Thursday, January 18, 2018

Houston We Have a Problem

TRIVIA QUESTION:   When the dust settled on the 1969 Astros season one of their players came to bat 290 times and never hit a ball in fair territory . Who was that player? 

Rocky Colavito led the 1961 Tigers with 45 home runs, but he'd already crossed the 40 homer mark twice in his career before that. In 1958 he hit 41 and the following year he led the AL with 42, both with Cleveland. He finished his career with 374 homers over 14 years. In all, he belted 40 or more three times and at least 30 on four other occasions. 

It took Major League Baseball to completely revamp it's alignment to give the Houston Astro's the teams first shot at finishing with at least a .500 record. In 1969, after an existence of never winning half their games, the club which redefined what a modern stadium should be, finally did win 81 while losing 81 in a season.

Starting out in Colt Stadium, the team would eventually move into the spacious and modern Astrodome. Maybe Colt .45 signified the old west and the Texas persona but the Astrodome gave the club something else. It was now Houston; the home of NASA, spaceflight, reaching for the stars and the Astrodome did that. It was huge and it was above all else; indoors. Mosquitoes were not allowed. 

When the team closed out the 1964 season as the Colt .45's they only saw 715,000 fans come through the turnstiles. When they debuted in 1965 as the Houston Astros in the new stadium, attendance about tripled to 2.1 million. 

It didn't make much difference on the field however. They actually lost one more game than the previous year. Every year from 1962-1968 the club finished either in 8th, 9th or 10th place. When the decade came to a close they finished in 5th. Of course there were only six teams in their division. 

So what was it about this 1969 club which brought them to the brink of winning baseball? Fan Favorite Rusty Staub was gone to Montreal in the infamous Donn Clendenon trade. Shortstop Sonny Jackson was sent packing to Atlanta after the 1967 season, and a young Joe Morgan was bursting onto the scene. Ace Mike Cuellar was Traded with Tom Johnson and Enzo Hernandez to the Baltimore Orioles for John Mason and Curt Blefary. Cuellar would go onto win at least 20 games for the O's in four different seasons and 18 games twice. Blefary batted .253 in his only season with Houston before going onto the Mets.

Dave Giusti was traded to St. Louis and after one season onto Pittsburgh where he became a dominant closer in the NL. Larry Dierker did improve and won 20, while Don Wilson won 16. The team was steady with six of the starters appearing in nearly 150 games but none of them hit over .269 and Jim Wynn (the Toy Cannon) led the team by far with 33 homers. Morgan was second with 15.

So when did Harry Walker's club lock in that magical 81st win? With three games left in the season the Astros went to Los Angeles. On Tuesday, September 30th in front of 11,000 fans at Dodgers Stadium, they faced future Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Sutton. They needed to win at least one of the remaining three games to lock in that elusive .500.

In the third, after Blefary drove in a run, former Dodger Tommy Davis belted a two run homer to make the score 3-0 Houston. The Astros would go on to beat the Dodgers 6-3 but that all important fourth run in the game was driven in by none other than starting pitcher Denny Lemaster. Lemaster not only keyed the winning rally but he tossed a gem. 

Lemaster pitched a four-hitter, walking two and striking out 11, giving up only two earned runs. It was his 13th win of the season against 17 losses and assured his club a non-losing season. It would be three more years before Houston would finish above .500 and complete it's first winning season in club history.  

Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column. It has been appreciated. 

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