November 2011

Larry Dierker roast and toast: fun, raucous and wildly insulting.

Photo courtesy of Anna-Megan Raley

Given his laid-back, laugh-at-yourself approach to life, his penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts and his lifelong goal to own a Woodie, it’s hardly surprising that Larry Dierker turned out to be the perfect target for Tuesday’s night’s roast at the Improv in Houston.

Dierker knows both how to laugh at others and laugh at himself, both of which are heavy requirements when partaking in a roast. Whether you’re the roaster or the roastee, if you are involved at all, you have to be ready to give and receive several zingers. In that respect, Tuesday’s event was a rousing success.

Nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing — was off the table. That includes the grand mal seizure that Dierker suffered in 1999, which roaster Bill Brown revealed was all staged “because his bullpen was tired that day.”

“His regular players were exhausted that day, too,” Brownie said. “He got the lead after six innings and he faked the seizure, so they’d stop the game. It would be picked up months later.”

Dierker’s interesting medical past was trumped only by his clumsiness. That’s the trait for which he’s most famous, at least among family and friends and anyone who’s shared a workspace with the former pitcher-turned broadcaster-turned-manager.

Brownie recalled one day in Chicago when Dierker and athletic trainer Dave Labossiere decided to rollerblade the five-mile trip back to the hotel from Wrigley Field.

“He was very proud of the fact that he was coordinated enough to do that,” Brownie said of Dierker. “Then a woman walked in front of him on the sidewalk, he tore his ACL and was out for four months.”

Jim Deshaies pitched for the Astros during Dierker’s tenure as a broadcaster and replaced Dierker in the booth when he was hired to manage the team. JD recalled  several early conversations he had with people who worked with Dierker the broadcaster: “‘Remember the time he spilled coffee all over Brownie?’ ‘Remember the time he knocked a monitor out of the booth?’ ‘Remember the time he knocked over the lights right before we would do our open?'”

“I thought, if I don’t fall out of the booth,'” JD said, “I’ve exceeded expectations.”

(Video: JD discusses Dierker’s dancing abilities, or lack thereof)

The lineup of roasters represented all times of Dierker’s adult life. Former Astro Norm Miller was Dierker’s teammate beginning in 1965, and the two remained friends for decades after their playing days were over. They were such good friends that when Dierker was hired to manage the Astros in 1996, a local reporter called Miller to get his reaction.

“I thought it was one of my friends making a joke.” Miller said. “It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever heard in my life. How the (heck) can you hire Larry Dierker?”

Rockets announcer Bill Worrell was a student at the University of Houston when he met Dierker, who, at 18, was much younger than his Astros teammates and in need of friends his own age. Dierker would hang out at UH bars, looking for potential buddies and girlfriends, and that’s where he stumbled upon Worrell, a handsome blue-eyed sports fan who was very successful with the ladies.

“We’d go to frat parties,” Dierker said. “And he’d always get the prettiest girl. I would always get the other girl.”

That all changed years later when Worrell, with Dierker behind him, sauntered up to an attractive young woman and prepared to make his pitch. But in a fateful twist, the object of Worrell’s affection took more of a liking to Dierker. More than 40 years later, it appears Judy Dierker made the right call.

“She saw something in me that the other girls didn’t see,” Dierker said. “And she didn’t see something in Bill that the other girls saw. That was the luckiest day of my life.”

(Video: Dierker sends an emphatic shoutout to Jose Cruuuuuz)

Other roast contributors included Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Phil Garner, who were not there in person but delivered taped messages to Dierker.

“I’ve got to tell you,” Garner said. “It’s really cool to manage in the World Series.”

Garner also remembered a story he heard about Dierker missing a team flight his first year in the big leagues.

“You were 18 years old, just signed,” Garner said. “You race to the airport and see a sign, “Airport left.” So, you decided to turn around and go home.”

Proceeds from the event, presented by SportsRadio 610, went to Dierker’s preferred charity, Literacy Advance of Houston. A great night for a great cause, and totally worth a little harmless public humiliation among friends.

The Dierker roast brought out some major star power from the Houston sports scene. Here we have two Astros legends: J.R. Richard (left) and Jose Cruuuuuz.

The list of VIP guests wasn't limited to baseball. Former Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini had a front-and-center seat for the Dierker roast.

Jim Deshaies demonstrates what Dierker looks like when he's trying to dance (key word being "trying.")

Norm Miller was the first roaster and set the tone for a hysterically funny night.

Hoops announcer Bill Worrell: "I don't even know who Larry Dierker is. I'm just here because I didn't have a job."

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Offseason notes: Bourgeois, Bourn, a clubhouse bonanza and a farewell to one great teammate.

Jason Bourgeois’ logic for being so active in the Houston community is pretty simple: he’s a Major League Baseball player, he grew up here, and most importantly, “My mom always told me it’s better to give than to receive.”

In recent years, Bourgeois founded Jason Bourgeois Youth Sports, Inc., a foundation that raises funds to purchase equipment for inner city youth baseball programs. Last week, he hosted a golf tournament at Hermann Park Golf Course and raised $4,000 for the cause. Among the 44 participants were teammate Bud Norris and Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Young, a Houston native.

A few days later, Bourgeois met up with his former teammate and good friend Michael Bourn to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 100 families at the Fifth Ward Church of Christ. Bourn, who was traded to the Braves last July, attends this church and, like Bourgeois, views giving back to the Houston community a natural part of being an athlete.

“Houston’s always going to be my hometown,” Bourn said. “I’m always going to want to contribute. Now it’s the offseason when I can come back and do events like this and contribute back to the community.”

As you’ll see from the photos below, the two players did more than just pay for the meals, and they have the caps and aprons to prove it…

Bourgeois at golf tournament.

Bourgeois, Bud Norris at golf tournament.

Bourn, Bourgeois prepare to serve up meals at Fifth Ward Church of Christ.

Chef Bourgeois.

Michael Bourn, at your service.


The Astros are still looking for interns in their Tours, Community, Grassroots Marketing, Street Team and Urban Youth Academy. The internships are offered to college students for class credit. For more information, click here.

I’ve received a few questions from you regarding the Astros Clubhouse Extravaganza Dec. 9 and 10 at Minute Maid Park. Basically, the home clubhouse is turning into a team store for two days and will feature Authentic goods, in addition to select game jerseys, jackets and leftover baseballs and bats from the season.

Admission is $10 and will go toward your purchase. You will also be able to tour the dugouts and take pictures, meet Junction Jack and have a bite to eat. Tickets will be available at the door — the Diamond Club entrance off Texas Ave. — the day of the event. The hours of operation are Friday Dec. 9 from noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For more information, call the Team Store at 713-259-8077 or click here.


