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Sports

May 24, 2011

Astros sale is not a done deal

Potential new owner Crane still has hurdles

PORT ARTHUR — Drayton McLane is selling the Houston Astros.

I chose those words carefully. I could have said “McLane sold the Astros to Jim Crane,” but that would imply the sale is in the past tense, and it’s not. I could have said “McLane will sell the Astros to Crane,” but that’s guaranteeing a future situation I’m not so definitely sure will come to pass. No, I chose the gerund, as in “McLane is selling the Astros” for the simple reason that this is an ongoing process.

Many computer monitors worth of stories have filled the internet about potential new owner Jim Crane’s $680 million bid to buy the Astros. Most throw out the dollar amount and try to pass this off as a done deal when it is not. Crane may have had his bid accepted by McLane and might be closer than anyone has been in a while of buying the team, but he’s not the new owner yet.

That hinges on Major League Baseball’s owners getting together and approving Crane into their fraternity. You can read lots of places that this is a done deal, that Crane won’t have a problem getting past this approval process. It’s not that simple, though.

Crane has two big hurdles to clear before he can take the reins of Houston’s hometown nine. The first of those has a tint of moral indignation to it and the second will hinge on those 29 other owners’ fiscal responsibility.

If you’ve followed the mess that the Wilpons put the New York Mets in, or the one that Tom Hicks left up in Arlington, or what the McCourt divorce is doing to a once-proud Dodgers franchise, that fiscal responsibility bit may be asking too much.

But, Crane’s finances will be important. Crane is a wealthy man, having sold his first business, Eagle Global Logistics, for something around a billion dollars. He quickly got involved with a number of other businesses and doesn’t plan on pulling out of those just because he bought a baseball team. That means his money isn’t as liquid as he might like, which is why he is reportedly financing his $680 million deal with McLane with around $300 million in debt.

That’s where the other owners might take a pause. Hicks, the Wilpons and the McCourts all got into trouble by flaunting MLB’s debt service rules, which impose a limit on how leveraged a baseball franchise can be. There are limits to how much debt a team can carry relative to the franchise’s worth and this deal would put the Astros in a terrible hole right off the bat.

There’s also the little matter of Eagle Global Logistics’ dustup with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That group fined Crane and EGL $8.5 million for infractions that were numerous, including discrimination against African Americans, Hispanics and women.

    Crane might argue to the owners that the fine amount was dropped by $6 million when the actual claims were reviewed, but is that enough to assuage a vast number of interest groups? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the attendance numbers over at Minute Maid Park, but they haven’t been pretty. Losing more to protests or demonstrations outside the park would be an unmitigated disaster for a new ownership group.

However, as dire as both of those situations are, I still think Crane will be named as the Astros new owner this summer. The other owners won’t be directly affected by the discrimination allegations in a public relations way and the price Crane will be paying (about 40 percent over what Forbes magazine valued the team at in April) helps all of the other franchises in baseball look like they are worth more.

Astros fans are already salivating at the idea of getting rid of McLane and his supposed meddling ways. Over the years, he’s built up a deserved reputation for being hands-on to the extreme. Yes, he probably forced the Carlos Lee signing and yes, he probably pushed for the Miguel Tejada trade.

Crane will immediately change that image, as he made it clear in his introductory press conference that he plans to hire good people and hold them accountable. He’ll be part of the decision-making process when necessary, but is a savvy enough businessman to step back and let his people work, much like Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. In that, he seems like the complete opposite of McLane.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that McLane may have been the best owner the Astros ever had. He put money back into the team. He made sure that franchise icons Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell retired with the team. He spent money when he needed to, bringing in Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent to bolster those pennant runs. He presided over the only Astros team to ever get to the World Series.

Sports fans can get frustrated with their favorite teams in many ways. They can get fed up with the players. They can think the managers couldn’t run a Little League team. They can think they could make a better trade than the general manager. The only position on the team they can’t see changing or getting better soon is the owner. Everyone else can be fired; the owner can’t.

That’s why so many Astros fans are giddy about Drayton finally getting fired.

Just be careful what you wish for. Crane may turn out to be better, but he could be a whole lot worse.

David Coleman is a sports writer for the Port Arthur News. He can be reached at dcoleman@panews.com or on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MDavidColeman.

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