Los Angeles — Bill Virdon of the Houston Astros is perhaps the only manager in big league baseball with a personality quiet enough to apply for a library position and have a reasonable chance of being put in charge of something.
Studious-looking behind wire-framed glasses, and nearly always in control of his emotions, Virdon seldom ventures out on the field to question the eyesight and judgment of National League umpires. No one would ever accuse him of imitating Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, or Dick Williams.
But Bill has this wonderful quality, admired by reporters, of being extremely candid with his opinions. When he was asked during the All-Star break at Dodger Stadium what the Astros would have to do to finish first in the NL West, he ignored the chance to hide behind a lot of generalities and came straight to the point.
"If we're on top at the end of the season, it will be because our pitching held up and because our defense didn't let us down in the field," Virdon explained. "We are not a team that scores a lot of runs, nor have we done much with the long ball.We're just not a power hitting club the way we are, and that's not going to change. We know, just to stay alive, that we're going to have to win a lot of one-run games."
"Still I think we improved ourselves considerably during the off season when we picked up [pitcher] Nolan Ryan and [second baseman] Joe Morgan," he continued. "Ryan has a history of finishing strong and I'm counting on that. The problem is that our opposition is also better."
Virdon meant the Dodgers and Reds. In fact, Cincinnati beat Houston out of first place last year by only a game and a half in the NL West, while LA finished third.
Asked if he was satisfied with the 5-6 record that Ryan, a million-dollar free agent, carried into the July All-Star break, the Astros' manager replied:
"To me a pitcher's job is to keep his team in the ball game. If he wins, that's great. If he goes out for a pinch hitter and the score is close when he leaves, I'd never fault a pitcher for that, either.
"Personally I think Ryan has pitched well for us most of the time. Often when he's lost it was because we didn't get him many runs, and I don't see how anyone can blame Nolan for that. But we are going to need his consistency down the stretch, and I mean the consistency he showed in those years when he was winning 19 and 20 games."
There is an amazing statistic about Ryan, aside from his four no-hitters and seven one-hitters, that most people are not familiar with. Nolan has a 111-3 record (that's 111 wins and only 3 losses) in games in which he has carried a lead into either the eighth or ninth inning.
The three other starting pitchers that Virdon is counting on so heavily are fireballing J. R. Richard, knuckleballer Joe Niekro, and sinkerball specialist Ken Forsch. However, Richard missed 11 days earlier in the season with a shoulder injury and before that departed prematurely from five games because of similar problems.
For most of the season the Astros' Big Four has been averaging almost seven innings per start, making it one of the most impressive staffs in baseball. The bullpen, with a 2.64 earned-run average, has also been great.
Among Virdon's problems right now is shortstop Craig Reynolds, whose sub-.200 batting average becomes particularly noticeable with men on base. Reynolds had only nine RBIs in Houston's first 79 games this season and no game-winning hits.
"I'm staying with Craig as my shortstop because the man is outstanding in the field," Bill explained. "His range and his arm often save us runs. Although Reynolds is pressing at the plate, I think he'll probably get better."
"Occasionally, when I think Craig might need a day off, I'll play Rafael Landestoy in his place," he added. "The problem is that Landestoy really doesn't have enough arm to play shortstop regularly, although there is nothing wrong with his fielding."
Virdon thinks that it will take 95 victories to lock up the NL West, which is only six fewer wins than the Astros had last year.