"I come from New England, and I don't dislike the East or even New York City," Smith says. "We had a comfortable place out on Long Island. I certainly wouldn't have left that and the Yankees if I didn't think there was a challenge here that I could meet in the foreseeable future."
When, then, will the Astros bring a pennant race to their Dome?
Bill Virdon, the field manager, speaks: "It doesn't just depend on us. We're in the same division as the Dodgers and the Reds. How fast we can be competitive depends on what they do as well as what we do."
"We aren't trading away any more young talent," Smith says.
"Right now we're trying to get them to play hard, exciting baseball," Virdon says. "Frankly, I don't see us competitive with the Dodgers and the Reds until the latter part of next season at the earliest. But that's possible. I'm shooting for it. And we're not finishing any 43� games out this year."
Texas was a promising land for major league baseball when the Houston franchise was organized. The state was the birthplace of men who rose to baseball's pantheon, among them Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker. All by itself, Texas once supported a minor league. (Well, almost. Shreveport played in the Texas League, too.) The old Houston Buffs were a top Cardinal farm. Dizzy Dean began building his legend there.
"The Buffs were good and sometimes very funny," says Clark Nealon, a Texas newspaperman for 45 years. "They once had a rightfielder named Nick Cullop, who played beside a fine centerfielder, Hal Epps. Epps had one problem. Going for a fly he never shouted, 'I got it' or 'You take it.' He said he couldn't run and holler at the same time. One night after a rainstorm, Cullop and Epps collided under a fly. Cullop ended on top with Epps lying face down in a mud puddle. 'You can't say I got it. You can't say You take it. Now we'll see if you know how to say Help!' "
Judge Roy Hofheinz, a bulky, aggressive Texas politician, won a major league franchise for Houston with the promise of a domed stadium. Hofheinz' Astrodome, which opened in 1965, is described in a brochure, with characteristic understatement, as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Some measure of Hofheinz' business acuity came out of an early controversy involving the playing surface of the Dome. Originally, the field was sodded, and the roof was made of 4,596 translucent plastic skylights that were scientifically designed to let in enough sunlight to keep the grass growing. Unfortunately, all that translucence created a creamy backdrop against which it was nearly impossible to follow the flight of a fly ball. Hofheinz had the Lucite darkened and began negotiating with representatives from Monsanto to install artificial grass.
"We're thinking in terms of $375,000," a man from Monsanto said.
"You must be clairvoyant," said Hofheinz. "Three hundred seventy-five thousand was exactly what I had in mind to charge you for promotion for using your product in the Dome. Take our name. Call it AstroTurf if you like." The compromise gave Hofheinz what he wanted: an AstroTurf field for free.