The 1966 World Champion Astros

added 4/18/2012 by Bob Hulsey

When I'm bored, I'll occasionally play sports sims on my computers and my favorite is Baseball Mogul. While you can try to make it simulate real life, the thing that makes these sims interesting is that you are going to have variables that aren't like real life but seem close enough.

One thing about computer sims is that they can help you forget about a bad season and let you relive better times and remember fondly players from your youth or from the glory days. They also allow you to constantly play "what if" regarding player trades or lineup changes. Nothing is actually settled but it is a good time-killer while you sit through another real-life losing season.

What Baseball Mogul offers that is different from the others is that it allows you to play general manager and work with one franchise over many seasons, acquiring talent and manipulating payroll and revenues in search of multiple worlds championships. Therefore, the true fun is to take a terrible team and build it into a winner.

While I often start with an expansion team or a team really in the dumps, this time I started with the 1965 Houston Astros and was able to shockingly win the World Series in 1966 (for me, the process typically takes 5-7 years). While it's all a meaningless sim, it was so surprising, I decided to document how it happened.

The real '65 Astros finished 65-97; my fake Astros finished in ninth place at 66-96 so there was nothing to lead up to the '66 season with any first-division hopes. But I had made some moves.

You have to start with a roster of, essentially, the 1964 Colts who ended the season and whatever was in the talent pipeline at that time. I made trades that upgraded the team although nothing outrageous. I dealt Bob Bruce, Nellie Fox and Joe Gaines to Boston for closer Dick Radatz and infielder Felix Mantilla (an actual Astro in '66) then swapped Mantilla's high salary, along with Don Nottebart, to the Giants for outfielder Matty Alou.

Later, I sent Ken Johnson to the Reds for catcher Johnny Edwards (a future Astro). I sent reliever Jim Owens and prospects to the White Sox for 3B Pete Ward then dealt closer Claude Raymond to Boston for pitcher Jack Lamabe (another soon-to-be Astro in real life).

Alou filled LF while Ward was an upgrade at 3B over Bob Aspromonte, although my real intention was to drop payroll which is usually the first thing you try to do if you want to win at this sim. Building cash reserves allows you to sign free agents and avoid the catastrophe of running out of money and being unable to re-sign players.

While the reserve clause was still intact in 1966, Baseball Mogul believes in free agency. While many free agents are overpriced, you try to look for bargains and I spotted one when 26-year-old and yet to show his real value Lou Brock was available. This was the only acquisition that seemed totally implausible.

Now that I had Brock in left, I had no need for Alou so I sent him back to the Giants for reliever Frank Linzy (notice a certain Ed Wade-ness in the way I deal with relievers?).

Right before spring training, I checked again for any remaining free agent bargains as the players, just as in real life, lower their salary demands as the winter goes on. I found 39-year-old 1B Roy Sievers still there and I needed an upgrade from Walt Bond so I snatched him up.

My lineup consisted of Brock LF, Joe Morgan 2B, Jim Wynn CF, Ward 3B, Rusty Staub RF, Sievers 1B, Edwards or John Bateman C, Eddie Kasko SS and the pitcher. My rotation had Mike Cuellar, Turk Farrell, Larry Dierker and Don Wilson with Radatz, Dave Giusti and Linzy as my key relievers. Hal Woodeshick and Danny Coombs were my bullpen lefties but neither were particularly effective.

Surprisingly, I jumped out to a 17-9 April and waited to tumble down the standings. I was 15-13 in May and was stumbling into third place with injuries to Edwards and Farrell weakening the roster. Then Eddie Kasko was lost for 42 games and I needed to do something. I dealt pitcher Chris Zachary to Atlanta for Sandy Alomar (who was briefly an Astro but never played for them).

That was enough to ride out the injury but the computer GM came up with a trade offer in July - asking for SS Sonny Jackson in return for Pittsburgh SS Gene Alley. Alley was similar to Ward in that they both had a few good offensive years before flaming out. Now I had better offense at shortstop.

