HOUSTON -- It was on the same City Hall steps where nine years earlier the Astros held a massive pep rally for their fans after winning their only National League pennant and falling short in the World Series to the Chicago White Sox.
The crowd was smaller on Tuesday for the Astros Winter Caravan stop, but that's why the Astros are here and at several other points around Texas. The team is reaching out to its fan base like never before during the annual fan outreach tour with a busy schedule that includes most of the players on the 25-man roster as well as manager Bo Porter and other staff.
Astros owner Jim Crane talked about the fan support in front of City Hall on Tuesday before raising an Astros flag in a ceremony that included pitchers Brett Oberholtzer and Anthony Bass, former pitcher Doug Brocail and Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton.
"There's probably twice as many [Caravan stops] as we did last year and it should get our fans excited for the improvements we've made this year to the team and the new players we signed and the new guys we brought in and the guys coming up," Crane said. "We think it should have a good impact on getting some people in the ballpark and seeing the product."
The Astros, coming off three seasons of more than 100 losses, believe they'll be improved this year as several of their top prospects hit Houston. They've also spent money in free agency for the first time in a couple of years, and Crane wants the fans to know the team is on the right track.
"We're just getting the fans knowledgeable about what we've done and how we've improved the team and make sure we communicate with them and let them know we appreciate their support," he said. "It's a great baseball town, and we need them to get to the ballpark and cheer us on."
Cosart visits old high school as hero on Caravan stop
LEAGUE CITY, Texas -- Only a few years earlier, Jarred Cosart was one of the thousands of ordinary students wandering the hall of Clear Creek High School, about 27 miles south of Houston. His return Tuesday signaled he was anything but ordinary.
The Astros' up-and-coming right-hander was met with a rock-star reception when he joined new teammate Jesse Crain and manager Bo Porter at a pep rally as part of the Astros Caravan. Cosart signed autographs for teachers and staffers in the library before speaking to a gym full of students who were as excited to see the pitcher as they were to be out of class.
"It's pretty cool, it's pretty surreal," he said. "A lot's changed since I've been here, even though it hasn't been that long. Things look a lot different, but it's still the same old Clear Creek that I know and will always have a place with me because I played baseball here for three years and it was the building block of going forward to getting to where I am now."
When asked if he was the same kid who graduated in 2008, Cosart admitted he'd changed.
"I'm probably a little more talkative," he said. "I was the focus-on-baseball-and-not-say-much guy in high school, and I haven't changed much."
Cosart said many of the teachers he was looking forward to seeing no longer worked for the school, but he was able to be reunited with his former high school coach. Jim Mallory won 584 games in 33 years as head coach of the Wildcats.
"He's a legend in Houston," Cosart said. "He retired two years ago and he's living his life and I'm kind of doing the same thing. I'm sure we'll talk baseball. That's kind of how it always is. He was a great influence on a lot of people who came here and a lot of people outside of here. I'm excited to see what he's doing with this life."
Mallory coached three Major League players in his more than three decades of coaching, with Cosart and Jay Buhner at Clear Creek and Glenn Wilson at nearby Channelview High School. He was beaming with pride over Cosart.
"He's got a good support program here," he said. "I don't think he realizes it. So many people are proud of him, not only here in Clear Creek High School, but the Houston area, especially League City. He's a good guy. He's one of those success stories you like to see in a young man."
Caravan stop in Alvin brings back memories for Ryan
ALVIN, Texas -- When he was younger, Reid Ryan used to ride his bike around the streets that border what is now the Nolan Ryan Welcome Center in his hometown, just south of Houston. That made the exhibit located on the campus of Alvin Community College a perfect spot for an Astros Caravan stop on Tuesday.
Ryan, who grew up in the same hometown as his Hall of Fame father, joined pitchers Brett Oberholtzer and Anthony Bass, former pitcher Doug Brocail and Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton on a tour through the small town.
