Houston's hands-on approach
Williams is getting familiar with his new teamPosted: Monday March 04, 2002 12:05 PM
Throughout spring training, CNNSI.com will feature regular dispatches from Sports Illustrated staffers assigned to scout camps in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.
By Josh Elliott, Sports Illustrated
Team: Houston Astros
City: Kissimmee, Fla.
Weather: High 70s, light breeze
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked: Relief pitcher Octavio Dotel. The right-handed fireballer flourished last year in his role as set-up man for closer Billy Wagner. Dotel's 128 strikeouts in relief led the majors and opponents hit just .182 against him -- and he's showing no signs of a letdown. Even while throwing simultaneously with three other Astros pitchers, Dotel's thunderclap fastball -- or was it his change? -- could be heard one practice field over. Upon closer inspection, he's also a bright kid looking for every edge. After every few tosses, pitching coach Burt Hooton would step in and offer pointers. "When you came to a stop last year, sometimes you dropped your left shoulder," Hooton said at one point, miming by way of instruction. "It hung you up a bit." Dotel nodded and, coming to a straight-backed, square-shouldered stop, unleashed a fastball that sounded an awful lot like a strike. "That, I could get used to," Hooton said with a chuckle. From Dotel's smile, it was obvious he could, too.
Around The Horn: Former Houston manager Larry Dierker's fate was sealed when the Astros failed once again to win a playoff series last season, despite taking their fourth division title in five years. (Whispers that he'd lost the respect of his players because of his laid-back attitude and a perceived inattention to detail didn't help his cause.) Enter former Boston skipper Jimy Williams, who worked wonders in a fractious Red Sox clubhouse a year ago before being fired late in the season. Williams claims to know little about his new team and league, but not for lack of effort. Yes, that was Williams shagging fly balls during workouts. Yes, that was Williams pulling on a batting glove (for no particular reason). And yes, his club seems to welcome the approach. "Jimy really seems to be hands-on with the players. I think it's good to have him out there. He just seems like another coach out there teaching," says pitcher Wade Miller, who after a 16-8 season has been named the Astros' Opening Day starter. "It's like old-school baseball. He's working. He isn't staying in the background and just overlooking."... Daryle Ward, who has spent three years languishing on the Astros' bench, will finally get a chance to play every day with the departure of Moises Alou to the Cubs. Though Williams won't confirm Ward's position, look for the slugger -- whom outfielder Lance Berkman says is "the best hitter I've ever played with" -- to chase fly balls in left field. ... As his new $85 million contract begins, Jeff Bagwell wishes it were under different circumstances. "Losing Moises and [third baseman] Vinny [Castilla, who signed with the Braves] was tough," says Bagwell of two players who combined for 50 home runs and 190 RBIs last season. "When a team gets younger, it can be a problem, especially on defense. At this point, it's a wait-and-see situation." It seems likely the left side of Houston's infield will feature two rookies, third basemen Morgan Ensberg and shortstop Adam Everett. ... Fresh off his breakthrough year -- in which he hit .331 and became the first switch-hitter in baseball history to have at least 50 doubles (55) and 30 HRs (34) -- Berkman is as irrepressible as ever. After joking with GM Gerry Hunsicker, Williams and anybody else within earshot while awaiting his turn in the cage, Berkman tore into pitcher C.J. Nitkowski's offerings. He then waited for Nitkowski to leave the mound, and pulled him aside to offer advice. After Nitkowski thanked him, Berkman slipped away and, 15 minutes later, returned with sunblock for one reddening scribe. No confirmation yet that he then cooked his teammates' lunch while buffing their cleats and doing their laundry.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Josh Elliott will check in periodically with reports from his tour of spring camps.