The Houston Colt .45s still resemble boy scouts, but this year, as last, the middle-aged set will do most of the work.
Last season the Colts hit .220, with only 62 home runs—which is very little indeed. Pete Runnels won the American League batting title in 1962, then came to Houston and hit .253. Johnny Weekly was leading the Pacific Coast League at .363 when the Colts brought him up. He hit .225, after getting injured almost as soon as he joined the team. Weekly will be platooned in right with Walt Bond, a perennial spring phenom, who was bought from Cleveland. More help came from the White Sox in Nellie Fox. He is a top hit-and-run man, and his ability to move a runner along should be particularly vital to the Colts' singles attack. Al Spangler had back-to-back .280 seasons and is set at lead-off. Then there are the kids. John Bateman, 21, led the team with 10 home runs and 59 RBIs. He is slow and swings at too many bad pitches, but he is very determined. Just in from St. Louis is 24-year-old Jim Beau-champ, who has played both infield and outfield. Beau-champ has a weak arm, the result of an injury, but he appears to be a hitter. Last year with Tulsa he batted .337, with 105 RBIs and 31 home runs. If Beauchamp can approach those statistics at Houston, he will play, even if he has two bad arms. One of Houston's best young players may turn out to be Jim Wynn, 22, who was drafted from the Cincinnati farm system (.290, 14 home runs, 81 RBIs with Tampa) in 1962. Wynn, a compact 160-pounder with speed and surprising power, is expected to improve on the .244 batting average he had in 70 games last year. But Houston's golden boy is Rusty Staub. He has a fine eye, a smooth swing and looks like the best of the Colt kids, even if he did hit only .224 last year. "He was still the most consistent hitter on our team," Manager Harry Craft says. "It seems like every ball he hit went right at somebody. He was unlucky all season long." Staub also had trouble hitting the low pitch and, in fact, his only hitting goal for 1964 is "to pick up on the low ones." The rest should follow, for he is a mature young man, with an exceptional perspective for his age. "When I went to Houston last year," he says, "I had a good spring and people thought they were getting Musial, Williams and Mantle combined. Then all of a sudden they found that all they had was a 19-year-old kid who didn't know a thing." It is not Staub's fault but, despite his powerful build—he is 6 feet 2 inches, 200 pounds and still growing—he looks like a 19-year-old kid. He has red hair and freckles and a painful susceptibility to sunburn. Women in Houston mother Staub. They are always asking him home for dinner, as if he had come over from New Orleans to visit an aunt, not to play major league baseball. But Staub is a major leaguer, one with the posture and personality to someday lead a contender under that big dome. "No, I don't think I'll ever go back to the minors," Rusty Staub says, admitting that he never even thought about it before. "I know I am a boy with the breaks, but I think you have to grab the opportunity whenever it comes. I'm here, and I don't think I'll ever play in the minors again. I mean—I don't intend to. That doesn't sound too cocky, does it?" Not if you can hit a low pitch.
Kid pitchers usually develop before kid hitters, and that is particularly true when General Manager Paul Richards is involved. But, strangely, this has not been the .45s' case. Chris Zachary, 20 (2-2, 4.89 ERA), is the only minor who appears to have any chance to help the team now, but if he does not make the starting rotation he will be farmed out to get some steady employment. The sure starters are led by 30-year-old Turk Farrell (14-13, 3.03). His best pitch is still his fast ball, but Farrell also has a good slip pitch—the little hors d'oeuvre that Richards offers all his older pitchers. Ken Johnson, 30, a knuckleballer who has about 10 other pitches with about 18 different deliveries, returns after a season of 11-17—and an ERA of 2.65, 10th best in the league. The Houston hitters chose to leave Johnson entirely to his own devices. Don Nottebart (11-8, 3.17, with a no-hitter included) should also win a starting spot, with Zachary, Hal Brown, Dave Giusti, Bob Bruce or Jim Owens the other possibilities. Brown had the best control in the majors—eight walks in 141 innings. There is, however, nary a left-hander in all that bunch. The only one on the team is Hal Woodeschick, a reliever. Woodeschick found control last year and went on to make the All-Star team and post an 11-9, 1.97 record with eight saves. To help Woodeschick there is Claude Raymond, the only player obtained by the Colts in the special draft for expansion teams last October. This is not the most talented staff in history, but it is a smart bunch that makes opponents scramble for runs. The .45s gave up fewer bases on balls and fewer home runs than any other staff in the majors.
Staub still has much to learn in the field. Chances are that, with Fox taking over second, Runnels will go to first, hit better and send Staub to the outfield. The outfield, whatever the personnel, is the weakest part of the Houston defense. For example, Wynn, a converted in-fielder, will probably open the season in center field. Bate-man became a fine catcher by the end of his rookie season. He can do almost everything well, even handling the veterans and catching the knucklers from Johnson and Brown. In the infield, Third Baseman Bob Aspromonte had a bad back last season and his whole game suffered. Recovered, he can again rank in the top echelon at his position. At his best, the incumbent shortstop, Bob Lillis, is better than newcomer Eddie Kasko (from the Reds), but Lillis needs a lot of rest and Kasko will outhit him. Lillis will make a good utility man. In fact, everyone on the Colts must be at least part utility man. Although a special ruling allows the expansion clubs to farm out four first-year players without danger of having them drafted, Houston will still be playing with only 21 bona fide major leaguers.
This is still a building year in Houston, for ball teams and for domed stadiums. The stadium will be ready in the fall. The ball team will take a little longer.