We all know the Houston Astros, the team that's so dull it's a secret in its hometown.
No wonder fewer than 113,000 fans showed up for a four-game series against the New York Mets last week. No wonder that, as the Astros moved back into the lead in the National League West this week, the crowds have arrived at the same 16,000-a-game rate that cost owner John McMullen $5 million in 1985.
Who needs another air-conditioned snooze in the Astrodome, the Eighth Blunder of the World? Look at the Astros' current seven-game winning streak that took them from two games behind the San Francisco Giants to 3 1/2 games ahead.
Last Friday, the Astros, behind Bob Knepper (11-7), became the first team this year to shut out the Mets. Saturday, strikeout leader Mike Scott and star reliever Dave Smith beat Dwight Gooden and the Mets' bullpen, 5-4, thanks to a two-out hit in the bottom of the ninth. Then, on Sunday, Houston waged a 15-inning Armageddon with the Mets that ended in a 9-8 victory.
No wonder Houston had that teensy crowd on Monday against Montreal for another sleepy, 8-7 come-from-behind win with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Then, for No. 5 in a row, the Astros really killed any interest. They beat Montreal, 1-0, in 10 innings as Nolan Ryan struck out 14 and Glenn Davis hit his 21st homer.
On Wednesday, the Astros won their fifth consecutive sudden-death game (is that the record?) with two out in the 11th on a hit by Davey Lopes, who just arrived as pennant-race insurance.
Finally, last night they scored eight runs in the third inning and Mike Scott had a career-high 13 strikeouts in a 9-3 victory at Philadelphia.
How do all these rumors start about the Astros moving to some other city?
Who'd want such a drab outfit?
Here comes the symbol of the new Astros now. Let's put on some cheap sunglasses and check him out.
He's 6 feet 6 and weighs 235. Used to weigh 284, but they sent him to a fat farm in Tucson to get a little emergency shrinkage. Let him eat cactus. This fellow used to look like a John Candy impersonator. Graig Nettles baited him by peering in the Houston dugout and saying, "How'd you guys sign Denny McLain?"
Our man likes to arrive in multicolored jeans, pink high-top sneakers and a Twisted Sister T-shirt. For games, he switches to a Jetsons T-shirt. His car is a nice black number with a moon roof and a caved-in door. He's looking to buy a Checker cab. On his radio, Romeo Void sings, "Never Say Never." He has thick glasses, sports a Jim McMahon punk haircut, and addresses his elders, like Nolan Ryan, as "Hey, dude."
The one and only Charles Kerfeld Esq., who has a 7-1 long-relief record, sums himself up best: "I'm just a 22-year-old kid having fun."
Kerfeld has taken it upon himself to be the front man for the Astros, who are themselves a 24-year-old franchise that's finally asking, "Are we having fun yet?"
Throughout their history, the Astros have carried the banner of bland -- never being bad enough or good enough to merit study. Houston never has lost 100 games, but has won more than 85 only twice and never 95. Once, Houston won the division. And immediately fired the general manager who built the team.
The Astros stood for outfielders such as Howie Gross, who, after missing a fly ball, said, "A good outfielder would have had it." And base runners such as Bob Cerv, who was thrown out trying to score from second on a triple. To grasp the sense of morbid humor that thrived in Houston, you had to appreciate the day that Bob Aspromonte tripped and spiked himself. "Don't worry, Aspro," said a teammate, "we'll get the dirty bum who did this to you."
For two dozen seasons, the Astros have been doing it to themselves. Now, that seems to be changing. Okay, let's not get carried away. Under new Manager Hal Lanier and new General Manager Dick Wagner, the Astros are a modest 54-42 after last night's victory. They still could finish in the second division. But Houston has good starters, better relievers, opportunistic speed and a few respectable hitters. In a weak year in the NL West, that could be enough.
Historically, this has been a team of lowered expectations and fatalistic tint. To ballplayers, Houston is not your preferred address.
