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Two for the Astromuddle

The rescue of Houston's ball club, sagging cornerstone of a diminishing empire, has been entrusted to Yankee emigrants Tal Smith and Bill Virdon

A little more than a month ago Tal Smith had a nice job as executive vice-president of the New York Yankees, lived in a big house with 31 acres of land on Long Island and figured his career was secure at last after 18 years in baseball. Now Tal Smith is general manager of the Houston Astros, who are 40-odd games out of first place in the National League West and are sagging terribly at the gate, but can take a perverse pride in having traded away a dozen or so players who have become stars on other teams.

It is Smith's own fault that he finds himself in such a position. Until he moved to New York in November of 1973, Smith had worked for the Astros for 13 years, 11 as head of the farm system and of scouting and development of players, and 2½ as a special assistant to Judge Roy Hofheinz while the Astrodome was being built. So he knew what he was getting into when the Astros' three-man board of directors—the judge, T. H. Neyland and Sidney Shlenker—fired General Manager Spec Richardson and offered Smith the job, one that has been compared to being captain of the Hindenburg.

The Astros have been called the worst team in the major leagues. A reminder of this brings to Smith's lips a very wan smile, as if he had been told once again that electric rates are going up. Sitting in his new office, wearing a yellow suit, blue sports shirt and brown loafers he could use as mirrors, Smith says, "I suppose that's a fair description in a sense, since we obviously have the worst record. But we're not far behind Detroit, and the description might not be fair by the end of the season." How did it come about that the Astros—a team that has employed Joe Morgan, John Mayberry, Mike Cuellar, Lee May, Rusty Staub, Jim Wynn and Jerry Reuss, among others—have never won a division championship and currently may not be as good as when first organized 14 years ago?

"It would be hard to give a precise answer," Smith says diplomatically. "To a degree, it starts at the top. But it's a combination of things. I was generally consulted about those trades when I was here before. I didn't support some of them—especially the Joe Morgan trade—but I had to live with them. Sometimes a trade will be made that puts a mortgage on the future for the sake of a short-term gain. There are four steps in putting together a successful organization: scouting and signing of players, development of players' skills, motivation and direction by the field manager and decisions at the executive level. If those four areas are pulling in different directions, you can't get there from here."

Not only have the Astros sunk to a lowly state on the field this season, after three straight years of winning at least half their games and 10 years of drawing at least one million fans, but the entire Astro complex has fallen upon parlous times. Certainly things were different when the judge, who conceived the Astrodome and forced it into existence, was the maestro of the entire show.

The judge had a stroke five years ago and is still in a wheelchair, which is part of the problem. Another part of it is that the judge borrowed $38 million for the Astroworld Amusement Park, a $2 million scoreboard and other refinements in the Dome (the Dome itself was paid for by Harris County voters), and to buy land and construct hotels nearby. The money came from a consortium of Ford credit, G.E. credit, Hartford National and banks in Houston, Dallas, San Francisco and New York.

When it became clear the judge could not pay the notes, the Hofheinz family stock (son Fred is mayor of Houston, an office his father once held) was put into a voting trust and the creditors moved in to watch their money.

"The judge has always been a collector, not a seller," says T. H. Neyland, president of Astrodomain, the big company that controls the baseball team, the hotels and the rest of it. Neyland came in, he says, in a deal between the shareholders (Hofheinz mainly) and the creditors. Astrodomain has leased the amusement park and wants to sell the more than 200 acres it owns around the Dome. The Astroworld Hotel and three motels could be bought without much haggling. If the judge can raise $38 million he would have control of his stock again. Otherwise, Astrodomain is for sale. "But the last asset subject for sale is the baseball team," says Neyland.

The Astros might be the last asset anyone would wish to purchase at the moment. Attendance is down about 250,000 from last year, which also hurts business at the hotels.

One of the first things Tal Smith did as boss of the Astros was to fire Manager Preston Gomez and hire Bill Virdon, who had been Smith's next-door neighbor on Long Island, though the two are not close friends. Virdon was fired as manager of the Yankees on Aug. 2, while Smith was still executive vice-president but had been offered the Astro job.

"Bill went to the Yankees under adverse conditions as the well-publicized second choice to Dick Williams, and in his quiet way won the support of almost everyone," Smith says. "As to why the Yankees fired him, I'm not the man to answer that question. Bill has patience, has the respect of his players, doesn't have an ego that detracts from the players, is an excellent manager and a good judge of talent. The field manager has the greatest visibility and immediate effect on a team. Knowing Bill, I don't have to speculate about him. It's impossible to turn this team around overnight, and Bill is a good man for the long haul." Smith has a three-year contract.

Virdon has experimented with the Astros' lineup to have a look at what is on hand, has used relief pitchers as starters and has won about half his games in the couple of weeks he has had the job. Furthermore, he is unblinkingly serene about the Astros' orange-and-white uniforms, which make the team resemble a marimba band. "The uniforms don't make the players," Virdon says. "I think we're comparable to the Yankees, except in pitching. We'll either have to improve some of the people we've got or else change some faces. You can't hide the record, and up to this point it could be true that the Astros are the worst team in the big leagues, but that doesn't mean we've got the worst talent. The number of games we are behind is misleading."

Presumably, Virdon means the Astros are better than they have shown. If they're not, Tal Smith better have some deals cooking that are more advantageous than those of the past.