And we conclude on a somewhat sad note, as it’s time to bid a fond farewell to a staff favorite in the Astros front office. Sally Gunter, better known to those who follow along on Twitter as my favorite trending topic #sallygunter, spent the last five years providing valuable contributions to the Astros media relations department in a variety of roles. She’s been the assistant media relations director for most of her tenure here, but effective Dec. 1, she’s taking her talents West to join the public relations staff at Heavenly Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe.

We’re happy for #sallygunter — I mean, with a job like that, how can you not be thrilled for her, albeit a little envious — but believe me, she’s going to be missed around here. A lot.

She’s extremely popular with the players, manager and coaching staff both for her exemplary work and no-nonsense approach. I always looked on with amusement when #sallygunter pulled a young player aside to explain how it works around here (“when I send you a text message, you need to respond”) or when she shuffled players onto the makeshift rafters for the annual team photo (“no, Carlos, you may not sit in the front row with the bat boys.”). One player in particular enjoyed the simple act of not wearing a shirt while doing interviews, mainly because teammates found it funny, but he knew better than to try to get away with it when #sallygunter was around. Once, when approached postgame by a camera crew, he grabbed a t-shirt and moped as he put it on. “Sally’s making me,” he grumbled.

In short, #sallygunter is equal parts hard-working, forthright and, most importantly to your friendly neighborhood blogger (especially during road trips), fun.

She will be missed by many. But we’re happy that she’s landing somewhere fantastic, especially since it gives us a good place to take a vacation. Good luck Sal!

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Astros have a new owner, and you have a lot of questions. Let’s chat.

The one thing that stood out to me as the press conference began Thursday afternoon was how much more relaxed Jim Crane appeared than the first time we were introduced to him, back in May.

When Drayton McLane first announced he had sold the team to Crane six months ago, the pending new owner was still waiting approval from Major League Baseball. That handcuffed him in terms of how much he could say regarding the Astros and his vision for the future, because until the Commissioner and baseball’s 29 other owners signed off on it, the team wasn’t yet his. That forced him to keep his comments short.

This time, Crane walked into the room looking relaxed and, understandably, relieved. Although the process to get to this point had many difficult twists and it took a toll on everyone involved, in the end, Crane, persistent from the start, crossed the proverbial finish line.

We all know what transpired between the day the initial sale announcement was made in May and Thursday afternoon. Crane went through a long and somewhat grueling vetting process, one that ended with MLB giving Crane two choices: buy the team and move to the American League, or refuse a move to the AL and not own the team.

That was one of the first things Crane addressed at the press conference. “They made it clear to us that anyone who owned the team would be moving to the AL,” Crane said.

The Astros’ move to the AL West in 2013 was one of several topics Crane addressed during both his formal statements to the media and his more candid interviews he conducted with reporters during the hour-long press conference.

Among the notables:

On the negative fan reaction on the move to the AL:

“The fans are number one, let’s get that straight. Without the fans, none of us are here. We want to reach out to the fans. We’ll do some things for the fans immediately. We understand the tradition in baseball. We understand the NL and people are tied to that. That wasn’t an option for this town.

“With that being said, we’re going to make the best of what we have here and we’re going to put a winner on the field. I think the fans will come back. We want them to stay, we don’t want anybody to leave. We need their support. We’ll put a winning team on the field and hopefully the fans will embrace us.”

Pressed on the phrase “do some things for the fans,” Crane was asked if lowering prices was part of that plan.

“I think that’s probably one of the first things we’ll take a look at,” he said.

As Crane stated in May, his goal is to build a winning team through scouting and player development.

“We’re focused on developing talent and increasing our minor league depth,” he said. Crane pointed to teams such as the Rangers who built from the ground up and developed most of their own star players.

On the payroll:

“We’ll get the payroll lined up with the revenue that’s coming in and continue to build the farm system. I doubt you’ll see us as a big player in free agency this year.”

Asked if they might consider a logo and/or uniform change, Crane acknowledged that “Everything is on the plate.” He also noted that logo changes usually take a
year to complete so realistically, anything along those lines would probably be in conjunction with the 2013 move to the AL. And what about a name change?

“No,” Crane said. “‘Astros’ is here to stay.”


Questions I received from the Twitterverse:

@kevinwilson1011: Do you see MLB putting in the DH in the NL?

I can’t envision that happening. While it’s been established that there is absolutely no way the Players Association would ever go for the elimination of the DH, I think it would be just as hard to convince NL owners to adopt the DH into their league, mainly because designated hitters cost a lot more than bench players. If I ruled the world, I’d abolish the DH and increase rosters from 25 to 26. But there would inevitably be many who would be against that, for financial reasons (what else?). The NL owners would balk at adding the extra salary, and the Players Association wouldn’t want to take away the DH, who makes around $7 million a year, and replace him with a fifth or sixth outfielder, whom you can sign for $600,000 or so.

@travisctb: Ugh, not digging this move to the AL at all. By evening out the leagues, will it stop Interleague play?

No, actually, two 15-team leagues will require Interleague Play to take place every single day. I’ve read that each team could play up to 30 Interleague games a year with this new format, up from around 15.

@WyattBEarp: Starting in 2013 can the Astros at least play the Cardinals in Interleague Play?

I do know that there were discussions during the negotiation process to throw the Astros a bone and perhaps give them a Cardinals and/or Cubs Interleague series at home in 2013. I do not know if those requests will be granted. It would be nice if that did happen, and I don’t think it’s asking a lot for MLB to make it happen, given the number of Interleague games each team is going to have to play anyway.

@dais98: Did all the realignment talks start this past year? Wondering if Crane deal had happened in ’08, would moving have been required?

Good question. From what I have been able to gather, a handful of teams have wanted realignment for a while, but I’m not sure how far back it goes. One team really pushing for it came from the six-team NL Central (not the Astros). The teams that were opposed, not surprisingly, were in the four-team AL West.

As to what would have happened in ’08 if Crane had bought the team then, that’s anyone’s guess. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this issue could have been a sticking point back then as well. There have never been any willing volunteers to switch leagues in the last decade, so baseball had to wait until a team was sold in order to make this happen. And the Astros ended up getting caught in the middle.

@20Becks09: Will Mr. Crane look to hire his own GM and manager?

TBA. I’m sure those meetings will start tomorrow as Crane and George Postolos, who will take over as CEO, dive into the decision-making process. We’ll have to wait and see who stays and who goes, if anyone.

@20Becks09: Do we also expect the Astros be future players in free agency going forward for after 2013?

