Buyer Beware

As a lifelong fan of the beleaguered Houston Astros, I want the team to win more than anyone—except maybe Jim Crane, the brand-new owner. So I wrote him a friendly letter.

May 2012By Comments

Dear Jim,

Congratulations on being the new owner of the Houston Astros. Or should I say, condolences? As you know better than anyone, last year the team posted the worst record in the history of the franchise—56 wins, 106 losses, and 40 games out of first place—reviving the mocking nickname “the Lastros.” Worse than the record was the decimation of the roster by your predecessor, Drayton McLane, who ran the team as if it were a troubled asset and he were Mitt Romney at Bain Capital. Over the past two seasons, he and much-loathed general manager Ed Wade spun off high-dollar players (Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, and Lance Berkman, as well as ace pitcher Roy Oswalt) to lower the payroll and make the team more attractive to potential buyers. Wade sent so much talent to his former team, the Philadelphia Phillies, that he was practically a double agent. By the end of last season, the Astros had been gutted. The fire sale left the team with players so young and inexperienced they were in danger of getting carded when they walked into a bar.

And that’s when you came in, buying the team last year for $615 million. At the time, I thought Major League Baseball was setting you up for a fleecing. I should have known better. You’re no stranger to the game, having played from age 6 to age 22, ultimately as a pitcher for the University of Central Missouri (to whom you later donated $1.2 million to upgrade the baseball facilities). You reminded me of this in our interview a few weeks ago, and it left me with the distinct impression that you have both the resources and the love for the game that will be required to resuscitate the franchise. How many owners can say, as you did, “I can walk into a locker room and tell if the chemistry is right”?

So let’s talk some baseball. A condition of the sale was that you agreed to move the club to the American League in 2013 as part of the realignment of Major League Baseball. This did not sit well with Astros fans, myself included. I will recover, but I confess to having nodded in agreement when I read that the dear departed Berkman, still a loyal Astro at heart, had accused Commissioner Bud Selig of extortion for requiring the Astros to join the American League. Houston has always been a National League town—the Buffaloes were a Cardinals farm team in the thirties when Dizzy Dean pitched there. Next year, I will be averting my eyes during the season’s first home stand, when a designated hitter steps into the batter’s box at Minute Maid Park, on the sacred soil where Biggio and Bagwell once trod.

You see, I go way back with the franchise, to 1962, when the first-year expansion team was known as the Colt .45s and fans huddled on the rickety bleachers of Colt Stadium to peer at the action in dim lighting and shadowbox with blood-gorged mosquitoes. Three years later, I attended the second game played in the Astrodome, an exhibition against the New York Yankees. I can still remember the excitement I felt at walking up the ramp, opening a door, and seeing a baseball game taking place indoors.

One thing I didn’t mention during our conversation is that you and I have something in common: both of us own baseball teams. Yours is the Astros, and mine is the Capitol Punishers, of the Ro-Tex-Erie Fantasy League. While your payroll has a few more zeroes than mine—I have $280 to spend on fifteen hitters and ten pitchers—running our teams requires a similar skill set. We have to be able to evaluate players. We have to know how much to pay. And we have to stay within our budget. (I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that I didn’t pick any Astros in my draft.) As a fellow owner, then, I have taken the liberty of offering you some free advice.

Milk the history of the franchise for all it’s worth. True, the Astros have fallen on hard times, but you own one of the storied franchises in professional baseball. This is the organization that built the first air-conditioned, domed stadium. (The New York Mets once accused the Astros of cheating by making the AC blow inward when the visiting team was at bat and outward when the home team was hitting.) The Astros also invented the luxury box, which changed the economics of sports. The Dome exemplified what Houston was all about in the sixties: Space City, civic pride, can-do spirit. So what if the home team wasn’t very good? Houston had produced the Eighth Wonder of the World. So treat the team like one of Houston’s great cultural institutions. I think you learned your lesson after you toyed with the idea of changing the team’s name, and fans rose up in revolt. You now have the honor of being the sole guardian of the franchise’s history. You should host reunions of the Astros teams that went deep into the postseason: the 1980, 1986, and 2004 teams, which came oh-so-close to getting to the World Series, and the 2005 squad, which finally made it.

Define your role. The owner is going to be either the most important person in the organization or the least important person in the organization. I recommend the latter. Beware of the example of John McMullen, a former Astros owner who had previously been a limited partner in the syndicate that ran the Yankees. He once said, “There is nothing so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner’s.” McMullen wanted the credit for the Astros’ first postseason appearance in 1980; to get it, he fired general manager Tal Smith, who had built the team, and tried to emulate Steinbrenner by throwing money around. The results were erratic, and the team didn’t make it back to the playoffs for six years. Smith once told me that the best owners the Astros ever had were the credit companies—GE Credit and Ford Motor Credit. “They left me alone,” he said. “All they wanted was to make sure that we were paying off the team’s debt.” Smith was free to build a winning team without interference from ownership.

It’s brains, not brawn, that counts. This is the lesson of the Moneyball era, and it’s a lesson that McLane did not heed. During his tenure, the Astros did not keep up with changes in baseball, the new technologies and statistics that measure the game in excruciating detail. As you were quick to point out during our conversation, the folks you have hired to run the team indicate that you recognize the importance of analytical thinking. President and CEO George Postolos has a law degree from Harvard. Check. General manager Jeff Luhnow graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in economics and engineering and earned an MBA from Northwestern. Check. The most interesting thing you told me was that when Luhnow was with the Cardinals, his first three drafts produced 24 major leaguers. During that same period, the Astros had 4. No wonder the team fell apart.

Take small steps before you take big ones. I know you want the Astros to win right away, but you can’t go from having the worst rec-
ord in the history of the franchise to being competitive in one season. The first thing you have to do is plug the holes. The second thing is to decide on the kind of team you want. The easiest type of team to build is one that is young and fast. You won’t find a lot of young players with power, but you can find a lot of them with speed and fielding skills. Eventually you’ll free up money to spend on talented veterans.

Maximize the fan experience. Fans come to the ballpark for two reasons. One is to root the local team on to victory. The other is to have a good time. Unfortunately, the first of those won’t apply to the Astros this year. McLane was in the grocery and food service industry, so at least he understood the second reason well. Minute Maid Park has always scored high in customer service—the restrooms are clean, the concessions are good, the walkways are well designed. Don’t cut back in any of these areas. The decision to begin to allow tailgating is a smart way to build fan enthusiasm.

It is probably apparent that I have high hopes for your time in the owner’s box, Jim. It hurts to recall that not so long ago the Astros were among the dominant teams in the National League. Sometimes I think that the franchise is star-crossed, plagued by misfortune and accidents of timing. Why couldn’t the Astros manage one win in three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 to go to the National League Championship Series? Why was a season-ending strike called in 1994 when the Astros were just a half game out of first place? Why did the best years for the Astros have to coincide with the remarkable play-off streak of the Atlanta Braves and their incomparable pitching trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz? Why did Hurricane Ike have to hit Houston in 2008, when the Astros were competing for a wild-card spot, forcing them to relocate a crucial series against the Chicago Cubs to Milwaukee? Those are the fragments of lost seasons that float around in my head as I await the next renaissance of the team I root for—first, Lastros, and always.

Sincerely,
Paul

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