Memorial Day is meant to honor the fallen of the Armed Forces. The Houston Astros have unfortunately also lost quite a few players in their 49 year history. The guys over at Astros Daily have put together a wonderful page remembering all of the 68 who played for the Astros, but I wanted to touch on a few here. Feel free to share your memories of these players in the comments.
Ken Caminiti, third baseman, 1,085 games w/Houston (1987-94, 1999-2000) - How bittersweet are the memories of Caminiti. He had the best arm of any third baseman I've seen (though that might just be my childhood fandom talking) and was definitely one of the most popular Astros of the 90's. He was constantly referred to as a "warrior." My favorite story came when he was with the Padres. As GM Kevin Towers told it, Caminiti had been very sick with the stomach flu, so much so that they had to hook him up to an IV. Needing a mid-season pickup after scuffling for a while, the Padres needed Cammy's bat in a double-header. Towers said that Caminiti tore out the IV, wolfed down a Snickers Bar and went crazy in the double dip. Something like two home runs and a 6-for-8 day. Caminiti lived hard, though, admitting to taking steroids and getting busted for cocaine. He passed away three years after retiring from a heart attack. It was a sad end for a great player. Caminiti died on Oct. 10, 2004 at the age of 41.
John Bateman, catcher, 565 games (1963-68) - A part-time catcher with the Colt .45s and the Astros, Bateman was one of the first amateur free agents to sign with the franchise in 1962. He hit 22 home runs in the minors that season, earning him a shot on the 1963 big league roster. Bateman also has the distinction of catching the first no-hitter in franchise history, when Don Nottebart beat Philadelphia 4-1. Bateman also holds the Houston franchise record for most home runs in a season by a catcher. He hit 17 in 1966 when he played in 131 games. Bateman passed away on Dec. 3, 1996 at 56 from undisclosed causes.
Andujar Cedeno, shortstop, 395 games (1990-94, 96) - Signed by the Astros out of the Dominican Republic in 1986, Cedeno made his major league debut four years later. He played part-time for the next three seasons before breaking out in 1993. He played in 149 games, hit .283/.346/.412 in 565 plate appearances with 24 doubles and 11 home runs. Cedeno never quite lived up to that performance again, missing time in 1994 with an injury before being traded to the San Diego Padres. As we covered last week, GM Gerry Hunsicker brought Cedeno back briefly in 1996, but he only played in two games. Cedeno was killed in a car accident on Oct. 28, 2000 when his car struck a truck. He was 31 years old.
Walt Bond, outfielder/first baseman, 265 games (1964-65) - This article over at The Hardball Times sums up Bond's playing career better than I can here. The Cliff's Notes version is that Bonds hit 13 home runs in limited action with Cleveland in 1962, but was sent to the minors for the 1963 season. Then-Colt .45's General Manager Paul Richards (a.k.a. The Wizard of Waxahachie) plucked Bonds off the Indians farm team and gave him a starting job. He hit 20 home runs in 1964 for the two-year old franchise, only four off the franchise-leading mark set by Roman Mejias back in 1962. Sidenote: Richards was fired following the '64 season. Do you know who was hired to replace him? Tal Smith! Bonds was diagnosed with leukemia sometime in the late 60's (it's unclear when exactly), but the disease recurred in 1967. He underwent treatment for it unsuccessfully and passed away a month before his 30th birthday on Sept. 14, 1967.
Lee Maye, outfielder, 223 games (1965-66) - Playing in the same outfield with Hank Aaron and on the same team with Joe Torre, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn, Maye probably got overlooked a time or two. That wasn't hte case with the expansion Houston Astros, though Maye did get to play next to another great outfielder in Jimmy Wynn. He only played with the Astros for two seasons, but made his home in Houston until he passed away from complications of liver cancer on July 17, 2002. He was 68 years old.
Julio Gotay, utility, 202 games (1966-69) - Some of these stories are too good not to repeat. Apparently, Gotay was accused by teammates of practicing voodoo. He also once broke up a double play because a sandwich fell out of his back pocket and the shortstop slipped on it. You can't make stuff like that up. He died of respiratory failure in Ponce, Puerto Rico on July 4, 2008. He was 69 years old.
Turk Farrell, right-handed pitcher, 181 games (1962-67) - The ace of the franchise's first few seasons, Farrell is still 16th on Houston's all-time victories list with 53. He's tied with Dave Smith and was just passed by Wandy Rodriguez this season. Farrell died in an auto accident while working in England, eight years after he retired. Farrell was 43 years old.
Darryl Kile, right-handed pitcher, 209 games (1991-97) - DK went before his time and was part of those 1990's teams that lost way too many guys too soon. Kile's best season in Houston was right before he walked out the door. I know many fans were bitter about him leaving right before the playoff runs and if he had stayed, Houston may not have made the Randy Johnson deal. Still, Kile won 71 games in Houston, pitching exactly 1,200 innings with Houston. He died of a coronary artery blockage due to athereosclerosis on June 22, 2002. He was 33 years old.