It is my belief that the payroll will increase as the Astros improve, and that when it’s time to really be a contender, there will be money to spend in free agency. The first thing they have to do is produce their own Major League talent. Free agents do not turn a 100-loss team into a 95-win team. They’re added as the cherry on top to a team that already is sound from top to bottom: good pitching, solid defense and a strong lineup (in that order). To throw gobs of money at one player right now would do nothing but handcuff the team for years, especially toward the end of that long-term contract when the player isn’t productive anymore. That one player may be able to bring a team, what, 10 more wins? The Astros need a lot more than that.

I realize that what I call the Big Four — scouting, player development, International scouting and Latin America — aren’t the most exciting elements for fans. I get that. Really, I do. But it’s the lifeline of a team, and for the last two or so years, that’s where the Astros’ focus (and money) has gone. I’m cool with that. If done correctly, the Astros can get good, and, more importantly, stay good.

@castrovince: Will you now be known as ALyson Footer? … OK, that was lame. Sorry.

Ba-da-bum. I already saw some fans calling our second baseman NLtuve in protest to the move. That’s a little more clever, to be frank.

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Astros time capsule: The roaring 1990s…Bagwell, Biggio and three division championships.

NL Central champs, 1997

The last segment of our look back at Astros history focuses on the fruitful 1990s, a decade that started with a massive rebuilding process and ended with three consecutive division titles. When the Astros closed down the Astrodome in 1999, the club was in a great place, with a team stocked with major talent and a brand new ballpark on the horizon that would draw three million fans in its first season.

The following article was written by my friend Carlton Thompson, the Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle through much of the ’90s. “C.T.” is a big wig at these days, but back then, he had a front-row seat for an era which will go down in history as one of the most fruitful for the Astros.This article appeared in the commemorative edition of Astros Magazine during the final weekend of the ’99 season.

I found the last part of this article interesting, and it probably serves as a good lesson. Of the four players Thompson deemed as the very best of the future stars for the Astros, only one panned out long-term. Yet another reminder that you can never have too much talent in the farm system.


By Carlton Thompson

The 1980s were good to the Astros, who won a pair of division titles and saw Mike Scott crowned as the only Cy Young Award winner in franchise history. But the harsh reality of an aging club dictated a rebuilding process that would require foresight, savvy, and most of all, patience.

It would mean saying goodbye to many of the players who made the 1980s so special — fixtures such as Scott, Alan Ashby, Glenn Davis, Jim Deshaies, Bill Doran, Billy Hatcher, Bob Knepper, Terry Puhl, Craig Reynolds and Dave Smith, to name a few.

At the same time, the 1990s ushered in a new generation of Astros — players such as Jeff Bagwell and Darryl Kile, who joined Ken Caminiti and Craig Biggio as the cornerstones of a massive rebuilding effort, which didn’t prove so daunting after all. By 1992, the Astros were a .500 club once again, and they closed out the decade with seven consecutive winning seasons, a feat that has only been matched by two other teams in all of Major League Baseball.

Jeff Bagwell, a long, long time ago

The condensed version makes the turnaround look much easier than it actually was. The decade began with a 75-86 record, which landed manager Art Howe’s team 16 games behind first-place Cincinnati in the old NL West. It marked the Astros’ worst winning percentage in 15 years and offered perhaps the most telling sign that it was time to revamp the club. The most significant move in this process — and one of the most important transactions in franchise history — was acquiring Bagwell from Boston in exchange for middle reliever Larry Andersen on Aug. 31, 1990.

Nothing on Bagwell’s minor league resume — he only hit six home runs in two years on the farm — suggested he would become the player he is today. But 10 years later, baseball observers recognize the move as a stroke of genius by former general manager Bill Wood.

The Astros matched a franchise record with 97 losses and they finished 29 games out of first place in 1991, but a star was born in Bagwell, who hit .294 with 15 homers and 82 RBI to become the first Rookie of the Year in franchise history.

During Spring Training, Bagwell had been shifted from third base to first base to create a spot on the roster for the player current Astros bench coach Matt Galante called “the best hitter in our camp.” Bagwell picked up the nuances of first base almost immediately and became one of the most talked about young players in the league.

“I went to Spring Training just wanting to play,” said Bagwell, who would become the only NL MVP in franchise history just three years later. “I didn’t know where or how, but I just wanted to make the team. Once I did, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get sent back to the minors. I wasn’t trying to win any awards or anything.”

Bagwell’s fine season and the continual improvement of Biggio and Caminiti notwithstanding, there still was plenty of work to be done before the Astros returned to respectability. The rebuilding process had far fewer ups than downs, but the club was willing to take its lumps.

By 1992, Biggio had made the shift from catcher to second base and became the first player in Major League history to make the All-Star team at both positions. The Astros’ record improved by 16 games, and they enjoyed their first non-losing season of the decade.

Craig Biggio, soon after converting to second base.

The biggest change of the decade came prior to the 1993 season when Drayton McLane Jr. purchased the club from John McMullen, who had owned the team since 1979. Under McLane’s aggressive leadership and strong commitment to excellence, the Astros have become one of the most consistently successful franchises in baseball.

Although the Astros’ record improved in 1993, there wasn’t much improvement in the standings, and McLane made changes at the two highest-level positions in the baseball operation. Assistant general manager Bob Watson replaced Wood, and first-time big league manager Terry Collins took over for Howe. To round out his new strategy team, McLane lured former general manager Tal Smith back into the organization as a consultant. Smith ultimately accepted a job as team president.

The Astros had three consecutive second-place finishes with Collins in the dugout, including the strike-shortened 1994 season, when they finished a half-game out of first place and were in the playoff picture until the final weekend of the season. But after a September collapse derailed the team’s hopes of reaching the postseason in 1996, McLane made the boldest of many bold moves as Astros owner, hiring former pitcher Larry Dierker from the broadcast booth to manage the team.

The move was greeted with great skepticism, but the results speak for themselves. Dierker has guided the Astros to the NL Central Division title in each of his three years, and he managed the team to a franchise-record 102 victories in 1998.

The mid-1990s saw the Astros make a blockbuster trade that sent Caminiti, Andujar Cedeno, Steve Finley, Roberto Petagine and Brian Williams to San Diego in exchange for Derek Bell, Doug Brocail, Pedro Martinez, Phil Plantier and Craig Shipley. Bell and Gutierrez became key ingredients in the Astros’ division championship season, as did homegrown products Shane Reynolds and Billy Wagner, as well as Mike Hampton, who was acquired in a 1993 trade with Seattle.

Drayton McLane, Jose Lima celebrate the 1998 NL Central clincher

Billy Wagner

But the finishing touches to the Astros’ current run of success were applied by the wizardry of general manager Gerry Hunsicker, who took the job on Nov. 10, 1995 after Watson made a lateral move to the Yankees. Hunsicker, baseball’s executive of the year in 1998, was the mastermind behind trades that brought Brad Ausmus, Jose Lima, Moises Alou, Carl Everett and Randy Johnson, among others, to Houston. Hunsicker’s biggest free-agent acquisition came this past offseason when he brought Caminiti back into the organization.

