Roger Clemens and the Astros would like to hear more stories about the Game. (Daria Debuono/MLB.com)
HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros, hosts of the 75th All-Star Game, have reason to be proud that four National League All-Stars hail from the home team, including the starting pitcher, Roger Clemens.
But when the media decended upon All-Stars Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran in a free-for-all one-hour press conference on Monday, most of the talk surrounded the club's troubled first half rather than how thrilling it is to be an All-Star.
Amid recent speculation that bordered on the ridiculous (Clemens being traded to the New York Yankees) to the semi-believable (Carlos Beltran being re-traded at the July 31 deadline or Jeff Kent being asked to waive his no-trade clause) to what has been perceived by many fans as the inevitable (manager Jimy Williams being dismissed some time this week), the players are doing their best to keep unnecessary distractions away from the on-field task.
It's not always easy.
"There's all kinds of distractions," Berkman said. "That's why we're supposedly professionals, because we can put those aside and just conentrate on our jobs. Certainly, we've heard the rumors and there have been the swirlings. It's not fun. It's not a good situation when there's so much unrest."
And it all stems from too many losses, as evidenced by Houston's recent 2-5 swing through Southern California. Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Dodgers, the Astros' third in four games in LA, made fans wonder if that game was Williams' last as an Astro.
"When the team's losing, it seems like people are looking for the reasons why, and rightly so," Berkman said. "People want to point fingers. When you're winning, everything's fine. If you're winning with a guy that's hitting .210 in the lineup, he stays in the lineup. Nobody questions it.
"Sometimes people think, 'Well, if we change this or tweak this or just change atmosphere a little bit, maybe that will have a ripple effect on the team.' It's worked in the past, but it also hasn't worked in the past. I [don't know] what difference it would make if they bring in a new manager, because it's like a chemistry set when you're a kid. You just don't know until you kind of mix all those ingredients if it's going to blow the house up or not."
Kent, Berkman and Beltran were all in agreement that they do not believe the Astros are out of the race. But with a 10 1/2-game deficit to the St. Louis Cardinals with 74 games remaining in the regular season, they are also aware that their best chance to get to the playoffs is probably via the Wild Card. In that race, they are 4 1/2 games back.
"We're not trying for the Wild Card, we still want to shoot for our division," Kent said. "But it's something that you can fall back on a little bit. I think we're coming to the realization now, that yeah, we're not playing good baseball. But the Cardinals are playing some phenomenal baseball. They're making us look that much more bad than we really are."
Berkman had little explanation for the free fall that dropped the 44-44 Astros to the .500 mark for the first time since the first week of the season. He also did not try to make the Astros sound better than they are.
"You're not owed anything," he said. "You're never due in this game. It's all about executing. We haven't played well. It's not shocking that when you don't play well against other Major League-caliber players and teams, that you get beat. Plain and simple, we have not played good baseball."
"I was talking yesterday to [Raul] Chavez, the catcher," Beltran said. "And I said, 'Man, I can't believe this. I look around at [Jeff] Bagwell, [Craig] Biggio, Kent, Berkman, myself, [Adam] Everett ... I look at the pitching staff, Roger,
[Andy] Pettitte, [Roy] Oswalt ... I can't believe it.
"We start hitting the ball hard right at people. The other team is getting jam shots and everything falls. Everything we hit, we don't find the hole. When you're doing good, none of those things happen. But when you're doing bad, a lot of bad things happen."
The Astros' All-Stars were grateful for this week's break, one that will allow for them to have a couple of no-pressure days at their home ballpark while the rest of their teammates, they hope, are not thinking about anything but taking a much-needed breather.
Jeff Kent / 2B
Weight: 210 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"This game is fun because there's not the pressure," Berkman said. "Of course you're going out there to win it. You're not going to go out there to try to embarrass yourself or to strike out or anything like that. But it's not the same as a regular-season game with the pressure to perform.
"One of my favorite parts about it is being in the same locker room as the same guys you compete against all the time. I've got friends on other teams. Some of them are here and it's going to be fun to catch up and just kind of hang out with
Kent expects jitters when he's introduced in front of his hometown fans.
"I'll be nervous out there because it'll be here at home," he said. "I've played the game a long time. I don't think I've ever played a game in the last 10 years where I've been real nervous in front of the home crowd. But I will here."
Beltran, who was named an eligible All-Star when he replaced the injured Sean Casey on the NL roster, hopes Major League Baseball will take another look at the rule that deemed him ineligible to be an NL All-Star upon being traded from the American League Kansas City Royals.
"If you are traded, they need to come up with a better rule than, 'Don't let that guy play,'" Beltran said. "You've got to come up with a rule that no matter if he's traded from the National League to the American League or the American League to the National League, you need to find a way to put that guy on the roster, without taking someone's spot. It would have been very disappointing for me if they didn't let me play."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.