Sonny Jackson had lost another game of "base hit" during the Houston Astros' batting practice and now he was stretched facedown on the ground as Joe Morgan started to count for the 20 push-ups. "Get your nose right down into that dirt, Sonny, or else you'll have to do them all over," said Morgan, laughing along with Lee Maye and Jimmy Wynn, the other winners. Sonny got his nose in the dirt and finished, but he was back down doing 20 more a few minutes later after he had lost the next game, too.
The hazing of Sonny Jackson, a 21-year-old rookie shortstop, ended the next day when Sonny decided to quit playing the base-hit game. That saved him at least 40 more push-ups because Sonny is a singles hitter, and there is no way a singles hitter, especially a rookie, can win the base-hit game under the Morgan-Maye-Wynn rules. Sonny knows this now, just as he also knows he is the Astros' shortstop this season. Jackson will be an exciting shortstop, but he is likely to make a lot of errors. His throwing arm is not too strong and it also seems erratic. "My arm's not a shotgun," he admits, "but the ball will get there in time. I'm not concerned about that. I'm just worried where the ball ends up." Sonny may be Maury Wills's most persistent base-stealing rival, too. "He stole 52 for me last year at Oklahoma City," says Grady Hatton, the Astros' new manager, "and I had the clampers on him."
Jackson, Morgan and Wynn, along with 19-year-old Pitcher Larry Dierker, 23-year-old Catcher John Bateman and 22-year-old Outfielder Rusty Staub, represent the once and future hopes of baseball in Houston. And this, basically, is what is wrong with the Astros.
"We just don't have a real star," says Morgan, the second baseman who hit .271 as a rookie last year. "On this club I'm as important as the next guy. Sure, it'd be nice when you make a mistake to have someone like Willie Mays hit a home run to make people forget your mistake, but there's nothing we can do about that now."
The player most likely to gain eventual recognition as Houston's first star is Jimmy Wynn, the 24-year-old center fielder who, although he will not admit it, performs with a touch of Mays. He wears No. 24, returns the ball underhanded to the infield after catching a fly, runs with the Mays hitch and rolls the visor of his cap just like Mays. Like Mays, Wynn combines power and speed. Last year he hit 22 home runs and stole 43 bases in 47 attempts, including 20 for 20 against left-handers. This year he says he is going for 60—stolen bases, that is—and will settle for any amount of home runs. "How can you possibly think of hitting home runs when you have to play in the Dome?" he asks plaintively.
The Astros hit only 25 home runs in the Dome all last season, and that figure so convinced Hatton of the advantages of a Dodger-style offense that he has turned Jim Gentile, the club's only authentic power hitter, into what Gentile calls a punch-and-Judy hitter. "But you've got to hit the ball twice for a home run in the Dome," Gentile concedes, "so maybe this is the thing to do."
For four years now, during the tenure of Paul Richards and his managerial puppets, the Astros lost games on the field with young players like Staub and Bateman, who really should have been learning their craft in the low minors. This thinking changed when Judge Roy Hofheinz gained sole control of the team last winter and brought in Grady Hatton as manager. "Now it's time to come up with a ball club," says Hatton. "If someone's on the team, then he'll be good enough to play, because we've already proved that you can lose with anybody."
Bateman is perhaps the best example of the development program phased out along with Richards. "My first year in baseball I happened to hit a few home runs," he says, "and this went to some people's heads. So they brought me up. I was too young and knew it, but I couldn't do anything about it. When I didn't do the job people started to wonder. But I wasn't ready. I used to go around shooting off my mouth in the clubhouse and on the field and, well, just about everywhere. That's changed now." The Astros farmed Bateman to Oklahoma City last year, and Hatton settled him down with a few fines. "He was just a big kid," says Grady. "He's grown up now."
"Bateman could be the key man on our club," says Morgan. "He does things that keep us all awake. He caught our 10-game winning streak last year."
The Astros have a respectable pitching staff with Dick Farrell, Bob Bruce and Dierker, who may be the best young pitcher in the league, as definite starters, and Robin Roberts, Claude Raymond, Dave Giusti, Danny Coombs and Chris Zachary looking for the other two starting assignments. Bobby Aspromonte plays third—and plays it well. Unless the Astros can secure a right-handed hitter in a trade, Lee Maye will play left field again with Staub in right.
Staub sums up the Astros' situation rather well. "You know," he says, "more than two million people saw our games last year in the Astrodome. But do you think they came to see us or the Dome?"
And having seen the Dome, and the team, will they come back again this year?