"In the Houston papers, they put high school football scores about Iran -- and that's no lie ." Joe Sambito, Houston Astro relief pitcher
According to reliable sources, there are two sports in Texas: football and spring football. Undoubtedly, a sizeable portion of the populace will tell you the only big game there this weekend is Longhorns versus Sooners. Hook 'em Horns; boomer Sooner.
Is Houston ready for a championship baseball under glass? "Ready?" said Sambito. "They've been ready for years (19 years)."
The National League playoffs resume today in the Dome, with the Series tied at one game apiece and with the question: Will Larry Christenson (5-1) and the fast ball-hitting Phillies knuckle under to Joe Niekro (20-12)?
The Dome, of course, can be as humbling to Houston pitchers as it is to power hitters.You'll be warming up and hear a big roar from all the people watching football on the televisions they've brought to the ballpark, said Sambito.
The Astros have grown accustomed to their role as the sporting equivalent of the other woman. They are loved, and appreciated, but know Houston never will leave football for good. Still, they can't help feeling good about splitting the first games in Veterans Stadium and playing the final three games where they have a record of 55-26.
"This (Wednesday's victory) was the pivotal game," said catcher Alan Ashby. "There's no in between. Either we're down 2-0 and it looks great for them or we're tied 1-1 coming home and it looks great for us."
For the Phillies, life on the road (42-39 and 12-5 in September) proved a welcome relief from their uneasy relationship with their fans.Wednesday night, after Mike Schmidt had struck out with the bases loaded in the seventh and flied out with the tying run on base in the 10th to end game, he said, plaintively:
"The home crowd can work against you. This is a game where you don't want to get too pumped up. You want to stay within yourself. As a hitter, I sometimes wish I could ask for quiet, like a quarterback."
The Phillies might go undefeated in a vacuum. And the Dome is about the closest thing to it baseball has to offer. "We've played in the Dome before, you know," said Manager Dallas Green. "It's not like we're going down there cold. We were 9-3 against these guys for the year. We have to beat them down there somewhere along the line."
The series has evolved into a study in contrasts: The familiar still-lives of the Phillie faces, as they are searched for the recognizable signs of self-doubt, and the Astro faces that no one recognizes. Tuesday night's starting pitcher for the Astros, Ken Forsch, was repeatedly called Bob, his brother, in one of the Philadelphia papers the next day. "It's a shame," said Sambito, "Ken has made a name for himself. He shouldn't be in his brother's shadow. We'll get the recognition yet."
"We are faceless players," said Jose Cruz, who had two hits and two RBI last night, including the game-winning ones.
Joe Morgan, whose face is recognizable only because of what he did between stints as an Astro, says Cruz is one of the most underrated players on a team that is consistently underrated.
"I think so," said Cruz (.392,91 RBI, 36 stolen bases). "But it doesn't bother me. I've been through that for six years. Everybody is gonna watch these games on TV. They gonna be all over, even in Japan. They'll get a chance to see who is Jose Cruz."
And who the Astros are. They are a team that wins with pitching and defense (their cumulative ERA is 3.11, compared to 3.61 for their opponents). Niekro, still hoarse after having beating the Dogers for his 20th win on Monday, has "been our most consistent pitcher for the last two years," said Manager Bill Virdon. Niekro is the epitome of the journeyman, a man who has pitched for five major league teams since 1967, with a couple of stops in the minors along the way.
In 1974, he was sent to the Atlanta Braves' farm team in Richmond, he recalled. "I never really quit on myself. I never said, 'Gosh darn, I can't do it.' But a lot of people gave up on me. That year in Richmond, I was 8-1, and had 10 saves in short relief and they called me back up and put me in long relief. The next year, they tried to send me down again, and I said no." The Astros purchased his contract in 1975 and sent him to Des Moines, before bringing him midway through the season.
The astros may only score .38 runs more per game than their opponents, but Virdon never tires of reminding you that the Astros also hit more home runs per game than the opposition hits against them (the team total this year was 74; Phillie Mike Schmidt managed 48 by himself).
"They don't give us enough credit," said Morgan. "I'd like to put Philadelphia or Los Angeles in the Astrodome and see how they do. I don't think they'd score as many runs as we do."
Sambito says, "I believe the Phillies are taking us lightly. I read where they said they were glad it was us they were playing and not the Dodgers. They said they matched up better man to man. I've read predictions of the Phillies winning in three straight. I never even saw something about it going four."
Sambito grew up on Long Island a devoted Yankee fan. "Every October, the Yankees were in the World Series and I figured it was the way it was supposed to be," he said. "Well, its October. And look who the Yankees might be playing."