When you make all the plays every day," Houston Astro Third Baseman Bob Aspromonte told himself, "you're allowed to make an error every once in a while.
"But," Aspromonte replied, "they pay their $3.50. It's their privilege to boo if they want to."
Aspromonte is an aboriginal Astro, a $75,000 offering from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the expansion draft of 1961. He had been a Colt .45 for 442 games before the Houston décor was changed from Old West to inner space, and naturally he had made some errors in all that time. Perhaps a few were just as unnecessary as the potsy toss he had made over his first baseman's head in the second inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies to hand the Phils four unearned runs and the ball game.
But Bob Aspromonte had never been booed by an Astrodome crowd before and he was trying to explain the phenomenon to himself. The benign Houstonians hadn't just booed his error; they had gotten on him. They had hooted when his sharp rap to shortstop was converted into an out by Dick Groat, and they had cheered sarcastically when Aspromonte caught a simple pop fly.
"The wolves were out tonight," said Catcher John Bateman, the shop steward. "It sounded like Philadelphia."
It didn't sound like Houston, where the customers dutifully chant, "Go, go, go," on the cue of the electronic monster scoreboard in center field, then promptly, unanimously desist—as if somebody had pulled the plug—when the sign goes off. The maledictions against Aspromonte were a rare, almost unprecedented occasion of spontaneity by patrons who obey the big board as unquestioningly as hotel guests in a "Simon says" game in the Catskills. Last year even their abuse of umpires had audio-visual inspiration, until National League President Warren Giles ordered his son, Bill, the Astros' vice-president in charge of enthusiasm, to knock it off.
Clearly, the Astros were now facing the ordeal of success, and Aspromonte had felt the first pangs. To err is human when you're in ninth place. But the Astros had been second for 12 days. The altitude was just getting to the players, but the fans felt it first.
Truly, it was a dizzying time. One night the Phillies' Tony Taylor missed a 2-2 pitch for what appeared to be the final out, and Bill Giles, with his finger on the manic button, caused the words WE WIN to appear in giant letters in center field. Many in the crowd of 30,229 stood and applauded and some turned for the exits. Those watching the game saw the plate umpire signal a foul tip, and on the next pitch Taylor singled the contest into extra innings.
"We" did win in the 11th, on a third hit by the many-splendored young center fielder, Jimmy Wynn, and Houston baseball had attained its finest hour since the Texas League Buffs won the Dixie Series. In the clubhouse Manager Grady Hatton had a phone call from Astros' President Roy Hofheinz, ruler of 88% of all he surveys from his superbox in right center field. The Judge wanted Grady to come up and meet some millionaires and said it didn't really matter that Hatton had come to work in a sport shirt.
For the next two days the 474-foot, 300-ton scoreboard complex acted almost like a scoreboard. Giles concentrated on commercials for coming attractions like an Andy Williams-Henry Mancini concert, the circus and the return of Kolonel Keds, the human rocket man. Meanwhile the Astros scored one run off Jim Bunning on Sunday and none off Larry Jackson the following night. The Astros' deficiencies were beginning to show.
"I've created a monster," Hatton said when he started Relief Pitcher Mike Cuellar against the Phillies. After four starts Cuellar had an earned run average of 1.29. He shut Philadelphia out for 4‚Öî innings and then slammed his glove to the ground. He had pulled a muscle in his side and would be out for at least two weeks. That left Hatton with no—none at all—left-handed pitching, but he saw no reason to put Cuellar on the disabled list. "There's nobody to bring up," he said.
Hatton had no second-place team. It will have to scramble to make sixth place, an improvement that would be regarded as remarkable by fans unspoiled by the early spurt of success. But Hatton has some good players who believe he is a good manager, and in his maiden big-league venture he has had a free hand to run the team his way. "The Judge doesn't pretend to know players. Hell, he says if he were the manager, J. C. Hartman [a ballplaying barber who was tried in 1962 and 1963 and found wanting] would be the shortstop."
Hatton's way, a managing blend he learned from stern, avuncular Bill McKechnie in Cincinnati and laissez-faire Mike Higgins in Boston, is to be "close" to the ballplayers. "I think a manager should know every little thing he can about his men," Hatton says. "I have no problem finding out what they can do on the field. They say Lyndon Johnson can remember your name five years later. I might not know yours next week, but I can remember everything I ever saw a player do. Any of us can.
"The trick is to get to know the personal things: what will make a man go and what little things irk him; who has to be patted on the back and kicked in the tail at the same time. That's why, if a man has a money problem, or a wife problem, or anything is bugging him, his manager ought to know it."
The 150-pound second baseman, Joe Morgan (see cover), 22 years old and unmarried, had very few problems the first seven weeks of the season. He had solved one during the winter. He had hit 14 home runs in 1965, his rookie year, "and .271," he said. "There's nothing wrong with hitting .271 if you have 20 home runs to go with it. But I can't hit 20, so I'm going to hit .300. I thought during the winter of all the times I got ahead of the pitcher and went for the home run, and I decided there was no future in it. You can be just as valuable hitting .300. Anyway, I'm going to see if you can." As a matter of record, he has been hitting closer to .350.
Morgan likes Hatton's approach in two ways. "In the 11th inning against the Phillies," he said, "there were runners at first and second and none out and the manager made me bunt. I'd have liked the chance to hit and bat in the run, but the idea is to win. The bunt was the right play." It surely was. Morgan beat it out to fill the bases, and a few minutes later WE WIN went up on the big board.
