Is Lame Duck Owner Hurting Astros?


Drayton McLane is a great man. He went to work in the family business at the age of nine. After college McLane turned his father’s $3 million a year grocery distribution business into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise. McLane gives generously to many deserving charities and has been the recipient of several awards honoring his humanitarianism and philanthropy. However, as the owner of the Houston Astros Mr. McLane has not fared as well.

photo courtesy comcast.net

McLane purchased the Astros prior to the 1993 season. He took the same hands-on approach that had benefited him so well in previous endeavors. Being unfamiliar with the inner workings of a sports franchise, that approach would lead the Astros down a dangerous path. The team was in pretty good shape at the time of the purchase. Tal Smith had cultivated several young players like Craig Biggio, Ken Caminiti, and Jeff Bagwell that were making their presence felt in the big leagues. After a few down seasons the club was almost ready to contend again.

McLane made a good move by dumping the old orange and blue color scheme and introducing new uniforms in his first season. The new logo and uniforms were nice, and surely generated extra revenue in the stadium gift shops. I know I went right out and bought a new hat. I was living in San Diego at the time and a good friend of mine ran into Mr. McLane after a game against the Padres. When my friend explained what a great fan I was McLane made it a point to get my address. A short time later I received a package containing a letter from Mr. McLane and a baseball that was autographed by the entire team. That was a nice gesture which I will never forget. I will also never forget the terrible trade with the Padres in 1994. Future MVP Ken Caminiti was dealt along with future Gold Glover Steve Finley (my favorite player of all time) and others for Derek Bell and a bunch of scrubs. As a resident of San Diego I was tempted to turn my allegiance to the Padres. That just wasn’t going to happen because the Astros were in my blood.

The Astros would make three straight playoff appearances under new manager Larry Dierker to end the decade. Unfortunately, the team would be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs all three years. Houston opened their new ballpark, Enron Field, to usher in the new millennium. The team’s success would unfortunately mirror that of the infamous utility. McLane’s failure to allot the necessary resources to scouting and the draft were beginning to take a toll. The team would fare better than most over the next five seasons but still couldn’t win a playoff series. Biggio and Bagwell were now long in the tooth and McLane had sworn his loyalty to both. General Manager Gerry Hunsicker felt his hands were tied and left for greener pastures. Tim Purpura would replace Hunsicker and become the perfect puppet for McLane.

Houston had signed big money free agents Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte prior to the 2004 season. Clemens would win the Cy Young Award as the top pitcher in the N.L. but Pettitte had his season cut short by injury. In 2005 Clemens, Pettitte, and homegrown pitching sensation Roy Oswalt would carry an offensively challenged club all the way to the World Series. It was Drayton McLane’s finest moment. The Astros were beaten in four straight close ballgames by the Chicago White Sox. They had come up a little short but the city now viewed the Astros as winners. But this was now a team filled with aging veterans. Years of poor drafts had devastated the farm system. The Astros have been unable to put a winner on the field ever since.

Tim Purpura would be fired after the 2007 season and replaced by Ed Wade. This was a move in the right direction. Wade had been instrumental in putting together a Phillies team that was on the brink of turning into a powerhouse. But Wade had his work cut out for him and was basically starting with nothing. Wade has done a good job restocking the farm system but it still rates well below average. Three seasons into his tenure the Astros are in danger of having their third straight losing season. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and Wade seems to be on the right track. The pitching staff is formidable and has some depth in the minor leagues. But the offense is still a problem. In today’s two spring games neither of the Astros split-squad teams was able to put a run on the board. The recent injury to Jason Castro exposes the Astros lack of offensive depth throughout the organization.

On November 21, 2010 McLane officially announced his intention to sell the team. The 74 year-old McLane sighted family reasons as his motivation to exit the game he loves. I for one think the time for a change in ownership is long overdue. McLane is a great man, but not so great as a team owner. Let me end by saying thanks for the memories Mr. McLane. I wish you nothing but the best in all your future endeavors.

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Tags: Andy Pettitte Craig Biggio Drayton McLane Ed Wade Houston Astros Ken Caminiti Roger Clemens