Astros hope to make unlikely takeoff based on youth, speed

March 10, 1991|By Tracy Ringolsby | Tracy Ringolsby,Dallas Morning News

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- In brainstorming for ways to advertise the 1991 Houston Astros, the club's marketing department came up with a bumblebee. Aerodynamically, the bumblebee should not be able to fly.

Others campaigns feature a Volkswagen beetle, man's walk on the moon, the Spirit of St. Louis and Columbus' three ships. Note the trend.

"Our basic message is that there have been plenty of things succeed which people thought were unaccomplishable," said Ted Haracz, the Astros' vice president of marketing. "We're not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. We're just saying, 'Give us a chance.' "

And believing in the Astros this season is believing in the impossible.

In almost constant management turmoil for nearly 15 years -- from bankruptcy and receivership in the 1970s to John McMullen reign in the '80s to his announced intention to sell in the '90s -- the state of uncertainty has spread to the playing field.

Fourteen of the 28 players in uniform to start last season -- including six of the 11 pitchers -- are gone. Among the missing:

* Pitchers who accounted for 650 1/3 innings, 49 of 75 victories and 35 of 37 saves. Danny Darwin led the National League in ERA. Juan Agosto led NL relievers in appearances the past three years. Dave Smith is the club's all-time saves leader.

* The top three run producers last season, including Glenn Davis, the only Astro to hit 20 homers in six consecutive seasons, and Franklin Stubbs, who set a club record for left-handed hitters with 23 homers.

Eric Anthony, a rookie disappointment, is the only returning Astro who hit more than four home runs; he had 10 to go with a .192 average in 84 games. Ken Caminiti drove in 51 runs, the only player back who had more than 50 last season.

Mike Scott, long the ace of the Astros' starting rotation, has so far survived years of trade rumors, but his health is a major concern. He had surgery in December to "tighten up everything" in his right shoulder.

Veteran pitcher Jim Deshaies wore an added touch on his workout jersey for the opening day of spring camp. His plastic badge read, "Hello, I'm Jim Deshaies." A highlight of that first workout was browsing through the locker room and counting equipment bags from 11 organizations emptied by 27 pitching candidates.

Each division has a consensus pick to finish last each season. The Astros have taken that one step farther: They are a unanimous pick to finish last in the National League West.

L Even the Astros are upfront about the uncertain times ahead.

"It's impossible to predict what we're going to do," manager Art Howe said. "No one knows what we can do. I don't know. I do know the effort will be there. Guys are coming to camp ready to go. Each guy here knows he has a chance, and that's going to make each guy play with a higher degree of effort."

*

Most of the Astros' attrition came through free agency. Darwin and Smith were granted "second-look" free-agent status, part of the collusion settlement. Baseball owners were found to have improperly held down salaries by refusing to bid on other teams' free agents after the 1985-87 seasons.

The Astros had planned to retool their pitching staff gradually, pitching coach Bob Cluck said. Xavier Hernandez was the only pitcher on the opening day roster last year who didn't turn 30 before the All-Star break.

"But because of collusion, we rushed our plans along," Cluck said. "I don't think anybody plans to lose six pitchers from one year to the next, but we did."

The Astros lost players, but they hope they also won't lose money. Ex-Astros on the winter free-agent market landed $34 million in guaranteed money over a combined 15 years of contracts.

McMullen, a New Jersey resident whose absentee ownership has long been a sore subject in Houston, has taken more heat this time. Critics claim the Astros instituted cost-cutting -- at the expense of the on-field product -- so McMullen could increase his profits once he sells the club.

McMullen refused last week to discuss what's going on with his team. General manager Bill Wood, however, denied the events resulted from an ownership mandate.

"This had its roots long before he began to make plans to sell," Wood said. "That attitude gives no credit to the organization that has been built here, to the baseball people here for knowing what they are trying to do.

"We feel we have talented young people who will be able to contend when they get their feet on the ground. Look at Cincinnati, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Boston . . . they established a nucleus with home-grown players first and then supplemented it. You have to have the nucleus."

The Astros apparently weren't comfortable with their aging nucleus. After all, they won only 75 games last year and had to put on a strong second-half push to avoid last place.

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