The Caravan began with a visit to Whataburger before Reid Ryan, the Astros president of business operations, gave Oberholtzer and Bass a tour of the exhibit that includes Nolan Ryan memorabilia from his days growing up in Alvin and in the Major Leagues.
The group raised an Astros flag outside the center.
"This is very exciting to be back in Alvin and my hometown," said Ryan, who addressed the Alvin Lions Club later in the day at Joe's Barbeque Company. "There are so many wonderful memories here and so many wonderful people."
Hamilton has some fond memories of Alvin, as well. He used to drive to the town to ride with Nolan on hunting trips to south Texas.
"I used to come out here about 4:30 in the morning and get in Nolan's pickup and put Betsy [a dog] in the back and we'd go down to Corpus Christi, Hebronville and George West and go bird hunting," Hamilton said.
Oberholtzer said the trip was meaningful considering he grew up idolizing Ryan at a young age.
"He's a guy a lot of us wanted to be like," he said. "He was intimidating. I was a fan of him. I was a big fan of Roger Clemens, and he emulated Nolan Ryan a lot. It's just great. It means a lot for us to pay homage to the people that have done it before us, and Nolan Ryan is the epitome of that. "
MLB could help Astros get increased TV distribution
HOUSTON -- Astros owner Jim Crane said the team has been told by Major League Baseball it could have its games available this season to a larger portion of the Houston market even if it isn't able to work out a deal for wider television coverage.
The Astros have been negotiating for more than a year to get their games carried on providers other than Comcast, which is available in about only 40 percent of the market. The two sides have been in court for months, with the NBA's Houston Rockets -- who co-own Comcast SportsNet along with the Astros and Comcast -- now leading the negotiations for a deal.
Crane said Tuesday MLB has told him games could be produced by MLB Network and made available both on the television and online.
"Depending on what happens with the network and if that doesn't move forward, baseball and the MLB Network is willing to help us produce the games if necessary," Crane said. "We've got a backup plan for the backup plan, and the key is to get the games on for everybody to watch."
Last year, Comcast filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition on behalf of the regional sports partnership between the Rockets, Astros and Comcast. A bankruptcy judge is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter Feb. 4.
"Hopefully they bring something to the table by the fourth," Crane said. "If not, there will be some decisions made pretty quickly on whether this thing goes into bankruptcy or gets kicked out of bankruptcy. That's probably the first move. We feel comfortable something will get done and the fans are going to get to watch the games."
Crane: Astros have made an attempt to land Tanaka
HOUSTON -- While the Astros aren't believed to be one of the five teams that are in the forefront for the race to land Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, owner Jim Crane acknowledged Tuesday the club has made a push to sign him.
"We have an interest in Tanaka," said Crane, who added he hadn't been updated by general manager Jeff Luhnow on Tuesday about where the Astros stand. "I know he's been working on it, so I don't have any breaking news."
The Astros have long been considered a long shot to sign Tanaka, but it certainly doesn't hurt for them to go through the process. It's not known whether the Astros submitted a formal offer.
The team deadline for teams to complete a deal with Tanaka is 4 p.m. CT on Friday, and the Cubs, White Sox, Yankees, Dodgers and D-backs are the favorites to land the right-hander, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan last season.
"It says we're interested in picking up a very quality pitcher to bolster our rotation," Crane said. "We think we've got some guys coming up, and in a few years you could look with [Mark] Appel and a few of the other guys on the team, one of the best starting rotations in baseball if we were able to add him in there. We do have some talent besides that. We'll draft first again this year and that very well could be a pitcher. You'll see a strong starting rotation here very soon."
• Crane is heading to Florida on Wednesday to meet with the Palm Beach County commissioner regarding a new Spring Training site. The Astros are trying to build a new two-team facility in the area, but were recently rebuffed by Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
• Crane reiterated he would like to have Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan -- father of Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan -- join the organization at some point and hopes to visit with him pretty soon. He said there's some interest from Ryan if it's the "right opportunity" for him.