Tal Smith's office is a 15-minute drive from the Astrodome in a breezy eighth-floor suite at the Galleria Shopping Center. His door chime plays "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and his walls are decorated with some of the mementoes of more than 30 years in baseball.
From his chrome-and-glass balcony, he can see a slice of corporate and social Houston move down below.
He is a native New Englander, and it was not this environment that attracted Smith to Houston 26 years ago. It was a brand new baseball team that attracted him, and Gabe Paul, the first general manager of the expansion Colt .45s, was offering him a chance to be part of it.
Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with this city of diverse wealth and culture, and although he does not yet wear Tony Lamas, he has learned the lingo.
He was here 17 months before the Colt .45s would play their first game in the National League, and except for 13 months in 1974 and 1975, he has never left.
He was there the day the Colt .45s made Eddie Bressoud and Bob Aspromonte the first picks in the expansion draft. He was on Kirby Drive when ground was broken on the Astrodome. Later, he was supervisor of a farm system that, between 1960 and 1973, produced more major league talent than any in baseball.
In 1975, many of Tal Smith's dreams were fulfilled when he was named general manager of the Astros. In the next five years, he molded the team -- now suffering from performance and attendance problems that apparently have caused owner John J. McMullen to contemplate moving the franchise to Washington -- into one of baseball's best.
Working on what he called "a tight budget, but not an unreasonable one," he built the Astros around the Astrodome -- that is, around pitching, speed and defense. He traded or sold older players such as Tommy Helms, Milt May, Doug Rader, Roger Metzger and Dave Roberts, and brought in young ones who were either defensive specialists, contact hitters or rabbits -- Alan Ashby, Craig Reynolds, Denny Walling, Jeff Leonard, Rafael Landestoy, Dave Bergman and Terry Puhl.
When he was hired in 1975, the Astros had lost 97 times and finished 43 1/2 games out of first place the previous season. By 1979, they won 89 games and finished 1 1/2 games back.
And in 1980, the Astros won 93 games and the National League West. Not only that, a franchise that had drawn only 858,002 fans in 1975 drew 2.27 million in 1980, had the league's second-lowest payroll and made "about $5 million profit," Smith said.
Six years later, the Astros' fortunes again have sagged. They have had four straight mediocre seasons, their attendance last year was half what it was in 1980, and at the end of last season they even traded their all-time winningest pitcher, Joe Niekro, because he was demanding an $850,000-per-season contract for 1986.
McMullen, a New York naval architect who bought the club from Ford Motor Credit Corporation in 1979, estimated he lost $5.5 last season and around $5 million the year before.
He apparently is concerned enough to be considering moving the Astros from Houston to Washington, especially if attendance doesn't pick up this season.
Smith and several Houston natives interviewed for this article don't like such talk, and they say, if the Astros are failing, it's because the Astros management is failing.
"This is one of the best cities in the country," Smith said. "There is no way this city won't support major league baseball. Believe me, I've been here when the support was incredible."
He points to the '80 Astros, who lost a five-game playoff series to the Philadelphia Phillies but turned on thousands of Texans to the pains and joys of a pennant race.
"It was just wild," Smith said. "It came at a time when this city was sports crazy with the Oilers and Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell. You could not ask for more enthusiasm. Fans were lining up to buy tickets, and to see the interest grow into something like that is hard to describe."
In only five years, the Astros had become baseball's model franchise. They drafted wisely and traded conservatively. They spent $4.5 million on a free agent named Nolan Ryan, but they also spent $350,000 on a veteran role model named Joe Morgan.
"The chemistry was right," Smith said. "Ask anyone in the game, and they'll tell you that."
In a city that was riding the crest of growth and prosperity, the Astros had everything going for them -- a young, exciting team, a beautiful, comfortable stadium and 13,835 season-ticket holders.
How did this franchise go sour?
In trying to figure where it began to unravel, people here point to a couple of incidents, all connected to McMullen and how he has chosen to run the team.
"Attendance is usually based on two things," Smith said. "One is how the team does on the field, which will eventually overshadow everything else. The other is public perception of the team, and that can be everything from how your hot dog tasted to how you perceive the thing is being run."
The Astros' five-year run of stability ended shortly after the '80 season when, in the glow of a championship season, McMullen abruptly flew to Houston and fired Smith.
At the time, McMullen said the attendance clauses in Smith's contract made him too expensive. He also uttered a now-famous line, one that has come back to haunt him: "If you can't do it in five years, you can't do it in 10."
