Up to this point, the Astros had one player in the team's history that was truly regarded as a superstar for his play in Houston. That man was Cesar Cedeno. The fellow who drew early comparisons to Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays had a fine career but it didn't match the projections for one of his immense talents. Add on to this the charges of involuntary manslaughter, domestic abuse, hot-tempered outbursts and moments of dugout rage and it perhaps led Astros management to consider parting ways. The final straw may have been when he rushed into the stands in Atlanta to silence a man who called him "killer".
Still, it seemed unthinkable that Houston would ever trade him and yet they did. In an ironic twist, Cedeno was sent to Cincinnati for third baseman Ray Knight, a man who fought with Cedeno during the 1979 pennant race. Knight was also known as someone whose temper sometimes got the best of him.
In fifteen months, the Astros had undergone a tremendous makeover from the roster that came within six outs of reaching the World Series. Four regulars and three starting pitchers remained from 1980. To say the pitching staff was getting up in years was an understatement. Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton were all 35 or older. The only under-30 starter was Bob Knepper who soured to a 5-15 record, beginning a love-hate relationship with Astro fans.
The start of the 1982 season looked like a replay of the previous year. By April 18th, the Astros were already 7-1/2 games behind unbeaten Atlanta. Ryan got off to his usual slow start, notching his first win on April 26th. The next day, the bullpen received a shock when closer Joe Sambito blew out his left elbow while pitching against St. Louis. Dave Smith took over the closer role until he injured his back.
Another reliever who struggled was Frank LaCorte. On May 26th, LaCorte walked the bases full before losing to Montreal. Afterwards, he burned his jersey in the locker room. He considered his number 31 a bad omen, representing the many times he fell behind in the count to hitters. The Astros gave him number 27 instead but his pitching didn't improve.
Houston was in last place as late as mid-June. Ryan perked up with a four-hit shutout in Los Angeles on July 4th and a five-hit victory on July 27th to reach the 200-win mark for his career. He would toss a one-hitter and a two-hitter later in the year. Ryan would finish with 16 victories, the most of any year he had in Houston.
By mid-August, it was clear that the Astros were out of the race. Two moves were made. Bill Virdon was fired after seven years at the helm, the longest of any Houston manager. Coach Bob Lillis, an original Colt .45, replaced him. After Sutton requested to be traded, the Astros sent him to Milwaukee for young prospects Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, Mike Madden and cash. Sutton would finish with 324 career wins and a Hall Of Fame plaque.
While the pitchers struggled, the hitters struggled even worse. Phil Garner led the club in homers (13) and RBIs (83) while Knight paced the club with a .294 average. Garner enjoyed particular success against his former teammates in Pittsburgh. Five Astros reached double-digits in steals, led by shortstop Dickie Thon with 37.
Thon had pushed Craig Reynolds out of the lineup and soon more youngsters would get their chance. Bass got a long look in the outfield while Bill Doran got a September tryout at second base. Niekro won his 100th game as an Astro on August 28th and ultimately his 17th of the season, a shutout of the Reds, to finish the season record at 77-85. They were fifth in the division. The smell of championships had dissipated. In November, Judge Hofheinz died and perhaps it was fitting for the club to look like it had back in the 1960s.By Astro Daily
- Bill Virdon, Bob Knepper, Bob Lillis, Cesar Cedeno, Craig Reynolds, Dave Smith, Dickie Thon, Don Sutton, Frank DiPino, Frank LaCorte, Houston Astros, Joe Niekro, Joe Sambito, Kevin Bass, Mike Madden, Nolan Ryan, Phil Garner, Ray Knight, Roberto Clemente, Roy Hofheinz, Willie Mays