That's right, Part II of our epic adventure through the lands of Westeros, er, Astros FanFest is hitting right now. If you missed Part I, here's a link...now, onto the diary.
12:01 p.m. - After the open panel, our merry band of bloggers went upstairs into the Club Level for the meat of FanFest. First thing we see? Actual meat, in the form of a nachos competition. The competitors were Texas Brisket versus Cheeseburger. There was a pretty good line, so I did not try either, but c'mon. Brisket had to win, right? BBQ is delicious.
12:05 p.m. - Behind the Great Nacho Debate of 2012 was an alumni autograph signing for fans. This FanFest event wasn't entirely free. Fans had to pay $10 to get autographs from current players, but the alumni signings were free. Oh, and before you get all bent out of shape about this new ownership group pinching pennies, the money went to support the Astros' Urban Youth Academy. So, you know, it's a good cause.
At any rate, the biggest question from the blogosphere at this table of alumni is who the heck some of the players were. We got clarification on some of them, like Scipio Spinks, but the one that floored everyone there was the inclusion of...Charlie Hayes!
Everyone remembers Hayes from his Yankee days, but few remember the 31 games and 58 plate appearances he got for the 2001 (division-winning) Houston Astros. I did, but I was the only one and I even had the years off, thinking he played around 2002 or 2003. Oh well. I guess when trying to fill out these alumni events, sometimes you have to move down the bench a bit.12:10 p.m. - As we continue to walk around the concourse, the local chapter of SABR had a recruiting booth. The six of us were approached, and since I was the only member in the group, the group tried to walk on. However, Astros County's Deputy Jason Phelps went over to hear more about it as the two girls fled at the word "saber."
It's not all stat geeks, everyone. It's history geeks too. What else can you want out of an organization??
12:14 p.m. - A little bit later on the concourse, we avoid stilt-wearing clowns to find one Zachary Levine roaming the halls. Though we've been on the same podcast, this was my first time meeting Mr. Levine. We all chatted briefly before he had to go to a UH alumni game, but I got a chance to be jealous of him (in a good way) when he told us he was leaving for Florida on the 19th. So lucky...
12:17 p.m. - We finally get to the current player table, consisting of Jason Castro, Brad Mills, Bud Norris and Chris Snyder. So much catching depth in one place! It was slightly overwhelming. I was also a little disappointed that the line for the current player autographs was miles longer than that of the GND12.
It's called priorities, people. Nachos come first.
12:35 p.m. - After that brief tour of the Club Level, we head down to the Insperity Club, better known as the former home of the best press box in sports. The new club level seating is pretty awesome. Full of marble, sparkly stuff and a great view of the game, that section screamed, "Money." Or maybe that was just me, but either way it felt expensive just being inside the club.
We waited here for the Astros P.R. department to meet us and take us all to our interview with Mills and Norris. The first big test of the day...
12:50 p.m. - We descend into the bowels of Minute Maid Park, complete with steam tunnels, water pipes and staircases. Actually, it wasn't nearly as bad as I imagine Wrigley Field or Fenway Park could be. There were some stairs, but we were quickly at the interview room, where Mills addresses reporters in the post-game press conference.
When we first get there, the door is locked and they briefly consider having us do the interview in the hall. Which would have been great symbolism, having the bloggers do their interviews in the steam tunnels instead of a real, live room. But, no, it did not come to that. We eventually got inside and sat down with Mr. Mills first.
Tim should be putting together audio from the interviews to release as a special podcast soon, but the highlights from Mills were these:
Astros not being overly concerned over Winter League innings, though they are watching more closely the guys who are closer to the majors. That means Aneury Rodriguez more than Sergio Perez. He also marveled at the season Jose Altuve put up with close to 900 at-bats, and said Jose should show up Monday (the 13th) to Florida, but that Mills would be down there himself to keep an eye out.
Mills explained how they'll get ready for player decisions in spring training, consisting of two team meetings in Florida with all the coaches and bios on all the players who are invited to camp. They'll watch video and then have the various coaches who might be familiar with them describe their game. So, the Astros won't be evaluating people based solely on this spring's performance. Good or bad for NRIs?
1:02 p.m. - Mills leaves and we get to talk with Bud Norris. Terri opens things up by asking about Bailey, his dog who he's talked about on Twitter. I then asked him if he was already lobbying Mills for the Opening Day starter job.
He joked, "Absolutely," before quickly moving into team-speak about how he'll do whatever is asked of him and he has a tremendous amount of respect for Myers and Wandy and Happ.
Okay, so it was a joke on my part, but I absolutely think Bud deserves to start on Opening Day. He was the best pitcher on the staff last season and could be the best on this year's team as well. I know Wandy and Myers have the veteran edge, but Norris performed better and should do the same this season. Shouldn't that count for something?
