When you make all the plays every day," Houston Astro Third Baseman Bob Aspromonte told himself, "you're allowed to make an error every once in a while.
"But," Aspromonte replied, "they pay their $3.50. It's their privilege to boo if they want to."
Aspromonte is an aboriginal Astro, a $75,000 offering from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the expansion draft of 1961. He had been a Colt .45 for 442 games before the Houston d�cor was changed from Old West to inner space, and naturally he had made some errors in all that time. Perhaps a few were just as unnecessary as the potsy toss he had made over his first baseman's head in the second inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies to hand the Phils four unearned runs and the ball game.
But Bob Aspromonte had never been booed by an Astrodome crowd before and he was trying to explain the phenomenon to himself. The benign Houstonians hadn't just booed his error; they had gotten on him. They had hooted when his sharp rap to shortstop was converted into an out by Dick Groat, and they had cheered sarcastically when Aspromonte caught a simple pop fly.
"The wolves were out tonight," said Catcher John Bateman, the shop steward. "It sounded like Philadelphia."
It didn't sound like Houston, where the customers dutifully chant, "Go, go, go," on the cue of the electronic monster scoreboard in center field, then promptly, unanimously desist—as if somebody had pulled the plug—when the sign goes off. The maledictions against Aspromonte were a rare, almost unprecedented occasion of spontaneity by patrons who obey the big board as unquestioningly as hotel guests in a "Simon says" game in the Catskills. Last year even their abuse of umpires had audio-visual inspiration, until National League President Warren Giles ordered his son, Bill, the Astros' vice-president in charge of enthusiasm, to knock it off.
Clearly, the Astros were now facing the ordeal of success, and Aspromonte had felt the first pangs. To err is human when you're in ninth place. But the Astros had been second for 12 days. The altitude was just getting to the players, but the fans felt it first.
Truly, it was a dizzying time. One night the Phillies' Tony Taylor missed a 2-2 pitch for what appeared to be the final out, and Bill Giles, with his finger on the manic button, caused the words WE WIN to appear in giant letters in center field. Many in the crowd of 30,229 stood and applauded and some turned for the exits. Those watching the game saw the plate umpire signal a foul tip, and on the next pitch Taylor singled the contest into extra innings.
"We" did win in the 11th, on a third hit by the many-splendored young center fielder, Jimmy Wynn, and Houston baseball had attained its finest hour since the Texas League Buffs won the Dixie Series. In the clubhouse Manager Grady Hatton had a phone call from Astros' President Roy Hofheinz, ruler of 88% of all he surveys from his superbox in right center field. The Judge wanted Grady to come up and meet some millionaires and said it didn't really matter that Hatton had come to work in a sport shirt.
For the next two days the 474-foot, 300-ton scoreboard complex acted almost like a scoreboard. Giles concentrated on commercials for coming attractions like an Andy Williams-Henry Mancini concert, the circus and the return of Kolonel Keds, the human rocket man. Meanwhile the Astros scored one run off Jim Bunning on Sunday and none off Larry Jackson the following night. The Astros' deficiencies were beginning to show.