Johnson in 300-plus big-league at-bats?

A: “I know that the potential is there for him to be an outstanding big-league player. It’s a matter of adjustments. We’ve all seen a lot of young players coming to the big leagues and get off to great starts and then the advance scout makes a note in his report and it goes to the coaching staff and the next thing now the guy is seeing a different pitching selection or different location and he all of a sudden become aware – if he wasn’t already – that he’s got a weakness that’s being exploited, and the guys who continue to be successful and turn corners and the ones who close up those holes and make the adjustment.”

Q:  You talk about a younger player…he was 25 last year, 26 now. Is it different sort of scale of adjustments you hit at that age than when you’re 22?

A: “Probably. I haven’t thought about it a whole lot because I still view him in the context of the amount of big-league experience he’s got as being relatively young. There are some guys who never hit a roadblock. Most players at some point in time are going to hit a roadblock and it’s how they manage to navigate around it. Some guys do and some guys just can’t get past it, can’t make the adjustment. They can’t stay off the slider in the dirt, they can’t get their hands in to hit the fastball in. And they fall by the wayside. C.J., I thought last year got challenged late in the season and made the adjustments and made them in a very significant way. This is a guy that I wouldn’t be surprised at the end of the season to C.J. at 30-plus home runs. But it’s going to entail, how does he respond to the other teams’ Brad Arnsbergs, who are back in the laboratory cooking up the formula to really make you fail? Believe me, when you have a couple of months like Chris Johnson had, there’s a lot of pitching coaches in the lab right now. Rich Dubee’s doing it right now in Philadelphia right now, getting ready for Opening Day against, trying to figure out how to shut C. J. down.”

Garner remembers Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner was Phil Garner’s guy. Garner didn’t all the physical tools of Willie Stargell or the stature of Dave Parker, but he had heart and determination. Much like the city of Pittsburgh itself and the manager who guided the Pirates to the 1979 World Series title.

Tanner passed away Friday following a long illness at age 82, and Garner – a member of the 1979 Pirates team – took some time to reflect on their relationship.

“I’m sad, but I am going to take Chuck Tanner’s advice. I’m going to celebrate his life,” Garner said. “Without Chuck, I’m another bench player who never made it. Chuck believed in me, and I certainly hope I had a chance to pattern my managerial career after Chuck and I hope people will say being around me they enjoyed it as much. I was just as optimistic as Chuck Tanner. That would be the highest compliment I could have.”

When Garner was managing the Astros from 2004-07, Tanner was a fixture in the visiting clubhouse before Astros games in Pittsburgh.

“He’s always come in and say hello and I always invited him to come say hello,” Garner said. “Once we got caught up, he always wanted to ask about Carol [Phil’s wife], the children and mom and dad, and then we’d get down to baseball. He was absolutely the best. You just could not find a better man.”

Garner played for Tanner with the Oakland A’s in 1976 before being traded to the Pirates in spring training 1977, reuniting him with Tanner. He was traded, along with Chris Batton and Tommy Helms, to the Pirates for Dave Giusti, Doc Medich, Doug Bair, Rick Langford, Tony Armas and Mitchell Page.

Garner hit .500 in the 1979 World Series and was a favorite of Tanner for his hard-nosed style of play, which ultimately earned him the nickname “Scrap Iron.”

“He never met a day he didn’t like,” Garner said. “His famous deal was you could get beat 15-0 in the worst conditions under the sun – snowing, sleeting and hailing – and he’d come in after the game and say it was great. He’d say, ‘Just think what else we could be doing? Nothing else is as good as playing baseball.’ We’d say, ‘Yeah, right, Chuck,’ but his attitude permeated everybody’s spirit.

“Chuck loved life every day. You know when you saw Chuck Tanner there wasn’t going to be any sourpuss. No matter what he was doing in his life, he put it aside and was happy to see you.”

As a result of winning the 2005 National League pennant, Garner got to manage the NL in the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh and named Tanner as the honorary coach of the game at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Tanner was in uniform and threw out the ceremonial first pitch, with he and Garner soaking up every moment along the way.

“It was one of those things that turned out to be better than I even thought it would,” Garner said. “I thought it would be wonderful for Chuck to be able to do that and for me to do it for Chuck. In the end, it was gratifying for both of us. We couldn’t shut him up. He was talking and telling stories and it was the absolutely best experience I could have had at the All-Star Game.”

Garner kept in touch with Tanner through the years, though he admits he became harder to reach the past few months while Tanner’s health deteriorated. But like many who came in contact with Tanner, Garner said he will never forget how great it was to play for him.

“The other thing remarkable about Chuck was his players were his guys,” Garner said. “He would end all his scouting reports – and we could be playing really good teams – and he’d say, ‘If these guys were any good, they’d be on our team.’  He always pumped guys up. He loved every player, no matter what.

“If you put on a uniform and played for Chuck Tanner, you were part of his family. Chuck loved everybody. It will show. People from all walks of life will come to pay tribute to Chuck Tanner.”

Young not coming to the Astros

If you’re pumped up about Rangers third baseman Michael Young listing the Astros as one of the teams he would approve being traded to, forget it.

My colleague T.R. Sullivan reported Monday night Young had listed the Cardinals, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Rockies, Dodgers, Angels and Padres as destinations to which he would approve a trade. While Young would like to wind up in Houston, the feeling isn’t mutual.

Not that the Astros don’t like Young’s tools and track record, but Young’s hefty contract would be too much for the Astros to take on. Astros general manager Ed Wade declined to comment on Young, citing a policy of not talking about trades.

Young, who asked the Rangers to trade him, is 34 years old and is due $48 million over the next three years and there’s a ton of deferred money that’s to be paid out with interest over the next few years, so it’s hard to blame the Astros for not exploring a trade with Texas.

Even so, trading for Young would go against everything the Astros have done the last few months. They’re in a mode of adding young players at the expense of older, more pricey players, and picking up a 34-year-old third baseman doesn’t fit that plan.

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