The Drayton McLane Era -- Asking That One Question
With today's announcement that local businessman Jim Crane's purchase of our hometown ball club, we can begin to evaluate the "Houston Astros, version McLane" in full.
There are a handful of different ways to evaluate any owner. They are as follows:
1. Drayton McLane versus his predecessors. Rich Connelly handled this one in an earlier post. Uncle Drayton's competition consists of, in chronological order:
-- Roy Hofheinz and his two winning seasons
-- A couple of credit companies from 1975 through 1979, and if the slew of consolidation advertisements out there has taught us anything, it's that credit companies are just Bin Laden-style financial terrorists with nicer offices
-- John McMullen and his three playoff appearances in 13 seasons.
So is Drayton McLane the best Astros owner of all time? Well, yeah. I suppose. And then again, Gilbert's girlfriend in Revenge of the Nerds was probably the best-looking Omega Mu. "Tallest midget" thing going on.
So let's concede, yes, he's the best Astros' owner ever. Easily. The question that we need to ask is "Was he a good owner?" There are two answers to that one...
2. Drayton McLane, the Business Owner. In a way, "Is Drayton McLane a good owner?" is a ridiculous question if you take the definition of what a "business owner's" goals should be -- profit and shareholder value. I don't have the year-to-year annual numbers for the Astros, but I do know that McLane is a fixture on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. And as for "shareholder value"? Well, I think the primary shareholder (himself) has to be happy with what the owner (also himself) is doing in that area as today's sale will net McLane a profit of well over $500 million from when he bought the team in 1992 for the -- ahem -- paltry sum of $117 million.
So yeah, Drayton McLane is pretty good at the fundamentals of owning a business. But...
3. Drayton McLane, the Baseball Owner. ...Baseball is not a normal business. Sports, in general, is not a normal business.
(SIDE BAR: Houstonians know this all too well. Bob McNair's Texans have never been to the playoffs and the team is one of the most profitable, valuable commodities in team sports. Drayton McLane is about to realize a 500 percent return on his original investment. Let's face it, as happy as today is for any Astro fan looking for a light at the end of the Drayton McLane Tunnel, when you realize what Drayton McLane will profit off of this stripped-down version of the franchise we all loved six years ago, if you've been buying the tickets and the overpriced nachos, part of you feels a little like a sucker, don't you? Maybe?)
My main question I ask anytime there is a change in a sports regime -- coaching, general manager, owner -- "Did the person in question leave the part he's responsible for in better shape than when he found it?"
For example, there's a decent chance that in the transition from one ownership group to the next, Astros general manager Ed Wade could get whacked. Just because someone gets fired doesn't mean they were bad at their job. Sometimes, it means they just weren't good enough (or they were a friend of Tal Smith's).
Wade inherited a minor league system that was barren, some terrible contracts (Woody Williams, Carlos Lee) and a team that was frankly just not very good, and he was asked to make it a "champion" while rebuilding the minor league system. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Good luck with all that." While the results on the field have been predictably terrible, especially the last two years, Wade has made some good hires in the scouting department and imposed a cultural shift on how the franchise treats the draft and the need to sign draft choices (novel concept, I know).
In short, the next general manager (if and when there is one) comes into a better "GM situation" than Wade inherited from Tim Purpura in 2007. That's not even up for debate.
Bringing this back around to Drayton McLane, when Uncle D purchased the Astros in November 1992, they looked like this:
1. Players. A young nucleus of guys who had legitimate chemistry, including a future MVP in the late Ken Caminiti and two likely Hall of Famers in Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. The late Darryl Kile and Luis Gonzalez were also part of the mix, and while Caminiti, Gonzalez and Kile would go on to have their best seasons elsewhere, the Astros clearly picked the right two guys to build around for the next decade.
2. History Three playoff appearances in franchise history. Three.
3. Record. They were coming off an 81-81 season in 1992, which was their best year since winning 86 games in 1989. The nucleus was young and the arrow was pointing up. But...
4. Stadium. ...The McMullen regime was very vocal about the need for a new stadium to compete in baseball's brave new world of "additional revenue streams" and "small market versus big market." In fairness to McMullen, he was right about that. The Astrodome was a dump, and not exactly a dump rife with transcendent memories, either. (When a Bad News Bears movie is a top ten moment for your ballpark, it's okay to move on.) With Camden Yards being built in Baltimore and, soon thereafter, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, the message was clear -- if you were going to compete in the new millennium, a new palace would be necessary.
So, Drayton inherited a few good, young players coming off an average season with a franchise that honestly hadn't had that many average seasons. And a stadium that would need replacing.
Before doling out my final grade on Drayton, let's look at a few of the things he did along the way:
HUGE PLUS -- He not only kept the Astros in Houston, but he got a new stadium (one of the nicest in baseball) built. In the end, this will be the bullet point that defines his legacy both as a business owner (nothing like getting taxpayers to bear the brunt of building your facility) and a baseball owner ("Suck it, Washington D.C.! Go steal the Expos!").
PLUS -- He hired Gerry Hunsicker as the architect for a team that made the playoffs six times in nine years.
MINUS -- He also ran Hunsicker off in 2004....
INSULT TO EVERY OTHER MINUS -- ...and replaced him with Tim Purpura. Seriously, if there is one hire that could undo all of the goodwill of getting a stadium built and keeping the team in Houston, in retrospect, this was it.
PLUS -- However, along the way, Drayton approved moves that were "go for it" types of moves -- Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran. They were expensive in terms of prospects, but they were the right moves.
BIG, FAT MINUS -- Carlos Lee. Six years, $100 million.
MINUS -- Not really worrying about signing draft picks until he had decided to put the team on eBay. Thanks for that, Drayton.
If you were writing the Cliffs Notes on the Drayton McLane Era, these items would all have chapters. The bottom line is that we had a lot of fun along the way, hung some banners on the wall, and had much nicer walls to hang them on than we did in 1993.
But the exit chapter is a depressing one. The Astros during the McLane Era are a bit like Steve Martin's character in The Jerk -- from humble baseball beginnings, the Astros became a "player" in the figurative business community of baseball, peaking in the 2005 season with a trip to the World Series. However, shortly thereafter, with nothing but Craig Biggio's chase for 3,000 hits (Biggio is absolutely the "Optigrab" in my analogy) to sell to a skeptical fan base, McLane and the Astros are in the process of bottoming out right now.
So is the team in better shape than when McLane bought it? This nucleus is not even close to the Bagwell/Biggio group. And it doesn't appear Crane is going for the quick fix either. Indeed, the furniture (players) inside the house that is Minute Maid Park is rotting. It's insufficient. Some of it is outdated and, frankly, embarrassing. (Yes, I'm referring to the "Carlos sectional. ")
It's going to be a while before the Astros are a factor in the National League again. So, from a talent standpoint, the team is worse off now than it was in 1993.
That's translated into empty seats in a season where the highlight so far has been a fan making a superhero escape from Minute Maid security after running on the field.
So did Drayton leave the Astros on the field in better condition than he found them in 1992? Probably not.
But damn, he sure did have us build him a nice house, didn't he?
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.