Jim Crane? The Astros Need a Bill Veeck

Well, maybe not all of Veeck's ideas
Well, maybe not all of Veeck's ideas

It's a depressing time to be a fan of the Houston Astros. The team's bad. The starting pitchers have trouble getting through the first inning. The games aren't currently available to most of the viewing public (yesterday's free CSN Houston offering notwithstanding). The new radio team actually makes listeners miss Milo Hamilton.

But it would be possible to deal with all of that, probably, if it felt as if the Astros actually cared about the fans. Not the players, not the coaches or front office, but the owner and the business folks. There's the brand-new expanded dynamic pricing, which, for some games, is actually more premium pricing than it is dynamic pricing. There's owner Jim Crane telling fans to shut up about the team unless they have a $10 million check to give him.

The thing about the Crane ownership is that one just kind of gets the feeling that Crane couldn't care less if fans attend the games. It seems to be more about showing off his toy for his friends and using his toy to curry political favors with those who, while not better than him, might have a bit more power than him, e.g., playing golf with the President.

Then there's the comparison to owners past, past Astros owners and past MLB owners. For instance, there's former MLB owner Bill Veeck. Veeck's primarily remembered now for some of his wacky stunts, such as sending a midget to bat during a game, the exploding scoreboard after home runs, players wearing shorts, and for allowing his son to stage the infamous Disco Demolition Night.

Veeck owned three major league teams, the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns (right before they became the Baltimore Orioles) and twice the Chicago White Sox. For all the perceived wackiness of his stunts, he was a strong baseball mind who built numerous teams on a shoestring budget and saw two of them make the World Series, the 1948 Indians and the 1959 White Sox. But reading about Veeck, reading things said by Veeck, one is really stricken by one thing: Veeck loved baseball, and he loved baseball fans perhaps more than any owner before or since.   Everybody remembers how Drayton McLane plopped himself down in the seats right behind home plate and held court with politicians and rich people every night. Veeck also liked to sit in the seats and hold court during the games, but he would never sit in the rich seats behind the plate. He liked to sit with the real fans, and would be found in the bleachers during the games. He tried to keep ticket prices reasonable, and he believed all of the fans, not just the rich fans, deserved a first-class experience at the ballpark.

Does anyone really believe that Jim Crane, or Drayton McLane, has ever given a damn about what the fans sitting in the cheap seats think about anything? The Astros are always trumpeting new suites and the fancy foods that can only be purchased on the suite level. But Veeck was concerned about the basics, like finding the proper mustard for the hot dogs.

One of Veeck's first steps as owner of the Indians was to allow the fans to keep foul balls hit into the stands, which differs from the Crane attitude during the College Classic, where fans were being forced to return the baseballs. Veeck pushed for night baseball because night games made it easier for his working-class fans to attend games.

And Veeck, unlike Crane, was never afraid to piss off the commissioner or his fellow owners. He overpaid players, integrated the American League, supported the end of the reserve clause and testified on behalf of Curt Flood in Flood's fight to gain free agency. He was a friend of all unions, including the players' union, and was loved by his staff, unlike Crane, who seems to be running the Astros business office like it's a sweat shop. Veeck was also a war hero, an unabashed liberal, and he voted for the Socialist candidate for president, whereas Crane's a war profiteer who doesn't really appear to hold any political views besides the ones that will get his company government favors.

A biography of Veeck, Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, was released last year, and it's a fascinating read about a baseball lover who loved nothing more than baseball. There's no biography out on Jim Crane, but his foibles are seemingly written about on a near daily basis.

There's never going to be another sports owner like Bill Veeck, and fans are the worse for it. With more and more guys like Jim Crane running and operating baseball teams, the fans may never again have someone championing the cause of the person who's not able to hand over a $10 million check. And Hell will probably freeze over before Crane condescends to sit in the cheap seats surrounded by real fans.

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