By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
That old Thomas Wolfe saying that says something about one not being able to go home again is something that definitely does not apply to Houston Astros centerfielder Michael Bourn.
For the past two years, the former Phillies minor league prospect has certainly come into his own in his hometown. Bourn was traded to the Astros from the Phillies prior to the 2008 season as a part of the deal that brought closer Brad Lidge to Philadelphia.
“I enjoyed my time in the city I’ve lived in all my life,” Bourn said. “Playing in your home town is always a privilege. I try to make the most of it every year. It’s a little different when you play in your hometown. Every year, you gotta be coming with it because that’s where you stay.”
While the trade has certainly been good for the Phillies with Lidge’s success, Houston got a good deal as well their acquisition of Bourn, especially in the last two years.
Since coming to the Astros in 2008, Bourn has led the National League in stolen bases in each of the last two years (2009 and 2010). He also become one of the National League’s better defensive centerfielders, winning the last two National League Gold Glove awards. Bourn also appeared in the 2010 All-Star game.
“We couldn’t have asked any more of this guy to come in and do what he’s done for us,” said former Phillies and current Houston general manager Ed Wade. “I think this goes down as one of those deals that will go down as a deal that absolutely helped both clubs. Lidge comes over here and closes for the World Series club and Michael looks like he’s in the midst of putting together a very solid big league career. He’s a very important part to our ball club.”
What makes Bourn an exciting player to watch is his speed whether it’s on the base paths or in the field. In the huge cavern of an outfield that is Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Bourn has the speed to cover a huge area and is able to track down balls that most outfielders aren’t quick enough to run down.
“He makes center field look very, very small,” said Wade, who drafted Bourn back in 2003 when he was the general manager for the Phillies. “You really don’t appreciate what he does until you see somebody else trying to cover the same ground and you see balls dropping in because Michael makes catches that look easy.
“I’ve gone back after games and watched Sportscenter where they show Michael on the Top 10 plays and it may not have been the top play that he made for us. They don’t show that play that he made in the gap in that well out there.”
As one of the National League’s best base stealers over the last two years, Bourn credits former Phillies and current Los Angeles Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes for making him a more cerebral base stealer rather than relying soley upon his speed by doing such things as reading pitcher’s movement.
“He worked with me a lot and he told that he didn’t have the speed that I had but he knew the technique to get to base-to-base and that’s what helped me out a lot,” Bourn said. “Knowing when to stay down because I would always pop up a lot. I could get there, but I could make it way easier for myself by staying down and just keep going.”
Coming into the majors in 2007 as a highly-touted prospect in the Phillies farm system, Bourn was caught up in a numbers game among Phillies outfielders and got limited playing time behind players like Shane Victorino, Aaron Rowand, and Jayson Werth.
“I’m proud of him,” said former Phillies teammate Ryan Howard. “He always had a positive and was willing to do what he needed to do in order to get an opportunity. If it was coming off the bench, pinch hitting, pinch running and defense, he did it. He just waited for his opportunity and he got his opportunity back in Houston.”
Like any player coming up from the minors for the first time, Bourn was looking to get on the field, but understood that he had to wait his turn and make the most of those rare opportunities he got a chance to play during his days in Philadelphia.
“I was the youngest one on the team at the time,” said Bourn, who won the Paul Owens Award in 2006 as the Phillies best minor league prospect. “That’s how it goes. I was happy to be in the big leagues at the time. I couldn’t really just press my issue. I was a rookie and you just have to take it how it comes sometimes. The coaching staff always worked with me, they always helped me and they got me into play whenever they could.”
Both Wade and Houston manager Brad Mills say that Bourn is getting better every time he steps on the field in the leadoff role for the Astros. They would like to see Bourn do a better job of bunting so he can get on base by utilizing his speed. In 2009, he had a .285 batting average and a .263 batting average in 2010.
“He’s got to continue to bunt for base hits,” Wade said “We continue to impress upon him that a bunt a week could be the difference between being a .250 and a .320 hitter. He showed it in spring training.”
Wade said that Bourn managed to beat out a bunt in spring training against the Yankees in which he bunted a ball that went directly to Alex Rodriguez that he beat out because of his speed. Bourn said he’s going to bunt the ball a lot more in 2011.
“I haven’t gotten a bunt hit all year. Hopefully, I’ll get me one today,” Bourn said laughing before Sunday’s series finale against the Phillies. “That’s one arsenal I want to add to my game throughout the year. I feel like that will open up the field for me in general.”