With a bright smile on his face Jimmy Wynn sat in the Houston dugout one night last week at San Diego Stadium, watching his teammates caper on the grass beyond. Eight Astros were lined up side by side, well into their pre-game performance. These "Flipaholics," as they call themselves, moved a baseball up and down the line, tossing it from glove to glove and trying to induce errors by putting it behind their backs, over their shoulders or between their legs. Each misplay drew raucous laughter. Wynn would giggle and slap his knees. "I have never been this happy," he said. "Never! The Houston Astros of 1972 are what Jim Wynn always hoped would happen to him sometime during his career. Look at them. They know they're good and they like each other. They are the rowdiest bunch of guys I have ever seen. I've been thinking for weeks, trying to come up with a name that fits this team. Orange Crush is one that's around, but somehow that isn't quite rowdy enough. I'll be trying to improve on it."
Certainly Wynn & Co. deserve something memorable, something catchy, worthy of such National League predecessors as the St. Louis Gas House Gang, the 1950 Whiz Kids of Philadelphia, the Miracle Mets of 1969 and Cincinnati's Big Red Machine. Right from the start of the season the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers have been playing a delightful game of tag atop the standings. Seven times the two exchanged first place, but last week the Astros really got their teeth into the lead by doing some compelling things.
Over a 12-day period the young Houston pitching staff threw nine complete games. In four games Bob Watson launched homers. The team not only topped the majors in home runs but had three of the top five RBI leaders. Cesar Cedeno (pronounced suh-daynyo), the 21-year-old outfielder who Manager Harry Walker says is second only to Roberto Clemente as a generator of excitement, was hotfooting it after the lead in stolen bases. Third Baseman Doug Rader, the closest thing the league has to a Brooks Robinson with a glove—he also has a hefty RBI record—made a game-saving play one afternoon against the Dodgers that Wes Parker, one of baseball's premier defensive performers, called "perhaps the greatest play I've ever seen. And I'm talking about 10 years as a player and 10 years as a fan."
While a fit nickname may be slow coming for the team, individual players have theirs right now. John Edwards, the catcher with the heavy legs, is Clydesdale. Long-ball-hitting Lee May is Bopper. Shortstop Roger Metzger, who sweeps up everything in sight, is Hoover. Rader is Big Red Rooster and Relief Pitcher Jim Ray is Stinger. The two left-handed starting pitchers, Dave Roberts and Jerry Reuss, are called Oral and Rolls, respectively, while George Culver, a sharp dresser addicted to male cosmetics who also dabbles in sportswriting, is Skunk. The diminutive Wynn is The Toy Cannon. He has had that nickname for a long time, but never has he fired with such effect.
With Cedeno, May, Watson and Rader surrounding Wynn in the lineup, things happen. This year the Astros have emerged as the biggest run producers in baseball. Of more importance, however, is the fact that Houston has hit 36 home runs without yet playing a game in Montreal, Atlanta or Philadelphia, inviting parks for power hitters. Through the entire 1971 season the Astros hit only 71 homers, the meekest total in the big leagues. Because the Astros lacked solid long-ball hitters, they lost 43 games by one run.
Even before then, rooting for the Astros was not an easy thing. When the league minted them out of expansion coin in 1962 they were called the Colt .45s—and what jammed pistols they were. Because the Mets then resembled something that had fallen off the back of a truck, Houston attained a certain respectability only by comparison. In its first three years the team was marvelously consistent, losing 96 games each. Then Judge Roy Hofheinz built a $31.6 million terrarium to play in, pronounced it the eighth wonder of the world and renamed the club the Astros.
By 1970 the novelty of the Astrodome was wearing off and people began watching the players instead. What they saw was not nearly so impressive. Among those who would be tough in trivia tussles were Al Cicotte, Jim Golden, Pidge Browne, Aaron Pointer, Al Heist, Jay Dahl, Keith Lampard, Bruce Von Hoff and Larry Yellen. Harry Walker managed for four years and when all was said and done, too much had been said. too little done. When Walker was rehired for 1972, a lot of people were stunned, but then General Manager Spec Richardson traded for some good players and Walker smoothed his tongue.
Instead of talking at his players all the time, Harry picks his spots. "A lot of them resent teaching," he says. "I try to avoid talking to my players as much as possible. Players aren't like they were in the old days. When they throw the helmet after they've made an out I don't scream at them. I just get out of the way so I don't get hit. Sure, I've had my battles with Jimmy Wynn in the past, but I think that's over now. We had a long talk when we decided not to trade him, and we got some things ironed out. This is a different way of going for me, but I'm enjoying life a lot more."
Just as Walker looks like a happy and relaxed man this season, so too does Wynn. From 1964 to 1971 he did some remarkable things for a man 5'9". Despite playing in the Astrodome, he had years in which he hit as many as 37 homers, one season in which he stole 43 bases and another in which he drove in 107 runs. Last year is the one he wishes he could forget. He was stabbed during a domestic disturbance with his former wife, and he hit only seven home runs while batting .205. "I think all the bad things are behind me now," he says. "I can concentrate on playing baseball. This year we got together as a team in spring training and really worked hard. We can score, and our starting pitching is just now coming to the point where we thought it would be all along."
To understate the case, the Houston pitching staff is loaded. Larry Dierker has three shutouts already. His lifetime record (87-70) is very impressive considering the Houston teams he labored for. Don Wilson came on strong dining the second half of 1971, winning 10 while losing only four. Last winter the Astros picked up Roberts from San Diego, where his 2.10 IRA was the league's second best. Ken Forsch has bright promise. Tom Griffin is on his way back after being the top rookie pitcher in 1969 and reliever Jim Ray has baseball's best record today, 7-0.
On opening day this year the Astros traded Scipio Spinks to St. Louis for Reuss. Up close, Reuss looks like a bottle of Nair has backfired on him. He has fashionably long hair and may have the only mustache in the league. He also possesses a line fastball. "We hated to trade Spinks." says John Mullen. Richardson's assistant. "We love everything about him. But in Reuss we saw the opportunity to get something vital to us—another lefthander to pitch against certain ball clubs."
The most important of those clubs, of course, is Los Angeles. On May 21, Reuss defeated the Dodgers in the final game of a thrilling four-game series, 2-1. The Astros needed that win, in the Dodgers' park, to split the series. Last Friday night the other lefthander, Roberts, opened a home series against the Dodgers with a 5-3 victory.
In truth, the Dodgers seem to be in some trouble when lefthanders work against them. Their switch hitters are a step and a half farther from first, left-hand-hitting Willie Davis' effectiveness is lessened and Willie Crawford and Bill Buckner often sit down against lefties.
As this season bums on, the race between Houston and the Dodgers is going to focus increasing attention on Houston's pitchers. Will the experience of the Dodgers" Claude Osteen. Bill Singer, Al Downing, Tommy John and Don Sutton prevail? Or are Dierker, Wilson, Roberts, Forsch and Reuss the best set of arms in the league? It may take four dazzling months to determine the answer.