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.

An admirable quality, to be sure. But it's also a trait that sometimes can wear thin with the hired help.

It was 20 years ago when Drayton McLane, while attending a convention of wholesale grocers in Dallas, sat in on a seminar conducted by Lewis Timberlake, a former baseball player whose career as a shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals was cut short by an arm injury. After baseball, Timberlake made a great deal of money by first selling insurance and later as a motivational speaker and author. After listening to Timberlake speak to the wholesalers, McLane rushed up to the stage and invited Timberlake to Temple to talk to the employees of his grocery distributorship.

"And I told him that I had a special deal for him," recalls Timberlake. "I told him that if he'd pay, I'd go." McLane did, and the two men became good friends. In fact, Timberlake describes McLane as his best friend. "He's probably taught me as much as I have hopefully taught him," he says.

In the ensuing two decades, Timberlake has continued to deliver inspirational addresses to McLane's employees, including the Houston Astros. Timberlake estimates he has lectured the Astros approximately a half-dozen times since McLane became their owner. His basic message, Timberlake explains, is that we are "born to win but conditioned to lose" -- which, not coincidentally, is the title of one of his two self-help books.

"What I teach is that you can't control what life does," says Timberlake, "but you can control how you react to what life does."

Timberlake admits that most of the players are skeptical at first, but believes he manages to reach some of them. Caminiti, for one, says he enjoyed the sessions. Other players simply grin and bear it. Others just bear it, especially the spring training sessions that began at 7 a.m.

"By the time you reach the majors, most guys have done their own motivating," says former Astro Casey Candaele, a wisecracking reserve infielder for Houston from 1988-93. "I mean, [Timberlake] said some good things. But I was always told I was never going to make it, I wasn't good enough and didn't have the talent. That was motivation enough for me." (Of course, Candaele was out of baseball when he spoke with the Press, having been recently released by the Albuquerque Dukes, the Los Angeles Dodgers' triple-A farm team.)

In addition to his unorthodox approach to motivating professional athletes, McLane's method of choosing a manager also raised eyebrows. During the search following Art Howe's dismissal, two former all-stars emerged as the front-runners for the job: Bob Boone, a longtime catcher for the California Angels, and Davey Lopes, an infielder for the Dodgers during that team's glory years in the 1970s. But to the surprise of many observers, the job eventually went to Terry Collins, an almost completely unknown baseball personage. Collins got the job after undergoing a two-hour psychological test, in which he demonstrated the leadership qualities that McLane had found lacking in Howe and Bill Wood.

On the other hand, two McLane moves that were announced on the same day last November have won almost universal praise in the city: the re-signing of Bagwell and the rehiring of former general manager Tal Smith as the club's president.

Bagwell, a unanimous choice as the National League's MVP last year, was inked to a long-term deal worth $27.5 million. Although he's gotten off to a slow start at the plate this season, Bagwell is viewed as "the franchise" after his incredible 1994 performance. But as important as Bagwell is to the future of the Astros, the return of Smith may ultimately prove more pivotal.

"The acquisition of Tal Smith is like getting a Jeff Bagwell or a young Nolan Ryan," says bombastic Barry Warner, who's covered sports in Houston for most of the last three decades, currently for two radio stations, KPRC and KCOH, and for Channel 20.

Warner -- who is openly critical of what he describes as McLane's rah-rah evangelical style -- calls the owner's rehiring of Smith "a stroke of genius." Smith, who had been fired as general manager by McMullen after assembling a division-winning team in 1980, opened what became a highly successful sports consulting firm upon leaving the Astros. He had turned down several offers of high-level front office jobs from various clubs in both leagues before finally saying yes to McLane. If McLane is going to build the Astros into contenders on a budget, Smith is the go-to guy, Warner says.

"Smith is the best man in baseball to do that," says Warner. "Tal is a superstar."

Warner and others also praise another of McLane's unusual hires. At the same press conference where the news of Bagwell's and Smith's signings were announced, McLane revealed that former Houston Rocket Robert Reid was joining the Astros as head of the team's community outreach program. Reid has drawn high marks from community leaders for his work with young people, especially his anti-drug and anti-gang efforts in low-income neighborhoods. McLane also has added three other full-time positions to the Astros' outreach department, which previously was staffed with one part-time person.

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