The newest addition to the Astros is The Hill, a large wooden structure at their spring training facility that inclines at a 38-degree angle for more than 30 feet. Running up and down it is thought to be good for the players' endurance, strength, agility, flexibility—good for everything, in fact, but their dispositions. Starting Pitcher Joe Niekro, no kid at 37, gasps, "I wonder what Babe Ruth would say about this."
Asked why he had it built, G.M. Al Rosen answered, "To make the players mad. Every millionaire I know has aggravations. This is theirs." Does Rosen see his millionaires competing against the Dodgers in the NL West? "No," he says, "I see the Dodgers competing against us." The Astro strength is pitching, just as it was last year when they won the second season but lost the division playoff to Los Angeles in five games. "Our pitching gives us a chance to win," deadpans Manager Bill Virdon. Last year's staff had a phenomenal 2.66 ERA, lowest in the league since 1968.
There is the old cattle rancher, Nolan Ryan, who fastballed and no-hit his way to an 11-5 record and a league-leading 1.69 ERA in 1981. There is Bob Knepper, second in the league with a 2.18 ERA. There is Don Sutton, 11-9, who is coming back after having suffered a fractured right kneecap. And there is Niekro. And relievers? The statistics on page 86 confirm Joe Sambito's claim that "We have the best relief staff in the league." Sambito shares that distinction with Billy Smith and Frank LaCorte.
As for the regulars, Rosen admits, "If you pick an All-Star team, I know you don't give serious consideration to our everyday people." A major addition late last year was Second Baseman Phil Garner, who was acquired from the Pirates. Says Garner, "Our pitching makes us good. Some hitting could make us great." The main knock on the Astros for years has been weak bats, and Howe confesses, "We've heard so much talk that we can't hit that we begin wondering if we can." Houston finished a respectable sixth in average, at .257, in '81, but was eighth in runs and 11th in homers. And things don't figure to change much with the Astros having gotten Cincinnati Third Baseman Ray Knight (.259 and seven home runs in '81) in exchange for Outfielder Cesar Cedeno, who hit .271 with five homers.
Art Howe, who batted .296 last year after leading the league for a while, moves from third to first. This doesn't thrill Howe but he accepts it and keeps his mouth shut. That's the Astro way. As Garner says, "They're just a nice bunch of guys. Not like me. I feel if somebody steals second on me, the least he should expect is a little tobacco juice on his uniform. The Astros not only help you up after you've stolen on them, but they dust you off." All of which would be delightful for opponents, if they didn't have to face Houston's pitchers to get on base.
Houston pitchers allowed only nine home runs in the Astrodome in 1981 and 31 on the road. By comparison, the Astro hitters had home/road totals of 16 and 29. Over the last three years the pitchers' figures are 62 and 137. The National League staff with the second-best overall record since 1979 is Los Angeles, which has surrendered 260 homers, a whopping 31% more than Houston.