Astros trio's bond goes way back

Trio hopes to apply what they learned in college

HOUSTON -- Camaraderie is at an all-time high in organized sports, regardless of the level of play. When elite athletes are thrown together with one common goal, the bonding rituals just happen naturally.

But there's something to be said about teammates who are not only close now, but knew each other way back when -- before they were stars.

Much of the Astros' roster is comprised of players who came up through the Minor League system together. But a trio of teammates -- Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Eric Munson -- have a lineage that goes back further. They played together for the University of Southern California, and in 1998, they reached what was at the time the pinnacle of their baseball lives -- a College World Series title.

What are the odds that they would all be together again, in the big leagues?

"It might not be uncommon to have three guys from the same college spanning over different times," Ensberg said. "But three guys from the exact same team is really unique."

The positions were the same -- Ensberg was a third baseman, Munson a catcher and Lane a right fielder, although he did pitch here and there. Under coach Mike Gillespie, USC's players were taught about unselfish play, about the team concept, about favorable conduct not only on the field, but away from the ballpark, too.

That type of coaching was good preparation for life in the big leagues. Little did Ensberg, Lane and Munson know that they'd be applying those lessons at the same time, for the same team.

"Your friends from college, those are close bonding relationships," Ensberg said. "We talk about that stuff all the time, being here in the big leagues together."

Like many people, even big leaguers look back at college as a special time, regardless of how successful they've gone on to become.

"College baseball is a lot different than professional baseball," Ensberg said. "I'm not talking about aluminum bats and so forth. You play four games a week, and it's max effort. You're hanging out with the guys non-stop. It's a different mindset. You really become close to the guys -- there's nothing like it."

In the big leagues, players are encouraged to remain calm, not to get too high or low after wins and losses and pace themselves over a long season.

Ensberg acknowledged he has a bond with Lane and Munson that is unmatched by any relationship he has with his other teammates.

"No question about it," he said. "When you spend the younger years of your life -- and college obviously is a transition of being a kid into adulthood -- there's unique protection. You're reliant on your parents, yet your parents don't tell you what to do anymore. There's a certain freedom you all are brand new to. You hang out and everything is fun. It's like Disneyland, for 18 to 22 year olds."

That feeling is even more enhanced for a talented group of ballplayers who band together to win a national championship.

"When you did what we did at school ... it's not like this [Major League] level, but still, winning a World Series in college is a pretty good deal," Munson said. "You're always going to remember that. Obviously, you're going to feel something different for guys that you played with on a team like that."

Lane and Ensberg were drafted by the Astros -- Ensberg in 1998 and Lane in '99 -- and they crossed paths, briefly, once in the Minor Leagues. That was 2002, when they landed at Triple-A for half a season or so. They became full-time Astros teammates beginning in 2004.

Munson, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Tigers, joined his former college teammates this year in Spring Training after signing with Houston as a non-roster invitee. He felt an immediate comfort level because of Lane and Ensberg, and while he would have been elated making any team out of Spring Training, the fact that he broke camp with two old friends made the transition even easier.

"Talking to him in Spring Training, one of the first things he said was how much he enjoyed it here, whether he made the team or not," Lane said of Munson. "He was happy to be in this organization and liked how things were going, and he felt like he had a future here."

Ensberg and Lane reached the Major League World Series together in 2005. But the memories of their care-free days as members of one of the top baseball programs in the country will always stand out as some of the greatest of their lives.

"Getting to the College World Series was the end-all, be all," Ensberg said. "Winning it was the end-all, be all. It's the gretest thing you can do at that time.

"Our teams were very close. Our teams were very much like this team. We were very similar, guys who respected each other. We were fun, we enjoyed having a good time."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.