Joe Niekro, right-handed pitcher, 395 games (1975-1985) - "Knucksie" played 22 seasons in the majors, and still managed to play half those in Houston. His knuckleball might not have been as legendary as his brother's, but he was still a big part of Houston's success in the 80's. Niekro still holds the franchise record for wins at 144, but will soon be caught by Roy Oswalt. He died of a brain aneurysm on Oct. 27, 2006 at the age of 62.
Don Wilson, right-handed pitcher, 266 games (1966-74) - The second player to have his number retired by the Astros, Wilson threw two no-hitters for the club. Over a nine-year playing career, Wilson won 104 games with 20 shutouts. Only Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro and Mike Scott have more shutouts in franchise history. Wilson's death is a little problematic, however. He was killed due to carbon monoxide poisoning on Jan. 5, 1975. He was 29 years old.
Wilson was found in the passenger seat of his car with the engine running in the garage. The carbon monoxide filled his house as well, killing his 5-year old son and hospitalizing his wife and daughter. This newspaper article from the New York Times says that the garage door was open and the 1972 Thunderbird's engine was cold when Wilson was found. His wife was also awake when the police arrived, but had a broken jaw. Wilson and his son's deaths were both ruled as accidents by the official coroner's report. Wilson's wife was also quoted as saying she woke up upon hearing the car running. Just a sad, sad situation all around.
Jim Umbricht, right-handed pitcher, 69 games (1962-63) - From a sad and vaguely unsettling tragic story, we go to a Brian's Song-level inspiring and tragic one. I mentioned Wilson was the second player to have his number retired. That's because Umbricht beat him to it. You might see his No. 32 up in the rafters at Minute Maid Park and wonder why you haven't heard more about him. The reason his number was retired is that he pitched the entire 1963 season with cancer before succumbing to it just before the '64 season was set to begin.
Umbricht had a tumor removed from his leg in March of '63. That means during spring training, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his body and he still made it back in time for the regular season. In fact, he went 4-3 with a 2.61 ERA in 76 innings while playing in 35 games. His final decision came on Sept. 29, 1963 on the last day of the regular season. Playing in his first and only pro game, outfielder John Paciorek was 3 for 3 with three RBIs, four runs scored and two walks. Paciorek's two-run single to left field in the fourth inning tied the game, setting up a four-run inning that gave the Astros and Umbricht a victory. Do you know who was catching for the Mets in that game? Choo Choo Coleman. I tried to get my friends to call me Choo Choo, but it never caught on. More seriously, much like Brandon Backe and Chris Sampson after him, Umbricht began his baseball career as an infielder before moving to the mound. His career ERA is 3.06 and his career ERA+ is 116. And no one has made a movie about this guy yet? Was Dennis Quaid too busy?
Dave Smith, right-handed pitcher, 563 games (1980-90) - The best closer in franchise history (until Billy Wagner came along), Smith saved 199 games for Houston over a decade of seasons. He left as the franchise leader in saves, but was unseated by Billy Wagner over a decade later. He was an All-Star in 1986 and 1990, posting 33 saves in '86 to set a career high. His career K rate was 6.1 per nine innings, which isn't great for a closer. His highest strikeout rate was in 1987, when he fanned 73 in 60 innings. Smith died of a heart attack at his home in San Diego on Dec. 17, 2008. He was 53 years old.
Vern Ruhle, right-handed pitcher, 186 games (1978-83) - Another victim of cancer, Ruhle not only stepped into the void when J.R. Richard had his stroke, he also served as the Astros pitching coach after his playing career ended. That's a bit of an understatement, too. Ruhle didn't just fill in for Richard, he excelled. Ruhle won 39 games with Houston, including a 12-4 record in 1980 with an ERA of 2.37. Ruhle started Game 4 of the National League Championship Series and shut the Phillies down for eight innings. He left with a 2-1 lead, but the Astros bullpen blew the game as they lost 5-3 in 10 innings. Ruhle was the pitching coach of the Cincinnati Reds when he succumbed to multiple myeloma in Houston at the age of 56.
Don Nottebart, right-handed pitcher, 88 games (1963-65) - That no-hitter Bateman caught? That was Nottebart's. It was unusual in that the Phillies scored a run in the 4-1 game. Here's how they did it without getting a hit. In the top of the fifth, leadoff hitter Don Demeter reached on an two-base error by shortstop J.C. Hartman. The next batter, catcher Clay Dalrymple sacrificed Demeter over to third. Third baseman Don Hoak's sacrifice fly scored Demeter, tying the game at 1. Not to worry, a three-run home run by center fielder Howie Goss put the Astros up 4-1 and gave Nottebart the breathing room to bring his no hitter into the hangar. Nottebart died on Oct. 4, 2007 due to complications from a stroke. He was 71 years old.
Jose Lima, right-handed pitcher, 167 games (1997-2001) - The latest addition to this list. Many, many great tributes to Lima have poured out in the last few weeks. Alyson Footer shared some amazing Lima Time stories on Twitter after the news broke. Lance Zeirlein not only dedicated part of his sports talk show to talking about Lima, he also posted this very moving tribute on his blog at the Chronicle.