How Houston Astros would do well to use Fox’s blueprint

The Astros could learn a thing or two from Fox's All-Star Game broadcast. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.

Many times television falls flat when it tries to use technology to make games more enjoyable for viewers. For example, that camera angle where TV shows whether a checked swing should be called a strike … every one of them looks like the bat crosses the plate.

When TV interviews the manager for two minutes during the game, the manager says absolutely nothing worth hearing. It’s like they all went to the Craig Biggio School of Platitudes – “Framber is sharp tonight and we’re hoping he gives us seven good innings.”

Really? So you’re hoping Framber pitches well? Thanks for that.

Are baseball fans really interested in BABIP (batting average on balls in play), ERA+ (earned run average adjusted to reflect home ballpark and league environment), FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching, outcomes that have nothing to do with fielding), and ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average)?

Remember when Fox debuted its FoxTrak during hockey games, using glowing pucks that left a comet trail? That lasted only two seasons, from 1996 to 1998. Fun fact: NHL referees change the puck, on average, every three or four minutes. I didn’t know that.

But I must say, Fox did a brilliant job on baseball’s All-Star Game this week, especially mic’ing up pitchers and catchers. Fox has put a microphone on position players in the past, but this was the first time viewers got to eavesdrop on the dialog between battery mates, where real strategy and head games are played. Position players are reactive, they go where the ball goes. Pitchers and catchers dictate where the ball goes.

Fox wired the right pitchers and catchers, too. Toronto fireballer Alek Manoah let viewers share his excitement as he struck out William Contreras, Joc Pederson and Ronald Acuna Jr. in the second inning.

“Here we go, there’s one!”

“There’s two!”

“Right down the middle but we’ll take it. Three punchies! Let’s go!”

Major Leaguers call strikeouts “punchies?”

The conversation between pitchers Gerrit Cole in the AL dugout and Max Fried in the NL dugout was funny, agreeing that pitchers should never get in the batter’s box, although Cole proudly pointed out that he has three home runs in his career.

The dialog between Yankee pitcher Nestor Cortes and Yankee catcher Jose Trevino was fascinating, showing the trust between teammates. Maybe not what fans expected, Cortes was the one calling the pitchers.

“Backdoor cutter.”

“Heater up and in.”

Trevino mostly provided encouragement.

“What are you thinking?”

“Get it there!”

Fox’s telecast of the All-Star Game was so introspective and captivating, maybe, but probably not, MLB will allow local teams to put microphones on players so they can show off their personalities. Astros games already are entertaining, mic’ing up players would propel AT&T SportsNet Southwest into must-see (and hear) television.

Wouldn’t it be terrific to hear Geoff Blum, who’s got the balls to do it, asking Jose Altuve, “Whenever the camera is on you, you’re biting your nails … do you have any nails left? Are you chewing nubs by this point?”

Or Blum putting Justin Verlander on the spot, “Are you seriously considering leaving the Astros after this season? The Astros paid you $66 million over the past two years when you were sidelined with Tommy John surgery. Didn’t you hear Klay Thompson on the ESPYS expressing his gratitude to Warriors management for sticking by him when he was injured? Don’t you owe it to the Astros to stay?”

Here’s one I’d love to hear, put a microphone on manager Dusty Baker during a game. Ask him, “Why do you rest multiple players on the same day, especially at home when Houston fans are paying to see their favorite Astros? Why can’t you give players their days off on the road?

Last Friday, the first-place Astros were heavy -205 favorites to beat the last-place A’s at Minute Maid Park. Baker kept Altuve, Yuli Gurriel and Martin Maldonado on the bench. Gurriel is hitting nearly .300 during July, Maldy is hot, and Altuve is … well, Altuve, the most popular player on the team and greatest Astro ever.

The lowly A’s upset the Astros, 5-1. Who knows if the Astros would have won if those three had played, but their chances would have been better. Replacing Altuve in the lineup, Mauricio Dubon entered that game hitting .198, and went 1-4. Subbing for Gurriel, J.J. Matijevic was hitting .154 and went 0-2. Catcher Korey Lee went 0-3.

Beating the A’s counts just as much as beating the Yankees in the final standings. The Astros lost a game they could/should have won. And the hometown fans, some who were attending their one and only Astros game this season, didn’t get to watch Altuve. Not fair to the fans who matter most.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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