Jim Crane and Charlie Finley: The Future Through the Past

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A man buys a baseball team. He alienates the fans. He trades away all of the veterans with big contracts and attempts to build a team through the farm system. There's the threat of a forced move to another league. The other owners not wanting him in their club. And the commissioner treats him like an illegitimate child.

Attendance is awful. Team employees are fired left and right. There are no radio broadcasters, and the team's new radio station is a low-watt affair that cuts out a large number of fans. There's an argument over the TV deals, and fans might not know until the season starts whether they'll be able to see the games on television.

And within a short time of buying the team, the owner starts talking about how the team is losing money, has been losing money and will continue losing money unless changes are made.

This could be the story of Jim Crane, the owner of the Houston Astros. Especially after Saturday when Crane, playing in a pro-am golf tournament, started pleading poverty to the Houston Chronicle. But proving that everything old is indeed new again, this is also the story of Charlie Finley, the former owner of the Oakland A's.

Finley purchased the Kansas City A's, a team with big financial problems and an owner desperate to sell. The other league owners didn't really want Finley around, but there were no other real options. Finley decided to rebuild the A's, a bad team, from scratch. He replaced the front office and baseball staff. He alienated the fans, and he whined about his financial status, claiming year after year that he was losing money.

He moved the team to Oakland and had territorial fights with the San Francisco Giants. He feuded with Oakland over the ballpark, and saw the worst attendance numbers in baseball. He spent lots of money on his farm system, and on the draft, and angered his fellow owners with some of the contracts he gave the players he drafted. The team struggled on the field until the young players were ready, but fans were so angry with Finley that even after the A's started winning, they couldn't draw fans -- the A's drew under a million fans a season even when they were in their streak of winning three straight World Series from 1972-1974.

Finley felt persecuted by Bowie Kuhn, the then commissioner of major league baseball. And there were numerous lawsuits filed by Finley against Kuhn and baseball. Eventually Finley sold the A's, and he was left a broken man, still claiming the A's were a money-losing franchise throughout the time he owned the team, despite the A's, in fact, earning Finley a profit in all but one season that he owned the team.

The Astros are not the A's. Crane is not Finley. Bud Selig is not Bowie Kuhn. But watching what has been to the Astros over the past season, and listening to Crane whine about money, the comparisons between the A's and the Astros are inevitable.

Kuhn failed in his attempt to force Finley to move the A's to the National League -- there was an attempt made in the late-`70s to relocate the A's to Washington, D.C. in order to get rid of Finley and to have the same number of teams in each league (does that last sound familiar?). But Kuhn won every legal battle against Finley, and both hated each other. Selig has treated Crane with equal contempt, but everything Crane has done so far shows that he's more than willing to treated as Selig's lapdog, as long as Crane gets to own a baseball team. Who knows if Crane's assertions about the Astros losing money for each of the past five seasons are actually true? Finley often asserted the same thing about the A's, but according to his biographers, the team was nearly always profitable, despite the abysmal attendance, poor radio and TV contracts, a bad lease, ever-increasing salaries, and numerous expensive lawsuits against Kuhn and major league baseball.

It's hard to believe that the Astros are in such bad shape, primarily because it's hard to believe that a man supposedly as smart at business as Crane would spend so much money for a team in such bad financial state. Perhaps it's all a game of semantics. Perhaps the team is failing to show an operating profit, but that once ancillary revenue streams are added into the equation, the team is in the black -- such income would include money from MLB merchandising, the MLB national television contracts, MLB media income like MLB.com and Extra Innings. And the Astros are set to receive a rather large amount of money as part of the deal with CSN Houston, with more money to come if the team and network ever reach a deal with the other cable and satellite providers in Houston and the state.

There's a lot of Charles Finley/Oakland A's with Jim Crane and the Houston Astros. Will Crane continue following Finley's trajectory and build a winner by alienating fans, players, fellow owners, and the commissioner? Will the semantic cries of financial problems continue? Or will Crane take from the best of Finley -- the emphasis on the farm system and player development and building a winner -- while jettisoning the tantrums and tendency to self-destruction?

Through the past lies the path to the future. And the past of Charlie Finley could be the future of Jim Crane and the Astros. Or maybe Crane is following some other past leading to some other future. Some past, some path not yet known. But as of now, study the past of Oakland A's when looking for the future of the Houston Astros.

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