If This Is Thursday...

...then it must be San Diego—or is it Chicago? The Astros, made homeless by the Republican Convention, endure a month on the road
August 24, 1992

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore Art Howe, Romeo?

If this is Sunday, then Art Howe is in Chicago. In the twilight of a monthlong road trip, the manager of the Houston Astros is trying to return his team to its original upright position. This task might remind him of air travel, which in turn might remind him of United Airlines' confounding scat-pocket safety-instruction cards, which warn: "If you cannot read this card...please notify a flight attendant."

Then again, what wouldn't remind Howe and his Astros of the idiocies of air travel these days? By the time they return to Houston—which they left on July 27—for a home stand that begins on Aug. 25, the Astros will have flown 9,062 miles and bused another 124 to complete their current away stand.

The Astros will also have played 26 games in 28 days in eight cities and three time zones, encountering, along the way, 35,000 attorneys, one inflatable woman, an untold number of livestock (during the indignity that is Farmers' Night in Cincinnati), five comical members of a Navy color guard and—it's a clichè, we know—a hotel filled with temperate Pentecostals and hardware salespeople.

In short, Dinger or Homer or whoever it was who wrote the Odyssey didn't know jack about travel. Now, this is a road trip: Houston to Atlanta to Cincinnati to Los Angeles to San Diego to San Francisco to Chicago to Houston (for 36 hours off) to St. Louis to....

"Philadelphia?" asks Astro shortstop Casey Candaele. "I think the last stop is Philadelphia, isn't it? That's my favorite city on the trip—the last one."

The Astros, you may know, were rendered homeless by the Republicans, who required a full three weeks of preparation in the Astrodome before beginning their four-day national convention there on Monday. Astro owner John J. McMullen graciously came to the aid of the party last summer, when he volunteered his team's joint to the G.O.P.

"We weren't happy at all when we heard about it," recalls Astro first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who is still not terribly pleased. "It's a shame. It's unprecedented. Other teams aren't playing 28 days on the road. What would have happened if we had been in a pennant race when we started this trip? Everybody keeps saying it's supposed to be a good experience, but I don't know about that."

Still, what was supposed to have been a long day's journey into ninth for fifth-place Houston has hardly been a disaster for the team: Through Sunday the Astros were 8-12 on the trip, which still leaves them 19½ games out of first in the National League West. So perhaps this is a good experience, after all?

"Well, I tried to stress that they should have fun," says Howe. "Coming in, I looked at this trip as an opportunity for the players to get to know each other a little better. I think that is happening."

It is. "There haven't even been any fights," said Astro second baseman Craig Biggio after two weeks on the road. "But the trip isn't over yet. Wait until the last week. Then we'll really see how well we're all getting along."

The Astros are the youngest team in the National League, with an average age of 27.12. The players are still fairly new to one another, as well as new to most baseball fans. Let's face it: The most famous Astro is still George Jetson's dog. "About the biggest difference for us on this trip," says Bagwell, "is all the media attention."

That's media attention, which rhymes with Republican convention, which culminates on Thursday in the dome, when George Bush accepts his party's nomination for President of the United States on a podium erected near second base. Vice-President Dan Quayle's seat is along the rightfield foul line. (Reader: Insert your own joke here.)

Whatever happens at the G.O.P. convention, the Republicans have already made history, or at the very least they have made the Astros make history. Sure, the Montreal Expos took an extemporaneous 26-game road trip over the final 28 days of last season, when Olympic Stadium was declared structurally unsound. But the Expos visited a mere five cities and assembled a scant 6,526 frequent-flier miles on their international tour.

And, yes, the Phillies did play 28 games in 27 days in 1944, but eight doubleheaders gave the club four scheduled off days on that trip (the Astros have two days off). And, of course, the Phils didn't have to endure the joys of modern-day air travel. Last week some of the Astros were alarmed when their charter plane from San Francisco to Chicago seemed to dip toward the Bay before struggling skyward upon takeoff. "Whew," said Astro relief pitcher Joe Boever, recounting the moment. "We had to strap on the pontoons for that one."

It can be argued that the Astros' trip is the worst since the Cleveland Spiders played 50 straight away games over 52 days in 1899. And the Spiders—whose 20-134 record that season was the worst of all time—didn't have to shell out a fin to get their underwear starched and hangered. "Six bucks for a pair of jeans!" said Astro leftfielder Luis Gonzalez in Chicago, shaking his head at hotel laundry prices that strained the credulity of even the lavishly salaried big league ballplayers. "We needed that extra money."

In addition to the usual $59 per diem for meals, each Astro was given $150 in laundry money for the trip. "Already used mine," Bagwell said on Day 19. "I don't have a lot of clothes," Candaele said somewhat unnecessarily as he sat at his locker in San Francisco wearing sweatpants and a windbreaker. "I only brought one bag. They relaxed the dress code for the trip."

Last Friday at Wrigley Field, Astro outfielder Gerald Young held up a handmade cardboard sign to the television cameras: HEY MOM, SEND CLEAN UNDERWEAR! I'M OUT. Said St. Louis native Boever when the team was in Chicago, "I'm looking forward to St. Louis so I can use my mom's washing machine."

"Because we hit almost every city in the National League, everyone on the team sees a relative or friends somewhere along the way," notes former Astro pitcher and current broadcaster Larry Dierker, who is carrying a small camera with which he will have taken nearly 500 snapshots when the trip is finished. "I hope to put them together in a book and give copies to the players. This is a unique thing. It may not be fun, but it is memorable."

