Turn back the clock Astros style


I find it very appropriate that Daylight Savings Time coincides directly with the Major League Baseball season. It’s also peculiar that Arizona doesn’t observe DST AND has its own fall baseball league. Last night MLB Network supplied one last treat for the baseball addicts by airing the AFL rising stars game. Now the dark days void of baseball are upon us. For the purpose of this article I am going to turn back the clock a little more than 30 years, to a time when the Houston Astros first became contenders in the National League’s Western Division.

Prior to 1979 Houston’s MLB franchise had experienced very little success. Although the Astros enjoyed a 10.5 game lead on July 4, 1979 they would ultimately come up short, losing the division to Cincinnati by a game-and-a-half. But in 1980 the Astros would treat their fans to the first division title in team history. It was a special time for me, as well as Astros fans everywhere.

As the Astros made their final push towards the post-season that September, I was entering my senior year of high school. Tal Smith had built a team that realized pitching and defense were the keys to winning in the spacious Astrodome. After coming up short in ’79, Smith signed strikeout record holder Nolan Ryan and added him to a pitching staff that already included reigning N.L. strikeout king James Rodney Richard. The Astros started a tradition of hanging placards displaying the letter ‘K’ on the railing above the outfield wall when Ryan and Richard struck out opposing batters. The Astros were, to my knowledge, the originators of this practice that has since become commonplace in stadiums around the league. A couple of my high school classmates at the time claimed to be employed by the team to hang the Ks.

Ryan would post 200 strikeouts for the season, but J.R. Richard would suffer a career-ending stroke in the middle of what looked to be another excellent season for the big right-hander. But the Astros pitching staff was able to rise to the occasion despite the loss of their All-Star starter. Astros hurlers would go on to lead the league with a 3.10 ERA  and 929 strikeouts. In addition, the Astros staff allowed a league low 69 homeruns. Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz led the Astros offense. Both hit over .300 for the year, but Cedeno was slowed by injuries down the stretch. Leadoff hitter Terry Puhl led the club with just 13 homeruns.

Joe Niekro logged his second straight 20-win season for the Astros, but it took him one more start than Astros fans had hoped it would. With three games left in the season the Astros arrived in Los Angeles with a three game lead over the Dodgers. One more win would clinch the division for Houston. But the Astros dropped three straight one-run games and were forced to stay in L.A. for a one game tie-breaker. That’s when Niekro and teammate Art Howe came up huge. Howe drove in four runs in Niekro’s 7-1 complete game victory.

Houston had also earned home field advantage for the NLCS against N.L. East Champion Philadelphia. Back then there was no wildcard playoff and the LCS was only a five game series. Astros fever gripped the city. Some Phillies players said the playoff crowds in the Astrodome were the loudest they had ever heard. The Astros would eventually succumb to the Phils in one of the most hotly contested series in post-season history. Games two through five were all extra-inning affairs. The Phillies would go on to defeat Kansas City in the World Series.

Houston would again experience playoff baseball in the strike-shortened 1981 season. The franchise had been in financial trouble a few years earlier was now on top. The rainbow-clad Astros were winning in style. Fan support was at an all-time high and the franchise had been saved from possible extinction. For more on the Astros of the seventies take a look at this recent post at Alyson’s Footnotes.