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SI FOR KIDS
Even without Moises Alou, the 1998 division champs hit too much to miss
By Mark Bechtel
Astros third baseman Ken Caminiti would seem to be one of the least likely people to have a fluffy show dog named Charmaine, a petit basset griffon vendeen. Caminiti looks more like the owner of a bulldog or a Great Dane. He's often scowling, and if his uniform isn't dirty by the third inning, it's because he's not playing. Take a look at his forearms, and you half expect to see Olive Oyl in tow. His haunts once included tattoo parlors and still include garages, where he likes to hang out and restore cars. He is, in a word, tough.
Caminiti will tell you that Charmaine, who finished second in her group at the Westminster Kennel Club show in February, is tougher than she looks. "That dog has attitude," he says. Caminiti might be the opposite. Under his gruff exterior beats the heart of a softy. His most prominent tattoo, on his chest, bears the names of his three daughters, on whom he dotes. When he was deciding where to sign as a free agent in the off-season, he turned down bigger bucks from the Tigers ($21.5 million for three years) to accept a two-year, $9.5 million deal from Houston, for which he played from 1987 to '94. "That's where my daughters go to school," says Caminiti, who was a member of the Padres last season. "I only got to see them two months last year. And my two best friends, Bags [first baseman Jeff Bagwell] and Bigg [second baseman Craig Biggio], are here."
Houston, however, took a big hit in February when leftfielder Moises Alou tumbled off a treadmill during a workout and tore his left anterior cruciate ligament. He will probably be sidelined for the entire season. "We're obviously going to miss what Mo does on the field, but that's just half the story." says Biggio. "He's a guy who's great in the clubhouse. We're going to miss that part as much as we're going to miss anything else."
Caminiti, whose average dropped 38 points last year, will be counted on to help. "He should pick up some of the RBIs," says manager Larry Dierker. "And he gives us a tough lefthanded bat in the middle of the lineup, and that's something we needed from time to time last year against the better righthanded pitchers." Indeed, the Astros hit 21 points lower (.275) against righties than lefties, the biggest such differential in the National League.
Alou's injury unsnarls a logjam in the outfield. With Derek Bell a fixture in right, last year's centerfield combination of Carl Everett, who had a career year, and Richard Hidalgo, who showed tremendous promise as a rookie, put Dierker in a quandary: how to divvy up three spots among four men. "We talked this winter about the problem we might have with bringing all four guys back," says Dierker. "Everett and Hidalgo clearly proved that they deserve a chance to be every-day players. If we didn't trade any of the four, it was going to be difficult to keep them satisfied. But we decided not to, and that turned out to be a good decision."
The Astros most newsworthy nontrade involved Roger Clemens. After losing rented ace Randy Johnson to free agency, Houston's failure to land the Rocket leaves them without an established No. 1 starter. "I'd like to have [Clemens]," says Dierker, "but there's only so much you can do on a $50 million budget. I'm satisfied with our pitching the way it is." Righties Shane Reynolds and Jose Lima and southpaw Mike Hampton had 46 wins between them last season, and Dierker thinks Reynolds, who had 19 victories, is "one season from being considered a Number-1-type starter."
Another sticking point in the Clemens nondeal was Houston's reluctance to trade 23-year-old righty Scott Elarton to the Blue Jays to obtain the Rocket. The 6'7", 240-pound Elarton will be the Astros' fifth starter this year, and when his skills catch up with his size, he could make Houstonians forget about Clemens.
Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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