The Astros had experienced some tremendous pitching performances during the 1960s, including four no-hitters, and the best they had to show for it was a .500 season. Despite the reputation of the Astrodome as a place where long balls went to die, management looked to field teams that could produce still more of them. To the common fan, it may have seemed like a good move but it became a recipe for mediocrity.
Behind the scenes, financial resources were getting thin. Judge Hofheinz had built an amusement park, a convention hall and a hotel to make his "Astrodomain" complete. Hofheinz also bought the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Some critics sniped that he already owned one.
The other ventures took money away from baseball and, after suffering a stroke, Hofheinz seemed too unhealthy, financially and otherwise, to own a major league team.
The Astros had turned a corner going into the season. The expansion era was over. They were now expected to be a serious contender. The new decade started with a bang. Doug Rader drilled a home run into the upper reserved (gold) seats in left field during an exhibition game on April 3rd. The seats were thought by many to be unreachable. Proving it was no fluke, Jim Wynn swatted a Phil Niekro knuckleball into the same section nine days later in a contest against Atlanta. "Juiced ball" theories quickly started after four other homers were hit that night, including another Wynn blast into the purple seats, just below the gold. The blasts of Rader and Wynn were marked with repainted seats. No other Astro ever hit one into that part of the stadium.
Before the season, Curt Blefary was traded to the New York Yankees for Joe Pepitone. The Brooklyn-born slugger felt like he'd been banished to the sticks after gaining fame in the Big Apple. Pepitone had a good start but lost his job to a hot-hitting Bob Watson when he missed time to deal with legal issues in New York. Unwilling to play in the outfield, Pepitone took a cue from Donn Clendenon and subsequently "retired". He "unretired" after the Astros worked a deal to sell his contract to Chicago. Watson and rookie slugger John Mayberry filled in at first base for the rest of the season.
Another ex-Yankee to make headlines with the Astros that year was reliever Jim Bouton. His book, "Ball Four", exposed the dark side of some of baseball's biggest heroes at a time when such revelations were taboo. He became a pariah to many within the sport for his tell-all tome and the Houston clubhouse seemed more tense knowing that the things said in private might someday show up in print.
The rookie who caught everyone's attention that year was a Dominican outfielder named Cesar Cedeno. Only 19 when he arrived in Houston, Cedeno showed he had all the tools to be a superstar. Comparisons to greats like Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays were frequent. He came from the minors in June and batted .310 for the rest of the season.
Cedeno wasn't the only Astro to hit well. Shortstop Denis Menke batted .304 and again led the club with 92 RBIs. Jesus Alou turned in a .306 average. The team batting average rose 19 points from the year before.
Unfortunately, the team ERA rose 63 points. Larry Dierker and Don Wilson again had winning records but the overall staff had a down year. Illustrative was the game Wilson won in Montreal on August 15th when he surrendered 16 hits. Fred Gladding came in to get the final out of the 7-3 victory, one of his team-leading 18 saves. Two weeks later, Wilson fell behind Nolan Ryan and the Mets before Wynn and Menke bailed him out, each bashing a pair of homers.
Houston finished fourth in the division with a disappointing 79-83 record. Cincinnati ran away with the division title, a scene that would be repeated often during the decade.By Astro Daily
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- Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno, Curt Blefary, Denis Menke, Don Wilson, Doug Rader, Fred Gladding, Houston Astros, Jesus Alou, Jim Bouton, Jim Wynn, Joe Niekro, Joe Pepitone, John Mayberry, Larry Dierker, Phil Niekro, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays