Last week I offered up my thoughts on why Bob McNair is the worst owner in Houston sports history. I contrasted McNair with Bud Adams, the man who brought professional sports to Houston when he bought a AFL franchise and named it the Oilers. Many readers took exception, with several stating that McNair is above criticism because he spent his money to bring professional football back to Houston — does that Adams, then, is above criticism because he was the one who brought professional football to Houston in the first place?
Several people offered up other suggestions for who the owns that worst-owner title. The popular answer, of course, Bud Adams, but several readers named John McMullen, the former owner of the Houston Astros. And I’ll be honest here: I’ve never understood for the hatred for McMullen.
Whenever McMullen is mentioned as a bad team owner, people seem to offer up a few reasons. There’s the bit about him firing Tal Smith not long after the Astros won a division title. Then there’s McMullen letting Nolan Ryan sign with the Texas Rangers. He also fired Gene Elston and foisted Milo Hamilton upon Houston. And McMullen wasn’t from Houston, he didn’t live in Houston, and he never kissed up to the Houston media.
But let’s remember these basics: McMullen purchased a team mired in bankruptcy, a team that nobody in Houston or Texas made any real effort to purchase. While McMullen did fire Smith, he did employ GMs like Al Rosen and Dick Wagner who had good reputations in baseball, and it was McMullen who eventually made Bill Wood the general manager, and it was Wood who masterminded the late-80s dismantling of the Astros that in turn laid the foundation for the team of the 1990s-2000s. McMullen reinvigorated the Astros farm system, signed draft picks, and invested in the Venezuelan academy that loaded up the Astros with talent for many, many years.
The team that McMullen ended up selling to Drayton McLane was a team that had Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Daryl Kile, Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley on its Major League roster. The farm system was one of the best in baseball. Bill Wood was a respected GM, and Art Howe was developing the talent. When McLane sold the Astros to Jim Crane, the farm system was one of the worst in baseball, there was almost no talent on the MLB roster, Ed Wade was the GM. So yeah, how exactly again is McMullen the worst owner in Houston sports history?
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McMullen did fire Tal Smith, which wasn’t a very popular decision. It was Smith who ran the team while the Astros were in bankruptcy, and who built up a team that was finally positioned to compete for the postseason. Sure, it was a questionable call for McMullen to fire Smith, but then again, it was McMullen’s team and he had the right to have a guy working for him who fit in with his philosophy. After all, Drayton McLane did fire Bill Wood and Gerry Hunsicker, two general managers who were responsible for building the Astros playoffs teams of the 1990s and 2000s.
And yes, McMullen chose not to re-sign Nolan Ryan, letting Ryan go to the Rangers, where he proceeded to throw two more no-hitters, go over the 4,000-strikeout mark and get his 300th career win. There are several things that need to be remembered, however. It was McMullen who brought Ryan to Houston, giving him what was, at the time, the largest contract in baseball — and a contract that Tal Smith argued against. Ryan had also been suffering injuries during the end of his Astros career, and was on a pitch count to prevent overuse. McMullen did want to bring Ryan back, yet he didn’t want to pay Ryan what Ryan wanted — the only team that wanted to pay Ryan what Ryan wanted was the Rangers — because there were lots of baseball people who thought Ryan might have reached the end of his career.
The one truly unforgivable thing that McMullen did was to fire Gene Elston. Elston was the original voice of the Astros who spoke in a calm voice, painted pictures and didn’t get in the way of the game. Milo Hamilton was a homer, a screamer, who thought he was more important than what happened on the field. The radio broadcast of Astros baseball has been awful since then, but that’s nowhere near enough to make McMullen the worst owner in Houston sports history.
So no, John McMullen is not the worst sports owner in Houston sports history. He might not have been from Houston, and he might not have lived here, but that’s got nothing to do with what he did as an owner. He saved a team wallowing in bankruptcy, built up a deep, deep farm system, and sold to Drayton McLane the foundation of a team that would compete for many, many years. And if that’s the best reason you can offer up for Bob McNair not being the worst owner in Houston sports history, then you probably need to start over.