Is Drayton McLane Really the Best Astros Owner Ever?

john mcmullen.jpg
John McMullen, former Astros owner
Sometime this month the 29 MLB owners will approve the purchase of the Houston Astros by Jim Crane. Drayton McLane, the man selling the Astros, will be referred to as the greatest owner in Astros history. The man who turned the team into a winner. Who took them to the World Series. The man who got a new stadium built and who made sure that heroes like Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were honored.

But in the midst of the tributes, it needs to be asked: Is Drayton McLane really the best owner in Astros history? I know that seems to be the accepted opinion, but is it true?

Let's look at some history. McLane purchased a team that was going through a massive rebuilding stage started by John McMullen and enacted by general manager Bill Wood. The team McLane purchased included a former rookie of the year, Jeff Bagwell. Craig Biggio and Ken Caminiti were emerging as stars. Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez made up the heart of a good outfield. Pete Harnisch and Darryl Kile were two parts of the rotation, and Shane Reynolds had seen some limited time in the majors. The farm system was stacked and was an envy of the majors.

Nearly 20 years later, Jim Crane is buying a team undergoing a massive rebuilding stage urged on by McLane and put into action by general manager Ed Wade. The team that Crane's purchasing includes an overweight, overpaid left fielder/first baseman, Carlos Lee, and a couple of pitchers that couldn't be traded because of bad contracts. There's some young talent on the team, but the supposed young star around whom the team was to be built, Brett Wallace, has been sent back to the minors. A minor league system that many people consider to be one of the worst in baseball.

The 1992 Houston Astros were a team on the verge of greatness, and over the next 15 years, the team, still living off of the work done by Wood, went to the playoffs six times, made the NLCS twice and made the World Series. The team that McMullen owned only made the playoffs three times, playing in the NLCS twice and losing in two of the most memorable baseball playoff series of all time.

John McMullen is still hated by Houston baseball fans. He fired Tal Smith after the team made the playoffs in 1980. He let Nolan Ryan leave after the 1988 season because he thought Ryan was washed up and not worth the money. He fired Gene Elston and released Jose Cruz and Alan Ashby. He was a carpetbagger who never tried to fit in. He wasn't happy with the Astrodome, and fought to have the county make improvements.

Soon to be former owner Drayton
Yes he did all of those things. But he also hired smart baseball people, with guys like Tal Smith, Al Rosen, Dick Wagner and Bill Wood. He put money into the farm system and into overseas scouting. He saved a team that had been left to flounder in bankruptcy.

Drayton McLane is loved by Astros fans, though many hate what has become of the club lately. McLane, after all, was the owner when the team went to the World Series. He brought Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens home to Houston. He devoted the 2007 season to Craig Biggio's quest for 3,000 hits. He built a magnificent new ballpark in downtown Houston with huge video screens and a hill and a choo-choo train.

Of course, he trashed the farm system and killed the Venezuelan academy. He got rid of good baseball men like Bill Wood and Gerry Hunsicker and put clowns like Tim Purpura and Ed Wade in charge of the merchandise. He turned the stadium into a shrine for those afflicted by Attention Deficit Disorder. The farm system is a joke. And the team is on the way to its first 100-loss season in franchise history.

McLane's mingled with the fans and gone on the radio. He courts the media and tells corny jokes. He's a Texan, not one of those carpetbaggers.

The Drayton McLane era is almost over. A team that was in great shape and full of young stars and possessing a fantastic infrastructure when he purchased the team has been nearly destroyed. The future was bright in August of 1992. In August of 2011, not quite so.

So who was the greatest owner in the history of the Astros? Maybe that answer's not so obvious after all.

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