Champagne glistened under the television lights directed at Art Howe's bald head. The happiest fellow, Art Howe hit a big home run today in a big baseball game. Ten years ago he made $1,200 a month in a suit and tie. He quit. At 22, he took $500 a month to play baseball. A baby girl was on the way. He quit anyway. If he went broke playing ball, he still had to try. He wife understood. "Mrs. Betty Howe."

That's the name over Art Howe's locker here.

It's a joke. Art Howe is no beautiful natural athlete. He is 6 foot 1 and skinny. While it is unfair to describe him as bald, it is accurate to say he has more home runs (10) than hairs across the top. "It's been going south for some time," he says. Art Howe is 33 years old. It was only a year ago that his wheels were so bad he did what Earl Campbell did.

He put on pantyhose.

"Cambell had worn pantyhose because it was cold or something," Howe said. "I put 'em on because my legs were bad and I needed support. So the guys started calling me Mrs. Howe."

Save for Mrs. Betty Howe's real contribution 10 years ago, the Houston Astros might still be looking for the first championship of any kind in the franchise's 19-year history. Today's 7-1 victory over the Dodgers in a playoff game for the National League West championship series against Philadelphia -- and, if everything goes the way it should for balding men, we soon will see Art Howe shining in the World Series.

"I have to thank my wife for letting me try this back then," Howe said in the happiest moment of a baseball life that began when a buddy talked him into going to a tryout camp in Pittsburgh. Howe crashed a two-run homer today to put the Astros up, 4-0, and added a basses-loaded two-run single in the fourth inning to make it 7-0.

"On the home run, I hit a hanging hook," he said, which in English means the Dodger pitcher, Dave Goltz, threw a high curve ball that didn't curve. And how excited was this man who didn't get to the big leagues until he was 27, who didn't play regularly until he was 29, who this spring thought his career was over?

Even before he got to first base on his home run trot, Howe thrust an arm overhead with the index finger extended. He waved it in celebration. "The Dodgers had been pretty happy when they hit theirs, and so I was pretty happy when I hit mine. I was on cloud nine. I can't even describe how high I was. I felt like I was two feet off the ground running the bases."

The Astros are an improbable team. The hit a home run about once a week. They have the world's tallest third baseman (6-foot-5 Enos Cabell) and the shortest second baseman (5-7 Joe Morgan). They have a silent Texan pitcher (Nolan Ryan) and a whacko Dominican Republican pitcher (Joaquin Andujar, who is under threat of a $1,000 fine if he hurts himself swinging the bat in his Reggie Jackson manner). Their best hitter is Jose Cruz, who is unknown outside Houston, and their best player is Cesar Cedeno, who never quite could carry the heavy burden of Leo Durocher's praise ("He'll be better than Mays").

And there is Art Howe, the most improbable of all.

A Pittsburgher, a nice high school baseball player but nothing the pros wanted, Howe went to the University of Wyoming on a football scholarship. He was a quarterback, split end and defensive back. He hurt his back as a freshman, though, and was told that another injury to the disk would put him out of baseball as well as football.

So he played only baseball at Wyoming.

Maybe moose watch baseball in Wyoming.

Baseball scouts don't.

"We played in Fresca commericals," Howe said, which calls up the Madison Avenue image of a blizzard so refreshing you want to run to the nearest igloo for a Fresca. "It was so cold there that I broke my finger on a two-hopper to third once. The scouts didn't like it being so cold."

So there was Art Howe, 22, a systems analyst for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. Married, a baby on the way. Playing summer ball, two or three times a week, with the semipro Northside Mets."And I was killing the ball," he said. "That why my buddy, Bobby Howser, talked me into going to the Priates' tryout camp."

Tryout camps are for kids. "It was a little embarassing, me 22 and everybody else 16," Howe said. "But two days after, the Pirates called and said they wanted to sign me as a free agent."

For $500 a month.

Less than half his salary at Westinghouse.

"My wife let me try it," Howe said. "I went to Class A ball (Salem, Va.) and we lost all our savings."

But three years later, he led the AAA International League in hitting at .338. And four years later, traded to Houston, he was a regular in the big leagues. He has hit .264, .293, .248 and .278 for the Astros.

This spring, though, he thought it might be all over. While managing a team in a Puerto Rican winter league, he somehow developed trouble in both Achilles' tendons. One tendon problem can ruin a player. Happily, the trouble went away as mysteriously as it appeared.

And now, with champagne bubbling up on his beautiful brow, Art Howe said again, "I'm on cloud nine."