Playoff success has eluded the Astros, who have won just one postseason game in the last two years. But the fact they are perennial playoff contenders is a tribute to the foresight, savvy and patience they exhibited throughout the decade. With the nucleus of the team still in its prime and new stars — Scott Elarton, Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman, Daryle Ward, among others — on the horizon, the Astros can enter Enron Field in much better shape than the decade began.

As they say goodbye to the Astrodome after 35 great years, the focus is on maintaining instead of rebuilding, and the pieces are in place to make the next decade of Astros baseball every bit as memorable as the final decade of the millennium.

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November nuggets: Astros alumni golf tourney, and Dierker is ready to be roasted.

The annual Astros Alumni Golf Classic always draws a nice crowd, especially since this particular event is held during the very best time of the year to be living in Houston — November, when the temperatures have cooled, the sun’s still out and the setting really could not be any better for a good old fashioned baseball reunion.

Ring leader Larry Dierker has done a fabulous job of organizing the many alumni events that have taken place over the 10 years — can you believe it’s been 10 years? — since he retired from managing. The golf events, alumni autograph signings and other activities involving former players are largely Dirk’s brainchild. Kudos to the lifelong Astro for keeping everyone involved with the hometown team.

Wednesday’s Classic took place at the Wildcat Golf Club and the proceeds will go to the Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy, located at Sylvester Turner Park.

Among the participants: Bob Aspromonte, Kevin Bass, Craig Biggio, Ron Brand, Enos Cabell, Ron Cook, Jerry Davanon,  Dierker, John Edwards, Phil Garner, Bill Heath, Art Howe, John Hudek, Mike Jackson, Cliff Johnson, Billy Smith, Carl Warwick, Bob Watson, Brian Williams, Glenn Wilson, Jimmy Wynn and Anthony Young.

Astros Broadcasters Bill Brown, Jim Deshaies, Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond also took to the links, while Hall of Fame Broadcaster Milo Hamilton served as emcee.

The Astros are gearing up to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and this golf tournament was a nice preview of what’s to come in 2012. A few images from the event:

Brownie, John Hudek.

Larry Dierker

Dierker, Bob Aspromonteh

Enos Cabell

Phil Garner, Bob Watson

Dierker, Jimmy Wynn, Watson

Speaking of Dierker, he’ll be the guest of honor at a roast on Nov. 29 at the Houston Improv, presented by Sports Radio 610. It should be quite a hoot, not only because Dirk should make for a great roastee, but also because of who’s doing the roasting: Brownie, J.D., Bill Worrell, former Rockets GM Carroll Dawson and former Astro Norm Miller.

Proceeds from the event will go to Literacy Advance of Houston, a charity Dierker has been actively involved with for many years. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.

Dierker: “The best part is that the person being roasted gets the last word.” During his time as manager, the one thing I learned about Dirk is that he is really, really good at laughing at himself. He can also hand out a few zingers of his own. Should be a great night.

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The ’80s: big hair, parachute pants, Coneheads, Hatcher’s heroics and a no-hitter for the ages.

If I could make time travel happen and go back to one era of Astros baseball that I missed, it would be, without any hesitation or consternation, 1986.

There really is no other year that even comes close. The 1986 regular season started with low expectations (they were picked by no one to win the NL West) and ended with the single-greatest non-playoff moment in club history (Mike Scott’s division-clinching no-hitter). Better yet, the team was comprised of a cast of characters that gave Astros fans the best of both worlds — they were good ballplayers, and, off the field, they were highly entertaining.

In other words, they were a reporter’s dream.

Many of the players from the 1986 team are still in baseball in some capacity. Two surviving members of the exclusive Coneheads club are with the Phillies — Larry Andersen as a broadcaster, Charley Kerfeld as an assistant to the general manager. Other ’86 teammates are with the Astros — namely, broadcaster Jim Deshaies and special assistant to the GM Jose Cruz. Still more are peppered all through the big leagues — Phil Garner (Oakland A’s), Billy Hatcher (Reds), Nolan Ryan (Rangers), Alan Ashby (Blue Jays), and on and on.

The ’80s will be remembered for the exhilarating snapshot moments that made so many of the Astros teams from that decade permanently unforgettable to the Houston fanbase. They will also be remembered for heartbreaking moments that even to this day, many of the former Astros players still haven’t gotten over. And probably never will.

When the Astros closed down the Astrodome in 1999, we asked the beat writers who covered the team from decade to decade to submit their recollections. The 1980s were covered by my friend, the late, great Neil Hohlfeld.  Here were his thoughts:


By Neil Hohlfeld

Two games. Two heart-stopping, gut-wrenching games out of the roughly 1,600 played during the 1980s remain lodged in the throats of Astros’ fans to this date.

The games were six years apart, but they almost seem to blend together. The end result is the main reason. The Astros lost both games in extra innings, preventing them from reaching the World Series in 1980 and 1986.

After winning their first division title in 1980, the Astros had a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of a decisive Game 5 with Nolan Ryan on the mound. They were six outs away from the World Series. Instead, the Phillies scored five runs in the eighth inning and eventually won 8-7 in 10 innings.

Six years later, the Astros and New York Mets played what many consider to be the best playoff series in baseball history. In Game 6, the Astros let a 3-0 lead slip away in the ninth inning and eventually lost 7-6 in 16 innings. True, the Astros would need to win Game 7, but they had Mike Scott ready to face the Mets, and that was like money in the bank in 1986.

The constant in both cases was the sight of left fielder Jose Cruz, the heart and soul of the Astros during the first part of the 1980s, slumped in the dugout after the games, his head buried in his hands. Astros fans knew the feeling.

Despite those post-season failures, the 1980s were mainly a decade of triumph for the Astros, who advanced to the playoffs three times (they were beaten by Los Angeles during the srike-shortened 1981 season) and contended for the NL West title into September and three other times.

Scott won the Cy Young Award in 1986 and won 20 games in 1989. First baseman Glenn Davis emerged as the Astros first power threat in more than a decade, hitting 142 home runs from 1985-89. Dave Smith saved 199 games from 1980-90 and remains the career leader in that category.

But the decade also was one of tumult. Midway through the 1980 season, J.R. Richard suffered a stroke that ended his career. Richard was the most dominating pitcher of his era, making power hitters look like Little League 10th-place hitters.

After the ’80 season, team owner John McMullen, in the first of a series of marketing boners, fired general manager Tal Smith, the architect of the Astros’ first-ever championship team. Nearly 20 years later, McMullen’s reason for axing Smith still makes no sense. “If you can’t get it done in five years, you won’t get it done in 10,” said McMullen.

