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Astros May Make Move to Washington : Poor Attendance Has Owners Thinking About the Possibility

July 20, 1986|United Press International

Houston stepped into the spotlight Tuesday when it showcased the 57th All-Star game.

The exposure was also expected to magnify the possibility that the nation's fourth largest city could lose its baseball team, the Astros, who this season are celebrating their 25th anniversary.

The subject has become virtually taboo with club officials since April when rumors began circulating that Astro owner John J. McMullen was considering moving his team to Washington, D.C.

McMullen said at the time he did not initiate the report but refused to deny that any move might happen.

His peeve, he said, was that the Astros' low attendance figures--which result in financial losses--were not to his liking.

"Am I satisfied (in Houston)?" he said. "No. We haven't gotten the attendance we want."

Since then, rumors have come and gone. The latest surfaced recently when a Phoenix newspaper reported that three teams have had informal discussions with city officials about relocating. City officials declined to name the teams, but speculation centered around the Astros.

"I would flat out say there isn't anything to it," Astros general manager Dick Wagner said July 9. "But I can't speak for any other teams."

Asked if attendance was still a problem, Wagner said: 'I don't want to speak on that. You need to talk to Bob Hartar. We'd like to be drawing 40 (40,000). You asked about Phoenix. I'll answer about Phoenix. I don't want to talk about that (attendance)."

Hartar, president of the Houston Sports Assn., the Astros governing body, has been reluctant to talk about the situation and did not return calls to United Press International.

Attendance, without question, is down. The club set an attendance record in 1980 by drawing 2.2 million fans. Coincidentally, that was the only time the Astros have won a National League West championship.

Last year, the Astros drew only 1.18 million, the club's worst year at the gate since 1978.

Don Sanders, one of the team's minority owners, said earlier that Houston's hurting economy and the team's lack of success since 1980 has contributed to the decline in attendance.

"The franchise has been losing money, and a lot of negative things have been written," he said. "As a businessman, he (McMullen) has an option to see what kind of deals are around."

The team's success on the field has soared, but attendance has not.

Last year, after 39 home games, the Astros had drawn 669,487, or an average of 17,166 a game. They also were 7 1/2-games out of first place.

After 39 home dates this season, the Astros have drawn only 631,130 fans, an average of 16,183, but the team has been in first place for 66 days and the farthest they have been out of first is 1 1/2-games.

However, team officials say attendance has been on the upswing recently for several reasons. One, much of the city's attention was on the Houston Rockets, who reached the NBA Finals, and now that attention is turning to the Astros. Secondly, fans were unsure if the Astros were real contenders or just strong starters.

McMullen, though, had a chance to discuss a possible move with the other major league owners at a one-day meeting in May. Two-thirds of the 12 NL owners and more than half of the 14 American League owners would have to approve a frachise move. The issue was never discussed, but the owners are expected to meet again in Houston during the All-Star game.

McMullen, who was unavailable for comment, was asked in early May if the Astros would remain in Houston for the 1987 season.

"Why should I give you a blood oath?" McMullen responded. "What you're asking for is a blood oath. That's something no one else is asking for. That's unreasonable."

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