"The man has given us confidence," Morgan said. "No, not me individually, because I thought I was a good player last year. But if you watch this club you'll see it's a team effort. We think we can win as a team because the manager believes it. Will we be a good team? I think we are now, and we'll keep improving if we keep pulling together."
Morgan believes his second-base playmate, Sonny Jackson, covers as much ground as any shortstop in the business. This is important to Morgan, who does not cover quite as much ground as any second baseman in the business. "I think I cover the ground," Morgan says, "but I still make errors on routine plays." He then recounted in detail four errors he had made, one on a line drive. "It wasn't an easy play," Morgan said, "but you shouldn't miss a line drive."
Jackson, who claims to weigh 155, makes the play behind second base as well as any shortstop in recent years, but he gives one pause when he goes into the hole to his right. He will get the ball, but will he get it to first? "My arm is strong enough," he says, displaying an arm that appears strong enough for caber throwing. "But I have been erratic. No, the glasses are just for a slight nearsightedness. I don't wear them all the time. I could play without them."
So Morgan works to perfect his glove, and Jackson his arm. Jim Wynn, the big man at 170 pounds in the most interesting and probably the fastest triple act in baseball (Wynn stole 43 bases and Morgan 20 for Houston last year, while Jackson had 52 at Oklahoma City), just works to perfect. Nobody has yet found any glaring defect in his manner of hitting, running, throwing, catching the ball or chewing a toothpick, and nobody doubts he'll improve in each department.
Men will die waiting for another Willie Mays to come along, and Wynn isn't the one they're waiting for. But he's only 24, and he can do everything nicely. For a few years after Willie packs it in, Wynn may be the not-too-inferior substitute. Yet, when you first see him, you think you see a defect immediately. As he prepares for a pitch his bat droops behind him, perhaps 10 degrees below the horizontal. "They bring that up when I hit a slump," Wynn says. "They tell me to hold the bat high, like you're supposed to. But my father [a Cincinnati sandlotter] taught me to hold it that way. He said I could be sure of a level swing that way. I don't know which way is right, but I know I can't swing any other way."
They have a gimmick for almost everything in the Astrodome, including instant measuring of home runs. Against Chris Short of the Phillies, Wynn made them wonder for more than an instant. The line drive went to the left of the 390-foot sign, seven rows into the bleachers ("The reds," John Bateman calls the cerise-shaded seats out there) that start 25 feet above field level. The scoreboard called it 408 feet, which may be the only understatement ever made in the Astrodome—or Texas, for that matter.
Wynn claims to have learned the folly of going for home runs. So how does a little man hit such a big one? "I attack the ball," Wynn says. "It's the only way to hit."
As for fielding, Wynn showed a new way to catch a two-iron shot hit by Cleon Jones of the Mets. It was going to reach the center-field wall near the 406-foot sign, but Wynn had taken two steps in before he realized that. Reversing as if he had Model T gears, Wynn caught up with the ball with his back to the plate, grabbing it in the webbing with a full twist of the left arm. He does things like that. He also does things like trying to hit the ball into the Gulf of Mexico when a sharp ground ball would do. He took such a cut on a pitch just before his bases-loaded single beat the Phils in the 11th.
"Sure, I hollered at him," Hatton said. "All we needed was a routine fly ball. The whole bench hollered at him."
It is a canon of Hatton's all-for-one ethic that, ideally, the manager should not have to chew out his players. "On a good club," he says, "the players get on each other. Have you heard Bateman?"
John Bateman is, in baseball parlance, something else. He is big and strong and tough and homely and he always needs a haircut (though he was angry with a Los Angeles barber for cutting his shaggy mane too short). He is a bit thick through the middle and appears awkward, but he is a good catcher and about the time the pitchers start thinking of him as an out he hits one into the reds. And he is always on people.
Bateman has that mystic capacity to insult people virulently without having them take it seriously. His last word in an argument with Pitcher Barry Latman was a threat to fabricate a gas oven especially for Latman, who is Jewish. One evening when Morgan, Jackson and Wynn had been spraying line drives out of the batting cage with monotonous regularity, Bateman stood behind the cage and wondered aloud whether niggers really need batting practice. They laughed.
"He does take some getting used to," Morgan says. "I'll tell you, he says some things to these guys [the Negro players] that I couldn't get away with. But once you get to know him, you know it doesn't mean anything. On the field I'd say he's the leader of this team."
"It was a little rough at first," Wynn says, "but you get to realize that's just the kind of guy he is. John is all right. He keeps us alive."
"I guess I've always got on guys," Bateman says. "I guess I'm pretty rough, but I think it helps."
Then he saw "Diamond" Jim Gentile in the batting cage. "Hey, Foxie," he shouted to Coach Nellie Fox, "did you see Diamond bunt last night?" Gentile, swinging as hard as ever and hitting .212, had tried to break a slump by bunting in his last two at bats, and failed. Bateman kept it up, and Gentile, never noted for a sense of humor, glowered, but in the first inning that night he hit a screamer off the fence in right center for a bases-clearing double.
The Astros had no business in second place. But, whether the new ingredient is Hatton's togetherness, Bateman's baiting or the multifarious talents of the three feather merchants at the top of the batting order, they are much improved.
Wynn, who is relaxed and articulate enough to handle whatever degree of stardom he may attain, was asked what he thought was the strongest single factor. "We have more respect for ourselves," he said, "and for each other. We're a team, and we don't feel like losers anymore."
In photograph taken from the Astrodome roof directly overhead, Larry Dierker pitches to Mets' Ron Hunt.
Catcher Bateman (7) congratulates Pitcher Dierker as scoreboard salutes 7-1 victory.