In 1984, shortstop Dickie Thon, who had hit 20 home runs the previous season, was hit by a pitch in his left eye. Thon, a budding superstar, gamely came back and played in the majors five more years but he was never the same.

Later in the decade, the Astrodome took a hit from which it never recovered. In order to add 10,000 extra seats to prevent Oilers owner Bud Adams from moving to Jacksonville, Fla., the 474-foot exploding scoreboard that gave the Dome much of its character was dismantled. To make matters worse, the city eventually lost the Oilers anyway.

Terry Puhl and Phillies catcher Bob Boone during 1980 playoffs.

But the biggest loss of the 1980s came during the 1988 offseason. Nolan Ryan, the native son who had pitched with the Astros for nine seasons, was allowed to sign with the Texas Rangers as a free agent. McMullen wanted to cut Ryan’s salary, and Ryan knew he wasn’t wanted. The day after Ryan signed, McMullen rightly predicted it would be years before Astros fans would forgive and forget. They never have.

When Ryan joined the Astros as a free agent in 1980, he was the game’s first $1 million player. The addition of Ryan to a pitching staff that already had Richard and 20-game winning Joe Niekro made the Astros favorites to win the NL West.

They did win, but it took a one-game playoff victory over Los Angeles by Niekro for the Astros to advance to the playoffs. The Astros went to Los Angeles on the final weekend of the series with a three-game lead but lost three straight one-run games, forcing the playoff. That was the beginning of a week of baseball the likes of which Houston had never seen.

The season ended when the Astros couldn’t close out the Phillies in either Game 4, which they led 2-0 in the eighth inning but lost 5-3 in 10 innings, or Game 5. The bullpen of Smith, Joe Sambito and Frank LaCorte, the best in baseball that season, allowed eight hits and four runs in the last two games of the year.

The next season, the Astros got off to a miserable start, losing 12 of their first 15 games. By Memorial Day, they were 10 games behind the Dodgers. The season was interrupted by a players’ srike in early June. When play resumed on Aug. 10, teams started fresh in the second half of the season.

This time, the Astros’ pitching took over. They won the second half of the truncated seasons. Ryan, who led the league with a 1.69 ERA, pitching the fifth no-hitter of his career on Sept. 26. In a best-of-five playoff series against the Dodgers, the Astros won the first two games in Houston but were swept in Los Angeles, another playoff disappointment.

Over the next four seasons, there were no October heartbreaks as the Astros settled into a stretch of mediocrity. In August, 1982, McMullen fired manager Bill Virdon, the franchise leader in wins, and replaced him with long-time lieutenant Bob Lillis. The Astros were so bereft of power in ’82 that Phil Garner, hardly a power threat, was their cleanup man much of the season. Garner led the club with 13 homers and 83 RBIs.

Phil Garner, sporting the signature 'stach that exists to this day.

In 1983, the Astros lost their first nine games and were never a factor in the division despite finishing 85-77. Thon hit 20 homers, and Cruz hit a career-best .318 and challenged for the batting crown before falling to third. In April, Ryan surpassed Walter Johnson as the all-time strikeout leader.

For the fourth straight year, the Astros were slow out of the blocks in 1984. They lost six of their first seven games and were eight games out of first place by the end of April. It took a nine-game winning streak in August to get the Astros over .500, but they were never a factor in the race. Cruz led the club with 95 RBS, but their lack of power was so telling that he also was the team leader with a scant 12 home runs.

By 1985, it was clear the Astros needed a change in direction. After sniffing around the NL West first division for the first three months of the season, they dropped 15 of 18 games in July and finished a distant third. The lackluster team drew only 1.1 million fans, a drop of nearly 1.1 million from 1980.

General manager Al Rosen resigned in September, and new GM Dick Wagner let go Lillis at the end of the season. Wagner, an astute baseball man, wanted a team built around pitching, speed and defense. He hired Hal Lanier, who had learned that style of baseball under Whitey Herzog at St. Louis.

There was little to indicate something magical was about to happen when the 1986 season started. Lanier’s aggressive approach took hold, and the pitching was never better. Scott, Ryan, Bob Knepper, Jim Deshaies and mid-season acquisiton Danny Darwin formed a rotation that was second to none. The bullpen of Smith, rookie sensation Charley Kerfeld, Aurelio Lopez and Larry Andersen had depth and grit.

Jim Deshaies

Davis emerged as a true power hitter in his first full season in the majors with 31 homers and 101 RBIs, while switch-hitter Kevin  Bass hit .311. Second baseman Bill Doran’s all-out style of play exemplified the new hustle of the Astros. One national publication predicted the Astros would lose 100 games. Instead, they went 96-66 and won the West by 10 games.

Scott delivered a devastating one-two punch against San Francisco on Sept. 25. He pitched a no-hitter as the Astros clinched the division title, the only time in baseball history that has occurred.

But the season ended with the 16-inning playoff loss to the Mets. In that game, Billy Hatcher hit what likely is the most memoriable home run in Astrodome history. After the Mets went ahead 4-3 in the top of the 14th, Hatcher led off the bottom of the inning with a home run that hit off the foul pole down the left-field line. The Mets scored three runs in the 16th, but the Astros closed to within 7-6 and had the winning run on base when Bass struck out to end the game and the season.

Though the Astros contended for the division title in two of the next three seasons, they never got back to the playoffs the rest of the decade. Ryan had a bizarre season in 1987, leading the league with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts but going 8-16 due to a lack of run support. The Astros drew 1.9 million fans, the third-highest total in baseball.

Charley Kerfeld

By 1988, Lanier’s gung-ho style was starting to rub players the wrong way. The Astros were in the race until mid-August, but they went 20-30 in the final 50 games of the season. Lanier was fired on the final day, replaced by former Astros infielder Art Howe.

With Ryan gone and Howe an untested manager, the Astros didn’t figure to be much of a factor in 1989. However, they won 10 straight road games early in the season, had a 10-game win streak in May and were two games out of first place in late August. Once again, the Astros had no finishing kick, going 17-21 after Aug. 20. Scott won 20 games, and rookie catcher Craig Biggio hit 13 homers and stole 21 bases.

By the end of the 1980s, the Astros were looking to rebuild. Twice during the decade they rode pitching and defense to division titles. The 1980 and ’86 teams gave Houston baseball fans memories that have lived on through the years.

But the disappointment of twice coming so close to making the World Series but falling just short remain as the defining moments of the decade.

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Astros time capsule: the 1970s. A time of transition and a springboard for better times ahead.

Two stars from the 1970s: Bob Watson, who would become the Astros GM in the '90s, and Cesar Cedeno, the Astros' first five-tool superstar.

