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New York Yankee Derek Jeter begins his farewell season tonight with a game against the Houston Astros. (MGNonline)

New York Yankee Derek Jeter begins his farewell season tonight with a game against the Houston Astros. (MGNonline)

Old friends to help Astros open season

Last Modified: Tuesday, April 01, 2014 3:54 PM

a href=""> By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Nolan Ryan is back.

Criag Biggio will also be back.

And Derek Jeter will be on hand to begin his farewell tour.

Everywhere you turn, big names will be on hand as the Astros open the new season tonight against the New York Yankees.

But what the Houston front office is hoping for is that the names fans remember by season’s end will be the ones which were penciled into the starting lineup today by manager Bo Porter.

The latest in a long line of rebuilding seasons starts with a team at the complete opposite of the baseball universe, the Yankees.

With all their championship rings and Hall of Fame players, the Yankees are baseball’s elite.

The Astros enter this season as peasants.

“I guess we’re the underdogs,” said outfielder Dexter Fowler, whom the Astros traded for in the offseason.

Fowler enters the season as the second-highest paid Astro at $7.8 million, trailing only free-agent pitcher Scott Feldman, who tops off Houston’s salary list at $12 million.

As a team the Astros have the lowest payroll at $44.5 million and change. Across the field from them are the Yankees, baseball’s haves in this game against the have nots.

New York is second in salary payroll at $204 million and even more change, some five-times more than Houston’s. The Dodgers are tops in baseball at $234 million.

To show the really difference, two Yankees — Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia — will make as much this year as the Astros’ complete opening day roster.

So yes, the Astros are underdogs.

“People are going to take us lightly,” said Fowler. “Hopefully we’ll show them pretty quickly that can’t be the case.”

It has been in each of the last three years, as the Astros have lost 100-plus games and been out of playoff contention realistically by June 1.

There is no cry about going from worst to first, no talk of a miracle run to any A.L. West title. There is just a message that this front office has a plan and that plan will work in time.

For this year it is all about getting better.

“It’s extremely important to finish better than we did last year,” Porter said on the team’s website. “As an organization, we went through what we went through last year in order to take steps forward this year. It’s extremely important for us to improve on the win-loss record, and that’s what I said to the group early in camp: ‘We should set out to be the most-improved team in Major League Baseball, from a win-loss standpoint.’ ”

Clearly the biggest name on the field will be Jeter, who has already announced his retirement at season’s end.

“I’m trying to treat it like any other opening day, and every opening day is special where you have butterflies and you have nerves and I think that’s a good thing,” Jeter told the Associated Press. “I don’t foresee this being any different.”

The Astros hope it is at least the start of something different for them. They don’t want a fourth straight year of losing more than 100 games. Last season they and their fans had to suffer through a franchise record 111.

“It’s our goal to be the most improved team,” said Porter.

They clearly have the best chance since they have been the game’s worst.

Owner Jim Crane said last week during the final days of spring training that he thought the team would finish .500.

“I’d like to see .500 this year,” Crane said.

He also is quoted in Ultimate Astros as saying he doesn’t want this team to lose 100 again.

“That would not be good,” he said. “We think the team’s good enough to be very competitive and give some people some fits.”

That remains to be seen. First they have to find a way to be competitive in a world that keeps spending money without much consideration.

Teams like the Angels, Yankees and Dodgers, and even Houston’s Texas partner Rangers have signed big television deals while the Astros can’t even be seen here in Lake Charles, two hours away.

Astros officials have told the American Press that they are working on fixing that quickly. However, they said that last year as well, and the problem still exists.

The Astros did make a move to win back the area by bringing the winter caravan to Lake Charles for the first time in several years.

Still, the only thing that will really win fans over is putting a winning product back on the field.

Today, when all hope is new and spring returns to the air, the Astros believe their future is bright.

The Yankees, they begin this season worrying about only the present.

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