Sports Afield

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority is a parody of a public body. But who's got time for the niceties of democracy when you're trying to keep Drayton McLane happy?

A new government body composed of political insiders and window-dressing appointees is given the job of spending $180 million from taxpayers on a $250-million baseball stadium with a gimmicky retractable roof.

There won't be any bidding process: The architects and the companies constructing the facility were handpicked by the tenant and local politicians. That tenant is a whiny, woe-is-me multimillionaire who has ratcheted up his demands whenever the mood hits him. The government body's chairman is a thin-skinned Aggie who makes even his allies wince with his combative attitude.

Just about every major politico and influential big-business type has endorsed the project, leaving opponents marginalized to the status of those easily ignored speakers who spout their three minutes' worth at City Council meetings.

And one more thing: The project is hurtling ahead at a balls-to-the-wall pace, without final construction plans, without a proper budget, without a set financial plan for selling bonds.

Hey, what could possibly go wrong?
Maybe nothing. Maybe the 13 members of the Harris CountyHouston Sports Authority can indeed successfully shepherd the construction of what could be $650 million or so in new sports facilities.

Then again, if a recent week in the life of the board is any indication, the taxpayers could be in for a wild ride.

Wednesday, October 30 -- Groundbreakings for huge entertainment complexes don't get much more unfestive than the rites this day marking the alleged beginning of construction of the Ballpark at Union Station.

For one thing, there seem to be more bad omens than there are ordinary people taking part. In terms of the regular public, it's safe to say the powers-that-be didn't entertain high expectations: The area surrounding the dais has been strategically blocked off to create just enough space among the deserted downtown blocks to make it seem packed with the few hundred people present, almost all of whom look like they've been ordered to be here.

The weather, even with November only two days away, is muggy and oppressive enough that attendees doff jackets and retreat for the tents whenever the sun pokes through the clouds --not a good sign for boosters who claim the stadium roof could be open for 65 percent of the games.

Although golden shovels and hardhats are gleaming on a table, the ceremony is going forward with almost none of the basic requirements most reasonable people would want in place before building a strip shopping center, much less a $250-million ballpark with an experimental retractable roof: There are no construction plans ready; there is nothing approaching a lease agreement between the local government and the proposed main tenant, the Houston Astros; there is no way to sell bonds cheaply to finance the project, because the state attorney general could yet rule that a second referendum is necessary; and, as members of the crowd nervously crane their necks looking around, there is no Drayton McLane.

McLane, the food-distribution czar who purchased the Astros five years ago with an admitted near-total ignorance of major-league baseball, had issued yet another in a seemingly endless string of public threats, letting it be known that he might not show up for the groundbreaking unless a lease agreement were signed.

As a negotiating tactic, it has all the transparency of a parent threatening to leave the toy store without his kid unless the dawdling youngster comes along immediately, but the move is typical of McLane throughout the two years that led up to this point.

The Temple businessman with the "meet you at the top" public persona told everyone who'd listen that he was losing millions on the Astros -- $20 million a year was the usual figure, accepted as gospel even though the owner wouldn't open his books. McLane had bullied local politicians and movers and shakers into becoming his marketing department, threatening to sell the team to someone who would move it to Virginia unless Houstonians bought 30,000 tickets a game, far more than the team has ever drawn.

That minimum requirement was soon increased to a demand that 35,000 tickets be purchased for each game at the Astrodome, which McLane had touted as a wonderful facility when he blocked Oilers owner Bud Adams's efforts to move his football team from the Dome, where he paid rent to McLane.

And then the problem became not only how many fannies were in the seats, but where those seats were. The Dome was (now) antiquated, McLane said; he needed a new downtown baseball stadium similar to the successful playpens recently opened in Baltimore, Denver and Cleveland.

Throughout the longshot referendum campaign to get voter approval, throughout the ensuing battles to get the Legislature to sign on to the deal, McLane continued to issue threats that the team would have to leave unless things went his way and ground was broken on the new facility by November 1, 1997.

And now that such a groundbreaking was set, McLane was threatening to boycott the ceremony.

Other members of the Astros family are on hand -- manager Larry Dierker, looking gangsterish in slicked hair and a shiny suit; broadcaster Milo Hamilton, looking fresh from the retirement home in his best Sansabelt slacks and brown plaid sports jacket. Superstar Jeff Bagwell paces about, seemingly sullen and impatient at having his honeymoon interrupted.

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