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.

For starters, McLane, like the owners of other mid-market clubs, would like to share in the revenue generated by the profitable television contracts of the big-market clubs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. And, of course, he favors a cap on salaries.

But union officials say they are still not confident that baseball owners have provided them with an accurate picture of their finances.

"They way overstate their expenses," says Astros third baseman Chris Donnels, the team's player representative, "and way understate their profits."

Donnels, however, expresses admiration for the way McLane goes about his business.

"When he bought the team two years ago, he came in and said, 'Hey, guys, I've been to three baseball games in my life and I don't understand it.' And that comes out sometimes.

"But he's a driven person and he's learning every day. And he has this way that he believes things can improve, and I don't think he'll accept anything other than that. And, in a certain way, I think that will make him a good baseball owner."

McLane concedes that he had no idea of the severity of baseball's labor problem when he decided to buy the Astros. No one else did, either, he claims. Had he known, McLane acknowledges, he might not have gone through with the deal.

"I certainly would have looked at it harder," he says. "If you were buying something and there were problems in the industry you would want them resolved before you made that decision."

But McLane, while negotiating with McMullen, had become enchanted with baseball and its competitiveness. For the first time in his life, he may have made a business decision more from the heart than the head when he purchased the team. Now, while he insists he is as committed as ever to bringing a World Series winner to Houston, if he succeeds it will be a championship on a budget. Indeed, McLane was one of the first owners to act after he and the other baseball magnates unilaterally imposed a cap on players' salaries during the strike -- a move that was eventually ruled as illegal by the National Labor Relations Board and a federal judge.

In late December the Astros lopped $5.5 million off their annual payroll -- which currently stands at about $30 million -- with the largest trade in baseball in 37 years. In exchange for six relatively young, mostly unknown players, the team traded away to the San Diego Padres the left side of its infield and its center fielder -- a major component of a team that appeared to be on the threshold of becoming "champions."

Sent packing were third baseman Ken Caminiti and center fielder Steve Finley, who are scheduled to make more than $4 million each in 1995. Shortstop Andujar Cedeno and three other Astros also were included in the deal. Of the players the Astros received in return, only one -- Phil Plantier -- has a 1995 contract in excess of $750,000. But Astros officials insist that although there is a new eye to the bottom line in a marginal baseball market like Houston, cost-cutting per se was not the entire reason behind the blockbuster trade.

"As a result of this trade we became a younger club," says Tal Smith, who also points out that, because it will be several years before the new players will be eligible to become free agents, the Astros have more control over their salaries. (Finley and Caminiti are eligible to become free agents at the end of this season.) But Smith's point calls into question the team's desire and ability to retain its free agent players. In the opinion of at least one of the former Astros involved in the trade, it makes McLane's oft-repeated pledge of bringing a championship to Houston ring hollow.

"I kind of had a hard time with that when he traded a team away that was a half-game out of first place," Caminiti says by telephone from San Diego, where the Padres were preparing for a two-game series against the Astros to open the '95 season. "I would think you try to keep the nucleus of a club together when you're a half-game out of first place."

In fact, the trade has left Caminiti so bitter that he looks back to John McMullen's ownership of the Astros as the good old days. McMullen, the third baseman says, "got the raw shaft in Houston" and was easier to deal with in one-to-one situations than McLane.

"McMullen did a lot for the community, but he let Nolan Ryan go and the fans never forgave him," says Caminiti. "It was a lot easier for me to talk to McMullen, 'cause Drayton kind of treated me as inferior. Every time you talked to the guy he'd give you the business about being a champion, instead of treating me like a person."

McLane's peers -- other businessmen -- say that's just the way he is. Jeff Love describes McLane as having "polyphasic spizzerinctum."

"What I mean by that," explains the ostentatiously polysyllabic Love, "is that he is one who never stops charging."

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