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Classic hitter Art Howe is quiet star of Astros

Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees walks up to the plate with a bat and a ruffle of excitement builds all the way out to the centerfield wall. Art Howe of the Houston Astros does the same thing and people in the stands look at their watches, holler for a hot dog vendor, or check the ballpark's message board.

Though a line-drive hitter who once batted .355 with Memphis, Howe spent the better part of six years in the minor leagues before he got to play in more than 100 games with the 1977 Astros. In fact, there were no guarantees that Houston would even keep him in its system after it got him as the "player to be named later" in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1975.

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Nevertheless, on certain days Art can wear out picthers with his opposite-field singles and doubles up the alleys. Right now trying to keep him off the bases in the best-of-five National League West playoffs is the responsibility of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose pitchers aren't that thrilled to be facina a guy who will wait all day to get the kind of ball he wants.

Back in June Howe was leading the National League in hitting, with a .344 average, when baseball went on its 50-day strike. Getting his timing back was a struggle for him after the season resumed, but among teammates who played in more than 100 games, he was high man, with a .296 batting average, and his slugging percentage was a neat. 404.

"You talk about classic fundamentals in a hitter and you're talking about Art Howe," said Deacon Jones, the Astros' batting coach. "His whole game as a hitter is based on patience, protecting the plate, timing, and playing every day. If you sit him on the bench for any length of time, he isn't going to help you.

"There are two things, if you're a hitter, that you have to learn if you're going to stay in the big leagues," Jones continued. "You have to be able to adjust when the pitcher adjusts and you have to be able to master the breaking balls.

"The way Howe was going before the strike, the way he had tuned in on his timing and the way he was using the entire field to get base hits gave him a chance at the NL batting title. But the strike hurt a lot of guys, and Art had trouble coming back, although he still did a great job for us and was out-release get even the fastest base runners.

Questioned about his success as a hitter, Howe replied:

"Hitting is a lot of things, including falling into a groove occasionally where it seems like every time you make good contact the balls finds a hole somewhere. The tough part is adjusting to what the pitcher is doing when you're not going well; having the confidence to wait for the pitch you're sure you can do something with; and looking for holes in the defense.

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"Although I try to take advantage of the entire field by going with what the pitcher gives me, I'll occasionally wheel on a ball and drive it through the hole into left field if the opposing shortstop is cheating toward the middle on me. If a pitcher has been around for a while and I've picked up his pattern, then I'm going to guess fastball or curve in certain situations and probably be right. But I never guess when there is a full count or when I'm not going well."

Although Howe isn't the type to make speeches, he doesn't mind how many of baseball's general managers know that he would like to manage in the big leagues at the end of his Career -- and no waiting, please!

Two winters ago, he managed Bayamon to the Puerto Rican playoff championship and last year he won a regular season title with the same team, although he was once a systems analyst for Westinghouse.

"I would manage out of the country again in winter ball if the situation was right, partly for the experience and partly to show how serious I am," Art explained. "The points is, I don't want to go back to the minors for several years and have to prove myself as a manager before somebody hires me. I want to be able to show that I'm ready now.

"To me the hardest part of managing is pitching -- learning how to spot a pitcher in trouble, when he doesn't even know it himself, and then having the right man ready in the bullpen to replace him. If you can master that part, then you should be able to handle the rest of it.

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