Smith had been on the job five years, and although the Astros hadn't been to a World Series, the perception in Houston and around baseball was that Smith's tenure had been overwhelmingly successful.
"That had nothing to do with it," said a former Astros employe, who resigned not long after Smith was fired. "Tal was making him money. McMullen's problem was that Tal was getting a helluva lot of credit. That bothered McMullen."
Sources near McMullen say even he was overwhelmed at the backlash. National League President Chub Feeney called it one of the "worst things" he'd ever heard of happening in baseball. National League publicist Blake Cullen said: "When I heard it, I reacted like when President Roosevelt died. You say to yourself, 'Come on, you're kidding.' "
McMullen immediately announced that Al Rosen, an old friend and a veteran baseball man, was being brought in to replace Smith, but the furor was months dying down.
(Despite having offers to operate other teams, Smith has chosen to remain in Houston and form Tal Smith Enterprises, a firm that assists 15 major league clubs in arbitration cases and other matters.)
Smith's firing led McMullen's partners to the first of two attempts to oust him from power. Both times McMullen survived hard struggles, fights that earned him a measure of respect among his friends and enemies alike.
Yet regardless of whether McMullen survived, the Astros' image was shot.
Since then, it has been reported that McMullen insisted on giving Ryan $1.1 million a year when he would have signed for $700,000. "He wanted to make a big splash," a source near the Astros said, "and a $600,000 contract wouldn't make that big a splash. Never mind that it shot Tal's salary structure to hell."
Then after signing Ryan, McMullen publicly wondered why the club still needed J.R. Richard, who was then perhaps the National League's dominant pitcher.
One night, he wanted to fire a coach who waved a runner one base too far. Another time, he wanted to wait until spring training to announce Manager Bill Virdon had been re-hired.
McMullen declined to be interviewed for this story, but several people who know him say what he has perceived to be creating excitement and running the Astros the way his former associate George Steinbrenner runs the Yankees has struck Houston fans as mismanagement.
Then there was the matter of parking at the Astrodome. "I think that was the turning point," said Mike Driscoll, county attorney for Harris County. "You know how on some things you can go back to a flash point? Well, this was 1983, 10 days after the Astros had been given $43 million in taxpayers' money for improvements, and they raised the price of parking from $2 to $3.
"That may not seem like a big deal. They said that $3 was comparable, but they owned 30,000 parking spaces, and coming after being given $43 million, a lot of people said, 'I'm not going.' Once something like that is imbedded in people's minds, it's hard to get out.
"Now, he wants another $50 million for 10,000 additional seats the Astrodome seats 45,000 . I don't think the voters are going to go for that. If the big issue is 10,000 extra seats when he can't fill the ones he has, then he's off base."
As these kinds of stories were making the papers, the Astros were finishing around .500 for four straight seasons, and gradually the fans began to leave.
Attendance is down from 2.27 million in 1980 to 1.18 million last season, season-ticket sales from 13,835 to 5,669. The sale of mini-season tickets, another marketing device that helps teams weather bad seasons, has dropped from 22,690 in 1980 to 6,132 this year.
McMullen said recently he would be satisfied if the Astros drew 1.8 million fans in 1986, even though that would still place him in the red. But after only two homestands, they are on a 1.1-million pace, and he appears headed toward another multi-million dollar loss.
Several sources near the Astros say McMullen apparently made another key mistake in marketing the team: He led fans to believe the club was better than it actually was.
McMullen has consistently blamed the Houston media, saying last season the only difference between the New York Mets and Astros is that the Mets had more positive media coverage. He must have believed it because after going 83-79 in 1985, the Astros made only two moves last winter: firing one general manager (Rosen) and hiring another (Dick Wagner); and trading outfielder Jerry Mumphrey for outfielder Billy Hatcher.
"Maybe he's trying to run it into the ground so he'll have an excuse to move," Driscoll said.
If there is a solution to getting the Astros back on their feet, no one seems to know what it is. Sources believe McMullen will do one of three things before the 1987 season: (1) move the Astros to Washington and try to start over; (2) make a huge profit by selling the club to Houston buyers; or (3) get some kind of season-ticket guarantees and the additional 10,000 seats to keep the Astros in Houston.
"Him threatening to move the team is not the answer," Driscoll said. "I'll promise you that."
Others, including Driscoll, say a local group should buy the team, and still others say, if the Astros are still in a pennant race in August, the fans will come back by the thousands.
Whether that's good enough for McMullen remains to be seen.