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Game 29: Houston Astros

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We were staying at the Scottish Inn about five miles from Minute Maid Park and with no public transport available from there,  we were forced to again drive close to the ballpark and then walk the final mile or so.  We located a parking building in the Theatre district of downtown Houston and took in the sights as we walked down Texas Drive to the ballpark. 

I had been in contact with a guy from Round Rock, Texas who was the self-confessed guru of baseball parks, Joe Mock.  Joe had been to every ballpark in the country, minor and major league inclusive.  He has written books on parks and has an active website.  We had arranged to meet to watch the game together.  Kitty and I had a drink at Sam’s Bar on Main Street before meeting Joe at the appointed time at Union Station.  He definitely was a font of knowledge.  Union Station itself is something unique.  As this park had been built in a dilapidated part of town the disused station building had been due for demolition.  Instead in a take-off of Camden Yards, the decision was made to refurbish the building to its former glory days and incorporate the building into the stadium.  This was successfully and beautifully accomplished and gives a majestic feel to the entrance to Minute Maid.  The train theme is further enhanced by a twenty four ton steam locomotive that runs along eight hundred feet of track above the wall in left field.


The most dominant feature of the ballpark is the retractable roof.  This is unique in that one wall of the stadium actually opens and closes with the roof.  Even when the roof is closed, as it was on this night as the temperature exceeded the cut off mark of eighty five degrees, the huge glass wall allows fans to see the city sky line.  The park has a number of other interesting features.  Kitty was impressed with the Home Run Pump, an old style petrol pump that keeps count of all the home runs hit by Astros players at the ballpark.  It was at 1117 when we looked at it before the game.  Another unique thing is “Tal’s Hill” in straight centre field.  This is a grass mound named after team president Tal Smith, and rising out of the hill is a large flag pole which is still in play.  Joe Mock argues that these are gimmicks and potentially dangerous, but hey, these are finally tuned and highly paid athletes we are talking about here. A test of their agility is surely not out of order.


This was to be the Astros final home game of the season and therefore their last game in Houston as a National League team.  This had been a horror season for the club, so it seemed to me to be a good time for a new beginning.  They had won a miserable fifty games for the season in contrast they were the only team in all baseball to have conceded a hundred plus losses as their record stood at 50-105.  It was also the final match for veteran radio announcer Milo Hamilton who had broadcast on more than 3,500 games.  His catch cry was “Holy Toledo, what a night” – I would wait and see.


The Cardinals were firmly in wild card contention so should have been desperate.


St. Louis Cardinals ………..000 000 000 – 0

Houston Astros …………….000 200 00x – 2


In front of over 18,000 fans the Astros won their final home game in the NL.  Starting pitcher Bud Norris shut the Cardinals out for the first seven and a third innings and reliever Wilton Lopez completed the job.  All the scoring action occurred in the bottom of the fourth as Jose Altuve took the Home Run Pump total to 1118. Joe reliably informed me that at five feet and five inches Altuve is the shortest player in MLB so it was a good effort for him to get it up into the Crawford Boxes. Scott Moore followed with a double to left.  He tagged to third on Jed Lowrie’s line drive to right field.  Moore was thrown out at home on Justin Maxwell’s fielder’s choice grounder to short stop against an infield that had been drawn in shallow.  It seemed a strange decision by Moore to attempt the run in that position.  Fortunately for the Astros, Maxwell stole second and gave them a 2-0 lead on Brett Wallace’s single to right field.


What is two minutes and forty five seconds?  Joe told me that this is the time from the last out in any innings until the first pitch in the next.  The reason they are so concise – T.V. advertising minutes.  Good old U.S. of A.

Another thing that I had been considering across all the games was the number of left handed players.  Tonight there was only one left handed fielder and that was the Cardinals right fielder AdronCambers. In fact while there have been a number of left handed out fielders, in fielders were a different kettle of fish.  Surely this was a coincidence.


Have you ever seen a left hander playing at catcher, third base or shortstop?  No, because it never happens. Actually, as usual I am exaggerating – there have been eleven lefty third baseman since 1900 in MLB, thirty left handed catchers in the history of the game but no south paw shortstops since 1956. 


For third base and short stop (and second base) it is quite easy to understand. The rules of the game dictate that players run the base bath in an anti – clockwise direction, which results in a high frequency of plays at first base.  Due to the angle and distance at which the non-first baseman infielders must throw the ball to first base, right handed infielders have an advantage in getting the ball to first.


Catcher though is a bit different.  The handedness of a player is an important ingredient in baseball.  Typically batters perform better against pitchers of the opposite hand, which is sometimes referred to as the “platoon advantage” – because two opposite handed players on the same team will sometimes take turns playing based on the handedness of the opposition pitcher.  Remember though that most humans are right hand dominant (eighty seven to ninety percent) and this creates unique advantages in baseball. 


In baseball, right handed pitchers will face more right handed batters, thereby reducing the offence.  However because left handed hitters and switch hitters populate line ups more than the general population (by batting left handed you are already a step closer to first base), a left handed pitcher is generally a desirable asset. 


So back to the catcher and more specifically why are there no left handed ones?  From my reading there are a number of perceived pieces of wisdom here: difficulty in throwing to second base with a right handed batter at the plate, difficulty in tagging a runner at home, difficulty in being able to “frame” pitches so the umpire calls strikes, difficulty in throwing out a base stealer at third, to name but a few.  I would suggest that none of these are insurmountable odds and in fact could be counter acted by arguments against a right handed catcher.  For example if a left handed catcher has difficulty getting the throw to third (think of the biomechanics), then surely the right handed catcher must have the same degree of difficulty throwing to first?


I actually believe the answer is threefold.  First is just tradition and history.  Secondly it is very difficult to source a left handers catching mitt – sports stores just do not have them or they are very expensive.  But thirdly, and most importantly, is natural selection and opportunity cost.  If you were a coach and had a left hander with a good arm in your team, what would you do with him?  Remember the world is in short supply of left handed pitchers – so you would probably want that player to throw to a catcher rather than become one.  Make sense?


With the screams of the home faithful ringing in our ears, you would have thought the Astros had qualified for the playoffs such was the veracity and volume for the final home game, we bade farewell to Joe, each promising we’d meet on some other day. Kitty and I hurried back down Texas Drive to the car park.  I easily negotiated the traffic along Rusk, to Louisiana onto Prairie and along Memorial Drive and into the distance.  Holy Toledo, what a night.

Born and bred in Christchurch, I played Senior cricket for East Shirley and rugby for Shirley and Hornby. Moved to Wellington and played Senior cricket for Wellington Collegians abd rugby for WCOB and Harlequins.
Now a PE teacher at Nelson College. I coached the Nelson College 1st XV 2000-2008 and Nelson Rugby Football Club (tap...tap) 2009-2011.
CONTACT: grugby@vodafone.co.nz


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