When you're 37 years old and trying like hell, things go pop in the night. Thinking to steal second base because the Houston Astros win by creeping up one base at a time, Joe Morgan moved 12 feet off first. He dove back under a pickoff throw. It was then the knee popped. "I twisted it pushing off," he said later.

It was midnight Friday. Barely 12 hours later, the Astros and Dodgers would play again. A victory would make the Astros the National League West champions. In 19 years, the anonymous Astros never won anything. The first year they have Joe Morgan, they win. They beat the Dodgers, they beat the Reds. Little Joe shook his knee, testing the pain. He would play the next one. Yes.

"I'll be playing ," Morgan said. "Some kind of way, I'll be dealing. Tape it. Put a brace on it. Something."

Having Joe Morgan in your clubhouse is like having Baryshnikow in your dance class. The guy is majestic. He's a baseball Hillary, more than once conquering his game's Everst. To look upon Joe Morgan during a pennant race is to feel good about your chances, for here is a winner. Do as Little Joe does.

What a player Joe Morgan was. The big years in Cincinnati, the little man was the biggest man. In successive seasons, 1975 and '76, Joe Morgan put on his size 7 spikes and teeny-tiny glove, swung his kid's-length bat and did numbers only Babe Ruth ever did.

If we add up the walks, the steals, the doubles and triples and home runs, then this man 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds had a total-base percentage -- the best measuring stick of offensive value -- of an astonishing .739. Babe Ruth had to hit 60 home runs in one season to be as important to his team as Joe Morgan was hitting 44 in two years.

The string runs out. The Reds sent away Tony Perez. Too old. This was four years ago. Perez this season had his best year at bat in a decade. Rather than pay Pete Rose what he's worth, the Reds let the Phillies do it. Rose can be in the World Series this year. The Reds are dead. They let Perez go, and Rose, and Joe Morgan. Hall of Famers. They fired Sparky Anderson. Hall of Famer. Maybe someone dropped dumb pills in the executive water cooler.

Of baseball's nice stories in these fading days of summer, Joe Morgan's is the best.

"This whole season with these guys has been great," Morgan said, "but the greatest thing is that i found what i was looking for in Joe Morgan."

He found a flaw in his swing and fixed it. In the doing, he also fixed the Astros. The National League's only indoors team, the Astros were consistently mediocre for 15 years until Tal Smith, hired away from the Yankees as general manager, made Bill Virdon the teams's manager. They built a team of speed, defense and pitching -- all good things anywhere but especially important in the cavernous Astrodome where sluggers weep that the air conditioning blows in.

When Virdon took over late in the '75 season, the Astros were staggering to a finish 43 1/2 games behind the Reds of Morgan, Rose and Perez. They were second to the new Reds last season, and now they can look down two places in the morning paper and find that wonderful word "Cincinnati."

But without Morgan, it wouldn't have happened. "Look at Joe," said third basemean Enos Cabell, who came by Morgan's locker to ask after his knee. "He's a winner, he's been there, he knows. We needed him." For $1 million a year, the Astros added pitcher Nolan Ryan, who has been typically break-evenish. For maybe $200,000 -- half of his pay at Cinncinnati -- Joe Morgan is winning a pennant for Boston.

The numbers are all right now, but nothing special. He's hiting .250 with 11 home runs ("I'd have 25 anywhere but the Astrodome") and only 24 stolen bases (his first five years in Cincinnati, he stole 62 a season). The important thing is that here come the once-forlorn Astros into a pennant race -- the Astros nobody knows, the Astros whose best lifetime hitter is the really famous Jose Cruz, the Astros who first caught our attention by losing a game in which their guy pitched a no-hitter -- here come the Astros whose pennant chances should have ended in August after their only star, pitcher J. R. Richard, had a stroke that may end his career -- here come the guys in the sunburst uniforms, and the biggest little man is just flat doing it.

He did it first with his mouth.

