The 2007 Astros Fan Fest and Houston College Classic were held on 9-12 February in a chilly Minute Maid Park. Fans, players, and Astros front office brass were all bundled up in jackets and coats as everyone tried to have fun on a cold and windy day in Houston.
There was a long list of events lined up for both full days of Fan Fest from autograph and photo sessions with Astros greats like Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman to garage sales of Astros items and of course the college games. All around the main concourse, vendors displayed their wares–from authentic, signed Roger Clemens jerseys to the more affordable autographed 8×10 photos.
There was a special display set up in one of the Astros gift shops for The Mickey Mantle collection highlighted by the Harley Davidson motorcycle Mantle’s son built, complete with a NY Yankees logo for an odometer.
One of the most interesting events on Saturday was the Question and Answer session with Astros owner Drayton McLane, General Manager Tim Purpura and Manager Phil Garner, moderated by the voice of the Houston Astros, Milo Hamilton.
After opening remarks by Drayton McLane and Tim Purpura’s review of the off season moves made by the Astros, they took questions from some of the fans. Questions ranged from Chris Burke’s role on the team this year to how many pitchers the team will carry in 2007.
On Burke, Garner reiterated his position that he will be the full time centerfielder and joked that in about 5 months, Burke is likely to call him up and say "Skip, I’m tired. (of playing everyday)" He then told the audience he believes in Burke’s competitive nature and sees him as an impact player. He cited the number of times when something good happened on the field, Burke was right in the middle of it, prompting Milo Hamilton to repeat his famous call of "It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone!" from the classic 18-inning playoff game against the Atlanta Braves which dramatically ended with Burke’s homerun to the Crawford Boxes.
Garner will also give Chris Sampson a fair shot because he is very impressed by him. It may not have shown last year, but, Garner speaks very highly of Sampson. Other young pitchers who will get a good chance to make the starting rotation are Fernando Nieve and Matt Albers. Tim Purpura spoke very highly of Albers, stating that he has done a complete turnaround in his attitude about baseball from two years ago. He has now become an "Astros type of player", meaning he is totally committed to playing baseball with a professional attitude and working hard to improve his game every day.
One fan asked the question that has been on the minds of many–Based on his horrendous road stats, why not play Craig Biggio only at home and bench him on the road? Phil Garner answered the question with an explanation of what he intends to do with the lineup–he said in order to be fair to Biggio and his legacy with the Astros, he will have him batting leadoff for the first half of the season to give him the best opportunity to get to 3000 hits and maximizing his performance which is usually very good prior to the All Star Break. Garner said he plans on continuing the trend started 2 1/2 years ago of giving Biggio more days off on the road and in the 2nd half of the season.
I asked Tim Purpura to explain to the fans the events that led him to sign former Astros MVP Richard Hidalgo to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training this year.
Purpura said he and some members of his staff had gone to Venezuela in October to gauge the quality of the players in the Winter League. He said Hidalgo has always been his favorite Astros player because they both came up through the Astros minor league system together. He recalled the time when Hidalgo broke his hand, before he was called up to the majors, and how Purpura wheeled Richard’s wheelchair down Fannin Avenue to the hospital. Purpura spoke very fondly about Hidalgo’s efforts to make a comeback stating that he was one of the first people he talked to during his trip to Venezuela and was very impressed by the physical and mental shape Richard was in. He has dropped 25 lbs, improved his daily workout routines, and done a 180 degree turnaround in his attitude about baseball. According to Purpura, Hidalgo has become an Astros type of player again.
I addressed my second question to Mr. Garner. I wanted to know how many pitchers he expected to carry this year. Garner said he was going to be carrying 12 pitchers based on the fact that the 3/5ths of the starting rotation will likely not go beyond 5 innings. He will need the extra pitcher in the bullpen to keep them all fresh and productive.
Another question asked was about youngsters Troy Patton and Hunter Pence. Both Garner and Purpura stated that as much as Phil Garner wants to see Troy Patton play at Minute Maid Park, he may just have to wait one more year. They expect Patton to start the season at AAA Round Rock and will most likely get a call up to the big club in September, barring unforeseen injuries to the starting rotation. Garner also mentioned how impressed Nolan Ryan was with Troy Patton–the last minor league pitcher Ryan had been that impressed about was Roy Oswalt.
On Pence, Garner and Milo Hamilton talked about how impressed Jeff Bagwell was with him. Pence, though, still needs some seasoning at the AAA level and like Patton, will begin his season at Round Rock.