The boos started before he was out of the on-deck circle. They built to a crescendo as his name was announced. Joe Morgan didn't seem to hear. He ambled to the plate, tapped his bat on the ground and assumed the stance that had become so familiar to Cincinnati's baseball fans during his eight years with the Reds.

When he popped to second base, the fans cheered as if someone had hit a grand slam for the Reds. Still, Morgan appeared not to notice. He trotted back to the visiting Houston Astros' dugout without raising his head to look into the stands.

But Morgan heard. He heard the boos and he resented them. He is a proud man and being booed in a town where he helped win five division titles, three pennants and two world championships hurt him. He wouldn't admit it but his words gave him away.

"I don't have anything to prove to anyone this year," he said before the game. "My record speaks for itself. The Cincinnati Reds still have to prove to me that they can win without Joe Morgan."

From 1972 through 1979, Morgan as much as anyone symbolized the success of the Reds. He was the National League MVP in 1975 and 1976, the years the Reds were world champions. He became the first second baseman ever to hit more than 200 home runs and steal more than 500 bases. Along with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Tony Perez, he was the heart of the Reds, the National league's dominant team in the 1970s.

But in 1978 and 1979, nagging injuries and advancing age hindered Morgan. From a high of .326 in 1975 his batting average dropped to .250 last season.

When he played out his option, the Reds didn't even try to sign him. He and the Cincinnati organization parted bitterly. Morgan felt he had not been appreciated for his years of service; the Reds claimed he asked too much for a player who would be 37 before the 1980 season ended.

"I learned a lot from the experience I had with the Reds," Morgan said. "i learned a lot about people and I learned a lot about baseball. I have no regrets about what went on with them."

Regrets no; hard feelings, yes. Morgan, who is now in his 16th year in the big leagues, has never been a big fan of the baseball establishment. He signed a one-year contract with the Astros -- the team that traded him to Cincinnati -- after negotiations with the Los Angeles Dodgers fell through.

"We weren't interested in Joe At first," Tal Smith, Astro general manager, said. "We knew he was looking for a long-term contract and we weren't prepared to give him one at the age of 36, expecially with our club being as young as it is.

"But when things didn't work out for him with the Dodgers, he was more willing to think about one year. Under those circumstances, we felt he could be a real plus for our team."

Statistically, Morgan isn't overwhelming anyone. His batting average at the All-Star break was .235. The man who replaced him in Cincinnati, Junior Kennedy, was hitting .290.

But the Astros aren't complaining. "He hasn't hit as much as he would like to or we would have liked for him to do," said Manager Bill Virdon. "But he's gotten hits in key spots. He's gotten a lot of walks (31, second on the team). And he's given us a lot of leadership which may have been something we lacked last season down the stretch."

Last year, the Astros led the National League West most of the season, until the Reds -- with Morgan -- caught them in the stretch and won by 2 1/2 games. This season they went into the All-Star break tied with the Dodgers for first place. The Reds were 4 1/2 games back.

"It's very important to me that the Astros win this season because I would like people to realize that I do make a difference," Morgan said. "The Reds won without Tony Perez, they won without Pete Rose; can they win without Joe Morgan?

"I think I can contribute to a team in a lot of ways that never show up in the statistics. I can fit in with any team without any problems at all. I think I fit in here and I think this team is going to win."

The Reds have struggled this season largely because George Foster, Johnny Bench and Tom Seaver have been hurt. But, at least some of the Reds seen Morgan's departure as a factor in the team's third-place status.

"Joe helped everyone relax," said shortstop Dave Concepcion. "Personally I just miss having him around the locker room. I think everyone on this team will tell you that. Joe's a great guy. It's simple as that. We were all sorry to see him leave but we understood how he felt."

Although he will be 37 in September, Morgan doesn't look any different than when we was at his peak with the Reds. At 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, he is in good shape. His features are smooth and youthful. When he steps into the batter's box he still flpas his left arm like a chicken.

But inside, Morgan has changed and so has his attitude toward the game. "I'm a lot more realistic about things now," he said. "I mean I've always regarded baseball as a business because if you don't you're going to get hurt.

"But now I just take baseball on a day-to-day basis. I don't sit around making goals because really I've achieved all my goals.

"People asked me after last year if I felt bad about hitting .250 and I said no because how many guys get a chance to hit .250 in the major leagues?

"If you had come up to me when I was 13 or 14 and told me I would play baseball for 16 years or more, hit more home runs than most second basemen, win two MVP awards and at least two world championships, I would have kissed you.

"How can I be unhappy? Sure, I wish I was hitting for a higher average, but I think that will come as long as I stay healthy. I haven't had a lucky day yet, one of those where you hit the ball well three or four times and it falls every time. That will come.

"I'm proud of what I've accomplished. By my criterion I belong in the Hall of Fame because I think I've been one of the best players of all time, one of the best to ever play my position. Maybe I won't make it because that stuff is politics, but I'll know. I'll know I deserved it."

Morgan lives in California and has several outside business interests. He doesn't know if he will play again next season.

"I still love to compete," he said smacking his hand into his glove. "ThatS why I love baseball. There isn't anything new in it for me anymore. "How can there be after 16 years? I've been in every situation possible, I've answered every question there is to ask. But I still love the competition. That's why I'm still playing."

Morgan never raises his voice as he speaks but there is an intensity in it that says he wants nothing more than to win one more pennant with Houston and show the Reds and their fans just how much he meant to the club and the city.

"The best thing that ever happened to me in baseball was getting traded to the Reds," Morgan said. "i've got a lot of great memories from Cincinnati. But on the other side of the coin, the best that ever happened to the Reds was getting Joe Morgan. They never won before I was here (three pennants in 32 years) and they almost always won while I was here.

"Obviously I wasn't all of it, but I think I helped, quite a bit. But if we don't win, that won't be the end of the world for me. I've done everything I ever wanted to do ever since I was a little kid. So the fans here don't love me anymore. Believe me, I'll survive.

"No matter what happens, how can I be unhappy?"