Born to Win ... or Lose?

Can Drayton McLane bring Houston a World Series champion on a budget? Can Houston support major-league baseball to Drayton McLane's satisfaction? It's time to find out.

The Astrodome is almost empty on this weekday morning, save for a few members of the grounds crew working to get the playing field in shape for the Astros' 1995 home opener. The electric lighting inside is at a minimum on this off day; outside, a blanket of low-lying clouds obscures the small amount of daylight that the Dome's frosted skylights permit to slip through.

The atmosphere inside the dim and hushed stadium seems expectant, almost reverential. Standing on the Dome's spongy artificial turf, it's not hard to imagine yourself in an immense circular cathedral -- quiet, solemn and shadowy. Out here on the empty emerald baseball diamond of the world's first air-conditioned stadium, even a casual fan might be moved to reverie over the game's "sacred place" in our nation's history, as the major leagues' first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, once put it.

But the meditative silence is interrupted with the arrival on the field of Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. The high-church solemnity abruptly gives way to something more kinetic, something more akin to a holy-rolling evangelical temple -- although no less devout.

Clad in a blue dress shirt, charcoal gray slacks, loafers and a tie colorfully decorated with baseball players in turn-of-the-century uniforms, McLane gregariously takes his place on the red-dirt pitcher's mound and strikes a pose for a Houston Press photographer. The interview and photo session are running over schedule, and McLane is in a hurry to catch a plane to his team's spring training facility in Kissimmee, Florida. He's gracious but impatient, and it's obvious he would rather be somewhere else -- like on his way to the airport. It's also apparent that once the camera starts snapping, McLane clearly relishes the spotlight.

The photographer instructs McLane to fold his arms, but he refuses. Arms folded across the chest give off negative body language, and that's definitely not the message Drayton McLane Jr. wants to convey on the verge of baseball's belated 1995 season. As always, he wants to do it his way. So McLane begins rocking back and forth on the mound, clapping his hands in front of him, all preacher enthusiasm and cheerleader pep. The motion is reminiscent of the protracted wind-ups of pitchers from years past.

Warming to the public relations task, McLane extends his right arm Domeward and gives the thumbs-up sign.

"Champions!" he exclaims. "We want to be champions! We are champions! You are champions! We all are champions!"

It's McLane's motto and mantra -- and his hope. When he calls in or comes in to his Astrodome office, McLane's first question to subordinates often is, "What have you done to make us champions today?" It's part of a constant motivational ethic he has fostered at both of his businesses. Some of the men who have played the game for McLane in the past three years have found it overbearing, but non-uniformed front-office personnel say they thrive on it.

McLane has admitted to having no real interest in baseball before he bought the Astros. He came to the game as a no-nonsense businessman, unencumbered by romantic notions about baseball's mystique and history. His was a simple ethos: provide a good product and service, keep costs in line and success will be yours. But the man whose personal positive-thinking gospel is "Born to Win, Conditioned to Lose," has found that major-league baseball is a very different sort of business than grocery supply and distribution.

That Drayton McLane has come to that sobering realization was evident during the protracted players strike, when his smile-and-a-shoeshine persona seemed to be supplanted by one that was guarded, tight-lipped -- a bit, shall we say, negative, like someone conditioned to lose. Lately, McLane has even betrayed a negative thought or two in public.

"I wouldn't be here if I had known this three years ago," he conceded recently when he announced a ticket giveaway designed to lure folks out to the Dome for the rest of the season.

McLane's July 1992 purchase of the Astros from John McMullen was one of the best-received off-the-field moves in Houston sports history, rivaled in popularity only by the Oilers' drafting of Earl Campbell or the Astros' signing of local hero Nolan Ryan, baseball's first million-dollar man.

Ironically, Ryan was involved in what arguably was the most unpopular off-the-field move -- one that lead indirectly to McLane's purchase of the Astros. Fans never forgave McMullen for allowing Ryan to leave Houston for the Texas Rangers in 1989. Astrodome attendance declined drastically after Ryan's departure, and McMullen did nothing to get back into the good graces of the city as he went about further dismantling a popular team that had made it to the National League Championship Series in 1986. The releases of popular players such as Jose Cruz, Billy Doran and Dave Smith were viewed by the public and the media as greed-inspired cost cutting by an absentee owner from New Jersey. Houston began to take John McMullen personally.

It was in that atmosphere that McMullen began shopping the Astros in early 1990. Rumors flew that one group of investors was interested in buying the team and moving it to Washington, D.C. But by November of that year, McMullen had entered into negotiations with the Onstead family of Houston, the owners of Randall's supermarkets. The Onsteads were joined in early 1991 by the team of Ben Love, the former Texas Commerce Bank chairman, and his son, Jeff Love. Several other businessmen were soon invited to join in the negotiations with McMullen -- including Drayton McLane Jr. of Temple, whose McLane Company was a supplier for the Onsteads' chain before he sold it to another longtime customer, Sam Walton.

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