This hard-knuckled, harddriving town of big wealth, big appetites and rigid castes has finally taken to its heart the most subtle, least spectacular and least Texas-like team in baseball.

It has been a long, hard swallow, but Houston at last has acquired a taste for the Astros -- the sort of esoteric, hard-to-grasp, inside-baseball club heretofore loved only in cities which have harbored the game for generations.

"Who are these people? Where did they come from?" a grinning Deacon Jones of the Astro coaching staff asked today, looking around at the third consecutive capacity corwn (42,067) in the Astrodome before their day was spoiled as the Astros lost, 7-1, to Cincinnati. Instead of taking first place, they fell 1 1?2 games behind the Reds in the National League West.

"Isn't there a high school football game for 'em to go to? Aren't the Oilers on TV? Who told Texas about us?"

Word on the Astros has always traveled slowly, even in Houston. Some people have doubted for years that the club really existed. After all, couldn't a baseball team that claimed it played indoors be fictitious -- a hoax like those nonexistent students who periodically get accepted to Harvard?

Maybe some prankster just calls in phony box scores to the wire services and nobody's ever checked? Can there really be a lineup on a pennant contender where four starters -- named Luis Pujols, Rafael Landestoy, Jeff Leonard and Craig Reynolds -- have a total of zero home runs for the season?