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'Outcast' McMullen Remains Rather Coy With His Houston Toy

July 19, 1986|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

HOUSTON — On Tuesday night here at the All-Star game, John McMullen was seen smiling in the Astrodome. For the owner of the Astros, who calls himself "an outcast" in this town, that was a moment as rare as it was sweet.

There before him was a full house of 45,774--evidence that economically distraught Houston, ravaged by oil and NASA disasters, could fill this park for a baseball game, after all.

"The most positive thing about the All-Star game is that it proves you can fill the Dome," said McMullen. "This could have a ripple effect, especially with the Mets here this weekend and everybody talking baseball."

Suddenly, dark clouds appeared on McMullen's horizon. Reporters bearing the wrong sort of questions.

"No time now. Can't you see I've got a thousand guests?" sniped the boss, his grin turning to a glower as he was asked, perhaps for the thousandth time, if he would move his team to Washington.

McMullen does not choose to answer such queries because, as he knows best, there is no answer -- yet. Within hours, he growled that "the (franchise move) stories aren't true," then fueled the same flames by saying, "This (team) is a business asset. I'm not going to say (I won't ever move). ... I'm trying to break even. As far as I'm concerned, that settles the issue."

This, of course, sounds reminiscent of Calvin Griffith, Bob Short and every owner who has disliked his bottom line and considered taking it on the lam. All of Houston knows that last year the Astros (83-79) drew only 1.3 million fans. This season, the team is a contender, one game behind the Giants in the West Division before Thursday, but its attendance is running at the same sad pace.

Should the Astros draw very poorly or very well -- under 100,000, or more than 150,000 -- for their four dates with the glamorous Mets, then McMullen might be a step closer to a stay-or-go decision. He has let Houston know that the town is on trial and that the Mets' series could be exhibit A. But, chances are, this soap opera will drag on for months.

It's on nights like Tuesday that we can see why McMullen got into baseball in the first place. And why he might try to make the long-shot jump to Washington.

The energetic, white-haired McMullen was in constant motion, chatting non-stop as he bounced from his private box to his private champagne dinner party to the box seats where Vice President George Bush was ready to throw out the first ball.

When McMullen bought the Astros in 1979, he didn't know much about baseball. Basically, he wanted some glamour for his bucks. Why make millions as a smart naval architect and never get to enjoy it? Although he works in Manhattan and lives in New Jersey, McMullen bought a toy in Texas.

Above all, McMullen wanted to be The Boss. Once, when in business as a part-owner of the Yankees with George Steinbrenner, McMullen said, "Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George's." In seven years as top gun here, McMullen has gotten precious little return on his investment -- in dollars, fame or fun.

That's why rumors have run rampant for two months about McMullen uprooting his Astros. This is a man of strong and conservative opinions who does what pleases him. All the popularity, profit and political pomp that he hoped to find in Texas might still await him in Washington.

From Sam Houston Park to Capitol Hill, everybody wants to read McMullen's mind because, when he finally makes it up, chances are nobody will be able to change it.

McMullen seems to have a gift for negative publicity. He says he watches 250 games a year, yet he still has a reputation for not being baseball-wise. His firing of Tal Smith as general manager after the Astros won the NL West in 1980 was very unpopular here. The Houston sports press is not known as harsh, yet McMullen says its negative reporting kills his attendance.

All this puts Washington in a bind. Much as Washington fans might covet the Astros, shouldn't they be a bit leery of McMullen? On the other hand, can a city and its baseball commission afford to be picky after 15 years with no team?

At the moment, Washington's best course appears to be patience and dignity. Baseball seems determined to expand eventually. Whether that growth comes in the 1980s or waits until 1990, no city is in a better position than Washington. The ideal long-term solution would be a National League expansion team with broad-based local ownership.

So far, McMullen has let the Washington card stay on the table to help himself in Houston. But tables can be turned. If Washington and its commission remain cool (but not indifferent) toward the Astros, then the Nation's Capital may be able to reverse the supply-and-demand mind game. If McMullen keeps the Astros in Houston, as he probably will, Washington will not -- for once -- look desperate and embarrassed.

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