Jim Crane (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Jim Crane's Report Card

It’s been over a year since longtime Astros owner Drayton McLane sold the team to a group of investors led by Houston businessman Jim Crane. A seemingly countless number of changes have been made since Crane took over. Many of those changes were necessary, while some others may not have been. Let’s take a look at some of the decisions that have been made over the last year and see how they stack up.

When the painstakingly long process of approving the Crane group’s purchase of the team was finally completed it came with a caveat; move to the American League or no deal. Many fans were outraged and believed that Crane had sold out their 50 years of National League history for the chance to become a big league owner. After all, he did get a significant discount on the original purchase price by “agreeing” to the move. But is Crane really to blame? Some would say Bud Selig and the MLB owners forced their will upon the would-be owner, giving him a take it or leave it ultimatum.

I’ll go ahead and give Jim the benefit of the doubt on the American League thing, but let’s take a look at some other decisions that can definitely be attributed to Crane.

The Good

Shortly after the sale was approved, Jim Crane rolled out a number of new “fan friendly initiatives.” These initiatives included a reduction in ticket prices and allowed fans to bring their own food and water into Minute Maid Park for the first time ever. These are the type of moves that Astros fans would like to get used to, but unfortunately the trend hasn’t continued.

Crane was ready to make big changes, starting at the top and working his way down. He already had George Postolos in tow as his President and CEO, meaning Tal Smith had to go. Crane made it a dual firing, giving Smith the axe along with General Manager Ed Wade. I had always been more supportive of Wade than most fans were, but I had no problem with Crane’s decision to cut him loose.

The subsequent hiring of Jeff Luhnow was applauded by experts throughout the industry and, over a year later, still looks like a good decision. Luhnow quickly began to implement his plan to rebuild the team into a winner. Although the wins have yet to come, the farm system has been upgraded from worse than terrible to more than respectable.

The organization has experienced a complete turnaround at the minor league level. After compiling the league’s lowest cumulative minor league winning percentage in 2011 the Astros system tallied more wins than any other in 2012. Luhnow has added depth by pulling the trigger on a number of trades, but his dedication to improving the way the organization scouts and drafts players appears to have had an immediate impact. He has retooled the scouting and player development departments and recently upgraded the big league coaching staff, including the hiring of manager Bo Porter.

No one would argue that Crane inherited a mess. He’s on the right track in some areas, but in others… not so much.

The Bad

The Astros and Rockets already had a deal in place with Comcast to launch their new RSN before Crane ever came into the picture. Comcast SportsNet Houston went live on November 1st and has gotten rave reviews from subscribers. The problem is – the network is only available to a limited number of households. While thousands of Rockets fans are waiting not so patiently to see their team on TV, Jim Crane has done little or nothing to ensure Astros fans don’t suffer the same fate. There’s still time to remedy this potentially huge problem, but negotiations with satellite and cable providers have been moving at a snail’s pace.

Crane fired radio commentators Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond shortly after the season ended. That wasn’t a big deal to all Astros fans but letting Jim Deshaies get away was a tremendously unpopular move. Deshaies, a fan favorite who spent the last 16 years providing color commentary on the Astros TV broadcasts,  recently signed a four year contract to do the same for the Chicago Cubs.

Deshaies isn’t the only beloved member of the Astros family to seek greener pastures during Crane’s regime. Social Media Director Alyson Footer took a job with MLB.com during the season. Deshaies’ broadcast partner Bill Brown is also waiting to have his contract renewed and that seems unlikely to happen. The departure of so many friendly faces is sure to take a toll on the Astros fan base.

The Ugly

Crane has continued to sell off any and all experienced players and it appears as though no one is safe. The team payroll mirrors the Astros win totals – lowest in the league. The product on the field will get worse before it gets better because Crane is unwilling to spend a few dollars to bring in a couple of veteran players. It’s an all-out fire sale, and though the team may be able to contend in two or three years the 2013 edition of the Astros could set a franchise record for losses for the third straight season.

What’s worse than losing at a record pace? How about a name change? Just when Crane had won some of us over with the with the “fan friendly initiatives” he sticks his foot in his mouth by proposing a name change. That went over like a lead balloon.

But Crane didn’t stop there. He felt obligated to erect gigantic billboards in left-center field at Minute Maid Park, destroying the view and selling us out in one fail swoop. Crane stated early on in his tenure that establishing relationships in the corporate community would facilitate an increase in team payroll. I guess it must take a while for that advertising revenue to turn into a profit. Those enormous signs must be expensive.

These are some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Jim Crane’s first year as majority owner of the Astros. I’m sure there are other items I may be overlooking that could be considered big deals. Let us know what you think. Leave a comment and answer our poll question.

What grade would you give Jim Crane for his first year as the Astros owner?

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  • Roger

    What are the plans for eliminating the artificial outfield incline known as Tal’s Hill? I know that had been in discussion about the same time as the name change. I like it, but many fans have always thought that was a bit strange.

    • astrosince1975

      I’m a little surprised that plans to remove the hill have been put on the back burner, for now. Luhnow doesn’t like it so it won’t be there forever.

  • http://twitter.com/ElevateBaseball ElevateBaseball

    Any credible “report card” BEGINS with the point that Mr. Crane disrespected lifelong Astros fans by not explaining the events that led up to the AL move.