The Astros were 2 1/2 games in first place when Richard fell on July 30. He had a 10-4 record, his best ever so early. Two weeks later, the team was in third place. It had lost three straight to San Francisco.

Morgan called a team meeting.

The Astros won their next 10 games.

"I don't want to talk about what went on at the meeting," Morgan said, "I wish somebody hadn't made it public. It was a private, team thing."

Someone said, "Didn't you apologize to the team?"

Quickly Morgan said, "Apologize? No.I don't apologize. I always do my best, and if you're out there busting your butt every day you don't have to apologize for anything."

Then, a smile spreading, Morgan said, "I might have said I was horsefeathers." Or something like that.

Morgan's batting average was around .220 then. He told his teammates he would bet better. He told them it didn't help to mourn Richard's loss. "There couldn't be any could-have or would-have," is all Morgan will recount of his locker-room speech. Nolan Ryan: "We were at a point where we realized we had to turn things around or we'd fall clearly by the wayside. We came out of it with a positive attitude."

And not long after, Joe Morgan found Joe Morgan. He found him in old films. He carries around a videotape machine on which he plays tapes of the good old days, tapes of one thing only: Joe Morgan swinging a bat.

"I finally realized what I'd been doing wrong," Morgan said. "Because of the injuries in Cincinnati the last two years (torn stomach muscles in 1978, a sprained ankle last season), I'd been breaking down when I stepped into the ball. To compensate for that, I'd moved my hands back about four inches."

Morgan always kept his little kid's bat set directly in front of his left shoulder. Somehow it had worked its way four inches to the rear. That effectively slowed down Morgan's swing, and the man who was the league's Most Valuable Player in both '75 and '76 became an out man.

"I could see, in one reel of just me hitting from '73 to '77, the quickness was gone. I couldn't figure out why. I thought maybe everyone was right, that I was getting older. But I just feel so good in every other way, running, fielding. I kept looking at the film until I saw it. The bat was back four inches too far."

The cheers had turned to boos in Cincinnati. Morgan says a newspaperman there prompted the boos by reporting he wasn't hurt as badly as he claimed. "Terrible times," Morgan calls his last two years with the Reds. And by the time he healed and straighted out his swing, he had lost almost 2 1/2 years of productivity.

In the last month of this season, though, Joe Morgan is that most delightful of baseball players, the class guy doing his thing when it means the most. He has hit in 28 of the last 36 games at a .308 average. Since Morgan moved to the leadoff position on August 11, shortly after the team meeting he called, his on-base percentage has been .414.

Cesar Cedeno at .308 had has his best season in seven years. Vern Ruhle took over Richard's spot in the rotation and has been sensational, giving the Astros what Ryan calls "super pitching depth" along with Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, Joe Sambito, Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte. Terry Puhl and Art Howe, a pair of who-are-theys, have driven in nearly 100 runs. Catcher Alan Ashby and shortstop Craig Reynolds are wonderful defensive players.

"This is a great defensive club," Morgan said. "Maybe it's good we lost this one (3-2 Friday night) because now 50 million people will get to see us on national television Saturday and they can see how good the Astros are. If we'd won tonight and clinched it, still nobody would know the Astros. These guys are good."

It was 1 a.m. Morgan said he would play hurt again in Cincinnati if he had it to do over. "Sparky said half of Joe Morgan is better than all of somebody else," Morgan said. "I had so many good times there I can't let a couple terrible things ruin it. I'm pround of what I've done. I've stolen over 600 bases. I've hit over 200 home runs. Only two other second basemen ever hit more home runs -- Rogers Hornsby and Joe Gordon. I've driven in 100 runs, I've won the Gold Glove, I've been the MVP twice -- back-to-back. I'm not going to let some terrible times ruin that."

It would be nice, wouldn't it, to be in the World Series again?

"I would like that very much," Joe Morgan said, his smile lighting the night. He lifted his bad knee into the dugout step and limped toward the Astros' team bus.