The Pallilog

Astros search for a manager enters the homestretch. Who will it be?

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This time next week Jim Crane will have hired or be closing in on hiring the Astros' new manager. Who is it going to be? Considering Crane himself doesn't know yet, how the heck should I know? The candidate pool is deep in quality, four former big league skippers (none of whom have won a World Series) and at least three others who have never managed in Major League Baseball.

Dusty Baker. 70 years old. Over 22 seasons he steered four different franchises to the postseason. Tremendous people skills. I always felt his teams took on his upbeat but intense personality. Not a tactical wizard and a questionable resume re: handling of several pitchers. That's not a dealbreaker If Brent Strom is still the pitching coach.

Buck Showalter. Organized and prepared as all get out. Taken three different teams to the playoffs. More coincidence than anything else, the Yankees and Diamondbacks won the World Series...the season immediately after they fired Showalter.

John Gibbons. Low key personality. Two American League Championship Series trips with the Blue Jays.

Jeff Banister. LaMarque high school grad, played at UH. Back-to-Back AL West titles with the Rangers before their roster fell apart and the Astros took over the division. Also a lifetime big league batting average of 1.000. One at bat, he singled.

Any of those four would be a highly credible hire.

Those seeking experience by getting experience: Raul Ibanez, Will Venable, and Eduardo Perez. Where the Astros are, I would lean away from them. Incumbent bench coach Joe Espada is a more credentialed candidate than those three, but Espada was on A.J. Hinch's staff when the Astros are confirmed as cheaters, so can't see Crane going with him.

The experienced big league managers would command more money. That should play zero role in the choice, even though if the Astros stay largely healthy and avoid precipitous performance declines, you or I could manage their roster to 90 wins. Who is best equipped to navigate the S.S. Astros through some stormy seas bound to hit? Because, A. that's baseball, and B. they'll face some unusual stuff in their role as the lying, cheating villains of MLB. Can't know the answer to that.

Rockets fading from the spotlight

The Texans disintegrated on the field in Kansas City, the Astros' integrity turns out to have in part either disintegrated or been non-existent, leaving the Rockets among the big three to uplift the city's sports spirits over the next couple of months. Problem, relatively few seem to care. Glaring numbers of empty seats (even though sold) at Toyota Center, lower TV ratings, and a palpable lack of buzz to them. No shame in a 27-16 record, but that's not close to special and things just seem a bit stale. Dog days of midseason or larger problems?

The Rockets enter the weekend closer to the Draft Lottery than to the Western Conference leading Lakers. The Rockets are at best b-list contenders, waaaay more likely to get bounced from the playoffs in the first round than to win the West. They may be in serious trouble relative to this season's aspirations, and going forward.

Recent deep shooting slump aside, James Harden is a phenomenal offensive force, and Russell Westbrook is a force of nature. But a Harden/Westbrook backcourt headlines a non-championship caliber defense. And there just aren't good enough players around them. Harden is 30 years old, Westbrook is 31. Eric Gordon and his balky knee and erratic jumper, also 31. Over the next three seasons the Rockets are on the hook for those three guys at an average of about 106 million dollars per season.

For two straight off-seasons, the Rockets have been cheap with construction of the bench. Whatever the extent he's been following owner Tilman Fertitta's marching orders, among teams that fancy themselves contenders General Manager Daryl Morey has produced the worst bench in the NBA.

There are a bunch of teams with better overall talent, there are lottery teams with better young talent. It all adds up to the best guess being Head Coach Mike D'Antoni parts ways with the Rockets after the season. How good a job will the Rockets job be for the next coach? The answer might be, not very, in terms of pursuing an NBA championship.

While not being a big deal, it won't look good on the Rockets side if/when Chris Paul makes the All Star Game and Russell Westbrook doesn't.

