But now we are introduced to the bottom-line result of this strategy. The 11 former Astros will be paid a total of about $19 million this season by other teams. The Astros total payroll for 1991 will be a miserly $11 million—smallest in the majors. (For a point of comparison, we learn that the Oakland A's have the highest payroll in baseball: $36 million.)
We are also told that Houston management may not be done yet. The Astros have two more veterans that are available for the right deal, starting pitcher Jim Deshaies, a $2.1 million-a-year man with a 56-47 record in five years with Houston, and Astro ace Mike Scott, a $2.4 million-a-year man and a former Cy Young Award winner. If Houston sheds these two and brings in a pair of $100,000-a-year rookies to replace them, its payroll would shrink to a puny $7 million.
What's going on here? As newcomers to the baseball business, we're a bit confused. The Astro general manager, Bill Wood, a patient, avuncular fellow who has been in the Houston front office since 1976, calmly tries to explain it all: "We want the most value for our money; it's that simple. We do not want to have a $25 million payroll and still finish fourth. For that kind of money, we want to finish first. We have been in the top third in salaries around the league until now. But we have been outspoken against high salaries for free agents for years."
Wood warns us that baseball is in "a collective industry hysteria" and that owners today seem to feel compelled to throw around millions just to give, at the very least, the impression that they are trying to win, thereby keeping their fans in the fold. "But in Houston we don't have the money from tickets, from local TV and radio, to support a $25 million payroll unless we are winning. And we could not have had a winning team with the players we have just let go."
Hmmmm. We decide it's time to do some homework, to get some facts on this franchise. We learn that the club opened for business as the Houston Colt .45s, one of two National League expansion teams (the New York Mets were the other) in 1962. In 1965, the team moved into the much ballyhooed Astrodome and was renamed the Astros. (As we hear this, it occurs to us simultaneously that if we buy this team we, too, will want to rename it in our own image: the Astro-Screws. We don't mention this to anyone yet.)
For years, Houston played badly, was managed badly and made money badly. By the mid-'70s the Astros were being run by creditors, who wanted to sell the team. No one from Houston wanted to buy it, no one from Texas, no one from the Southwest, no one from the South or from the West. Finally, late in 1978, a fellow named John McMullen, from Montclair, N.J., entered the picture. He was 60 then, a rich but little-known maritime businessman. His only previous experience in baseball had been as a minor partner with George Steinbrenner in the ownership of the New York Yankees. ("Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner," McMullen once said.)
McMullen bought the Astros and the lease to the Astrodome on May 10,1979, for an estimated $19 million. At first he was hailed as a savior, and the club, under the guidance of president and general manager Tal Smith, began to prosper. In 1980, Houston won its first division title and drew 2,278,217 fans into the 'Dome, the best attendance figure the franchise has ever seen. But then, stunningly, McMullen fired Smith, who soon thereafter would be named executive of the year by The Sporting News.
That cost McMullen dearly in Houston, where the fans and the press flayed him as a carpetbagger, an ingrate, a Steinbrenner clone. His image never recovered, and in 1988 McMullen made it worse when he didn't resign free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan, a baseball god in Houston. Ryan migrated north to the Texas Rangers, for whom he performed miracle after miracle on the mound, while Astro fans burned. Even Wood, a loyal company man, calls Ryan's departure "a public relations disaster." (Ironically, it was McMullen who, in a splashy p.r. gambit in '79, had made Ryan the game's first $1 million player, though it was widely understood that Ryan could have been signed for much less. "There is no doubt," says a former Astro official, "that McMullen and the Astros contributed greatly to the spiraling salary structure we have today.")
Now, McMullen wants to sell. And we, of course, want to talk. We would like to ask, for example, "Why are you selling?" But McMullen says he can't talk to us on the grounds that he might hinder the sale (clearly he doesn't consider us legitimate candidates). He tells us only two things: 1) "The Houston press has always been dastardly to me," and 2) "Our whole point here is that baseball will go out of business, the way the salaries have been going." He does say, however, that we are more than welcome to talk to anyone else in the Astro organization.
So we go back to Wood, the next-best authority. As potential owners, we want to know whether the Astros' roster stripping was a matter of good baseball management or just McMullen's method of reducing the club's overhead, thus making the franchise a more attractive buy. Wood denies the latter. Rather, he says, we must think back to 1986, a splendid year for Houston, when the Astros won the National League West by 10 games with a 96-66 record, the franchise's best ever, before losing to the Mets in the playoffs. "After 1986, we thought we had a good nucleus to repeat," Wood explains. "We played along for four more years, hoping it would happen again. But it didn't, and then everything went on a downslide. Things happened: age, injuries', attitudes. We had thought we would clean out the team slowly, go to youth gradually, filter in a couple of kids every season. And we thought it was working. But we sputtered.