Inside Houston's fabled Astrodome one night last week a member of the Astros reached first base on an error early in the game. Almost immediately the huge picture screen in center field showed cartoons of a gyrating bugle and a charging cavalryman, an inspiring bugle call came over the sound track and the right-field message board flashed the word CHARGE in letters two stories high. The Houston fans, once noted for their librarian silence at baseball games, let loose with a unified "CHARGE!" that rattled the 4,596 Lucite skylights (several of which leak when it rains, it was discovered last week) and almost woke up Sam Houston himself. But the following batter made the third out.
It did not matter. The next time the Astros made a show of strength, like beating out a drag bunt, the scoreboard would call for CHARGE or GO, GO and the fans, as conditioned as the Astrodome's air, would respond. The scoreboard even tells the people when to stretch in the seventh inning, and the feeling persists that if it suggested they go buy hot dogs, every man, woman and child in the stadium would start salivating.
What goes on in the Harris County Domed Stadium is really a new indoor sport, a combination of baseball, pin-ball and 1984. The visiting team has nine players, but the Astros have 10—nine men and a scoreboard. When the Astros hit a home run, their 10th player goes into a neon orgy of rockets, shooting cowboys and snorting bulls. When the opposition hits a homer, it says TILT. When an opposing pitcher is removed, the scoreboard shows a morose player taking a shower to the accompaniment of a funeral dirge. When an Astro pitcher is taken out, the board concentrates on welcoming the reliever as a rescuing astronaut from outer space. The scoreboard is so much a part of the show under the dome that spectators at early-season games even applauded the between-innings picture-screen commercials for clients like The Jones Apothecary and Morton's Chip-O's.
After the dome and the scoreboard, third billing goes to the team itself, born at the same time as the New York Mets but not as inept and not as funny. The bosses, from the general manager, Paul Richards, on down through the coaching staff, are baseball-wise country boys from such places as Waxahachie, Texas and Coushatta, La. Manager Chalmer Luman Harris, who lives in Sugar Land, Texas by an artificial lake, is a genuine gentleman with a tough, tanned, cowboy-hero face that makes John Wayne look like a delicate dude. He is nice to everybody but umpires.
This season Luman and his Astros started off beautifully, won 10 straight games, most of them at home sweet dome, and were in second place when they left early this month on a road trip. Sadly, the 300-ton scoreboard was too bulky to go along. At the start of a swing through California, Harris was sitting cross-legged on the Astros' bench in Dodger Stadium, where the stars and the smog form the only roof. He was happy listening to the organist's rendition of Tennessee Waltz and happier in the knowledge that his team still held third place. "We started on this road trip a game out of first place and everybody, I guess, thought we'd fold," he said. "The first game against Milwaukee they whipped us. The next night it took the Braves 14 innings to beat us. Then we went to Chicago and beat the Cubs three out of four. I wouldn't say we're a folding team."
But the Astros lost three out of four to Los Angeles, the lone win coming on a fine pitching job by Dave Giusti, who stretched his record to 6-0. In San Francisco they lost four straight. Giusti started the first game of the Sunday double-header and was chased to the showers in the second inning.
The Astros had lost six straight games, eight of their last nine, and had sunk to seventh place when they returned to the sanctuary of the Astrodome last week. There, 93,963 fans showed up for a three-game series with the Dodgers, and 130,514 came to bellow on cue in four games that followed against the Giants. The left-and right-field message boards, all part of the same huge scoreboard, combined to supply HOWDY Y'ALL greetings and a nightly inside-the-Astrodome wind report: BLOWS IN FOR THEM AND OUT FOR US.
But all the crowd noise and scoreboard lights and combined exhortations to CHARGE did not help significantly against the two California invaders, for the Astros lost five of seven games, some of them painfully one-sided, some of them painfully close. In one game against Los Angeles the Astros forced Sandy Koufax into extra innings and eventually out of the game but lost in the top of the 11th. Two nights later the Astros lost to the Dodgers in the 14th after coming close to winning it in the 13th when rookie Joe Morgan slid home on his belly in a close play. Plate Umpire John Kibler called him out. In the ensuing argument Harris bumped Kibler and as a result drew a two-day suspension from the National League office.
Kibler was involved in another dispute with the Astros two days later when he called a Giant safe at third. Houston Third Baseman Bob Aspromonte objected angrily and was ejected. The right-field message board commented, KIBLER DID IT AGAIN.
"That's about as low as you can get, when you start putting stuff like that on the board," said Frank Secory, the senior member of the umpiring staff. "We're going to make a report on it. This is something to incite the fans. That's exactly what it's up for. It's poor baseball ethics."
Secory's report to League President Warren Giles brought a warning from Giles that nothing about umpires that could possibly incite the fans should be put on the scoreboard. Giles's son, Bill, who is Houston's publicity man, said, "Nothing derogatory was intended. We think the game is played for the entertainment of the fans. Anything we can do to put a little more entertainment into it, we want to do. There's no reason for the umpires to go around challenging players like they've been doing the past few days here."
Paul Richards said, "I'm afraid of a dome backlash. I'd hale to think the umpires are penalizing us now to show the big clubs that they can't be intimidated in Houston."
Well, there have been a lot of complaints about the dome stadium: the light glare from the sun, the leaky roof, the dying grass (base hits sometimes kick up dust in the outfield) and now the scoreboard. To keep peace and still entertain the fans, maybe the Astros should have the left-field message board battle the right-field message board in a spelling bee. Spell CHAAARGE!