With two starting pitchers on the DL, I made my last deal at the All-Star Break. I swapped the displaced Aspromonte along with Radatz for lefty George Brunet who had been with the Colts in '63. He and Lamabe were starters while my rotation healed and then became useful bullpen parts down the stretch.

My fake Astros held slim leads or slim deficits until the final weeks. With four games to play, The Astros were two back of the Atlanta Braves in the 10-team, no-divisions NL race. The Braves split their four games while the Astros swept the Cubs to set up a one-game playoff in Atlanta.

It was a back-and-forth winner-take-all game where the Astros held a nervous lead late, but the Braves went ahead 7-6 after eight innings. Houston then put two men on in the ninth when Ward slammed a triple to left-center to put the Astros back in front. They added two insurance runs and held on for a 10-7 triumph.

The 97-66 Astros met the 97-65 Chicago White Sox in the World Series. The Astros broke out in Game 1 against Gary Peters. It was the Jim Wynn Show as he belted two home runs, two doubles and drove in five during a 12-6 blowout at Comiskey Park behind 19-game winner Don Wilson.

Houston was poised to win Game 2 in extra innings but Linzy melted down and served up a grand slam to Gene Freese (who was an actual Astro in '66, batting .091 at the end of his career). The White Sox also took Game 3 behind the two-hit pitching of John Buzhardt (another future Astro).

It was the veteran Farrell who turned the tables, dealing a masterful two-hit complete game in Game 4 for a 3-0 win. The pivotal Game 5 would feature Wilson versus Joe Horlen. The Astros prevailed, 3-2, with the winning run coming on a Morgan homer in the fifth. Giusti tossed two spotless innings to save it for Wilson.

Game 6 was back in Chicago and the Astros broke out to a 2-0 lead against surprise starter Tommy John. Cuellar had a no-hitter for four innings but eventually gave up the tying runs as the 2-2 game went into extra innings. In the 12th, Staub doubled off Eddie Fisher and a grounder moved him to third with one out. The Sox pulled their infield in. Alley was the batter but he wasn't much of a contact hitter. I rolled the dice and pinch-hit with the light-hitting Alomar and ordered the suicide squeeze. It worked. Staub scored for a 3-2 lead.

With my best relievers already spent, I needed three outs to win the Series. I turned to Brunet who allowed a leadoff single. A bunt moved the runner to second. The Astros got a pop up for the second out then I intentionally walked the pinch-hitter.

The Sox were at the pitchers spot of the order and reached for Tom McCraw to pinch-hit (remember when he was our hitting coach under Dierker decades later?). I couldn't trust Brunet any longer and went back to Turk Farrell, the hero of Game 4, to get the last out. McCraw sent a liner to shallow center but Wynn chased it down for the final out and the Astros were World Champions!

We might have been known as the "Miracle Astros of 1966" but, truly, a lot of these were performing over their heads before their time. Dierker was 20, Wilson was 21, Staub was 22, Morgan was 23 and Wynn was 24. All but Wilson were showing signs by then or being great (Morgan was, in fact, an All-Star in 1966 but couldn't play because of a broken kneecap). Staub, Wynn and Wilson had breakout years in 1967.

The real Astros of 1966 did get off to a hot start and climbed to second place in May before youth and injuries killed them and they finished in eighth place at 72-90. One wonders what they might have done with Brock, Ward and Alley as regulars and the improved bullpen. Doubtful they would have reached the World Series but they might have been good enough to finish in the upper half of the standings.

Of course, when you do an historical sim, you have the advantage of knowing which players became stars in real life and which ones didn't so you don't make the mistakes the contemporary GMs made. The Astros, in 1968, drafted catcher Martin Cott when the Yankees, right behind them, chose catcher Thurman Munson. Playing in the cyberverse, you know to take Munson when that choice comes up.

If you want a tougher challenge, the game offers fictional player universes where your knowledge of real players can't help you. Then you might draft more Martin Cotts and less Thurman Munsons. But it is all in the realm of fun. While some fans turn to fantasy baseball, some also turn to computer sims for their ersatz sports highs.