Spring signifies rebirth for renewed Astros
Crane, execs take in workout, laud new era, bright future
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- This was the moment Jim Crane had waited for years to experience. He finally had the keys to a Major League franchise and on Monday was able to experience the sights and sounds of Spring Training, soaking up the Florida sun and the realization he finally owns the Astros.
Crane, who spearheaded a group of investors that purchased the team from Drayton McLane in November, addressed the pitchers and catchers prior to the Astros' first workout of Spring Training on Monday morning and then strolled around the grounds at Osceola County Stadium to get familiar with his surroundings.
"I'm feeling my way around," he said. "It's a nice facility and everybody has settled in and everybody is ready to go to work. The conversation this morning was [to tell them] to work hard. There are a lot of positions up for grabs. I think everybody is focused."
Monday's workout, in which 28 pitchers and seven catchers hit the field for the Astros' last Spring Training as a National League club, signified a new beginning in the 50-year history of the franchise. These definitely aren't your father's Astros.
"It's the dawning of a new era," manager Brad Mills said.
The clubhouse, which six years ago was filled with veterans like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Lance Berkman, is awash with up-and-coming players trying to make their way. Guys like pitcher Jordan Lyles and shortstop Jonathan Villar represent the hopes and dreams of the future of the franchise.
"It's going to be a young clubhouse with young guys trying to mesh together," Lyles said. "We'll go through some growing pains, and hopefully we can make it work and hopefully the fans will be excited about the type of play we bring on the field every day."
While the team continues to rebuild and has more roster spots up for grabs than probably any other franchise in baseball, the Astros are under new management with Crane, team president and CEO George Postolos and general manager Jeff Luhnow.
"It's a pinch-me day," Postolos said. "I must be dreaming. I'm sitting here, the weather's perfect and all these guys are working and coming together and everybody is healthy. Pinch me again."
Luhnow has been in Florida for a few days, but nothing could temper his excitement of watching the players finally get on the field.
"Pitchers and catchers reporting, for me, is the best day of the year," he said. "There's a lot of excitement about this new year here, and one of the best assets we have right now is our players are generally healthy. And that's a great way to start the spring."
Crane, Luhnow and Mills all spoke to the pitchers and catchers Monday morning, not long after the players completed their physicals and their pristine caps and uniforms were donned. Crane's message was one of support and encouragement for a team coming off a 106-loss season.
"I told them we were behind them," he said. "We've gotten good support from the [ownership] group, and we feel very fortunate to own the team, and we take that with a lot of pride and we expect them to do the same thing. I told them something my dad used to tell me: 'The harder you work, the luckier you get.' Working hard will pay off."
Luhnow, who won a World Series ring last year as the director of player procurement for the Cardinals, encouraged the players to expect more. The Astros will undoubtedly be picked to finish last in the National League Central, but Luhnow isn't buying it.
"I think we've got the players and the staff to come out of the gates strong and to compete this year and really put our best foot forward," he said. "If we stay healthy, I know we've got the talent to do some damage."
While the Astros would certainly like to contend in their final year in the NL Central in 2012, this season is more about setting the foundation for the future. The club is slowly rebuilding its Minor League system, and one of the organization's shining stars, outfielder George Springer, was among the position players to report early to camp.
"I think there's more possibility," Luhnow said. "You can imagine some of these players that came up last year taking the next step. A lot of guys played winter ball, and we're anxious to see where they are. A lot of guys spent some time in the gym getting in shape. We've got some players playing for contracts next year. I think it's going to be exciting to see how everybody shows up this spring."
Crane, who earlier this year announced lower ticket and beer prices at Minute Maid Park, boarded a private jet and headed back to Houston following Monday's workout, but he will be in and out of Kissimmee through the spring to keep tabs on his team. As excited as the players were to hit the field for the first time, no one was as excited as the 57-year-old owner.
"We want to put our best foot forward, and I think we've done that with the things we've done so far," Crane said. "Now we're turning it over to the guys on the field to get the job done."