A favorite picture from the trip is of Boever and Butch Henry winning the cow-milking contest for the Astros on Farmers' Night in Cincinnati. Given the Astros' victory over the Reds earlier in the calf-feeding contest, the Houston team was not as dejected as it might have been about its loss in the corncob toss that night. "I played in Louisville," said a triumphant Boever, unfazed by Red owner Marge Schott's latest absurdity. "Loo-wuh-vull. You learn to milk a few cows in Loo-wuh-vull."

Then there was the (second) baseman's holiday that Biggio took on the team's off day in Cincinnati. "I toured the Louisville Slugger factory," he said. "That was the most memorable part of the trip so far."

In San Diego the team made a field trip to the nuclear submarine USS Houston. Then again: "San Diego's a great city," said Bagwell. "But when you're losing four straight there, it's not a lot of fun."

In Los Angeles an earthquake threw a 3.7 on the Richter scale. In San Francisco 35.000 members of the American Bar Association convened while the Astros were in town. "Thirty-five thousand lawyers," said Astro traveling secretary Barry Waters, shaking his head at the memory. (Reader: Insert your own punchline here.)

Law Night at Candlestick Park—we are not making this up—was so frigid and so gusty that the flag bearers in the Navy color guard, trying to stand at attention for the national anthem in the brisk breeze, could not do so and were windswept out of formation in centerfield.

It was so blustery, the Astro relief staff didn't dare venture from the comical shed that shelters members of the bullpen from the elements at Candlestick. "We stayed in the chicken coop," said Boever. And those Astros who remained in their rooms at the Parc Fifty-Five when not playing—it is a hotel that does big business with Japanese tourists—could occupy their time by dipping into the copy of The Teachings of Buddha that beckoned from each nightstand. "The road is boring," says Candaele. "You play your game and go back to the hotel." So naturally, at the three Hiltons in which the Astros were booked during the trip, there was plenty of time for that classic autobiographical work Be My Guest, by Conrad Hilton.

Is it any wonder that the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance last year, trying to prevent these atrocities before they befell the Astros? Unable to spring the Astros from making the trip, the union did at least produce some lovely parting gifts: a single room for each player in Chicago, as well as first-class round-trip plane tickets between Houston and Chicago (or the cash equivalent), so that players' wives could make conjugal visits.

Of course, not all of the Astros are married, which may be why teammates placed an inflatable woman in pitcher Pete Harnisch's locker at every stop on the itinerary. And a single room for the single Gonzalez in Chicago meant that he had more space to pace when his 11:30 p.m. room-service order of two club sandwiches still hadn't arrived two hours later. "I called them three times," said Gonzalez. "I told them I was staying in the building, at the Hyatt, in case they didn't realize it."

So were several hundred Pentecostals and hordes of hardware sales folk for what were, presumably, two separate conventions. Which is why the Astros, upon checking in late at night after their hairy flight from San Francisco, were pleasantly surprised to find the lobby bar nearly empty. One would have assumed that the hardware boys would be packing 'em away, no?

No. Which gave the 'Stros a rare opportunity to pause for a cold one, and perhaps to toast the Republicans with a thousand pints of Lite. "The convention is going to bring a lot of money into the city," says Biggio of Houston. "The way I look at it, you have to play 81 on the road. It doesn't really matter when you play them."

Still, for those disgruntled Astros, there is a God: While Houston was taking two out of four games against the Cubs, convention spokesman Kyle Simmons was reporting that a G.O.P. staffer had nearly fallen into a hole at the dome ordinarily occupied by the Astros' dugout toilet. (The dugouts were being displaced for network TV anchor booths at the time.)

After losing to Chicago on Sunday, the Astros flew home to Houston, where each player had plans for the Monday off day. "I just hope my apartment is still there," said Candaele. "I haven't paid my rent."

But surely your landlord is aware of what your schedule is? "Yeah," said Candaele. "So are thieves. My place was broken into before, on a long road trip."

Houston announcer Milo Hamilton, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the seventh day of the road trip, had planned to spend Monday where he began his career, in Davenport, Iowa, having a press box there named for him. One small problem: An octogenarian scribe for whom the press box was already named objected to the change, and Hamilton demurred. Besides, the Bush people called Hamilton and asked him to introduce the President at the convention on Monday. At noon on Tuesday, the team would gather again at Hobby Airport in Houston for the flight to St. Louis, where the Astros were to play the Cardinals that night. "I think by the end of the trip we'll have come closer together," says Biggio.

A beautiful tour slogan, isn't it? The farther they go, the closer they get. "Either that," adds Biggio, "or we'll all hate each other's guts. We'll see."

THREE PHOTOSPHIL HUBERHello, G.O.P; bye-bye, Astros: The bags were loaded (below) as fans studied a map at the dome; Young bused it in San Francisco. PHOTOV.J. LOVERO[See caption above.] PHOTOPHIL HUBERXavier Hernandez (left) eyes a teammate's inflatable friend; Caminiti catnaps on a table at Wrigley; the guys dine at Fisherman's Wharf. PHOTOBILL SMITH[See caption above.] PHOTOV.J. LOVERO[See caption above.] PHOTOV.J. LOVEROThe color guard was staggered at Candlestick; Rafael Ramirez helped Young get vested in Chicago; Biggio got tagged by Cub Rick Wilkins. TWO PHOTOSBILL SMITH[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSBILL SMITHNot long after Young's cry for help, the team boarded a plane bound for Houston and a much needed break.