Crane's One Year Grade: Passing

added 05/16/2012 by Patrick Hajovsky

It has now been exactly a year since Jim Crane was announced as the new owner of the Astros. While the final sale was not approved until November, the announcement that Crane would be the new owner came on May 16, 2011. What a year!

As of that date, I posted a column at AstrosDaily outlining my Bill of Particulars against the Astros, which I wanted Crane to address. Upon re-reading the article, I feel a bit like Albert Brooks' critique of William Hurt in the film Broadcast News: "Amazing. I write it here and it comes out there."

The Crane group has done just about everything I asked them to do. Unfortunately, the one thing I didn't put down was to resist a move to the American League. In fact, I argued it would never happen (added now to the infinite list of "Pat is wrong!", kept by my wife). While Crane has accomplished some positive items, the pending move of the Astros to the AL remains the yoke around the neck of whether the sale to Crane was a good move.

Before I get more to the AL move, here's a list of those items from a year ago and what I think the Crane group has done about them:

First, the uniforms need some updating and retrofitting, all at the same time. I'm fine with the Astros logo and all, but the pinstripes HAVE GOT TO GO!!! Second, bring back the cap logo with the starred "H".

One of the first "fan-friendly" initiatives Crane announced was that there will be new uniforms for the 2013 season. It remains to be seen if the pinstripes are gone, or if cartoonish uniforms will be introduced, or if the starred "H" will be back, but I have seen nothing to indicate that the main message of these two points is not being addressed. While Crane has stated publicly that the name will not be changed, we will see.

Grade: Incomplete, but good work so far.

Third, Crane needs to permit fans to bring food into the stadium.

On Opening Day this year, I experienced this personally. With my 8-year old daughter, we brought in bagged pistachios, water and Cracker Jacks. And what did we do? We bought hot dogs, sno-cones, a Diet Coke, two beers (for me, for me) and popcorn. We noshed on the pistachios just a bit and didn't drink the water. Reflects on me, certainly, but it illustrates that being fan-friendly does not necessarily mean a reduction in revenues. Crane recognized this and acted accordingly. Good job.

Grade: A+

Fourth, you need to convene regular outreach sessions to fans.

Earlier this season, I and many others received an email from the Astros asking us to volunteer to be a part of select focus groups to review the fan experience at Minute Maid Park. I was asked to send in my interest for being a part of this, which I did. I have not yet heard anything but I definitely appreciate the request. Given the above, I expect that Crane and his team will follow through with this, and will get invaluable feedback.

Grade: Passing

Fifth, work with Jo Russell to turn the annual Houston Baseball Dinner into a daylong baseball fan fest event.

While I do not know if the Astros worked with Jo Russell for the Houston Baseball Dinner this year, I do know that Fan Fest was done well before Opening Day. This is a move in the right direction, similar to the uniform moves.

Grade: Passing

Sixth, Ive seen your presser (at the sale announcement) and you are obviously reluctant to talk publicly, but ownership of a Major League baseball team is a public speaking role. If you explain the path back to contention, they will want to follow you. Recognize your duty here.

Crane and Jeff Luhnow have been literally everywhere. Luhnow has been on at least five online chat sessions since the start of Spring Training and maybe more. Crane has been a ubiquitous presence in the media, in camp and around Minute Maid Park.

Luhnow has not been shy about the need to upgrade the team and the priorities in doing so. If you don't know where Luhnow and Crane come down on this philosophy, you just don't want to know.

Grade: Passing

Seventh, don't expect every event to be a money making event. I realize that you have investors who are not at all interested in baseball. I get it. But, owning a Major League baseball team is as much public trust as it is an investment. For example, websites like AstrosDaily.com are dependent on the Astros (who have been more than supportive so far) to permit them to operate with licensed logos. That needs to continue, for free.

This is one where I cannot report any action, but the absence of negative action in light of the above positives is, to me, telling. Fan Fest continued to be free. Bringing food into the ballpark is a free measure. AstrosDaily continues its awesome operations unfettered, even as it remains an open and at times critical voice of the Astros. This needs to continue and I see no reason why it will not.

Grade: Incomplete, but good indications so far.

Eighth, and finally, do not stop the rebuilding process that the Astros are currently on.

Nobody, even the most vocal critics, can say that the rebuilding process has been compromised. Luhnow and his team have introduced statistical analysis to player evaluations, something sorely lacking in the prior regime. Young players are being promoted, and protected, and a young, hustling brand of baseball is the result.

Grade: Passing

Now, on to the move to the AL. It is horrible, and there's no getting around that. As Lance Berkman pointed out, Dear Leader Bud Selig extorted Crane with the sale in order to accomplish the switch, which was supported by fellow owners and the players union.

Why Houston? As MLB Players Union Chief Executive Michael Weiner put it, and I'll paraphrase, they were there. They didn't care if it was the Astros, but there was an opportunity and they moved on it. Selig, and I'll charge him and not paraphrase, bent over like a stuffed chicken.

(I think Berkman should amend his comments and include his own union as a conspirator in the extortion charge. Lance had courage to say what he said, but he's showing some wimpishness if he doesn't paint the complete picture. Of course, attacking his own union would be expecting too much honesty, even of Berkman.)

The point here is that Crane was boxed into the move. The presence of the union push merely adds context to the picture. Once the Major League Politburo decided on the action, Crane could either abide or give up. They could care less which way he chose since, from a financial standpoint, the move made sense for Major League Baseball.

Once the move was inevitable, Crane, even if he opposed the move personally, had a legally binding fiduciary duty to his investors (whose millions they had put up and over which Crane had control) to move forward. His sole business focus, as imposed on him by law, would be to minimize the potential negative financial impact from fan revenue sources and maximize the up-front investment return.

Further, I maintain that a significant portion of the fan base wanted this move to happen. That does not include me or others, some of whom would ask us to boycott Crane or the Astros. The popularity of the move is a sad fact, but it is true.

Yet the American League is not, as some would hold, the Death Valley of baseball. Yes, it's a beer and softball league at times a necessary result of bastardizing the rules of baseball to add artificial offense during a period of low scoring and drooping attendance.

The Astros moving to the AL is wrong but the forced move will not, by itself, cause attendance to drop off. Crane, a businessman, knows that winning breeds excitement. Not a particular kind of NL-style winning, either. A winning team will sell tickets, be it AL or NL.

So how is Crane's bet on this point doing so far? If you judge only by current attendance figures, not very well. However, that's like judging a potential 30-year marriage after three dates. The team is hustling, they've made solid personnel moves and even the casual fan has to admit that the play on the field is on the right track. Low attendance now will be reversed if this team stays in the race and shows improvement. New uniforms and a new tv deal next year promise additional strong revenue streams.

Thus, one year in, Crane gets a more than respectable passing grade, and his short history should give fans optimism for the future.