Our nostalgic look back at Astros history takes us to the 1970s, when the Astros experienced plenty of down years but were ultimately setting themselves up for a more fruitful run in the next decade. Houston Chronicle Harry Shattuck covered the Astros during that era, and when we closed the Dome down in 1999, we asked him to give us his recollection of the Astros in the ’70s. This is what ran in the commemorative game program Oct. 1-3, 1999.


By Harry Shattuck

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times.

As a team and an organization, the Astros spent the 1970s on a tumultuous roller-coaster ride, an emotional experience perhaps best summed by two-time National League All-Star pitcher Joaquin Andujar who — on more than one occasion — philosophized, “everything about this game can be explained by one word. And that one word is ‘you never know.'”

We do know this: At the decade’s conclusion, Astros players and their fans were clinging to new hope that a long-anticipated division title was on the horizon.

That championship would have to wait another year. But the framework for success was established, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Houston franchise at the decade’s midpoint seem almost on the brink of collapse — with 97 losses and an average home attendance of only 10,593 per game in 1975 and an ownership takeover by credit companies when Astrodome mastermind Roy Hofheinz endured financial difficulties.

Against all odds, and largely due to the timeless efforts and patience of General Manager Tal Smith and manager Bill Virdon, the Astros recovered — on the field and with the fans. And when new owner John McMullen announced the signing of free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan on November 15, 1979, the darkest period in club history was clearly over.

For old time’s sake, though, let’s climb back on that roller coaster.

Along with the spills, there were ample thrills:

This was a decade when the Astros’ first genuine superstar, center fielder Cesar Cedeno, won five consecutive Gold Gloves, stole 50 or more bases in six seasons, hit 20 or more homers three times and twice batted .320.

A decade when young phenom James Rodney Richard came of age as one of baseball’s most feared pitchers, winning 18 or more games in four consecutive seasons.

A decade when outfielder Jose Cruz earned his first of four Astros MVP awards (in 1977).

A decade when Larry Dierker, whose tenure as a Houston favorite had begun on his 18th birthday almost 12 years earlier, pitched a no-hitter on July 9, 1976 — his final season with the club as a player. (And who could have imagined 23 years ago how much Dierker would continue to mean to the city as a broadcaster, newspaper columnist — and now as manager.)

Astros broadcasters, late 1970s: front -- Dewayne Staats and Larry Dierker. Back - Gene Elston and engineer Bob Green.

The 70’s also brought us the “foamer.” The “arm farm.” And the first “rain-in” in Major League history on June 15, 1976, when a 10-inch downpour flooded much of the city, making it impossible for umpires, fans and stadium officials to reach the Astrodome and resulting in postponement of the Astros-Pirates game.

It wasa a decade, too, when diminutive Joe Morgan, whom Houston fans had embraced as early as 1963 when he first joined the Colt .45s, evolved into a Hall of Fame second baseman.

Alas, Morgan’s main heroics came not with the Astros but as a stalwart of rival Cincinnati’s two-time World Champion Big Red Machine. Indeed, his departure to the Reds on November 29, 1971 — with pitcher Jack Billingham, shortstop Denis Menke and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister for first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart — will forever be remembered as one of the worst trades in club history.

Fan favorites Jimmy Wynn and Doug Rader departed in trades, too — but not before the Toy Cannon had powered 223 home runs and played 1,426 games as an Astro and the Red Rooster won five consecutive Gold Gloves (1970-74) at third base.

The decade was also tinged with sadness.

Don Wilson, one of Houston’s most successful pitchers ever and the only Astro to pitch two no-hitters, died tragically at his home prior to the 1975 season, shy of his 30th birthday.

Hofheinz, who inspired the Astrodome’s creation and served as the club’s chairman of the board until 1976, was confined to a wheelchair because of a crippling stroke. Hofheinz died in 1982.

On the field, consecutive 79-83 seasons in 1970 and ’71 precipitated the Morgan trade as Astros management — seemingly with a different philosophical approach at every turn – sought to boost the team’s power potential by acquiring established slugger Lee May.

Although the deal proved a long-term disaster, it did pay some immediate dividends. The Astros slammed 134 home runs — a club record at the time — in 1972, and their 84-69 record marked the first above-.500 finished in franchise history. Overall, May produced 81 home runs and 299 RBI during three seasons, then moved on to Baltimore in a trade that delivered third baseman Enos Cabell to Houston.

The Astros were going through managers almost as fast as they were players, too, with Harry “The Hat” Walker yielding to colorful Leo Durocher during the 1972 season and Durocher, in turn, giving away to one of the game’s genuine gentlemen, Preston Gomez, prior to 1974.

In 1975, the situation hit rock-bottom. The Astros lost 10 of their first 14 games, and at the season’s halfway point the record was 28-53. Fan apathy was such that only 3,427 showd up for one game against the Cubs in June.

As Hofheinz was losing control of the franchise ownership to creditors, Tal Smith — an integral part of the organization’s leadership from its inception through 1973 — was lured back from the New York Yankees, whom he had joined as executive vice president.

There was no questioning Smith’s baseball savvy. But he inherited a team with previous little talent. A budget dwindling as swiftly as the fan base. And a temportary ownership — General Electric, and Ford Motor credit companies in large part — that had no desire to operate a baseball organization and whose main objective was to find a new buyer.

What to do? How to rebuild during a period in which the very face of baseball — with player salaries escalating and the prospect of mass free agency — was undergoing dramatic change?

In retrospect, it could be argued that the creditors — and Astrodomain executives that included Sidney Shlenker, T.H. Neyland and Warren Genee — save the franchise during the latter half of the decade by shrewdly allowing Smith (who assumed the dual role of general manager/president in 1976) the flexibility, if not always the money, to make critical decisions.

Step one was the hiring of Virdon, a former Pirates and Yankees manager, on Aug. 19, 1975, 12 days after Smith’s appointment.

Step two was the decision to place new emphasis on pitching, speed and defense.

Step three was the conscious effort to tap every available resource in the organization’s farm system and to evaluate each potential transaction for its long-term potential, not as a band-aid quick fix.

New enthusiasm grew rapidly. The Astros didn’t knock down any fences in ’76 — indeed, their team total of 66 home runs fell shy of Mark McGwire’s individual total last year — but they stole 150 bases. And a pitching staff anchored by 20-game winner Richard, Dierker and Andujar totaled 42 complete games and 17 shutouts.

