By Marc Campos

A Latino Ballplayer
Worth Watching

Willie Taveras, the 23-year old rookie starting center fielder for the Houston Astros, hit his first career home run last night. It was a shot off of the left-center field facade. When Taveras crossed home plate, he was greeted and congratulated by the next batter. The rest of the players high fived him in the dugout. Commentary's guest opined that the entire dugout should have emptied and all the players should have met him at home plate in a sort of mini-celebration, after all, it was his first major league career dinger. The home run increased the Astros lead over the dreaded Braves to 5 to 3, which ended up being the final score.

A discussion between Commentary and the guest ensued over the missing celebration Commentary pointed out that maybe baseball tradition does not call for this - why show up the other team or other pitcher. Commentary went on to say that maybe there would be some sort of celebratory ritual in the team's clubhouse after the game. Guest said bs, and injected that Taveras was dissed by his teammates.

Regardless, Taveras is hitting .286, has four stolen bases, is fast, has a great arm, and can cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Local radio sports talk callers are urging Astros Manager Phil Garner to move up Taveras from his current 8th position in the batting order to leadoff. So far, Taveras is holding up his end and dealing with the pressures of the big leagues.

Taveras also seems to be moving in the direction of replacing Carlos Beltran as the Astro local Latinos want to get behind. Added pressure. When Beltran opted to sign with the Mets, many local Latinos were disappointed. Latinos love the Rocket, Baggy, Bidge, Lidge, and Roy O., but they also would like to be able to root for a Latino - and this Taveras definitely has the potential. If it goes well, maybe he'll even get his mug on next year's tickets and calendars. Let me explain.

Like any major league baseball club, the Astros have to market their team and sell tickets. Part of the marketing strategy includes having pictures of key - marketable - players on the seasons tickets. This year's ticket stars are Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance "Alworth" Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte - all blue eyes. Another marketing tool is the giveaway calendar. Same six plus Jason Lane, Morgan Ensberg, Brad Lidge, Brandon Backe, Adam Everett, and Jose Vizcaino. Five more blue eyes and a Latino.

Commentary certainly does not want to engage in a full blown debate on Astros' diversity. On the roster with Taveras and Viz are Raul Chavez, Orlando Palmeiro and John Franco. Zilch when it comes to African Americans. The Astros acknowledge they have work to do and the new general manager, Tim Purpura, is addressing this concern. Commentary has confidence that progress will be made.

For now, in order for this Astros team to contend and make the playoffs, they need a center fielder that can do what a center fielder is supposed to do - field, run, hit, steal bases, and throw out runners. Taveras looks like he can handle it all. He's worth watching and has the potential to punch his own ticket.

April 20, 2005, 9:00AM

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