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A season of Astronomical improvement


Not an eyebrow was lifted earlier this month when Cincinnati scored eight runs in the third inning of a game against Houston. After all, the Reds are the Reds and the Astros the Astros. But the very next night a dramatic—and symbolic—reversal took place. This time Houston smote Cincinnati with an eight-run inning of its own. The message was clear: the Reds may still be the Reds, but these are definitely not the same old Astros.

At least not the Astros who finished sixth in the National League's Western Division last season, 43½ games out of first place. Rebounding from its 64-97 record, the worst in its modest history, Houston has suddenly become respectable and, on occasion, downright fearsome. A 77-79 record with one week of the season remaining has lifted the Astros to third place and, for noncontender watchers, made them the most improved team in either league. The Yankees and Phillies, who are on top in their divisions, and the lowly—but quietly maturing—Tigers are the only clubs that come close to matching the Astros' 14-game improvement over last season.

"If we win 80 games, it'll be a helluva year," says Houston Manager Bill Virdon. By any measure it has been a good one. Improved hitting and pitching have made the losing streaks shorter, the winning streaks longer and the crowds larger. Even the Astros' finances—the team had been in receivership for the last four years—are improved. Last week the bankrupt empire of Astro founder Roy Hofheinz was finally sold for a large but undisclosed sum.

A year ago Houston was not worth two cents. That was before Yankee ingenuity turned things around. It was provided by General Manager Tal Smith, who came over from the New York Yankees Aug. 7, 1975, and former Yankee Manager Virdon, who was hired 12 days later.

Smith knew the problems awaiting him under the Astrodome all too well, because he had spent 13 years in Houston before going to New York. "There were two things I had to do right away," Smith says. "First, I wanted to be candid with the players in order to create a more positive environment. I also wanted to restore credibility with the fans. They have been told for years that they would have a pennant winner here, and they never got one. That made them disillusioned, disappointed and turned off."

Virdon also gave an indication of the better times ahead by winning half of the 34 late-season games in which he was the manager. "It didn't take me long to figure out that this team had more talent than its record showed," Virdon says. "When I saw the players really wanted to win, it made me feel optimistic."

The Astros also made some major changes before this season began. Previous administrations had tried to do the same, but always seemed to shed the wrong people: budding stars Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Mike Cuellar, John Mayberry, etc., etc., etc. This time the castoffs included old hands Doug Rader, Milt May and Tommy Helms. That opened the way for promising players like Third Baseman Enos Cabell to become regulars and for young pitchers like 23-year-old Joaquin Andujar to move into the rotation. The tall, skinny Cabell is hitting .275, and Andujar has already beaten Cincinnati three times.

But it was veteran Reliever Ken Forsch who got the team off on the right track. After the Astros began the season with three straight losses, they won their next six as Forsch picked up five saves. "That was the big lift we needed," Virdon says. "It got people thinking positive right away. If a team is confident, talent and ability will show."

In a division dominated by Cincinnati and Los Angeles, third place is all a rebuilding team can reasonably hope for. Houston has been there since Aug. 28, thanks to a seven-game winning streak in which Astro pitchers turned in six complete games. Larry Dierker and 6'8" strikeout artist J. R. Richard had two of them; the other victories were scattered among members of the team's youth corps. Bo McLaughlin, 22, five-hit St. Louis and shut out Philadelphia; Joe Sambito, 24, blanked the Cardinals; and Dan Larson, 22, who is already only two vowels from immortality, five-hit the Phillies. Together with Andujar and the 26-year-old Richard, who has matured into an 18-game winner this season, they could be the league's staff of the future.

"Bringing those kids up was not an impulsive, desperation move," says Smith. "I know you can't force-feed people. We even went so far as to discuss with our development people how the kids would respond emotionally to big-league pressure. So far, we've been very pleased."

Solid pitching was really the only thing Houston needed to become competitive. Cabell, First Baseman Bob Watson, Shortstop Roger Metzger and Outfielders Cesar Cedeno, Greg Gross and Jose Cruz could play on anybody's club. It was the pitching and Virdon's demand for zero-defect baseball that brought everything neatly together.

In order to rectify last season's 16-42 record in one-run games, Virdon stressed fundamentals in spring training. "Taught us how to play baseball," is how Cabell puts it. Once the season began, Coach Bob Lillis assessed $2 fines for the little blunders that result in losses: missed signs, failure to hit behind the runner, overthrown cutoff men. In 1975 that system would have produced a sum approximating the national debt. But this season the Astros have played eyes-open, tight-fisted ball. Their record in one-run games is an outstanding 33-24, and Lillis has collected only $636 in fines.

Until the turnaround, Watson, Houston's leading hitter (.314, 99 RBIs and 16 home runs), was all set to pack off to another team. "This used to be a selfish club," he says. "Now everybody tries to contribute. I'd like to finish my career here. If we ever do win anything, I want to be around when it happens."

Watson has already been around long enough to play with his teammates in the World Series. Even if this series was played in a television movie, filmed in July for showing during the real World Series next month, it is another symbol of just how far the Astros have come. And where they might be going.