Thursday, September 23, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 23

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Astros overcome season's adversity paving the way to third-straight title

By Josh Gajewski
Daily Cougar Staff

If you think about it for a second, the Astros have no business being where they are. Even the baseball gods tried to stop this team from the get-go, sidelining just about every player and coach this side of Bagwell and Biggio.

No team should be able to withstand adversity like this, yet this team has. But take a closer look, or even spend a day with them, and presto! You find the answer. It's character, simply put.

"It's unbelievable," said Jose Lima, who the epitome of the team's spirit. "It's amazing what we've done this year with all of the injuries we've had. It's just unbelievable."

Unbelievable indeed, Mr. Lima. Let's start from the beginning.

Randy Johnson's bolt to greener Arizona pastures was compounded by the loss of Moises Alou, who couldn't keep his feet straight on a treadmill just before spring training, tearing ligaments in his fall.

This left the team without it's top slugger and hurler from last season. Third baseman Ken Caminiti came back to help out his old ball club, but who are we kidding? That bruised and battered body wasn't going to hold up and it didn't for the duration of the year.

Then came Richard Hidalgo, Carl Everett, Tony Eusebio, Ricky Gutierrez, Derek Bell and the list goes on. All of the aforementioned names were actually in the opening day lineup. Soon we'll probably see players in the locker room comparing scars a la Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in Lethal Weapon.

Manager Larry Dierker can certainly play that game. His seizure on June 13 sidelined him for 27 games, following brain surgery. Hitting coach Tom McCraw took a three-month leave of absence after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, while first base coach Jose Cruz missed 34 games receiving treatment for an irregular heartbeat.

But here we are with only eight games remaining and the Astros find themselves just a few wins away from their third-straight central division crown. But how? It all comes back to the "C" word. Just watch batting practice and you'll find the answers.

Take Mike Hampton, for example. He comes out of the clubhouse on one particular day, catches a glimpse of a friend who works in the media, starts after him like a raging bull, sends him to the ground and wrestles with the man.

Nothing serious, just a guy having a good time on the baseball diamond, something that we don't see enough of these days. Hampton will continue his comedy act during batting practice -- playing pranks or mimicking the batting style of whoever happens to be in the cage at that particular time -- anything to get a chuckle out of his teammates.

Fans don't get to see that side of him, though. Put Hampton in front of a camera? Stone face. The guy acts as if his grandmother had just died. That's just the way he is -- very business-like when it comes to business. He takes his approach straight to the mound and it works. You won't see him pumping fists or getting too excited on the hill because he doesn't have to -- his numbers say it all.

Then there's Lima, the other 20-game winner. To say that he brings a different approach to the hill might just be the biggest understatement of the year. He's a showman and performer first, baseball player second. Heck, he even has his own CD that receives plug after plug due to his success on the diamond.

He'll dance on the mound after each K, turn his cap ways you didn't even know existed when it's rally time or even bury his face into his mitt when things turn sour, screaming at the "little me" that apparently exists inside his glove.

"When I pitch bad, I say, 'You (stink)'," he explains.

Watch Lima, or even the team for that matter, and you swear you're watching another sequel to the movie Major League.

Lima is his own character, Billy Wagner could play the role of the "wild thing" and Willie Mays Hayes would be none other than the speedy Glen Barker, who is brought into nearly every game for the sole purpose of flying around the bases.

They already have the nicknames, weird handshakes and silly rituals. But that's what baseball is all about. This team has fun and believes in itself.

Then there are the staples of the franchise: Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. They take Hampton's approach on the field. Bagwell is a leading MVP candidate and Biggio remains the game's best leadoff hitter, but neither is very vocal in the clubhouse or too emotional on the field. They would rather lead by example, and nobody will argue with that.

Houston's success has to kind of reinstate your faith in baseball. Take the L.A. Dodgers, for example, a team that basically tried to buy the World Series this year by increasing their payroll to about $80 million with free agent acquisitions such as Kevin Brown, the $100 million man.

Spending got them nowhere as the only race they now find themselves in is the one to avoid the division cellar. Let's face it -- L.A. should be better than Houston; but they're not.

The Astros shouldn't be on top of their division, but they are. You see, this team has the intangibles that you just cannot buy. Character, camaraderie and confidence are things you simply can't put a price tag on.

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