The Crane Mutiny

added 5/20/2013 by Bob Hulsey

In all honesty, I never understood all the anger directed at Drayton McLane Jr. He bought the Astros when it was just another property in a yankee's business portfolio and has been, without question, the best owner in the franchise's history.

Yes, we could see past the "what have you done today to be a champion" hucksterism and the nagging belief that he was a little bit too much about the money but he did see to it that the fans had an entertaining and competitive product on the field and could also enjoy the games on television. Until near the end, he made sure that recognizable talent dotted the roster and were part of the community.

McLane steered the Astros to a new downtown baseball-designed stadium with more revenue streams than before despite the fact that I hated leaving the Astrodome and hated the new color scheme. These were sound business decisions and baseball is a business.

But baseball is also a source of civic pride which, McLane came to learn, means that a lot of moves that a normal CEO would make without a peep from his customers are instead endlessly scrutinized and criticized, often unfairly so.

McLane spent a lot of time himself in the aisles speaking to ordinary fans about what they liked and didn't like about their ballpark experience and the direction of the club.

Certainly, there were missteps. Other decisions came across poorly received or with hurt feelings. Yet, I never did understand the rage. I can't tell you how many times I read comments or heard alleged Astros fans tell me they could not wait until McLane sold the team.

Happy now?

Jim Crane bought the Astros and seemed to immediately have all the hopes of frustrated Houston baseball fans projected onto him. He did some good things. He lowered ticket prices. He allowed people to bring their own food to the ballpark. He made the colors and marks of the team closer to the traditional ones so many fans remembered and revered. He deserves applause for all of these.

Some of the things that have gone wrong with the Astros are not Crane's fault. The switch to the American League which has most dampened my enthusiasm he claims was forced upon him. Emperor Bud Selig has essentially admitted this was true. A better fight could have been made but I understand why it wasn't prudent.

I particularly despised the way Maury Brown and Richard Justice were used by MLB to personally smear Crane to get him to accept the revised terms and league switch. Lance Berkman was right - it was extortion and no matter how offended some are by his use of the term, he was correct in using it. Personally, I still believe Crane should have withdrawn his bid right then and let Selig have it for his dirty tactics. What was done to Crane and the Astros was unprecedented and unwarranted.

The new tv deal with CSN-Houston - with the Astros as 46% owners - was already in the works before Crane arrived. When McLane started the process, it seemed a great business move. Instead of getting some $700 million in rights fees from Fox Sports to be part of their regional network, the Astros could strike out on their own and be the majority owners of their own broadcasts.

But ownership also means greater risk and Crane is finding that out now with his failure to get CSN-H into a lot of homes that already get Fox Sports Net. Instead of owning a bigger piece of the pie, the Astros now are stuck with a stale pie that's largely uneaten. My guess is advertising revenue on the channel is drying up faster than a Phoenix sidewalk in August.

It hurts the Astros immensely that they can only offer the same American League product to fans that they are already getting with Fox and the Rangers. I honestly believe that if the Astros were still in the National League and were putting a competitive product on the field, these carriage deals would have already been largely done.

Ah, yes. The competitive product. Crane inherited not a barren farm system but one that was slowly growing back the natural way. We keep hearing that it will be just a short time (only a few years) before we'll be watching Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, George Springer, Delino DeShields Jr., et al. usher in a new era of Astros dominance.

News flash. All those players were already in the Astros organization before Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow officially took over. All came from the much-maligned (especially on the internet) Ed Wade.

Here's something else to chew on. The Astros already had the first draft choice in 2012 before Luhnow arrived. The gambit Luhnow played of using the draft bonus allotment to sign Carlos Correa at a savings then signing Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz above slot might have been done by half a dozen other GMs in a similar situation. Maybe Ed Wade too, but we'll never know. All speculation now.

What Luhnow and the decision scientists have done is torn the Astros down to the nub and left them there as an open wound in an attempt to further restock the farm for the future. Their payroll is not just the lowest in baseball, they are spending only half what the second-lowest payroll in baseball, the Miami Marlins, spends. The only standings Luhnow seems to care about is having the worst record in baseball so he can be in the drivers seat again for the 2014 draft.

The Astros appear to be a house divided. Those from Bo Porter on down seem to sincerely want to win. Those from Jeff Luhnow on up seem to sincerely want to lose. By insuring Porter has scant talent to work with, Luhnow seems to have won.

What Justice and the interneterati continue to tell us is that this is "the right way" to rebuild. The right way, of course, if you have no shame about assembling a 120-loss abomination that threatens the integrity of the sport. The right way if you practically admit you have tanked an entire season or two in the hopes that really bad baseball begets really good baseball.

It might work.

It might not. The lynchpin of the rebuilding effort (Singleton) is now on his second strike after a 50-game drug suspension. The most recent reviews of the Astros top prospects are a mixed bag - although not unusual. In any group, more prospects will ultimately fail than flourish. Luhnow is counting on quantity to overcome quality. It may someday be obvious that becoming a consistent winner is more challenging than becoming a consistent loser.

Meanwhile, fans must endure a steady diet of retreads and failed former first-rounders. When the stench of Philip Humber's 0-8 record and 9.59 ERA became so bad that even the Astros had to demote him, they replaced him not with one of their many prospects on the farm but with 30-year-old Edgar Gonzalez who had been waived from spring training. When Fernando Martinez was designated for assignment, the replacement was 29-year-old Trevor Crowe, not a shiny young prospect.

While this lose-now-win-later strategy could lead to success in 2016 and beyond, the dwindling fans that have still stuck with Crane through all of this are prickly over the league switch, the television fiasco and the unwatchable (in more ways than one) Astros, such that almost anything could have sent them into a tizzy.

And something did.

When the Houston Area Women's Center went public last Monday that the Astros Wives' Black Ties and Baseball Caps charity gala had been canceled, some fans went ballistic. This site, as well as others, took part in a one-day blackout in protest.

While the Astros struggled to put the best face on this PR disaster, it became obvious that the club handled this poorly and it reflected other recent off-field decisions that seemed to reek of either callousness or cluelessness or both. Regardless of the reasons behind it, a vital local resource for battered and abused women was given a funding black eye in a seemingly needless manner. Hence the outrage.

Somehow, in trying to make the leagues even, Selig left both leagues with 14-1/2 teams. I'd honestly prefer that they contract the Astros and Marlins (MLB's other non-competitive eyesore) then move the Tampa Bay Rays to Houston which would solve a number of problems. Perhaps they could return both leagues to seven-team divisions but leave the wild cards. Promise Floridians that no more clubs flee the Sunshine State's spring training camps for 20 years as a way to make up to them that they'd lose their two big league franchises, neither of which seem capable of attracting fans.

Seriously, Major League Baseball should wipe away the embarrassing stains of the Astros and Marlins if they cared about their product. Perhaps then Houstonians could enjoy watching baseball again and root for a team led by an owner that doesn't leave battered women out in the cold.

Can Reid Ryan clean up this mess? It depends on whose vision dominates the club in the future. Ryan, by most accounts, is personable and fan friendly - traits that might gloss over Crane's stinginess and Luhnow's hubris. He might make the Astros more palatable but it will be enough if he can just get them on television again and keep them from looking so cold-hearted and cheap.