HOUSTON -- Astros owner Jim Crane was munching on some popcorn he had just purchased from the concession stand along the first-base line Friday afternoon and couldn't help but marvel at the sight of a sun-splashed baseball field and his alma mater's logo on the scoreboard.
"It's great to see that logo up there," Crane said. "You never thought you'd see that."
Crane's Astros won't hit the field for Spring Training for another week, but his University of Central Missouri Mules, a Division II team, launched their season against Texas A&M-Kingsville in the inaugural Astros in Action D-II Invitational at Minute Maid Park.
Crane, who was instrumental in the organization of the tournament, was thrilled that his team was among eight small schools that got a chance to play in a Major League ballpark. The tournament began Friday with four games and will be followed by four on Saturday, four Sunday and three on Monday.
The other teams participating are Texas schools Abilene Christian, Incarnate World, Tarleton State and Texas A&M-Kingsville, along with Arkansas Monticello, Arkansas Tech and Emporia State from Kansas.
"There's no reason not to have [the tournament]," Crane said. "The park is sitting empty. You're not going to get a big crowd in here, but people get the opportunity to go to a big league park, and it's fun and we're going to try to continue it."
Crane was a standout pitcher at what used to be Central Missouri State, graduating with a bachelor of science in industrial safety in 1976. He was an honorable mention Division II All-American as a pitcher, going 21-8 with a 2.42 ERA in his collegiate days.
Crane has been a staunch supporter of his university, donating $1.2 million in 1998 to refurbish the school's stadium, James R. Crane Stadium at Robert N. Tompkins Field.
"It's fun to try to give a little something back," Crane said. "I was fortunate I had a good run there and enjoyed it, and [baseball] kind of got me through college and got me down the road. It's about giving something back and giving somebody some opportunities."
Central Missouri athletic director Jerry Hughes said his players and coaches were thrilled at the chance to play in a Major League ballpark.
"It's a great opportunity for all the teams," Hughes said. "It's an opportunity they would never get. Very few of them go on to play in the Majors. It's few and far between. To have the generosity of an owner like Jim Crane, to open this park and make it available, it's a very kind gesture and we're very appreciative."
Hughes said Crane never forgot where he came from.
"He's donated money to our field, our hitting facility and our practice facility, and he continues to help us fund our scholarships," he said. "He continues to give back to the University of Central Missouri. He's a great donor, a great friend, and is very generous and kind. "
Crane makes it a point to catch a few Mules games each year, especially if they make a run into the regionals or World Series. Central Missouri began this season ranked No. 4 in the country among Division II teams by Collegiate Baseball magazine, but lost to A&M-Kingsville, 4-1, on Friday.
"We never thought we'd have the Mules down here," Crane said.