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.

"I think Drayton liked me," says Wood, who pulled off one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history when he obtained a young Jeff Bagwell for aging reliever Larry Anderson. "I think he thought I was a quality baseball individual. But I believe that he felt that I didn't have the charisma and leadership characteristics that he was looking for. He's really big on leadership, and I think he felt like I wasn't going to inspire the dynamics that would lead to a world championship."

McLane has no quarrel with Wood's assessment. He also still speaks highly of Howe.

"He is one of the kindest, nicest, most thoughtful human beings that I've ever known," says McLane. "But we wanted to change directions."

McLane fired both Wood and Howe shortly after the '93 season. Wood was immediately replaced by his assistant, Bob Watson, a former Astro and the only black general manager currently in the major leagues. Howe was succeeded a month later by Terry Collins, who at the time was the bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and had previously managed in the minor leagues for 11 years.

But the personnel changes didn't stop with Wood and Howe. McLane took over the Astros vowing to attract more customers to the Dome by improving the food, service and aesthetics at the facility. And, good to his word, fans have been treated to a dolled-up stadium and smiles from vendors and parking attendants who had been renown for their surliness over the years. The food also got better, although, as at most sports venues these days, it is still overpriced.

The Astros sold 2,084,546 tickets in McLane's first season, an increase of more than 873,000 over 1992. But, again, the improvement wasn't good enough for McLane, who admits to not having "all the patience in the world." He says the Astros need to draw at least 2.7 million fans for him to break even. After the '93 season, marketing director Ted Haracz took his leave from the organization, sounding a pessimistic note about McLane's expectations and the future of baseball in Houston.

"If the team cooperates, I think [2.7 million attendance] could happen," Haracz was quoted as saying. "I hope he can find someone who can do it. If he can't, I don't think baseball will stay here."

In the late summer of 1994 life was beautiful, at least on the surface -- not for just Drayton McLane Jr. but for all of professional baseball. Attendance was up across the major leagues. Records were being chased. There were pennant races, and the Astros, led by emerging superstar Jeff Bagwell, were in the thick of one. But in August, with the Astros a half-game out of first place in the new National League Central Division and first baseman Bagwell flirting with a Triple Crown, the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike.

The players would stay out for the next eight months. During that time, McLane emerged as one of the hard-liners of the 12-member owners committee involved in negotiations with the players union. By that time, a little more than two years after reaching an agreement to buy the Astros, McLane had come to the hard realization that, as Bill Wood puts it, a guy really could lose a lot of dough owning a major league baseball team. In fact, according to McLane, in 1993, 19 of the 28 major-league teams in baseball lost money. That includes the Astros, he claims. Although McLane won't say how much, he is quick to say why -- escalating players salaries, which now average $1.2 million per player per year.

"The players don't want to recognize the problem," the owner contends. "They continue to say they still don't believe that small-market teams lose money. That's totally unrealistic. Union officials have got to realize the problem or major-league baseball is going to be narrowed down to 12 or 14 teams [from the current 28]. That's all that can afford to play."

That might not be such a bad thing, according to Gene Elston, who says the quality of the game has been diluted by the quantity of teams. Elston also points out that while McLane may be losing money on the team, his possession of the lease on the Astrodome complex -- the site of numerous conventions, special events and home of the Houston Oilers, whose owner, Bud Adams, says he's getting the gears from McLane on their sublease -- is a surefire moneymaker.

And, Elston says, the owners have no one but themselves to blame for baseball's current financial crisis. The owners, he says, were outsmarted by the union when labor representatives got them to agree to salary arbitration and player price tags began to skyrocket.

Confronted with that theory, McLane can only grin his big Central Texas grin, throw his hands in the air and exclaim, "Before my time!"

He doesn't argue the fact, but plac-ing blame doesn't solve McLane's prob-lem, either.

"In 1994 we had a $32 million payroll," he says. "In Houston, for what attendance has been in the past, we need about a $22 million team. But if we get a $22 million team, we're not going to be competitive with teams like the Braves, that have close to a $50 million payroll. So what we have to do is solve the financial problems of baseball."

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