Crane Needs To Win Back Fans

added 6/6/2011 by Bob Hulsey

When Jim Crane takes ownership of the Astros later this year, nothing may be more important than getting the fans to return. I say this because my experience since returning to the area from Austin in April is that the Astros hardly merit a mention in this town.

In Austin, burnt orange can be seen everywhere - even at weddings and funerals - and the Longhorns are the constant talk on the radio and in sports bars, almost to an obsession.

I didn't expect Houston to be that fired up about the Astros but I'm shocked to find out it's much worse than I thought. I do hear some Astros discussion on Matt Thomas' postgame shows on KTRH but, if you flip the dial on even so-called "sports radio" stations, you can't find anyone talking about the Astros. Heck, you can rarely find them discussing sports at all. They are close to worthless.

Visit almost any "sports bar" in town when the Astros game is about to start and there are no tv sets tuned to the game. You'll have to ask someone to put on the game and, inevitably, they don't even know where to look to find it. They'll scan the MLB Extra Innings in search of it until they get the notice that it is blacked out (of course it is, ALL Astros games are blacked out on MLBEI because we are in the Astros home market - a topic worthy of another rant for another day.)

Recently, the situation has been made worse because the Astros games aren't even being televised thanks to blackout rules and scheduling conflicts with Fox and ESPN.

20-year-old sensation Jordan Lyles made his second start in the majors on Sunday. You didn't see it because of the blackout rules. How does this happen? How can Major League Baseball be so tone deaf to their fans?

I just assumed that moving to the Houston area would allow me to watch more Astros games. In fact, the reverse is true. Partly because I moved into an apartment complex that doesn't offer the local cable carrier and has just pushed Fox Sports Southwest out of their secondary tier, I have access to fewer Astros telecasts than ever before. And I fear it will be even worse when the Astros make the switch to their new Comcast channel they will share with the Rockets.

The Astros are a last-place club with bland players and a bland manager. Thank heavens old irascible Milo Hamilton called Lance Berkman lazy earlier this year or few people would realize the Astros still exist.

Houston fans seemingly don't even care about the Astros anymore. They're not part of the discussion in this town.

That's going to be the major challenge for Crane. He's going to need to create a buzz. He's going to need to light a fire because, frankly, the Astros are just dead to the city right now. I hate to say it, but it's true.

It was just a few years ago when the Astros had Houston's attention. They were going to their first World Series and you didn't have to explain to people who Jeff Bagwell was, or Craig Biggio, or Roger Clemens, or Roy Oswalt or Brad Lidge. With Oswalt and Berkman now traded, go up to a stranger and ask them to name three players on the Astros and see what they tell you. Be prepared for a lot of puzzled looks.

I grew up in Houston and I know the city's fans don't tolerate losers. They are quick to bail out, having had their hearts broken many times by their professional sports teams. Many here jump off the bandwagon just as quickly as they jump on. But there's a difference between fair-weather fanship and flat-out indifference. I sense a lot of the latter out there.

Realistically, it will be awhile before the Astros are a contending team again. Everyone (well, except the dweebs who call the sports shows) knows that opening the checkbooks for free agents is a bad idea, particularly in a sour economy and if you aren't sure what you're getting for your money (ahem, Carlos Lee, ahem).

But a bold stroke or two is going to be essential to get the fans interested in the Astros again. Winning cures a lot of ills but winning will have to come a few years down the road. Until then, the Astros will either need to catch lightning in a bottle or re-brand themselves yet again in order to bring folks back to the stadium and create a buzz around Houston.

I don't presume to have the answers here but a slow, steady rebuilding mode may run out of oxygen before the Astros learn again to breathe life. If Jim Crane and new CEO George Postolos don't focus on that quickly, they may find it harder to turn around the franchise than even they realize.

No doubt changes are coming soon. What type of changes may be critical to the relationship between team and town.