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Born to Win ... or Lose?

The Astrodome is almost empty on this weekday morning, save for a few members of the grounds crew working to get the playing field in shape for the Astros' 1995 home opener. The electric lighting inside is at a minimum on this off day; outside, a blanket of low-lying clouds obscures the small amount of daylight that the Dome's frosted skylights permit to slip through.

The atmosphere inside the dim and hushed stadium seems expectant, almost reverential. Standing on the Dome's spongy artificial turf, it's not hard to imagine yourself in an immense circular cathedral -- quiet, solemn and shadowy. Out here on the empty emerald baseball diamond of the world's first air-conditioned stadium, even a casual fan might be moved to reverie over the game's "sacred place" in our nation's history, as the major leagues' first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, once put it.

But the meditative silence is interrupted with the arrival on the field of Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. The high-church solemnity abruptly gives way to something more kinetic, something more akin to a holy-rolling evangelical temple -- although no less devout.

Clad in a blue dress shirt, charcoal gray slacks, loafers and a tie colorfully decorated with baseball players in turn-of-the-century uniforms, McLane gregariously takes his place on the red-dirt pitcher's mound and strikes a pose for a Houston Press photographer. The interview and photo session are running over schedule, and McLane is in a hurry to catch a plane to his team's spring training facility in Kissimmee, Florida. He's gracious but impatient, and it's obvious he would rather be somewhere else -- like on his way to the airport. It's also apparent that once the camera starts snapping, McLane clearly relishes the spotlight.

The photographer instructs McLane to fold his arms, but he refuses. Arms folded across the chest give off negative body language, and that's definitely not the message Drayton McLane Jr. wants to convey on the verge of baseball's belated 1995 season. As always, he wants to do it his way. So McLane begins rocking back and forth on the mound, clapping his hands in front of him, all preacher enthusiasm and cheerleader pep. The motion is reminiscent of the protracted wind-ups of pitchers from years past.

Warming to the public relations task, McLane extends his right arm Domeward and gives the thumbs-up sign.

"Champions!" he exclaims. "We want to be champions! We are champions! You are champions! We all are champions!"

Champions.
It's McLane's motto and mantra -- and his hope. When he calls in or comes in to his Astrodome office, McLane's first question to subordinates often is, "What have you done to make us champions today?" It's part of a constant motivational ethic he has fostered at both of his businesses. Some of the men who have played the game for McLane in the past three years have found it overbearing, but non-uniformed front-office personnel say they thrive on it.

McLane has admitted to having no real interest in baseball before he bought the Astros. He came to the game as a no-nonsense businessman, unencumbered by romantic notions about baseball's mystique and history. His was a simple ethos: provide a good product and service, keep costs in line and success will be yours. But the man whose personal positive-thinking gospel is "Born to Win, Conditioned to Lose," has found that major-league baseball is a very different sort of business than grocery supply and distribution.

That Drayton McLane has come to that sobering realization was evident during the protracted players strike, when his smile-and-a-shoeshine persona seemed to be supplanted by one that was guarded, tight-lipped -- a bit, shall we say, negative, like someone conditioned to lose. Lately, McLane has even betrayed a negative thought or two in public.

"I wouldn't be here if I had known this three years ago," he conceded recently when he announced a ticket giveaway designed to lure folks out to the Dome for the rest of the season.

McLane's July 1992 purchase of the Astros from John McMullen was one of the best-received off-the-field moves in Houston sports history, rivaled in popularity only by the Oilers' drafting of Earl Campbell or the Astros' signing of local hero Nolan Ryan, baseball's first million-dollar man.