When the temperature is 100 degrees outside and you play indoors before small, silent crowds, it's easy to become stagnant. Especially when your owner is a meddlesome 67-year-old with little baseball experience and a penchant for personnel blunders. Also, in recent seasons, the Astros had laid back managers who tolerated a country club atmosphere. The previous Astros manager, Bob Lillis, had a revealing nickname -- Flea. Or, as reliever Frank DiPino, who was traded to the Cubs Sunday, put it, "Flea was real quiet."
Sometimes, Astromania was comic. For instance, Houston spent $44 million on Dome renovations, but somehow forgot to repair the most obvious thing -- the turf field that's full of weird, dangerous cracks and seams. But Houston life also was sad, as when J.R. Richard suffered a stroke, Dickie Thon got hit in the eye and Joe Sambito blew out his pitching arm.
Perhaps that's why Houston ticket buyers are so skeptical. They may suspect that Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda is right when he says, "The Astros are just renting first place."
"We don't mind how our crowds react, even if they boo us," said Scott, who's pitching at a 300-strikeout pace. "We just wish there were enough people in the stands for any reaction.
"Believe it or not," said Smith, after a night when 22,000 showed up, "this is a big crowd for us. But I guess the Mets have a lot of players people want to see."
Naturally, the Astros think that some guys in their dugout bear watching, too.
Foremost among these is Scott himself who, at 31, has added a new mystery pitch (a scuffball, perchance?) to the split-finger drop that helped make him 18-8 last year. Nothing in his previous career prepares us for his 187 strikeouts in 177 innings or his 2.48 ERA after his five-hit win last night. But, until somebody figures him out or frisks him, he's a genuine ace.
"We're definitely a different team than we were last year," said Scott. "Hal Lanier has us running and playing more aggressively . . . In this game, you can die or fight back. We're not going to quit. We've had our frustrations this year, like getting swept four straight in San Francisco, but we're still right there. Seems like as soon as we win a few in a row, we go flat. But we come back. It'll be close all the way, with us right in it."
Knepper, like Scott, is a 31-year-old with a losing career record. And a chance to win 20 games this year. At times, he's tended to get lost in the labyrinth of his stylish left-handed mechanics. But he's in sync now.
So is the mighty, ageless Ryan, after a 21-day trip to the disabled list. In his last seven starts, over 45 splendiferous innings, he has allowed 22 hits, struck out 56 and has a 1.80 ERA. Yet, in that span, he has a loss and three no-decisions. On Tuesday, he allowed one hit in 9 1/3 innings and left a 0-0 game, leaving his record 6-7. Is this guy the career snakebite leader?
"I've never seen Ryan throw as well as he's throwing now," said the Mets' Wally Backman. "Darn if he hasn't come up with a split-finger, too."
The rest of the rotation is noted for potential -- Jim Deshaies (5-2) as a big power-pitching lefty and Mark Knudson (1-3) as a sports columnist. With the Rocky Mountain News, Knudson is known for a mean tag line. With Knudson, Knepper and Kerfeld, it's no wonder Houston leads the majors in Ks.
The Astros' offense could be praised. But why bother? Only one team in all of baseball has scored less -- the Cardinals. Sure, part of the reason is the Dome. But the fences have been moved in and the dungeon now is no worse on hitters than several other parks. Basically, all that Houston has is the broad-shouldered Glenn Davis -- Mr. Outside on the Inside. He grew up rough and tough in Jacksonville, but now is a model citizen who spends time making pitchers miserable.
Besides the temporarily hot Kevin Bass (13 homers, .313), there's not much else. Jose Cruz (slump), Terry Puhl (injury), Phil Garner and Bill Doran have all had better years.
When a team tells you its greatest strength is middle relief depth -- Kerfeld, Aurelio Lopez and Larry Andersen -- it would be unwise to make wagers on the club's behalf.
Nevertheless, playing the Astros is no longer a day at the beach. They're colorful, they care and, as Charlie Kerfeld surely would remind us, "Never Say Never."