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Crane could gain from recent Astros moves

Dierker: Crane could gain from recent moves

Crane could gain from recent Astros moves
The Astros held a news conference at Minute Maid Park on Monday, and now it's unofficial. The team has a new owner, Jim Crane, along with a handful of investors. They paid a premium price for the team, but after forays into the sales of the Cubs and Rangers, Crane can justify the price better than most would-be owners. He's seen the Cubs' books, the Rangers' and now the Astros'. If it doesn't work out well for him, he can't say he didn't know what he was getting into.

When Drayton McLane bought the team, he couldn't say the same thing. The Astros were stocked with young players and had a very small payroll. They were a promising team, but still not ready for prime time. By 1994, with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell coming into their own, it appeared that the Astros would contend for the playoffs -- until August 11, when the players went on strike. It was no secret that this might happen, but I don't think McLane realized how bad it could get. I remember asking him back then if he was ready for the labor problems. He told me that he had always prided himself on working out complex and difficult problems. A year later, I asked him again, and it was clear that he had never realized the true meaning of difficult and complex.

The strike of 1994 would end the season and force a cancellation of the World Series. To make matters worse, the strike carried into Spring Training and wasn't settled in time for Opening Day 1995. Legions of baseball fans were so disillusioned that they gave up the game for good.

I don't think McLane saw it coming. But he continued undaunted, and once the labor issue was settled, the team continued to improve. As has been the case from the beginning of baseball time, the fans swallowed the bitter pill and came grudgingly back to the ballpark. In Houston, they were rewarded. The young team improved and won the National League Central in 1997, '98 and '99. McLane spruced up the Dome, and the team filled it. Still, ticket prices were lower than in most baseball cities, and television and merchandise sales were below average. McLane expressed disappointment and pushed hard for a new ballpark. He got the vote for what would become Minute Maid Park while the team was soaring in the Dome, but ironically, the first year of the new stadium was a disaster.

Despite the turn for the worse on the field, attendance was pretty good and ticket prices were considerably higher. The television deal got better, and merchandise flew off the shelves. Financially, the team had turned the corner. The next year, the Astros rebounded and won the division again. But what they had done in the '90s, they did again that year: They lost in the first round of the playoffs. In '02 and '03, the Astros dropped off a bit and didn't make it to postseason play. But they got back in it in '04, winning the first round and extending the NL Championship Series to Game 7, which they lost. In 2005, they made it all the way to the World Series for the first time. Houston had arrived. It was finally a "baseball town."

Unfortunately, there was a price paid along the way. They signed a big-name free agent or two each winter, losing Draft choices in the process each summer. Worse than that, they made Trade Deadline deals almost every summer, losing Minor League prospects who have become Major League All-Stars for other teams.

Two years ago, the Astros' farm system was stripped clean. That's when GM Ed Wade started rebuilding. He had early Draft picks, and he signed all of them. Then last year, he traded Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman and got more young talent. The big league team looks rather pitiful at this juncture, but if the fruits of rebuilding ripen over the next few years, Jim Crane will have a team that looks a lot like the one Drayton McLane inherited in 1993, and without the labor problem.

The thing I find most interesting in this transaction is that it gives the Astros one of the rarest birds in baseball's family tree -- an athlete owner. Crane was a standout pitcher in college and once struck out 18 batters in a College World Series game. Like many pitchers, he plays golf, but he plays it better than all but a few, carrying a handicap of .8 -- in other words, he's a scratch golfer. You've got to be a really good and extremely well-focused athlete to do that. No amount of practice can get you to scratch unless you're a good athlete to begin with.

The only other athlete owners I can think of are the Phils' Ruly Carpenter and Charles Comiskey, who owned the White Sox. Both had some outstanding teams, but neither were as successful as the non-athlete owners, like Walter O'Malley in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Jacob Ruppert and George Steinbrenner with the Yankees or John Henry and Larry Lucchino with the Red Sox.

What was announced as unofficial in Houston on Monday will be made official when the ownership group is approved by the other club owners. In a brief statement before the media, Jim Crane claimed he would build toward a championship team from the ground up. If that's the case, he may have a pretty good head start because of the deals the Astros have made in the past two years.

Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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