Enos Cabell watched intently on a cool April 16 evening as Los Angeles Manager Tommy Lasorda, brow furrowed, eyelids saggings, propped his arms on the batting cage. "How does it feel to get drop-kicked?" said Cabell, jabbing the knife deep into those Dodger blue veins. Lasorda, normally as ebullient as his Hollywood crony, Don Rickles, stood expressionless. "You got nothing to say, huh? Well, get used to it becuase that's what's gonna happen every time you see us."
The Houston Astros, who've been drop-kicked through the National League's dark alleys for 17 years went into that series having won seven of their first 10 games and they won two out of three at Dodger Stadium. They've never won more than 84 games in a season, they've never finsished better than 10 1/2 games out of first place and only in two seasons (1969-1972) did they ever make serious championship overtones in August.
The Astros are steeped in September tradition. They annually disappear, but for some inexplicable reason everything is different this season at the Astrodome. There is renewed vigor, new ownership and a baseball team which is threatening to make a farce out of the West Division, the most balanced division in baseball.
Even after losing three games in a row to the Chicago Clubs this weekend, the Astros hold a seven-game lead over the second-place Cincinnati Reds and are 17 games up on the defending Champion (now last-place) Dodgers.
The Astros' rebuilding process actually started with 34 games left in the 1975 season when Preston Gomez turned the managerial reins over to Bill Virdon. They were a motley sixthplace outfit which finished 43 1/2 games out of a first.
Virdon vowed steady improvement, hesitated to make predictions other than to say, "We won't win it this year," when he took over, and coaxed his youthful assemblage to third place finishes in 1976 and 1977.
But Virdon's blueprints were smudged beyond recognition in 1978. The Astros, who lost center fielder Cesar Cedeno after only 50 games, sputtered to a fifth-place closing (74-88) and 1979 offered little.
President and General Manager Tal Smith had swapped a pair of losing pitchers, Floyd Bannister and Mark Lemongello, to Seattle and Toronto, respectively, for shortstop Craig Reynolds and catcher Alan Ashby. That plugged two holes but management didn't see those changes bringing about a renaissance.
"Nobody talked it up much in spring training because of what happened last year," said pitcher Ken Forsch, who threw a no-hitter the second game of the year but later missed 35 days with tendinitis in his shoulder. "We never had played well in the past, so there was no reason for me to think we would do the things you need to win this year."
"We had a rough spring training," said left-handed relief ace Joe Sambito, whose 1.06 ERA is the lowest in the major leagues. "I told my wife it was going to be a long year."
But all that has changed. The Dodgers and the Reds have not been the monsters of past seasons and the Sambito, whose 1.06 ERA is the lowest in the major leagues. "I told my wife it was going to be a long year."
But all that has changed. The Dodgers and the Reds have not been the monsters of past seasons and the San Francisco Giants haven't found the momentum that carried them to the brink of the title last summer.
The Astros have casually parlayed fundamentally sound play with solid defense, speed, pitching and clutch hitting to establish a scathing 50-31 record at the halfway point -- their best midway mark in history.
They have received 34 complete games, including 12 shutouts. The staff ERA is a big-league-best 2.99. They've won 27 to 36 one-run games despite scoring an average of 3.6 runs per game. Only three other major league team-Toronto, Oakland and the New York Mets-have lower run production.
"We're just getting the key hits," said Virdon. "There's no secret about winning or losing. When you win, it's a little bit of everything: pitching, hitting, speed, defense. I can't pin it down to one thing but one criteria of a good ball club is not having a drastic losing streak and we haven't had any droughts (three is longest losing streak). We've had young people fill the bill."
The Astros are a strange combination of pitching and defense, with no home run threat.
"We are going to win it," said Howe. "We've got to watch ourselves after the All-Star break, take one game at a time just like we've been doing. People have been saying all year that we'll fold eventually, that we don't have guys who have been under championship pressure. But I won two divisional titles at Pittsburgh. I wasn't a regular but I know what pressure is like."
"The pressure shouldn't get to our guys," said Cabell. "Hell, we're enjoying this. We've developed the best pitching staff in the National League. L.A. and Cincinnati's staffs just aren't as strong as ours. If we get other people to beat them, we might just run away with this thing."
Virdon is withholding judgement.
"We'll have to wait and see," said the former Pittsburg and New York Yankee manager, fired both places with his team in third place. "I just hope we get the chance to go through it and find out. The first half has been a tough half. But it has helped build the character of our club."
Batting instructor Deacon Jones says it's time Virdon and management received credit for helping form this type of character. The weeding out process took time, but gone are the likes of Cliff Johnson, Doug Rader and Joe Ferguson, players who didn't fit into Astro plans.
"Bill has strong, silent leadership," said jones. "He lets players know where he stands and when they don't do it, he nails it right there, draws the line. He's so consistent, it's ridiculous. We can say anything we want. He gives us that leeway.You feel like you're part of something coaching under Bill Virdon."
With Forsch returning to the rotation and J. R. Richard (7-8, 3.40) beginning to come into top form after a sporadic beginning, the Astros can throw a potentially devastating fourman starting staff at the opposition. "I don't think," said Forsch, "teams look forward to our pitching coming into town."
Forsch likes the Astros' game plan. "Every pitcher who walks out to the mound is keeping us in the game. We can use our speed when we get ahead as much as we have (Astros scored in the first inning in 36 of their first 88 games)."
Still, there are doubters, even though Houston's 95 stolen bases somewhat has offset a lack of power.
"I'm hoping teams continue to doubt us," said Sambito, who has gone 22 consecutive games without allowing a earned run. "They figure we'll collaspe, I know. Well, if the rest of the division falls asleep, that's fine. Come October, they'll be in front of their TV sets and we'll be in front of the cameras."
Cabell scoffs at the pressure-cooking scene.
"All I can say is that we're gonna drop-kick some people . . .We're tired of loosing. We're doing what it takes to win.We need two or three runs, we get two or three. We need eight or nine, we get that. With Kenny Forsch, J. R. Richard, Joe Niekro and Joaquin Andujar in there, you're going to see some hitters with messed-up minds. I'd damn sure hate to hit against those guys four straight games."