Wham! Jose (Chco) Cruz, the Astros' impish leftfielder, slammed his bat against a table last week, shattering the quiet of the Houston clubhouse.
"Hey!" a dozen voices cried out at once. Cruz hit the table harder.
"T. Scott, get your gun," Pitcher Bob Knepper called to utility man Tony Scott, who had recently purchased a handgun. "Shoot that man." Whereupon Cruz produced a third, even more deafening blast.
The sound of Cruz's bat has been echoing ever louder not only in the Astros' clubhouse but also throughout the National League. At the end of last week Cruz had batted .379 in his last 41 games, to raise his season's average to .322—just two points behind league-leader Bill Madlock of Pittsburgh. At 36 Cruz could become the oldest National League batting champion since Stan Musial, also 36, in 1957.
Cruz's little-noted success resembles that of his team. Since dropping their first nine games, the Astros had played at a .561 pace through last Sunday, the best performance for that period in the league. In the process, they have produced candidates for Rookie of the Year (Reliever Bill Dawley), the Cy Young Award ( Pitcher Nolan Ryan) and Manager of the Year ( Bob Lillis). Even if none of them wins, the season can't be called a disappointment. The Astros were 78-70 at week's end and a solid third in the West Division, trailing Los Angeles by 6� games and Atlanta by three.
If the other Astros had been as steady as Cruz, Houston's record would be even better. A lifetime .281 hitter, Cruz is heading for the highest average of his 14-year major league career. It helps that he's playing five pounds lighter than last season, at 185. He also has had more productive hitters around him—Shortstop Dickie Thon, First Baseman Ray Knight, Third Baseman Phil Garner—than in past years. But Cruz has been befuddling pitchers since the Astros bought him from the Cardinals and made him a regular in 1975. He holds the bat with his hands high, takes an exaggerated step � la Mel Ott and Sadaharu Oh and slashes at everything thrown at him—high, low, fast, slow. Even so, he hits line drives to all fields and infield "chop-chops" that he beats to first with his 3.8 speed.
"Throw the ball three feet over his head and outside, and he'll hit it down the leftfield line," says L.A. Pitcher Pat Zachry. "Three feet over his head and inside, and he goes to right." Moans Dodger Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski, "All you can do is mix him up."
"My swing is natural," says Cruz. "Most lefthanded hitters are low-ball hitters. I can hit anything. I see the ball, I hit it. If I take a close pitch, the umpire calls it a strike, and I don't like to fall behind on the count. So I go up there hacking." Through Sunday he had hit 13 homers and driven in 82 runs—notable figures when half your games are played in the capacious Astrodome. Only once this season had he gone more than two games without a hit. And last Friday against the Reds he got his third four-hit game of the year. (He also had seven three-hit games.) On Saturday, he spoiled Johnny Bench Night with a two-run game-winning homer in the sixth inning. Says Houston Batting Coach Denis Menke, "I just tell him to watch the ball and not swing at too many bad pitches."
The only time Cruz's freewheeling ways betray him is when he's on the bases. Though Cruz had 28 steals, he'd been caught stealing 16 times and, because of bad judgment, had been nailed several times more trying for extra bases on batted balls. In press boxes all around the league, blundering runners are referred to as graduates of the Cruz School of Baserunning.
That's a fault the Astros have learned to accept. Says Lillis, "The thing about Cruz is he works hard, he's all business, and he has fun doing it."