Ironically, Ryan was involved in what arguably was the most unpopular off-the-field move -- one that lead indirectly to McLane's purchase of the Astros. Fans never forgave McMullen for allowing Ryan to leave Houston for the Texas Rangers in 1989. Astrodome attendance declined drastically after Ryan's departure, and McMullen did nothing to get back into the good graces of the city as he went about further dismantling a popular team that had made it to the National League Championship Series in 1986. The releases of popular players such as Jose Cruz, Billy Doran and Dave Smith were viewed by the public and the media as greed-inspired cost cutting by an absentee owner from New Jersey. Houston began to take John McMullen personally.  

It was in that atmosphere that McMullen began shopping the Astros in early 1990. Rumors flew that one group of investors was interested in buying the team and moving it to Washington, D.C. But by November of that year, McMullen had entered into negotiations with the Onstead family of Houston, the owners of Randall's supermarkets. The Onsteads were joined in early 1991 by the team of Ben Love, the former Texas Commerce Bank chairman, and his son, Jeff Love. Several other businessmen were soon invited to join in the negotiations with McMullen -- including Drayton McLane Jr. of Temple, whose McLane Company was a supplier for the Onsteads' chain before he sold it to another longtime customer, Sam Walton.

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.)

"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."

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."

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.

Despite being fired by McLane, former general manager Wood thinks that McLane, if he'll give it time, will prove to be the kind of owner that Houston and the Astros need. Baseball, after all, is a game that moves to its own timeless rhythms. It takes time to come to an appreciation of the game.

"Drayton doesn't understand the game," says Wood. "Drayton doesn't like history. History is important to baseball cultists. But I believe he will come to grasp that. I believe Drayton is the right owner for Houston."

It was 48 hours before Opening Day, that time of year when even the most cynical of baseball fans, even in this most cynical of times for baseball, can look forward with hope.

In his cushioned box seat behind the Dome's home plate, Drayton McLane, a man who's not partial to cynicism or negativity, was getting a close-up look at his high-priced talent during an exhibition game with the Rangers. Whatever he discerned on the field, McLane couldn't have been pleased with what he saw in the stands: less than 6,000 fans elected to join him for the Astros' first appearance in the Dome since last year's strike-shortened season.

Although McLane insisted that he wasn't bothered by so many empty seats, he would be a fool not to have been. And Drayton McLane is no fool. An hour earlier, McLane had convened a press conference to announce a package of enticements for this weekend's home stand -- including the giving away of all of the 54,350 tickets for Friday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies. It's a move that, according to the Astros, is unprecedented in baseball history, and one that McLane hopes will light a fire under Astros fans. McLane was no doubt encouraged that the free tickets were snatched up in six hours during business hours on a weekday.  

But Drayton McLane isn't in business to give away free tickets, no matter how much he might pull in on increased parking and concessions revenue from the giveaway. He couldn't have been overjoyed, either, when only 28,000 tickets were sold for the Astros' home opener (the actual turnout looked much smaller in the Dome) on a Friday night when 40,000 fans were expected.

And while he isn't reaching for the panic button just yet, McLane has made it known he's considering putting 25 percent of the team up for sale. If he does, Jeff Love says he and his father stand ready to step up to the plate for their friend.

"Our response would be affirmative because of the quality of person that Drayton is," Love says of the prospect of him and his father becoming limited partners with McLane. "I think it's important that if Drayton would seek support that Houstonians support him. I don't think it is his duty to be an eleemosynary institution on behalf of Houstonians. If he has the proclivity toward selling a portion of the team, because of our respect for Drayton, my father and I would invest."

When McLane bought the club he envisioned spending one day a week in Houston. As it turns out, he spends three or four days here tending to Astros business. But all that attention, he says, has brought Astros fans an attractive package.

"We've changed everything from the Astrodome, to management, to players, to the uniforms," he notes.

What else, McLane asks, can get fans excited?
A championship, of course, would help.
But whatever happens on the field, McLane warns that the team's future in Houston is in large part up to the people of the city.

"Houston has got to decide if it really wants to support major-league baseball," he says.

If you close your eyes, you easily can imagine John McMullen making that statement. But let's hold those negative thoughts for while.


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