Smith’s trades, often questioned at the time because of the unknown nature of the acquisitions, reaped major dividends. Overall, there were 30 transactions in four years. Among the most significant: Andujar came from St. Louis and third baseman Art Howe from Pittsburgh following the ’75 season; utility man Denny Walling from Oakland in ’77; catcher Alan Ashby from Toronto, shortstop Craig Reynolds from Seattle and infielder Rafael Landestoy and outfielder Jeff Leonard from Los Angeles, all in ’78; and reliever Frank LaCorte from Atlanta in ’79. Smith signed pitcher Vern Ruhle as a free agent after Detroit gave up on him during the 1978 season.

The minor league system produced outfielder Terry Puhl, catchers Bruce Bochy and Luis Pujols and the “arm farm” as one after another, the Astros summoned unsung fuzzy-cheeked pitchers from the minor leagues. Some enjoyed only brief moments in the spotlight; others, notably reliever Joe Sambito, developed into All-Stars. But this parade of enthusiastic young talent — combined with an influx of scrappy veterans — captured the fancy of the fans.

There were veteran surprises, too. Joe Niekro, for one, had floundered between the major and minor leagues for years as a reliever and worked primarily out of the bullpen as an Astro from 1975-77. Given a chance as a full-time starter by Virdon in ’78, Niekro went on to become the club’s all-time winningest pitcher.

Ken Forsch, a starter-turned-reliever and a National League All-Star in 1976, reclaimed a full-time spot in the rotation in ’79 — and promptly threw a no-hitter in his first start of the season.

A champagne shower for Ken Forsch, after he threw a no-hitter on April 7, 1979. That's catcher Alan Ashby doing the honors.

The Astrodome was a fun place to be, too, especially on “foamer night.” If a designated Houston player hit a home run — or in later variations, a prominent opposing player struck out on cue — it meant free beer for all spectators.

In 1979, the decade’s final season, the Astros compiled their best record yet at 89-73 and attracted 1.9 million fans to the Astrodome — the highest home attendance since 1965 when the stadium opened as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Joe Niekro pitched 21 victories, J.R. Richard struck out 313 batters, Joe Sambito saved 22 games, Bill Virdon was named Manager of the Year and the Astros battled the Reds to the wire before Cincinnati won the West Division title by 1 1/2 games.

A spectacular turnabout was almost complete. The roller coaster came to a halt. And the stage was set for a championship celebration.

Part One: The 1960s.

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Fifty years ago, looking up at a ceiling at a baseball game sounded nearly as outlandish as a man walking on the moon.

The fold-out cover of the commemorative "Farewell Astrodome" game program from 1999. Designed by sports artist Opie Otterstad, the painting depicts elements from all eras of Astros baseball at the Astrodome.

The 1999 season was memorable for a number of reasons, but mostly because it marked the final one the Astros played in the Astrodome.

For 35 years, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” was home to the Astros, as well as home to the rodeo, high school football games, motocross and endless amounts of concerts and other exhibitions. In 1999, the Astros’ run there had ended, but before they could sprint to the newer, shinier and significantly cleaner downtown ballpark that they would soon call home, they had some celebrating to do.

The last game of the ’99 regular season was going to be a big deal, regardless of whether the Astros won or lost. The club had a huge postgame celebration planned, and just about anyone who had made a dent in Astros history, and was still living, was invited back to close down the old Dome.

The All-Astrodome team was to be announced. Willie Nelson was booked to sing “Turn out the Lights, the Party’s Over” at the end. The stadium was a complete sellout.

Astros players did their part by winning the game handily. That win clinched the National League Central division title, the club’s third in a row, and made the postgame celebration much more enjoyable. There was little doubt that even if the team lost, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and others would maintain their professionalism and participate in the ceremony — albeit a little mopey, perhaps. The way it turned out was a lot more fun, with Mike Hampton riding a motorcycle onto the field, Biggio behind him, cigar in his mouth and his fist in the air.

At the time, I was a member of the media relations staff and in charge of all of the publications produced by the team. The 400-page media guide was by far the biggest challenge of that particular job, but in some respects, I felt a much larger sense of responsibility when given the task to come up with a viable plan for a commemorative “Farewell Astrodome” game program.

We would sell this commemorative issue the final weekend of the ’99 season and hopefully, it would provide a proper retrospective of 35 years of Astros baseball. We would look back at the history, pay homage to the best players, tell stories from the past. In the simplest of terms, our goal was to represent three-and-a-half decades of Astros baseball in a 150-page book that would ideally, someday, prove to be timeless. And accurate.

This is the letter we wrote to the fans that appeared in the front of the game program. The program was sold exclusively during the final weekend of the regular season.

Clearly, a 28-year-old Ohio native who had been working for the team exactly three seasons and never saw the Astrodome when it was sparkly, shiny and new was going to need some help in making sure this was done right. So we decided to solicit the help of the people who were actually there in the old days, and who wrote about them: the Houston Chronicle beat writers.

Mickey Herskowitz wrote about the 1960s. Harry Shattuck, the ’70s. Neil Hohlfeld, the ’80s. And Carlton Thompson, the ’90s. This was, putting it mildly, a very good call. Their memories were sharp, the stories fantastic.

Next year, the Astros will celebrate their golden anniversary, 50 years of Houston baseball that includes three years as the Colt .45s before becoming the Astros in 1965. We’re going to do a lot of reminiscing with old players as we look back at five decades of baseball in this city. But first, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at where we were just before moving to what is now called Minute Maid Park. First up: Herskowitz’s memoir of Houston baseball in the 1960s.


By Mickey Herskowitz

Did you know that the original blueprints for the Astrodome called for a bomb shelter in the basement? In the event of a nuclear attack it would have been available to all the fans, provided they could beat the players to it.

Over the past 35 years, many a Houston team might have enjoyed the use of a bomb shelter, but that feature was cut from the final budget. In every other respect, the Astrodome met the test of time. In a sporting sense, it was the difference between Roy Rogers and Buck Rogers. It has been duplicated, but never really surpassed.

At the exact midpoint of the Sixties, the opening of the world’s first indoor, all-weather, all-purpose stadium was the biggest sports story of 1965. “We are building something,” Judge Roy Hofheinz assured us, “that will set the pattern for the 21st Century. It will antiquate every other structure of this type in the world. It will be an Eiffel Tower in the field.”

Judge Roy Hofheinz (second from right) and Harris County Commissioners at the Astrodome construction site, 1963.

No one ever accused the Judge of understatement. But the Big Bubble was easily the high point of the decade — the best of times, in stunning contrast to the worst of times, 10 years without a winning season. My lasting memory of the official opening night was not of the packed crowd, which included a president and a governor and the seven Mercury astronauts. It was of a scene in the Astros’ bullpen, where amid all the fanfare a pitcher named Jim Owens was stretched out on a bench, sleeping off a hangover. The uninhibited Turk Farrell gave him a shove and bellowed, “Hey, Owens, wake up. Where do you think you are, in a canoe?”

