KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros shortstop Tommy Manzella delayed the start of an interview, saying "I have to pay up." He hadn't lost a bet; he laughed and said, "Lance [Berkman] wants all the young guys to pay off the clubhouse guys before they're sent to the minor leagues."
Manzella is not going to the minor leagues. At age 26, he's scheduled to be the Astros' every-day shortstop. The Astros' philosophy has changed in the past few months; now they're pushing prospects through the system faster, rather than erring on the side of patience. Had this new plan been in operation a few years ago, Manzella might have been in Houston two years ago. But he's here now, and he appears ready to fill an important position on a team that needs a big surprise from someone to be a contender in the NL Central.
"No one has told me, 'Hey, you're the starter,' but I was told when I went home last winter, 'Don't make us have to go get someone; don't make it a tough decision,'" Manzella said. "I'm a believer that a rookie shouldn't be handed anything. It's better to be pushed."
Manzella has been ready to play defense in the big leagues for several years; he has great hands, a strong arm and has excelled with the glove wherever he has been. He has also hit almost everywhere, including last year at Triple-A Round Rock, where he batted .289 with nine home runs and 56 RBIs. "He is Adam Everett [the Astros shortstop from 2001-07], but better offensively," one Astro said. "He'll be fine." Astros manager Brad Mills said Manzella "has done everything right so far."
He will turn 27 on April 16. This is his time.
"I think I'm a little more prepared than most rookies coming in because of my age, and because I played at a major program in college [at Tulane]," Manzella said. "I don't think I will be affected by the extra level, the big atmosphere, of playing in front of big crowds."
Manzella likely will handle the new pressure of the major leagues well, because has already dealt with a lot in his life. His home, the one he grew up in in Louisiana, was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
"It was bad," he said. "There was 10 feet of water inside the house. We had a white awning in the back yard. It was white, and you couldn't even see it. The house is near an oil refinery; there were oil spills. My mom had cancer, and my parents had to move out of there because of the oil. Some people stayed and had to be rescued off the top of their houses."
Manzella was playing in the minor leagues when Katrina hit.
"We stayed up all night watching," he said. "It looked like it wasn't going to be that bad, then the levee broke. We lost almost everything. My dad and I went back to see the house. We looked through the window and saw a shelf in my closet with things stacked down pretty tight. We put a big pole through the window and fished out some of my jerseys from high school and Tulane, and the Astros jersey I wore when I took BP after I signed [in 2005]. It was really weird. There were some plaques on the wall. There was still a phone hanging up on the wall, but the sofa was in the middle of the pool in the backyard."
Manzella's mom died of cancer a year and a half ago, which provided another setback. But he made his major league debut in September, playing in seven games. "I didn't get to play much," he said, "but I knocked out a lot of questions about what life in the big leagues is like."
Now the Astros are counting on him to fill one of two major holes on their team (the other being catcher). There is nothing to suggest that Manzella won't be able to keep the job. He's bright, and he doesn't seem to be overwhelmed in any way by the job at hand. Teammates have had fun with him this spring about being a huge Saints fan. In the clubhouse, Astros coach Dave Clark walked past him and yelled "Who Dat?"
"They're all over me," Manzella said. "My family has had season tickets for years. I don't miss Saints games. I go to all of them." He was able to attend all those games because his minor league season usually ended in time to be at the Saints' season opener in September. That won't be the case this season, because he will be in Houston in September.
"If we make the playoffs," Manzella said, "I would be happy to miss all the Saints' games."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.