It started from the very beginning, the distrust of Jim Crane. It started when his name came up as a potential buyer of the Houston Astros. Houston doesn’t give Jim Crane the benefit of the doubt. Houston, it seems, enjoys the demonization of Jim Crane. During this week, as financial outcomes were questioned in the shadow of an article by Forbes, I’ve been wondering why the city of Houston doesn’t trust Jim Crane.
Did it start with the fact that he tried to buy the Rangers? After all, in Texas you’re either with the Astros or with the Rangers. There’s no shared sense of fandom because we all live in Texas. You’re Dallas or you’re Houston. He tried to buy Dallas' Arlington's team, but is that really something that would lead fans to always be suspicious of his actions? I don’t think so.
Maybe Houston is still angry that Crane ticked off Drayton McLane when he backed out of a handshake deal to buy the Astros in 2008. After all, McLane was an insanely popular owner in Houston, even while he strip mined the minor leagues and left the Astros in a situation that ensured losing seasons for years to come.
Perhaps the settlement with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Crane’s Eagle Global Logistics in 2001 regarding racial and gender discrimination claims rubbed everyone the wrong way. But again, after a countersuit by Eagle, the EEOC ultimately returned $6 million of the $8.5 million initially set aside for the settlement, so it wasn’t what it once appeared and the company paid its penance.
Certainly none of those things is enough for fans to immediately conclude that Jim Crane is out to screw them at every turn.
I admit that there have been moves made by this front office that have irritated me to no end. Just as an example, that Community Partner signage out in left center field still drives me nuts because it blocks part of the windows that I love. I’m also not wild about the potential move of the Spring Training facility to another part of Florida, but that has more to do with the fact that it’s cheaper to travel to Orlando than it is to West Palm Beach and I like spending a week at Spring Training every year.
Even as decisions happen that I don’t agree with, I believe that Jim Crane wants to build an organization that wins. Why? Some of you will say that I’m just too Pollyanna and optimistic, but those who know me well will know better. Why would Jim Crane buy a baseball team if he didn’t have fantasies about being on the field after a fourth win in the World Series?
No owner buys a team to destroy it or for the status that saying "I own an MLB team" offers. Owners buy baseball teams for one of two reasons from my vantage point: they either love baseball or they see it as a good business investment. In the case of Jim Crane, a successful businessman with a net worth of around $2 billion and a former college baseball player, I’d say that both reasons were motivators.
The thing about ownership of a major league baseball team is that it’s not generally a position of authority in the same sense of most businesses. The decisions of baseball happen on one of two sides of the organization – there are business decisions and there are baseball decisions. And although the buck stops with the owner, there are very capable people with strengths in specific areas that make decisions in those realms.
I find it interesting that a man who hired Jeff Luhnow as General Manager – a move often praised by fans and analysts – isn’t given the benefit of the doubt. That move was, after all, a decision by Jim Crane alone. Twitter praises Luhnow’s every move with #InLuhnowWeTrust hashtags, so why don’t fans trust the guy who bought Luhnow’s plan lock, stock and barrel and gave him the reigns to rebuild a dying baseball club? Food for thought, certainly.
You can’t ignore the success that’s happening at the minor league levels thanks to the moves that have been made on the baseball side of the organization. The Houston Astros will likely be considered to have a top 3 minor league organization after this season. And as Astros fans have painfully learned in recent years, a team cannot survive on free agency alone - the minors are crucial to long-term success. And who hired the guy that has made all of this happen? Jim Crane.
But then there’s also the television problem. No, you can’t watch baseball on television in Houston if you’re a part of the 60% of fans that don’t have Comcast or one of the smaller carriers of CSN Houston and that is certainly a thorn in many fans’ sides. Given that the Astros are the primary owner of the regional sports network, an argument can be made that the distrust of Crane stems from greed that many feel has driven the pricing to a point where carriers are balking.
When Crane purchased the Astros, a part of the $610 million price tag related to the ownership of the new regional sports network. I wonder what the Houston Astros would have sold for without an RSN attached to the ownership? Would it have been closer to the $474 million that Forbes had valued the team earlier in 2011?
Crane is nothing if not a shrewd businessman. Despite evidence that he very much wanted to buy a major league baseball team, he wouldn't do it without intentions of making it as successful as all of his other business ventures and that includes making CSN Houston successful. We as fans may not like the delay in coverage of our team in every home, but any business-minded folk know that a deal has to go both ways and be beneficial on both sides to happen. Carriers can't lose money on it, but neither can the network, otherwise, what's the point of owning it? It's not meant to be a nonprofit. It's meant to be another revenue stream to feed the baseball organization.
There are a lot of questions in the thoughts above. I don’t have all the answers, but I think this is a valid conversation to have. Yes, there are things that fans don’t like that Jim Crane has done. There are also big moves that Jim Crane has made that will help set up the Astros as a winning baseball club for years to come. I think the jury’s still out on Crane in most peoples’ minds, but I have a feeling that sentiment about Jim Crane, like attendance at Minute Maid Park, will rise as the team’s winning percentage does, but in the meantime, it feels like Houston just doesn't trust Jim Crane.