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.

But, by October 1991, the talks had bogged to the point where McMullen broke off negotiations with the Love/ Onstead group. They resumed seven months later, but this time the discussions were solely between McMullen and McLane -- a surprising development, since McLane lived a good three hours' drive from Houston, knew next to nothing about baseball and had initially resisted becoming involved in the deal at all. The two reached a quick agreement, with McLane paying an estimated $115 million for the baseball club, the sweetheart lease on the Astrodome from Harris County and other assets of McMullen's Houston Sports Association.

McLane succeeded with McMullen where the Love/Onstead group failed because he was a more deft negotiator, says Jeff Love.

"He established a relationship with John McMullen," says Love, "which became a very cordial and friendly relationship. It was not an antiseptic ... kind of a business negotiation, like I feel that our group engaged in with McMullen. Drayton invested the time to get to know John McMullen. I think that is one of the barometers of the rare kind of individual that Drayton is."

News of McLane's purchase of the team was greeted with joy in pre-Rockets championship Mudville. The new owner initially went about making all the right -- or at least popular -- moves. Like McMullen and so many other new owners before him, McLane immediately began looking to enhance his new acquisition by exploring the expensive free agent market, which he would later come to criticize as contributing to skyrocketing labor costs. Less than a month after the sale became official, McLane had acquired the services of free agent pitchers Greg Swindell and Doug Drabek -- two popular Texans. The total price tag: $36.5 million.

"I swallowed hard," McLane said at the time.
Today, McLane stands by the decision to pay the two pitchers millions. But some longtime baseball observers believe that McLane, like many other new owners, may have bitten off too much, too soon and has come to regret it.

"Usually when a new owner comes in he impacts it right away by doing something big," observes former Astros broadcaster Gene Elston. "That's what McMullen did when he came in and signed Nolan Ryan for a million dollars a year. That's the sort of thing McLane did. He signed some big contracts right away. It's just not feasible, but that's the way [new owners] try to get settled into a community. With the amount of money he says he's lost, he would have to have second thoughts."

Elston was the play-by-play man for the Astros from their inaugural season in 1962 until he was fired by McMullen after the 1986 season. He now works for the sports consulting firm owned by Tal Smith, the highly regarded former Astros general manager who was also fired by McMullen but was rehired by McLane as the club's president last year. Elston obviously believes bringing back Smith was a smart move. He also likes McLane's inspired approach to public relations, an area in which McMullen had no talent whatsoever.

But baseball, Elston believes, is "a different world" from the one McLane expected. He's not alone in that opinion.

"Drayton came in not knowing the business," says Bill Wood, another former Astros general manager, "and he went through a real sobering period. After about six months he was hit with the reality that you can lose big dough in baseball. But Drayton is a very confident man, and he felt like things would fall into place if he just worked hard enough."

After all, things had always fallen into place for Drayton McLane. He had taken a successful family business that dated to the late 19th century and turned it into an extremely successful business before cashing in his chips with Sam Walton.

But unfortunately for Wood, former manager Art Howe and a number of other front office personnel, things didn't fall into place for the Astros -- at least not fast enough to suit McLane.

After taking over the team, McLane stuck with Wood and Howe through the 1993 season. But despite an improved record, the trio never clicked. According to witnesses, during spring training for the '93 season Howe and Wood found themselves having to explain to McLane -- who admits to having seen only a handful of baseball games before acquiring the Astros -- why his two high-priced pitchers, Drabek and Swindell, weren't pitching more often. The new owner also questioned why so many marginal players were getting so many innings and why the team wasn't winning more meaningless exhibition games.

The Astros did win four more regular-season games in 1993 than they did the previous season -- not exactly the kind of rousing immediate success that Drayton McLane expected. But the '93 Astros' 85-77 record was a whopping 20-game improvement over 1991, when the team finished in the cellar of the National League Western Division. Wood, who now works as a consultant for the California Angels, believes he and Howe had the young but maturing group of Astros headed in the right direction. (Howe, now the first base and hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

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