Are Astros Trying To Leave Houston?

added 8/3/2014 by Bob Hulsey

Most baseball fans know the farcical 1989 comedy Major League which portrays a woeful group of cast-offs who, in true Hollywood fashion, stun the baseball world by becoming champions. In the film, the female owner (played to evil excellence by Margaret Whitton) is trying to build an intentionally bad ballclub in order to break her lease and move the club from fugly Cleveland to sunny Florida for presumed riches. Note that this was filmed before the Marlins and Rays came to Florida and proved that theory flawed.

The film is funny, in part, because nobody in real life would try to intentionally lose in order to relocate their team to greener pastures. Or would they?

It does not seem plausible that Jim Crane would buy the Astros as a point man for a group of Houston investors and so bungle the franchise that they would wind up leaving town in order to make more money somewhere else. I repeat: not plausible.

Yet, if you look at some recent events, you begin to wonder if it might actually be on the back burner. Perhaps Crane has sensed that the scorched earth campaign against his own major league roster, the league switch and the whole fiasco regarding Comcast-Houston has so fouled the air with most Houston fans that they have already bid farewell to a once proud franchise.

Since Sports Illustrated crowned the Astros the 2017 World Series Champions (yes, they were serious - I think), the Astros have made the following missteps:

  • The Astros failed to sign the first overall draft pick, high school pitcher Brady Aiken, or the fifth-round pick, high school pitcher Jacob Nix, who had apparently worked out a combo package deal with (ahem) "adviser" and sports agent Casey Close. What seemed like a done deal fell apart over some questionable medical results on Aiken's pitching elbow. The Astros pulled back their offer and eventually lost both Aiken and Nix while incurring the wrath of "adviser" Close and the players union.

    Passing up the top college prospect for a high schooler seemed to say the Astros are not in any hurry for the parent club to be better. If the goal is 2017, an 18-year-old is unlikely to arrive in the majors soon enough to help.

    But then not signing Aiken altogether says there is truly no rush to improve. They'll get a "do over" pick, second overall in 2015, and they would be well-advised to actually sign the player this time, otherwise it might look just too obvious that the goal is not winning at all.

  • The Astros traded a 23-year-old starting pitcher, one of only two with a winning record for Houston, for two more prospects. The pitcher would have been under club control though the end of the decade so, again, the Astros look to be pushing that championship goal post further back into the future.

  • The Astros, despite a 0.0 Nielsen rating for an afternoon tilt with the division-leading A's that week, announced they were raising ticket prices for next year on roughly 70% of their season ticket plans. While attendance has crept upwards, the Astros are still not drawing as well as they did just five years ago. Raising prices may seem like the final straw to some of the more patient supporters.

    Ironcially, the brochure sent out with the ticket renewal offers features a photo of the same pitcher the Astros just traded away. Gulp.

    So, let's just say the Astros are showing a blatant disregard for their long-suffering fans. Could this be part of a larger exodus plan?

    Hard to believe there is a more appealing market than the country's fourth largest city, one that held up well in the recession that killed jobs all over the rest of the nation. Yet the Astros' market is boxed in by the Gulf of Mexico to the Southeast, Mexico to the South and the Texas Rangers to the West and North. The lucrative I-35 corridor has been almost entirely ceded to the Rangers thanks, in part, to leaving Fox Sports Southwest to go with Comcast-Houston.

    Where would they go that could be considered a market upgrade? How about Las Vegas?

    Vegas experienced a big boom before the housing bubble burst but it has been getting back on its feet. The glittering night life would attract a lot of fans to town which might enjoy a Major League game as an alternative to the casinos and the shows. It's a twin-edged sword though. A poor team would not compete well with so many other distractions. Further, the team can cash in in any number of smaller ways there. Restroom slot machines, anyone?

    I believe Las Vegas is perhaps the last unspoiled new territory for Major League Baseball and a team like the Astros might see a chance to get the casinos and the unions behind an effort to bring a team to Nevada and use it as a more family-friendly attraction to entertain visitors as well as local fans.

    Why leave the 10th largest TV market for the 42nd? To escape a horrible tv network contract, first, and secondly to ride the growth spurt in hopes of eventually reselling and making a tidy profit. Las Vegas offers some perks no other city can. Plus, the obnoxious MLB blackout rules have made Vegas the "home territory" of a half-dozen teams. Putting an actual team there will open up tv rights throughout the region for fans of the Dodgers, Giants, Angels, Diamondbacks and A's plus the exported Astros would be much more central to their AL West division opponents than they are in Houston, cutting travel costs. (As a bonus, the Rangers can whine again about being the only Central time zone team in a division of Pacific time cities).

    Why not Portland, OR (22nd tv market)? Or Durham, NC (24th) or Indianapolis (25th)? All of those could work too but the owners would have to buy some territory away from other clubs like the Mariners, Braves or Reds which would cut into their profits. There really is no MLB club that can claim Las Vegas as their market. A Las Vegas team might also claim Salt Lake City (33rd) as part of their territory or share it with the Rockies.

    Some would say MLB would object to a move there because of the obvious conflict with gambling. The casinos are prohibited from taking bets on pro and college teams based in Nevada so an agreement would probably work out fine.

    Nevada's income tax situation is similar to Texas' although businesses are more exposed to taxation than in the Lone Star State. There are likely all sorts of mob lawyers in Vegas who can explain how to get out from paying those taxes too.

    The Astros' lease to Minute Maid Park expires in 2029 but there are likely to be escape clauses that can be used and perhaps that is why Crane seems to push for bringing minor league baseball to town (skipping the obvious punchline here), perhaps as a pawn to get the Astros out of their lease.

    It's most likely that Crane and his investors were not thinking this way when they offered to buy the club from Drayton McLane. But a soured fan base and a nightmare tv contract have probably made leaving town a lot more appealing prospect than it was back in 2012.

    The Oilers left for a smaller Nashville market (29th) and seem to have no regrets. Like the NFL, there would probably be some other team owner that might relocate a team to Houston or another round of expansion could put a team back in the Bayou City were the Astros to ride away in moving vans in the middle of the night.

    I'll admit I'm probably wrong about this conjecture and the "smartest team in baseball" is really just incompetent and tone deaf to their fans. But what if I'm right and the master plan involves moving elsewhere in search of bigger profits and stronger support? Could you handle the news?