Longtime teammates honored on field, throw out ceremonial first pitch
HOUSTON -- Even if they hadn't signed one-day contracts in order to officially retire as Houston Astros, was there really ever a doubt to which team Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt would forever be tied?
But Saturday's ceremony cemented it. In front of a roomful of reporters and the entire current Astros team, Berkman and Oswalt -- two players whose contributions shaped one of the best eras in franchise history -- put pen to paper and joined a very small list of team legends that can say they retired, officially, as Astros.
"Regardless of whether we had come back and signed an official contract, in my heart I would always be a Houston Astro," Berkman said. "It's just great to get a chance to formally or publicly acknowledge that and put a period at the end of the sentence."
The contracts made financial sense for the team (salary: $0) and symbolic sense for a fan base that for 10 solid years watched Berkman and Oswalt blossom into elite, All-Star-caliber players. The two helped bring a World Series appearance to a pennant-starved city, all while compiling numbers that sit in the record books as among the very best.
Team president Reid Ryan read the "terms" of the one-day deals:
"The scope of your work is to allow the Houston Astros to recognize and appreciate the legacy and memories created throughout the years you wore an Astros uniform, to throw a ceremonial first pitch and speak to your adoring fans," Ryan said. "To talk about your illustrious career with Astros television and radio, and to enjoy the game with your family and friends and biggest supporters."
Berkman and Oswalt reflected back on their years with the Astros with a bit of wistfulness and a lot of humor. Much of the talk surrounded what life was like when the team was rolling and Minute Maid Park was rocking, and playing in front of packed houses every night with a very real shot to still be doing so in October.
As the two retirees spoke directly to the current players, they emphasized the importance of the domino effect that winning has on the atmosphere at the ballpark.
"In 2004, '05, '06, there was not one meaningless game from start to finish," Berkman said. "You came to the ballpark every day and it was like Game 7. We had to win. You get into September and you're like, 'Man we have no margin at all. We have to win every single game.'"
Added Oswalt: "We'd come to the park and it was 40,000 every night. It didn't matter if it was during the school week or whatever. We had tremendous fan support. We were winning. When you have that type of fan support, it makes you want to come to the ballpark."
A healthy crowd of 28,515 showed up at Minute Maid Park to salute Berkman and Oswalt during an elaborate pregame ceremony celebrating their career highlights. They were presented with several gifts: framed 2005 World Series jerseys, personalized rocking chairs to, as emcee Milo Hamilton phrased it, "enjoy throughout retirement," and custom Stetson cowboy hats.
Additionally, two Texas flags that flew over the state capital in Austin Saturday will be framed and given to each, representing their time in Texas.
The Astros also ran a video tribute with well wishes from Nolan Ryan, Brad Ausmus, Jake Peavy, Tony La Russa, Rice baseball coach Wayne Graham, Albert Pujols, Andy Pettitte, Craig Biggio and Adam Everett.
Dual ceremonial first pitches completed the pregame pageantry, and the two walked off the field together -- a fitting picture, given what they accomplished as homegrown players, teammates and winners, perfectly representing everything the Astros organization prided itself on.
Berkman, a six-time All-Star and five-time team MVP, reached 100 RBIs six times in his career, 30 home runs six times, 40 home runs twice, and he hit .300 five times. He set a club record with 136 RBIs in 2006 and finished his career with a .293 batting average and 366 home runs.
Oswalt twice won 20 games (2004-05) and won 15 or more games five times. He is the only Houston pitcher to be named to three consecutive All-Star Games, and his eight straight Opening Day starts is a club record. He was named the '05 NLCS MVP, pitching the pennant-clincher in St. Louis.
Both were drafted by the team they retired with. Berkman was the Astros' first round selection in '97, while Oswalt was taken in the 23rd round in '96.
Playing together for as long as they did made retiring together a meaningful moment for both. "To go out with Lance means a lot," Oswalt said. "Great guy, great teammate. We had some good times together for 10 years here. The best thing you carry with you is memories, and Lance is one of the best players and best people I've been around." Each spoke glowingly about Astros history and the unbreakable ties every generation of players has to the ones that came before them, and after.
"It was such a great organization to be in for so many years," Berkman said. "To be considered among the better players in the franchise ... you think of the Jose Cruzes and the Nolan Ryans and the [Jeff] Bagwells and the Biggios and the Brad Ausmuses. Going back through the history of this great franchise, it's special. It's what sets apart this organization from the others."