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Purpura must plan Astros' future now
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Tim Purpura's low-key exterior masks a strong sense of ambition and drive. He always wanted to work in a baseball front office, so years ago he approached longtime executive Roland Hemond at a game in San Diego and asked for pointers on achieving that goal.
"Go to law school," Hemond told Purpura, "because pretty soon the lawyers are going to be running baseball."
Purpura, a self-directed young man, heeded Hemond's advice, obtaining his degree from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego in 1992. Then he rounded out his portfolio, taking an internship with the Angels, running the Arizona Fall League, and spending 11 years in the Astros' front office as assistant general manager and farm director.
Along the way, Purpura developed an appreciation for a dollar well spent and the importance of patience in formulating long-term goals. He also came to understand the contribution of scouts who sit under a hot sun trying to find players, and minor league managers and coaches who work long hours for low pay trying to develop them.
Purpura gained a grassroots knowledge of baseball quietly and efficiently, and probably thought it would end with a role as a faithful organizational soldier.
He thought wrong.
Next In Line
When general manager Gerry Hunsicker unexpectedly resigned in early November, the Astros replaced him with Purpura, 46. The move was so in keeping with Houston's mindset of developing from within that Hunsicker called Purpura the "Jason Lane of the front office," in reference to the Astros outfield prospect who's still waiting for his shot.
Purpura, in the words of club president Tal Smith, jumped into his new role "feet first." He hired interim manager Phil Garner to a two-year contract, added Cecil Cooper and Doug Mansolino to the coaching staff, and digested the news that right fielder Lance Berkman will be out as long as six months after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament playing flag football at a church function.
Now things really get interesting. The Astros, who pushed the Cardinals to the limit in the National League Championship Series, have several decisions in the coming weeks that will help shape the future of the franchise.
The biggest item on Purpura's agenda is signing free-agent outfielder Carlos Beltran, who's currently trapped between two worlds. On the one hand, Beltran found a comfort zone in Houston after coming over from the Royals by trade in June. Astros fans embraced Beltran when he hit .435 with eight home runs in the postseason, and now they're starting Websites and online petitions to persuade him to stay in Texas.
At the same time, Beltran seems to have economic expectations that aren't in keeping with the traditional Astros mindset. Agent Scott Boras has anointed him an "icon player," which means 10 years and $200 million. Even though no team is likely to meet that price, it seems exorbitant enough to eliminate the Astros from the outset.
But Purpura is upbeat about Beltran because Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. is relentlessly competitive, and the team's financial picture is about to improve with the advent of the Houston Regional Sports Network in 2005. He also believes the Astros are strong in intangibles.
"I'm very optimistic we're going to be in this to the end," Purpura said. "Number one, here's a player who just experienced a winning atmosphere for first time in career. That's always a special thing. He has great teammates that he grew fond of, and he's a really centered, religious person who fits in well with our ballclub."
At some point soon, Purpura will also have to determine if the Astros want to re-sign second baseman Jeff Kent and make more than one-year commitments to Berkman and pitchers Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, all of whom are eligible for salary arbitration in the spring.
And of course, there's the fate of pitcher Roger Clemens, who's deciding whether he wants to play another year at 42. Purpura is cautiously optimistic about the Rocket for two reasons: The Astros will continue to allow Clemens a flexible schedule that permits him to spend time with his family during the season; and he thinks Clemens has "unfinished business" in his quest to win a World Series with good friend Andy Pettitte, who made only 15 starts last season because of elbow problems.
The Berkman flag football injury put Purpura's damage control skills to the test out of the chute. If Astros fans were expecting outrage, they came to the wrong place.
"No club can exercise control over players in their personal lives," Purpura said. "You can't expect a young man to sit around the house all day from the end of the season until February. Sometimes things happen that shouldn't happen, but you have to deal with it and go from there. Lance learned his lesson the hard way."
Dealing With Drayton
While Hunsicker was widely regarded as one of baseball's top general managers, his strong-willed approached wasn't always suited to peaceful co-existence with McLane, who runs his team with the same gung-ho, backslapping fervor that he employed while running his grocery distribution business. When McLane isn't in the stands chatting up ushers, he's in the clubhouse talking to players—a practice that grated on Hunsicker.
Purpura's lower-key style isn't necessarily better, but might be better suited to a harmonious rapport with the boss. Smith insists that McLane isn't a meddler in baseball decisions, even though he's stuck with that reputation for life.
"That's just Drayton's personality," Smith said. "His prior business background was based on customer service and concern for his customers. Sam Walton was a very dear friend of his, and there are some similarities there in terms of personal interest and motivation and cheering and support, but not from a standpoint of making baseball decisions. Drayton's never done that."
Paul Ricciarini, who has assumed an expanded role as Astros scouting director, admires Hunsicker for his intelligence and decisiveness and characterizes Purpura as an exceptional listener and delegator. "He's one of the best-kept secrets in the game," Ricciarini said.
Recently Ricciarini was talking to the Astros' new GM and casually referred to him as "boss." Purpura quickly set that practice to rest.
"He told me, 'I don't like being called 'boss,' because we're partners,' " Ricciarini said. "That attitude alone represents what Tim is all about."
After this year's success, things aren't going to get any easier in Houston. As the new head man, Purpura will take pains to solicit input from his staff before making the tough calls. Then he'll get a large share of the credit or a disproportionate share of the blame. It doesn't take a lawyer to figure that one out.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.