    Even those who believe he had no choice have had to acknowledge that the man *could* have but *did not* tell the story of how it came to be.

    For some reason, he was and has continued to be more willing to kick a segment of the fan base to the curb than to tell the story… seemingly, he must feel there is more to lose by telling the story than there is to gain, and that by itself is telling to any reasonable person.

    The man went to some lengths in his quotes to the Houston Chronicle in an October 2011 interview that he had not been approached to move the team. The man then proceeded to tell the good-ol-boy media in his November press conference a very different story–that it had been understood from the beginning that he would have to move the team.

    Naturally, the Houston writers and broadcasters followed that discrepancy up with some hard questions, seeking Mr. Crane to reconcile those statements…


    Didn’t happen.

    So, should we be surprised that the writer of this column not only fails to BEGIN the report card with what ought to have been the logical beginning point, but moreover doesn’t even touch the topic?

    Probably not.

    My opinion is that these are people who fear that we’ll lose the Astros some day.

    Yet, many of us hope we *do* lose them, and that MLB will see that this is not a fan base that will be disrespected, not a fan base that will bend over and take it. We love our National League history and we love the National League game, and we don’t give a twit about any trumped up rivalry with the Rangers. This is not a market that would sit idle for any length of time if Crane took his AL franchise somewhere else–it’s just too big and MLB’s bluff needs to be called.

    • astrosince1975

      Thanks for the comment. I admire your passion. Crane put in a bid to buy a National League franchise and when Selig and company uncovered some skeletons in his closet they took the opportunity to blackmail him into switching leagues. What more is there to tell?

      Here’s my guess of how it went down.

      Selig and the owners had already decided that the Astros would be moved to the A.L. but didn’t make it a selling point to perspective owners. They dragged out Crane’s approval process as long as they could and forced their will on him at the last minute.They would have done the same to anyone.

      Crane could probably have won a court battle citing breach of contract were he willing to wait another year or two to take ownership of the team. Instead, he decided to recoup $80 million and make his dream of owning a major sports franchise a reality.

      So yes, Crane is guilty to a certain point. He wanted his new toy and he wanted it immediately. Obviously he doesn’t care as much about the Astros as we do. Not many people do. And none of us have half-a-billion dollars, so this is the type of thing that happens.

      Thanks for reading.

      • http://twitter.com/ElevateBaseball ElevateBaseball

        I admire the amiable tone of the reply. But pardon me if I think you’re too quick to take for granted this idea of “blackmail.” When is it ever the case that the person in power pays money… in this case, $65 million or about 10% of the original purchase price… to the person being blackmailed?

        Pardon the observation, but that’s just not rational.

        Further, let’s play this thing out as-if Crane stood his ground and said “No, Bud, if I can’t have an NL Astros, I just won’t buy the team”… what then… well, then, it’s back to the drawing board for an Astros sale, and it blows up Selig’s whole Astros-screwing scheme. Why? Because the union contract was up at the end of the season, and Selig was thusly not in a position to wait forever. Either he would have to give up his 15-15 ambition or he would have to do the right thing and lobby his Brewers back to their AL home, pushing KC out of the AL Central and back to their former AL West division.

        As to your guess of how it went down… if it happened that way, Crane sure did make it a point at his November 2011 press conference to say differently… he said flat-out that it was a condition of the sale from the time terms were agreed to back in May.

        And it is also important to note that MLB By-Law 2b-5 explicitly restricts the league from commanding owners to move their teams to, not only a different league, but even to a different division within the same league. To make it a condition of the sale as you suggest is to open oneself up to litigation that, in this case, might have been even more substantial than $65 million. Clearly, Crane didn’t put up any resistance.

        As to the EEOC thing, the league had a legitimate responsibility to investigate all of that; it was, after all, a matter of public record, so if it blew up in their face later on, it would have been particularly ugly. By the way, on the other hand, if Selig and his minions made up that they had something on Crane and prevented the sale, then again, it is MLB that had to be concerned with being sued.

        Let me offer a more reasonable explanation… Selig wanted this to happen, and Crane wanted just as badly to get a $65 million rebate… and neither gave a damn about what Astros fans thought. Our history is meaningless to them. Crane is a lifelong Cardinals fan. Selig has an empirical record of screwing our franchise. And they believed and still believe that the Houston fans are easy… that we will bend over and take it.

        But regardless of what really happened, I come back to this, and all of the Crane apologists have no choice but to agree… what is so damning about the real story that Crane sees the better option is to continue to hide the real story and lose people like me who have 40+ years invested in this team, than to tell it?

        So the question will be answered at some point… will Astros fans be willing to be disrespected when the team gets back to winning? Or will we spit back in Selig’s face by staying away?

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  • MarkRP

    Comcast deal is horrible. Ask the Portland Trailblazer fans about this. their club signed a similar deal a few years back, and there is STILL no Trailblazer games on satellite!

    • astrosince1975

      Agree. I think it’s been 6 years for Portland. At this point I would be surprised if a deal gets done before the All-Star break.

      • MarkRP

        NEW YORK, Dec 5 (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday allowed sports fans who subscribe to television or Internet services to pursue a lawsuit accusing Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and various networks of violating U.S. antitrust law in how they package games.

        U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said the subscribers have “adequately alleged harm” related to the programming, which they contend has reduced competition.

        The defendants include Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, several teams in both sports, various regional sports networks, Comcast Corp and DirecTV.