Astros, Rockets Need Face

added 7/15/2012 by Bob Hulsey

The NBA Houston Rockets have been a boring mess ever since Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady left town, not that they were scintillating even with them but they were at least interesting. The biggest problem the Rockets had was how to keep their two stars on the court at the same time as they both lost large chunks of multiple seasons with injuries.

Recently their general manager, the esteemed Daryl Morey, has been acting like Alex Forrest from the movie "Fatal Attraction" in his obsession to land disgruntled center Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic. Morey started acquiring draft choices before the draft but still couldn't land Howard. Then he started discarding players so he'd have more cap room. Last week he waived their best player, forward Luis Scola. Morey has also enlisted former Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon to try to recruit Howard to sign a contract extension after he is traded to Houston which sounds creepily like shopping for the wedding dress before the groom has proposed.

In short, Morey and the Rockets are totally debasing themselves and any self-respect they may have had in their pursuit of Howard. Why, you ask?

Television. The Rockets are launching their own channel with Comcast and they need somebody to star on it so they can market the channel and sell it to cable and satellite systems across Texas and Louisiana. The big man has averaged 20 points and 14 rebounds per game over the last five seasons which the Rockets hope Howard can translate into eyeballs and dollars for them if they can just get him to play for Houston. That's why Morey asked The Dream to recruit The Dwightmare.

As a backup plan, the Rockets are also pursuing guard Jeremy Lin, whom they once cut, in hopes that his short meteoric rise with the New York Knicks last season would become another fan sensation. Lin has signed a free agent contract with the Rockets but the Knicks may decide to match it.

If you think I've forgotten what website this is, I must explain that the Astros have a major interest in what happens to the Rockets. The Astros are the third partner in the tv deal with Comcast and they, too, may soon be seeking their own version of Dwight Howard.

Because of television, the Astros are the real marriage partner of the Rockets. What helps one, helps the other. What sells one, brings profit to the other. Both need the other to draw a crowd for this venture to be successful.

You see, the Rockets won't be shown on this channel where blackout rules protect the San Antonio Spurs (Central Texas) and New Orleans Hornets (Eastern Louisiana) markets. The Astros will need to carry their own weight in these territories and, at the moment, the most recognizable face on the Astros is....?

Combined with Jim Crane's recent comments that long time losing is "not acceptable" under his ownership and you get the idea that Crane may reconsider his position about staying away from top dollar free agents while he rebuilds the club.

Back in May, I halfway endorsed the idea of signing free agent outfielder Josh Hamilton after the season in a front-loaded deal. I still think this makes sense because the Houston payroll can absorb the big dollars up front, the Astros can market one of baseball's top players and it will seriously put the screws to our new division rivals, the Texas Rangers, if they have any plans on matching the offer.

The big star doesn't have to be Hamilton. It just has to be someone that is so good people will want to spend money to watch him play and buy his jersey. In other words, nobody the Astros currently employ.

It should not be a starting pitcher because, at best, they appear in only 20% of the team's games. It should not be a relief pitcher because their appearances are too random. You can't buy a ticket to watch a closer because you can't predict if the closer will pitch.

It might help to bring Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio in to manage the team but I don't think the box office impact would last very long. Tony LaRussa was one of the best managers in history but you never heard anyone say "Hey, let's go to the Cardinals game so we can see LaRussa."

No, the big new attraction has to be a regular player who is a top hitter. Once you get past Hamilton, there aren't many headliners expected in free agency - just 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki and 38-year-old David Ortiz, who can only be useful as a designated hitter.

The Astros could get some mileage out of bringing home Lance Berkman who could be available. Lance might be open to the idea but he'd also hate the prospect of being a designated hitter which is probably where his aching legs are best suited at this point. He might be a reminder of everything fans both loved and hated about the Drayton McLane era.

There is also talk that the Phillies are disenchanted with Hunter Pence (it may be they are disenchanted with what they gave up for him) and might be willing to part company with him before he hits the free agent market. Like Berkman, bringing back Pence has definite pros and cons.

Every night when Crane sees his half-empty stadium and realizes how many unsold tickets he is not getting a profit from, the thought must surely dawn on him that he needs to bring a gate attraction in to fill the seats. Winning should still be the ultimate goal but, from a business standpoint, filling the stands and drawing high ratings are also vitally important, especially now in their quest to get new viewers for their new channel.

Signing Hamilton would certainly send shockwaves through baseball and announce to the beleaguered Houston fans that Crane wants their business. Bringing in Berkman or Pence would do far less of that. Signing Ortiz would at least get Crane noticed in Boston so the national media might care.

Crane needs his own Dwightmare or Linsanity. He can't expect the Rockets to be the only ones selling their souls to land a whale.