Every writer may feel this way about his years on the baseball beat, but the Sixties were a terrific time to be young and covering a club built from scratch, with nothing to lose, except the games. You traveled with the team, rode the bus to the ballpark, drank with them in the hotel bar, made and lost friends depending on the next day’s story.

Farrell once told me that if “you rip me one more time, I’m going to cancel my subscription to the paper.” Days or weeks or seasons later, he sat next to me in the dugout and said, proudly, “The boys told me you wrote my quotes real good.”

In the beginning, in the spring of 1962, there was Apache Junction in the Arizona desert, where Geronimo’s warriors once roamed. The team was called the Colt .45s, after the gun that won the west.

It is true that over the next 38 years, the team would change training camps, stadiums, its name and managers, many of them, and would still be pursuing its first World Series. Some have suggested that the Astros had been born with a curse. Possibly it was not wise to train in the shadow of a place called Superstition Mountain, where Indian spirits and the ghost of an old Dutchman were said to guard a lost gold mine.

No one takes such legends seriously, of course. We only know that the Colt .45s did not suffer any bad luck until the first inning of the first preseason game they ever played. Al Heist, their best outfielder, stepped in a hole and broke his ankle, ending his career.

Harry Craft was Houston’s first manager and the biggest name on the roster was Bobby Shantz, the wee left-hander who had pitched under Connie Mack, the only manager to ever wear street clothes, a stiff collar and a straw hat in the dugout.

Shantz had been selected early in the expansion draft along with Farrell, who threw a high fastball and liked a fast highball; Hal Smith, a catcher who helped Pittsburgh win the 1960 World Series; Al Spangler, a promising outfielder from the Milwaukee Braves; and Joey Amalfitano, a young second baseman who had been unable to break into the lineup of the Giants. When Amalfitano learned that Houston had paid $125,000 for him, he quipped, “I’m worth more than I thought. I may have to increase my insurance.” Later, Joey heard from so many insurance agents he had to get an unlisted phone number.

For most of the 1960’s, the Colts-slash-Astros were never consistently good enough to be heroic or bad enough to be funny. Mainly they were just different.

Opening at home, the .45s sent three left-handers against the Chicago Cubs — Shantz, Dean Stone and Hal Woodeshick — and swept their first series. It was a giddy way to launch a franchise. Reality sank in rather quickly, but they hung on to finish eighth in a 10-team league, ahead of the embarrassed Phillies and the last-place Mets.

The hapless Mets, their expansion twins, created a mystique while losing 120 games, encouraging the laughter of the crowd and sometimes joining in.

To keep the Colt .45s from appearing bland, Judge Hofheinz, the visionary who ran the franchise, got the inspired idea to deck them out in blue cowboy suits on road trips, with matching hats and boots. Passing through airports, they were a puzzling sight to travelers who did not get the connection to Texas. Most people thought they were a religious cult, or a very large country and western band. The players finally refused to wear the outfits and the Judge gave up.

Don Nottebart pitched the team’s first no-hitter in 1963 but the one that would become their most historic was recorded a year later, by Ken Johnson. He lost to the Reds, 1-0, on his own throwing error in the ninth inning. No pitcher had ever before lost a no-hitter.

In 1965, we sort of woke up one morning and found ourselves all under the same roof. Joe Garagiola, the ex-catcher turned sportscaster, took one look and declared: “It’s like falling out of Mechanix Illustrated. If they’d add a nursery and a cemetery you’d never have to leave.”

The inside of the Dome, 1965.

It was so spectacular that they had to open it twice, against the Yankees in a preseason series and then, for real, against the Phillies. Mickey Mantle hit the unofficial first homer. The one that counted came in the season opener when Richie Allen connected with a man on against Bob Bruce. Those were the only runs in a 2-0 win for the Phillies.

Bob Aspromonte hit the first domer for the Astros. During the season, Willie Mays collected his 500th.

A ninth-place team drew two million fans that year, proving that if you have a great mousetrap you can get by without a lot of cheese. A million more paid a dollar each to see the stadium when it was empty. It seems odd now to recall how much resistance there was to the idea of an indoor ballpark. The purists feared a terrible retribution if we mortals tampered with Mother Nature. And for a while we had to wonder.

The Dome was not exactly unflawed, a fact that added to the national curiosity. First, there were the fly balls that got lost in the glare of the lucite panels. A small ocean of paint eliminated the glare and then the grass died, leading to a discovery called Astroturf.

Third base view from the All-Star Game in 1968

Public opinion was fairly divided as to whether the Dome would ruin or revolutionize baseball. It was a place where the fans laughed at the cartoons on the giant scoreboard and cheered on cue. Once the artificial carpet was installed, the players who chewed tobacco always looked miserable on their first visit. It was a clear case of high expectations.

In 1965, the Astros peeled off a 10-game winning streak, an occurrence so unthinkable that their opponents accused them of tinkering with the air conditioning currents, causing the air to blow out when the home team was at bat. Ah, if only winning had been so simple.

In their first decade, the Astros signed some bright and exciting young players, who went on to do wonderful deeds, becoming All-Stars and playing in the World Series — for other teams. The last included Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, Dave Giusti, Jerry Grote and Mike Marshall. At 19, Staub was a cleanup hitter in the majors, the symbol of the team’s future. He hit .333 in 1967 and a year later they traded him.

But the Astros kept searching. Larry Dierker signed on at 18, stayed around to pitch the 1,000th game played in the Astrodome, and celebrated his 12th season in Houston by pitching the first no-hitter of his career against Montreal.

Don Wilson and Bob Watson joined the club as rookies in 1966. The Astros got hot, stayed in the pennant race until midseason, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with Sonny Jackson and Joe Morgan turning a double play.

Wilson would pitch two no-hitters, strike out 18 Atlanta Braves in one game and die young, in an accident at home. Bob Waston would be credited with scoring baseball’s millionth run and receive an award from the Tootsie Roll Company. Don’t ask who kept count; just be proud it was an Astro.

The Astros did not have a winning season in that decade; it was easier to land a man on the moon. In 1969, they achieved their first .500 record, 81 and 81, under manager Harry (The Hat) Walker.

While the Astros were dreaming of a team worthy of the stadium they played in, veterans who had won their fame in other cities came and went: Shantz, Robin Roberts, Pete Runnels, Nellie Fox, Johnny Temple, Don Larsen (who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history as a Yankee).

But for most of us the star of the team remained the Astrodome, a pleasure palace that changed our habits and attitudes. A generation grew up without every seeing a raincheck. Of course, even our monuments get overtaken by time.

As the Astros move downtown, to new, state-of-the-art quarters, we can thank the Dome for 35 years of comfort, if not greatness.

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