Buzzer Beaters

1. If you were Kelvin Sampson would you leave UH for the Rockets? 2. The Pro Bowl is Sunday! 3. Things on TV I'd watch before the Pro Bowl: Bronze-Real Housewives of Anywhere Silver-A full XFL game Gold-Three hours of test pattern

Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan

Oh, those Apologizin' Astros! If the sincerity shown by some was electricity, a 10 watt bulb might flicker. One hopes they truly grasp what chump, cheating behavior they took part in and that their shame should feel real, because it is real. Unfortunately, at least some are likely mostly sorry that they got busted and face scorn for it. Decency demanded apologies, but if not sincere they are worthless.

While lead owner Jim Crane shouldn't be criticized for not having sensational oratory skills, at Thursday's press conference he more than once came across as ridiculous. There was no graceful way to please close to everybody, but laughable contradictions and absurd assertions don't make anyone associated with the Astros look good.

How can anyone but a fool or someone lost deep in denial maintain that the Astros' 2017 World Series championship isn't permanently tainted? Lady Macbeth fared infinitely better getting that damn'd spot out than the Astros ever can fare removing the stain they themselves put on 2017.

On the bright side, we're inside six weeks from Opening Day.

Whose house?

The best sports team in this city at its level, discounting the marginally apologetic Astros? Kelvin Sampson's Houston Cougars. A nifty achievement for the program already tucked away, a fifth consecutive 20 win season. The great Guy V. Lewis never accomplished that. Not during the Phi Slama Jama, not during the Elvin Hayes era. Never means never! Granted, teams do play more games in a typical season now than they did back then.

Whatever. After mostly a 30 year hoop coma between Lewis and Sampson, Cougar basketball is again sustainably a national factor. The Coogs stand alone top the American Athletic Conference, are ranked number 20 in the nation, and absolutely have a chance at a major March Madness run. And Sampson has one senior on his roster.

It's a wide open NCAA Tournament coming next month (including the South Regional at Toyota Center). There are no superpower teams this season. Baylor has been marvelous and is rightly ranked number one, but the Bears offense can be verrrrrry shaky. Beyond any Cinderella making major noise at the Big Dance, there are a couple of dozen teams that can harbor very plausible Final Four dreams. Last year's national runner-up Texas Tech is one of them. The Houston Cougars are another. Like the Rockets, UH's outside shooting isn't very good. UNlike the Rockets, UH's defense is outstanding, and Cougar rebounding, astounding. The Cougars have played 25 games and amazingly outrebounded their opponents in every one of them.

Taking their shots

Speaking of the Rockets, with their 34-20 record they hit the NBA All Star break living in the league's upper middle class, though they are closer to the eighth place Grizzlies in the Western Conference than to the frontrunning Lakers. The early returns of "super small" ball are encouraging, but the likelihood that the Rockets can shoot, defend, and rebound well enough to win multiple best-of-seven playoff series does not seem especially high. In fact, the likelihood is close to zero if James Harden and Russell Westbrook don't end their seasons long streaks of worse play in the postseason than in the regular season.

The Rockets yet again lead the NBA in three point shots. The math works. High volume three point shooting, Harden's one man free throw parade, and Russell Westbrook's now relentless attacking of the rim combine to give the Rockets the second most efficient scoring offense in the league (Dallas is number one). This is Daryl Morey's 13th season as General Manager. His tenure has produced six seasons with at least 53 wins and zero losing seasons. But Morey has failed the last couple of years in not adding premium three point shooting to the roster. The Rockets are 23rd of the 30 teams in three point percentage. The seven teams worse all have losing records.

'Neck time

After a rousing success in their debut, do the Houston Roughnecks show signs of sustainability or growth in interest in game two, again home at UH's TDECU Stadium. Another lovely weather forecast with no possible arrogant bumbling decision to close a roof should again help the turnout. Plus, you know what they say: When the Roughnecks and St. Louis BattleHawks get together you can throw out the records.

The XFL on-field product quality is obviously way behind the NFL's, but it took June Jones and the Roughnecks' offense three plays to do something Bill O'Brien and the Texans' offense did in none of the 15 regular season games Deshaun Watson played last season. Score an opening drive touchdown!

Buzzer Beaters

1. NBA All Star Weekend? Yawn. 2. But it's still way better than the Pro Bowl. 3. Best sports Harts: Bronze-Corey Silver-Jim Ray Gold-Jim.


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