I tried to pry into whether he's going to use the changeup more often or if he's working on a new pitch. He totally stonewalled me there, but in a nice way, saying he can't give up his secrets to us. But, it sounds like he's taking a page out of Roy Oswalt's book where he can continually evolve his offerings. That made me more hopeful for his upcoming season.
1:10 p.m. - And with that, we were done, heading upstairs to catch the tail end of a panel about the 50th anniversary plans with Alyson Footer and Larry Dierker. Oh, boy, did this one not disappoint.
1:15 p.m. - The first thing Dierker discussed that really caught my attention was after Alyson brought up the last time Houston did a ceremony like this, when the Dome closed in 1999. Dierk said that game was one of the best moments of his career. He knew they were going to do the Dome Team of Honor and he knew the Astros would have been in the playoffs if they won that game, but there was still pressure, since a loss would have spoiled the celebration. He said that, with the playoff, the champagne and cigars and all the old players standing at their positions on the field, it was "baseball heaven."
Pretty strong stuff.
1:20 p.m. - They went into plans for an Astros Walk of Fame outside of Minute Maid Park. They haven't settled on the location, but it will honor more than just the players who have had their numbers retired. It will feature a panel of experts (why haven't I been invited? Huh?) and will be unveiled on April 10th, the anniversary of the first game in franchise history. For that game, they will also be inviting the surviving players from that Colt .45 roster to be part of the celebration.
1:25 p.m. - Though the Astros will have authentic flashbacks as part of Flashback Friday, the Colts jerseys will NOT feature a revolver, since MLB now has a policy against things like "weapons" and "fun."
1:45 p.m. - More Dierk gold:
"This team will look like an expansion team, but they won't lose 106 games. It's really hard to lose that many."
"The interesting thing about those jerseys with the stripes on the shoulders is that it was not the front office who made that change. It was the owner's wife. McMullen's wife did not like the color orange, so she made him put it on the shoulder instead of across the stomach."
"Carlos Lee could be a DH, but he comes off as casual on the field. One bad season and no one in the league will sign him, including Houston. If he has a good season, he'll probably get a chance to pick a team to play for. Even if he's in the best shape of his life, he's still going to be overweight. They need to sit down with him at the beginning of the season and explain things to him. That's what I'd do."
Right after that..."That's why writers loved him as a manager." -- Alyson Footer.
Seriously, Dierker was great. Stole the show.
2:15 p.m. - At this point, the Astros hosted a live chat with Bud Norris and Brad Mills, where fans online and in the audience got to ask them questions.
Some of the more interesting answers?
Bud really respects Roy Oswalt. Like a lot. That came through in a bunch of answers. You can tell, though they didn't play together for long, Roy stuck with him as a role model.
Worst national anthems they've heard?
Mills - A guy in Philly forgot the words and just started humming. Made the fans go nuts, but he couldn't laugh or do anything.
Bud - Opening day. With the troops being honored, the flag on the field, can't get better than that. Touche, Bud, touche.
Will Mills ever get on Twitter?
Nope, doesn't sound like it. He said he hadn't figured out a way to "help the ballclub win" with it. Well, Ozzie Guillen doesn't help the ballclub, but he's damned entertaining. Guess I'll have to keep hoping...
3:15 p.m. - Before our second interview session, we get to head down onto the field to see the aforementioned batting practice starts. We try to get down onto the field with our press credentials. No go. They are not all-powerful after all...
3:17 p.m. - The batting practice is entirely too entertaining. Before the fans start taking hacks, Junction Jack and his crew walk out. When did I miss the addition of two new rabbits to the mix? A girl rabbit and what looks to be Poochie the Rabbit? What's going on Jack? You're almost as bad as those Taco Bell racing packets.
3:20 p.m. - One guy makes pretty good contact, pushing one out into center field. We immediately joke that the Astros should sign him to play shortstop.
3:21 p.m. - At this point, Dmitri Young gets into the box and hits a couple into the outfield as well. We're all pretty sure it was actually Dmitrit, too and the Astros were giving him a secret tryout. Doesn't look like it took.
3:45 p.m. - Back to the Insperity Club for another trip to the basement level. This time? J.D. Martinez is in our crosshairs.
3:55 p.m. - J.D. couldn't have been more gracious with his time. He answered all our questions with depth and shook all our hands afterwards. I think everyone in the room got very solid vibes from him. You can see why Houston likes him.
4:00 p.m. - This is the part where I'd put a bunch of stuff Footer said, but it was all off the record. But, believe me, it was gold, Jerry, gold! Luhnow and Footer are certainly fighting it out to be my favorite members of this organization. At the other end of the spectrum? Uh-oh, Carlos...
4:15 p.m. - After a brief shopping spree at the "garage sale" of old promotional items from last year (have to bring SOMETHING back for the wife and kiddo), I part from the group and head back home. Overall, a very solid day of FanFestivity with some good access for our Astros blogging community. Oh, and the best part is that the Astros may make this more than just a one-time thing for sites like ours. We are officially moving on up into the big time, folks. Be on your best behavior!