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But Johnny knew something was deeply wrong when even Ward's tales of faithful dogs or wacky DJ stunts or people doing things in the nude that aren't usually done in the nude failed to raise spirits. He considered playing his ace in the hole -- reading from Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman's recycled Milton Berle jokes -- but that was a Last Resort, to be used to keep morale together only if they heard nuclear devices going off overhead.
Instead he decided on another scouting mission. Just how far had Bob McNair gone in his insane plan to rule Houston?
He briefed Joe again. "Look, even if he did bring football back to Houston, McNair can't be some kind of god," Johnny said. "What about the Astros? Didn't Enron Field open? With all that extra cash, Drayton McLane must have gotten some players to get over the hump, and a World Series win would steal the spotlight from McNair! We need answers, dammit!"
Joe went out into the bleak world again.
When he came back a few days later, he was a beaten man. He sagged visibly in his chair. The others tried to pump him for information.
"Don't tell me -- they got beat in the playoffs again," said Dave. "Those damn Braves!"
"No, it's worse than that," Joe said.
Their eyes grew wide in disbelief as Joe related the tale of the Astros' season: Enron Field had opened, all right -- and beers were more than five dollars each. Drayton had taken his new gift from the taxpayers and had cut the payroll, getting rid of Mike Hampton and Carl Everett because, ummm, he needed their lockers to store all his extra cash, Joe reasoned. Jose Lima had experienced a disastrous season. Ken Caminiti missed much of the year with injuries. The team had lost 90 games, just after a season in which they had won 97.
The residents huddled together.
"Obviously Joe got drugged by whatever McNair's putting in the water up there," one said. "Drayton would never cut the payroll after he got a new stadium for free -- that would go against everything he said during the referendum on whether to build the thing."
"And trade Hampton, of all people?" said another. "That'd be as nuts as trying to make an outfielder out of Daryle Ward. No one's that stupid."
"Sure, I believe the bit about Caminiti getting hurt. But Jose Lima tanking? He's just too darn irrepressible!"
It was agreed that Joe would be given a nice, long rest. Everyone assured him that they really, really did believe in a land of five-dollar beers where owners magically transformed playoff-quality teams into also-rans. They played him a lot of Dave Ward tapes.
But after he was safely stored away, they worried. What if McNair had co-opted McLane into his crazy scheme?
"He still couldn't pull it off," Johnny said. "Look, you can't consider a city to have gone totally off the deep end just because it spends $250 million for a baseball field and $380 million for football stadium. Remember: Just before we came down here, Houston rejected that nutty deal to build the Rockets an arena. So there is still some common sense up there!"
"Boss, I don't know," Dave said. "What if the Rockets had another referendum?"
"No way," Johnny snorted. "Remember all their bleating and whining? "If we lose this vote, we are definitely leaving town. We are gone. It's now or never.' There's no way they could come back and try to pull another vote off. What are they gonna say? "This time, we really, really mean it'? Who'd fall for that?"
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Dave answered. "But maybe we should send someone up to check, just in case."
This time Dave was chosen to go up.
"And don't waste your time asking how A&M is doing in recruiting!" Johnny ordered. "I've been down here ten months, and I'll tell you how they're doing -- great! One of the best classes in the nation! They got them a quarterback who's going to finally open up the offense! And a year from now he'll be playing strong safety! It's the same every year, for crying out loud!"
Chastened, Dave went up. He stopped at Hooters, where one of the sports-talk shows was doing a remote. (A&M had the inside track on a back-up halfback out of Port Neches-Groves, he discovered.) He wanted to bribe a fellow diner into asking whether the hosts thought A&M would win the Big 12 South next year, but he knew he had a mission.
It was a mission he wished he'd never gone on.
When he returned to the bunker, he looked even more crestfallen than Joe had.
"What is it -- don't tell me they're building an arena," one asked.
"It's worse," Dave said.
"What? What could be more foolhardy than building three luxurious sports palaces, one right after the other?"
"Spill it, son. It can't be that bad."
"It's the Olympics."
The group started giggling, relieved that Dave simply had been playing a joke on them by trying to act so shaken up.