Drayton McLane in the French Quarter?
No, it couldn't be. I didn't believe my eyes when I first saw him browsing in a shop with his wife, Elizabeth, last January, figuring it had to be a guy who looked like McLane. But there he was 10 minutes later, outside a different shop, this time talking on his cellphone.
The guy is a workaholic, and nothing he has done has brought him more pleasure than running the Astros. You wonder how he's going to get by managing only the McLane Group and his interest in Wal-Mart now that he has sold the Astros to Jim Crane.
Selling the Astros was widely seen as a concession from McLane to his wife. He's 75, none of his children was interested in taking over and, well, the timing was right. McLane bought the Astros for $117 million in 1993 and sold them to Crane for $680 million, minus $35 million, his share of a rebate Crane got for agreeing to move the team to the American League in 2013.
McLane cashed out with a pretax net of $528 million from the sale/purchase of the Astros but without the World Series ring he badly coveted. He left the franchise in much better shape than he found it, mostly because he persuaded Houstonians to replace the Astrodome with Minute Maid Park. He also left with huge talent voids on the 40-man roster and in the farm system.
As a businessman, it seems, McLane is more of a closer than a start-up guy. He took over strong holdings in the grocery and trucking businesses from his father, but he was the one who got the Wal-Mart contract. He came to do the same thing with his baseball team, swinging for the big deals rather than building from the bottom up.
McLane signed off on a $100 million contract for the one-dimensional Carlos Lee, but wouldn't give his general manager and scouts enough backing to sign top college and high school players. Since Roy Oswalt, the Astros haven't produced any homegrown stars (although Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez were valuable supporting players), and after a while, the lack of young talent takes you down.
Trying to replenish the thin farm system, Ed Wade traded away Pence and Michael Bourn last July, but Crane wasn't impressed. He fired Wade after buying the team and, after being rejected by Andrew Friedman, Rick Hahn and lesser candidates, hired Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow to restock the cupboard.
Luhnow is new school. He demonstrated that by attempting to lure Keith Law away from ESPN to overhaul the scouting operation but couldn't get him. That's where this franchise is.
Crane wants to build a modern front office, the kind that turned around the Rays and Rangers. He gets credit for trying something and understanding the importance of scouting and player development. McLane never figured that out, which is why the AL West is putting out the welcome mat.
(bullet) A majority of Astros fans oppose the move to the AL, which makes the job ahead tougher for Crane. But because of his baggage, Crane probably wouldn't have been approved as an owner without agreeing to the move.
(bullet) The West Division isn't ideal for the Astros or Rangers, as fans must stay up an extra two hours to watch road night games in the division. But fans proposing more logical ways to realign baseball into 15-team leagues miss this point: teams cannot be forced to move against their will. The Cubs won a court battle over this in 1992, when then-Commissioner Fay Vincent was trying to move them and the Cardinals to the NL West.
(bullet) Minute Maid Park is a great place to watch a game but not a great place to play one. The hitter-friendly dimensions make it a challenge to develop pitchers there. It will be interesting to see how long the center-field berm, known as Tal's Hill, remains now that Crane has sent franchise fixture Tal Smith into the ranks of job-seekers.
(bullet) Astro second baseman Jose Altuve, listed as 5-7, 170 pounds, is as interesting as any of Houston's young players. He had a career .386 OBP in the minors.
(bullet) The move to the AL comes one year too late for Lee. He's a prototype DH but will be forced to play the field in the final season of his six-year contract. His position will depend on whether manager Brad Mills wants Brian Bogusevic to be the regular left fielder or Brett Wallace to be his first baseman.
Power rankings: No. 29 Astros
Astros trying to follow successful model of Rays, Rangers
Astros slugger Carlos Lee. (Jose M. Osorio/Tribune photo)