McLane ushered in new era in Houston

McLane ushered in new era in Houston

HOUSTON -- He was never hesitant to pick up his phone when a reporter called at odd hours. And he was a fixture at the ballpark, talking to as many fans as he could. Drayton McLane just might have been one of the most accessible owners in the history of team sports.

After years of shaking thousands of hands and helping take baseball in Houston to new heights, McLane announced Monday he has reached an agreement to sell the Astros to a group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane, a reported $680 million deal that's pending the approval of Major League Baseball.

With his wife, Elizabeth, sons Denton and Drayton III and their wives sitting only a few feet away, McLane spoke fondly Monday about his tenure as owner of the Astros -- a team he bought for $117 million in 1992.

"I'd like to say what a privilege it has been to be involved with the Houston Astros," he said. "We talk every day about being a champion, and these 18 1/2 years have been rewarding for me personally, for our family."

John McMullen, who owned the club from 1979-92, told McLane when he was purchasing the team that owning a Major league club would consume his life. McLane, involved in various business ventures around the world, scoffed at the idea. He soon learned McMullen was onto something.

"Boy, did I not know what I was talking about," he said. "The Houston Astros for our family has engulfed us, and my wife Elizabeth and sons and their families and extended families have fallen in love with the Houston Astros."

In McLane's tenure as owner, the Astros made the playoffs six times in a nine-year span, including the team's first and only World Series berth in 2005. They had the fourth-best record in the National League during his time as the owner.

Perhaps McLane's most-significant accomplishment as owner was the construction of Minute Maid Park, which opened in 2000 in downtown Houston and ushered in a new era of baseball in Houston.

"I think Drayton's been a great owner in a lot of ways," said former Astros great Lance Berkman, now with the Cardinals. "He's caught a lot of flak but, you know, I know he always wanted to win. That was his deal. He wanted us to win, he wanted to use the Astros as a platform to make a difference in the community.

"Those were the two things that he was very vocal about. He wasn't perfect, but he was a dang good owner. Especially in an era where there's not too many one-man owners, you just don't see that anymore. He's kind of the last of a dying breed, and I can't imagine a better owner in terms of his accessibility and friendliness. It's hard to encapsulate all that he was to the organization."

ASTROS OWNERSHIP HISTORY
Year Owner
1962-75 Judge Roy Hofheinz
1975-79 GE Credit and Ford Motor Credit
1979-93 John McMullen
1993-present Drayton McLane
May 2011 McLane announces agreement with a group headed by Jim Crane for the sale of the Astros and the club's share in Comcast Sports Net Houston, pending approval by MLB ownership.

Since he assumed ownership of the team, McLane has maintained the Astros have two goals: to win a championship and to make a positive impact in the community. Throughout their ownership tenure, McLane and his wife have made more than $30 million in charitable donations, including more than $7 million through the Astros in Action Foundation.

"Involvement in the community has probably been the best part," McLane said.

His catch phrase -- "Are you ready to be a champion?" -- wasn't lip service. McLane did what he could to keep the Astros relevant, even if it meant pulling off a blockbuster deal in an effort to get over the hump.

Shortly after buying the team, he made a splash by signing local favorites Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell, though the moves never panned out. The Astros acquired Randy Johnson at the Trade Deadline in 1998 en route to a club record 102-win season that ended with a first-round loss to the Padres. And he pulled off blockbuster trades for Carlos Beltran in 2004 and Miguel Tejada prior to the 2008 season.

The City of Houston had a rich baseball tradition prior to McLane's arrival on the scene, but the playoffs had produced nothing but heartbreaking losses in 1980 and 1986. The team broke a nine-year drought and reached the playoffs in 1997 by winning the National League Central Division and went on to win the division four times in a five-year span. With the NFL's Houston Oilers relocating to Tennessee in 1996 and the Houston Rockets on the downswing following back-to-back NBA championships in 1994-95, Houston was becoming a baseball town.

"He was able to take an organization and the City of Houston and turn it into a baseball city, and obviously he changed the whole expectation," Astros great Craig Biggio said. "You were going into a season trying to get to the World Series -- not hoping to get to the playoffs, if you're lucky. His legacy is: He always tried to put the best possible team out there as he could."

McLane lured the All-Star Game to Houston in 2004, which turned out to be a magical year in Astros history. He signed local favorite Andy Pettitte away from the Yankees and then convinced legend Roger Clemens to follow his friend and teammate to Houston with a "hometown discount" of a $5 million salary.

The star-studded Astros, featuring Clemens, Pettitte, Biggio, Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Bagwell and Jeff Kent, stumbled out of the gate in 2004 and were sitting at .500 when the All-Star Game hit town that year. He wound up firing manager Jimy Williams, and the team caught fire under new manager Phil Garner in the second half of the season, winning the NL Wild Card on the final day of the season.

After beating the Braves to win their first postseason series, the Astros lost in seven games to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS despite a record-setting performance by Beltran, who had been acquired from the Royals at the Trade Deadline.

The team overcame a 15-30 start in 2005 to win the Wild Card and eventually dispatch the Cardinals in six games in the NLCS to reach the World Series for the first, and only, time in team history. The Astros were swept in the World Series by the White Sox, but all four games were nail-biters decided by two runs or less.

McLane made good on his down-home promise to Oswalt following that season and awarded him a bulldozer worth roughly $200,000.

"He's done a lot of things for me and done a lot of things for Houston," said Oswalt, who was traded to the Phillies last year. "Always a positive guy in the clubhouse and always been a good role model for people around Houston."

McLane continued to spend money, re-signing Clemens -- who pitched part-time in 2006 -- to a prorated $22 million contract and signing free-agent slugger Carlos Lee to a six-year, $100 million deal prior to the 2007 season. But the Astros couldn't recapture their magic from 2004 and 2005.

Eventually, years of trading away prospects and a series of poor drafts depleted the Astros farm system and weakened their ability to compete. The Astros finished in fifth place in the Central in 2009 (74-88) and last year rallied to finish 76-86 after the monumental trades of Berkman and Oswalt at the Trade Deadline.

McLane, who still has several business ventures and serves on numerous boards, was subject to fan criticism the past few years, but Biggio said no one should lose sight of the bigger picture.

"Not everybody is going to agree with you and think you're doing the right thing, but at the end of the day, the good outweighed the bad," Biggio said. "He took an organization that was hoping possibly to get into the postseason every now and then and expected it to get to the postseason. That's huge."

Berkman agreed.

"I think he purposefully saturated the organization with just great people," he said. "I think that's a great business model to do that. And heck, for most of his ownership tenure you're talking about one of the elite franchises in the game. So I think that in and of itself is a testimony of his ownership."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. Matthew Leach and Nate Latsch contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.