Hal Lanier got all the way to the World Series last year as the St. Louis Cardinals' third-base coach, but as the new manager in Houston he can pretty well count on a spectator's role next October. Realistically, the Astros are so far from being a contender that they'll probably wind up chasing the Dodgers, Reds, Padres, and maybe even the Braves in the National League West. But of course no manager pays attention to thoughts like that in the spring.
Lanier says he hopes to develop a team with the same sort of speed and aggressiveness that characterizes the Cardinals. The problem, though, is that when Hal talks about having six players capable of stealing from 25 to 35 bases, he is including one who reached the latter figure 10 years ago; another who has a total of eight for his last two seasons; and a third who is 38 years old.
Another difficulty is that speed needs pitching and defense in order to succeed -- and last year Houston made 152 errors, third highest in the majors.
This is not a terribly bad team, understand, just one that anybody who knows anything about baseball refuses to take seriously for 162 games. In fact Houston probably doesn't have a shot at a .500 season unless 39-year-old Nolan Ryan (two wins in his last 20 starts) regains some of the consistency that used to allow him to finish anywhere from 17 to 26 starts a season.
However, Houston can be a spoiler if its three veteran pitchers (Ryan, Mike Scott, and Bob Knepper) all win more than they lose and Hal can find a fourth starter among youngsters Charlie Kerfeld, Jeff Heathcock, and Jim Deshaies. Heathcock, who has pitched just under 75 big-league innings, is almost a veteran compared with the other two. The Astros are also trying to pry right-hander Rick Rhoden away from the Pittsburgh Pirates. And in Dave Smith and Frank DiPino they have a solid bullpen.
While Lanier doesn't expect shortstop Dickie Thon (subpar since being beaned two years ago) to hit for power again, he does expect him to hit for average and play maybe 130 games. Billy Hatcher, who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs during the off season and is a streak on the bases, so far hasn't shown enough power to put much pressure on Kevin Bass in center field.
No one will work harder to improve the Astros than Lanier, but then the same could be said for former Houston manager Bob Lillis, who is now a coach with the San Francisco Giants. Fine art of managing
Asked what it means when someone says a certain manager is great at running a game, Gene Mauch, of the California Angels replied: ``Since you play the same teams season after season, everybody gets to know what the other fellow does best. Basically there are no secrets in baseball. Even when an opponent uses a rookie pitcher or hitter against you, the front office will have already sent down a scouting report detailing what he did in the minors.
``However, some managers do have a flair for capitalizing on this knowledge more effectively than others,'' Mauch continued. ``They will do this by shading an infielder a step or two toward second base to nullify a certain hitter's strength. Or they might give the steal sign when they know that the opposing catcher has been having trouble throwing accurately. Sure they are litle things, but sometimes they do win ball games.'' Elsewhere in the major leagues
From former St. Louis Cardinal great and Hall of Famer Stan Musial, who played 22 years in the National League: ``The hardest part of performing well late in my career was keeping my concentration. Sometimes it just wasn't there. For example, I'd always had this ability to sense when I had the pitcher in a hole. At times like that, I'd often guess fastball on the next pitch, and sure enough it would be a fastball. Only late in my career, instead of swinging, I'd just stand there and take it.''
Former two-time National League MVP Joe Morgan, now retired, says he still appreciates the value of speed. ``There is no defense for speed,'' Morgan said. ``I've even seen great catchers like Johnny Bench get rattled by having a guy like Lou Brock leading off first base. And if an infielder has to hurry his throw, there is always a chance that he will make an error. The fact is anytime you pitch out with a runner on first base, you concede something mentally to the other team.''
Dallas Green, general manger of the Chicago Cubs, much prefers more time in the batting cage for his players than the more modern training method of riding bikes and lifting weights. Explained Green: ``You can't ride a bike between second and third base, and you can't hike your batting average by lifting weights.''
From two-time National League MVP Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves on getting started in the majors: ``The toughest thing I had to learn my rookie year was not to be awed mentally by the pitchers who had gotten there before me. I figured they were so much more experienced that there was no way I could possibly hit them for a while. So right away I began taking pitches for strikes that I should have been hitting, only I'd be telling myself that on the way back to the bench after being called out on strikes. However, once I decided to swing, I was all right.''
From Cardinal slugger Jack Clark: ``I hit most of my home runs when I'm not trying. But I'm strong enough so if I make good contact, the ball is going out. Against the Dodgers in last year's playoffs, I made an adjustment in my batting stance that squared my body up more in line with the pitcher. At the same time it moved me away from the plate, which I felt gave me a better look at the pitcher's delivery.''
Don Zimmer, third-base coach of the Chicago Cubs, on the difference between grass and artificial turf: ``I can throw a ball right now on artificial turf and it will roll to the right-field wall. If I throw it in Wrigley Field, it will be lucky to reach the outfield grass.''