HOUSTON -- They knew they had to run to win.
The 1980 Astros were well-represented on Friday at SABR 44, when a few members of the first Houston team to win a division participated in a panel discussion at the Royal Sonesta hotel.
General manager Tal Smith, hitting coach Deacon Jones and two key players -- Enos Cabell and Jose Cruz -- were on hand to discuss exactly how Houston managed a startling metamorphosis. The Astros had just two winning campaigns in their first 16 seasons, but the 1980 team was built to win.
Smith started out as the farm director for the Houston Colt .45's and stuck with the team for a decade, left briefly for a place in the Yankees' organization. He returned to Houston in 1975 as the Astros' general manager, and he inherited a club that would go on to lose 97 games.
But a few of the key pieces were there, and Smith would forge the rest over five seasons.
"It was a club that presented a challenge, because they had acquired a nucleus of some fine young talent, but there was a blend also of players that had rendered fine service but had probably reached the peak of their Major League careers and were on the downhill descent," said Smith. "It's my personal belief that if you're rebuilding, you have to do it in stages. If you're going to dispose of certain players because of age or other considerations, you have to have replacements ready."
Smith's club improved to 80-82 in 1976 and 81-81 in 1977 under manager Bill Virdon, and the Astros started to become a winning team on attitude over talent. Virdon, an old-school baseball man, wouldn't accept anything less than the team's best effort, and he taught hustle the old-fashioned way.
If somebody didn't run hard to first base -- an all-too-familiar trend in 1975 under former manager Preston Gomez -- Virdon would make the whole team show up early the next day to run. It got to the point, said Cabell, that the players themselves would start yelling at each other to run harder.
"When Tal and Bill came it became a stress that you run," he said. "We had certain situations where if you didn't run to first base, Bill Virdon would have you come out at 8 o'clock dressed in uniform, but no gloves, no bats and no balls. All you did was run. ...It got to be where if you didn't run to first base, that was the most key thing in the whole world. Nobody wanted to play a game at night, wake up at 7 and be there at 8 so you could go run for an hour. And then you still have to play the game."
Jones, who had a front-row seat for the histronics, said that the vein in Virdon's neck would start bulging whenever somebody didn't run. At one point in the 1976 or '77 season, backup catcher Cliff Johnson drew Virdon's ire by not running hard, and the whole team had to run twice because of it.
And it didn't end there. The players refused to talk to Johnson for two weeks, said Cabell, because of the extra running. And that was Virdon's goal the whole time, according to Jones.
Over time, said Cabell, it just became second nature. You would run hard or you would get berated by either the coaching staff or your teammates, and the peer pressure had a positive effect. Houston played in the Astrodome, which means it was never going to rely on the three-run homer. The Astros were built on speed and defense, and Cabell said they knew they had a small margin of error.
"If you play for the Houston Astros, you're going to bust your tail. If you don't, somebody's going to knock you out," he said. "You weren't there for yourself. You were there for the other 24 guys on the team. And if you messed up, the other 24 guys would be [angry]. It wasn't that way in the early years. It grew and we got other players coming in. It became respect. You run when you play for the Astros."
The Astros, fronted by a tremendous pitching staff that featured J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro and Ken Forsch along with ace relievers Joe Sambito and Joaquin Andujar, nearly broke out in 1979, when they posted a franchise-best 89-73 record and finished 1 1/2 games behind the Reds.
Smith, sensing that his team was close, went out and signed future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan before the 1980 season. Morgan was in the twilight of his career, but Ryan was still in his prime. Niekro led the team in wins, and Richard had to be shut down early after suffering a stroke.
"We had talent. We had great pitching," said Smith. "We had tremendous speed. We had the best outfield in baseball. We had very good defense. But what made the difference was the character of this club. The personalities were absolutely unbelievable. Guys like [Jose] and Enos and 'Cesar Cedeno until he got hurt in Game 3. Art Howe. Just the attitude: These guys weren't going to lose.
The Astros gave Houston a wild and colorful ride that season, and they went into the final weekend of the season with a great chance to clinch the National League West. Houston led the Dodgers by three games, but wound up losing three in a row to Los Angeles to force a one-game playoff.
"We played to win. We only needed just one game," said Cruz. "We lost three, but I know we're not going to lose four. We had to do whatever it takes to wake those guys and win."
The Astros won that game easily, setting off a raucous celebration, and then they had to start the National League Championship Series against Philadelphia the very next day.
That series provided an epic back-and-forth, with Philadelphia winning the first game and Houston storming back to take a 7-4 victory in extra innings in Game 2. The Astros won a 1-0 game in extra innings in Game 3, which would mean they were just one win away from the World Series.
But it wasn't meant to be. The Phillies scratched out two runs in the 10th inning of Game 4 to take a 5-3 victory, and they prevailed in a wild finish in Game 5 to seize the series. Philadelphia scored five times in the eighth inning and once more in the 10th to take an 8-7 win on the road.
It was one of the greatest playoff series ever played, according to Smith, a five-game affair that saw four games go to extra innings. The Astros would go back to the playoffs in 1981 and they'd experience further NLCS heartbreak in 1986, but the team never got to the World Series until 2005.
The Astros, a team built from humble origins, had worked for a generation to get into place for the 1980 season, and their heartbreak still remains more than a generation later. Cabell said that he still regrets his near-miss with the World Series, but he said he'll never forget being a part of that team.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.