In 1963 the Astros brought up a promising first baseman named Rusty Staub and a good-looking outfielder named Jim Wynn. They subsequently traded both. In 1964, when the Mets lost only 109, the Astros found an aggressive young catcher named Jerry Grote. He later went to New York. In 1965 the Astros started a swift young second baseman named Joe Morgan and had a pitcher with a forkball named Dave Giusti. Giusti has since become a star at Pittsburgh, and last year Morgan won the Most Valuable Player award. He was playing for the Reds. The Astros have traded Cesar Geronimo and Jack Billingham to Cincinnati, John Mayberry to Kansas City and Mike Cuellar to Baltimore, where he won the Cy Young Award.
Beyond such oafish deals lies an eerie death book. Jay Dahl, a Houston pitching prospect of great promise, died in an auto wreck 11 years ago. Jim Umbricht, another pitcher, died of cancer at the age of 33. Twenty-nine-year-old Don Wilson, who had pitched two no-hitters, was found dead in a car beside his Houston home in the wretched morning hours of Jan. 5, 1975.
After this mix of error and disaster, the Astros are now bankrupt and for sale. This year the team is in the hands of the creditors.
"I'd like to own a ball club," I told Sidney Shlenker, a 39-year-old Houston entrepreneur who is the caretaker president of the team. "Thing is, my check would bounce."
Shlenker, a large, amiable man, smiled. "The way things are going around here, a bad check would be better than none at all," he said.
Last season the Astros finished 43� games behind the Reds, drew 858,002 people and lost money. "When you get to Houston, look up a fan called Herschel Maltz," Wally Moon suggested in Siloam Springs. "He played ball with me at Texas A&M. A nonhitting Jewish first baseman."
At lunch, Maltz, now president of Century Papers, Inc., confirmed that he was a first baseman, nonhitting and Jewish. "But I had a good glove," he said. "Real good. Did Wally happen to mention that?" Then Maltz talked about Houston's continuing economic boom with a quiet, drawling pride.
"About the ball club," I said.
"I'm turned off," Maltz said. "I used to go to 40 games a year. I'd take customers. This year I haven't been to the Dome once. You know, I've been thinking that maybe they ought to change the rules of baseball. Give it a quicker pace, make it more lively, like football."
Make it more lively is a euphemism for win the pennant. There were no yawns last October in Boston or Cincinnati. Bringing a contender into Houston is the weighty task of Talbot Smith, an intense, precise, bespectacled man of 42 who resigned as executive vice-president of the Yankees to become general manager of the Astros last August.