The Dome cost $38 million, which Hofheinz financed largely through $31.5 million in bonds issued by Harris County, Texas. (The current lease costs the Astros $750,000 a year.) Then he built four hotels near the Dome, a convention center called Astrohall and an amusement park called Astroworld. The whole conglomeration was named Astrodomain.
The hotels were empty too often. The amusement park lacked the sparkling Disney touch. People came from 50 states to see the Dome. They arrived as tourists and did not become baseball fans. The team kept trading its best young talent, attendance slumped, and on the fringes of Hofheinz' domain, one could begin to hear the insistent whisperings of creditors.
Six years ago Hofheinz suffered a stroke. He now sits in a wheelchair, huge and bearded like Orson Welles, with his empire suddenly revealed as a fiscal ruin. The four hotels and the convention center have been sold. The amusement park has been leased to Six Flags Over Texas. What remains of Hofheinz' Texas dream is a ball park owned by the county, a ball club with some potential and a debt that Shlenker concedes is "more than $30 million."
Along with empty seats, I saw good baseball at the Astrodome. The Astros played the Phillies tough in two of three games. Cesar Cedeno in center is a superb player. James Rodney Richard, the 6'8" righthander, throws smoke. Roger Metzger, the shortstop, is fine. Greg Gross in right will get his hits. Virdon has his athletes working; they didn't beat the Phillies, but they played them, in Virdon's term, competitively.
But it is premature to assert that the Astros' luck has turned. Smith has introduced a promotion called the Foamer. On Foamer Nights, a large bulb near a digital clock behind right field lights up during each even-numbered minute. Should an Astro hit a home run when the light is on, management buys free beer for every adult in the house for the rest of the evening. For a chaser one night during the Phillies series, Smith threw in an extra freebie: if Mike Cosgrove, the Astro pitcher, struck out Mike Schmidt when the light was on, there also would be free beer for everybody.
At 9:12 Cosgrove got two strikes on Schmidt. He gazed endlessly at Catcher Cliff Johnson for a sign. The 17,338 fans made a rising inchoate noise. Finally, with the light still on, Cosgrove threw an inside fastball. Schmidt missed it. The crowd made an animal roar. Suddenly, all over the Dome grown men sprinted up the aisles. The place seemed to empty in seconds as the fans scampered toward refreshment stands.
In the sixth, with the Phillies leading 2-1 and men on first and third, Cosgrove walked the Philadelphia pitcher with two out. That base on balls led to an insurance run for the Phils.
Smith assumed a look of resignation. "When it didn't make any difference, he strikes out Schmidt and costs us $5,000 in beer. Then with the game in the balance, he walks the pitcher." Smith laughed to himself and said, "We're turning a corner, but we haven't turned it yet."
Some Houston business people claim that if Hofheinz had not been stricken, he might have rescued his empire. Interest on a $30 million debt demands respect—or awe—and I am even less qualified than the former comptroller of New York City to comment on multimillion-dollar juggling.
But Houston's baseball disaster is something more than money. Caught in his measureless Texas dreams, Hofheinz did not pay enough attention to his franchise. Baseball is competitive on the field and baseball is competitive in the front office, and perhaps while Hofheinz mused about Astroworld, Tom Yawkey of Boston was talking to the scout who signed Fred Lynn.