Houston’s Crane Lifts Astros Into the Black, and Another World Series

Jim Crane has owned the Houston Astros for 11 sometimes tumultuous seasons. But his tenure has produced great success, both competitively and financially.

When it comes to local revenue, Crane—whose holdings include Crane Capital Group, of which he is chairman and chief executive—said the Astros are now among the top five generators in Major League Baseball.

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“When I bought the club, we weren’t too good,” Crane said in an interview behind the batting cage at Minute Maid Park the day before Friday’s World Series opener against the Philadelphia Phillies. “I know the merchandise back then was $3 million to $4 million in house. Now you can add a zero to the end of that. We’ve done better in just about everything—attendance, in-the-house merchandise and concessions. It’s all been built up where previously we were scrambling.”

On the field, the Astros are in the World Series for the fourth time in the past six years and two years in a row, after losing to the Atlanta Braves in six games last year.

They beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 in a seven-game battle later tainted by their sign-stealing scandal, and then lost to the Washington Nationals in another seven-game series in 2019 only a month before the scandal came to light.

After MLB’s subsequent investigation, the league suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, fined the team $5 million and took away two years of top draft picks. Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch, replacing them with James Click and Dusty Baker, respectively.

Click and Baker are at the end of their contracts, and Crane said a decision on both returning has been delayed until after the World Series.

No MLB team has had a run of success like Houston’s since the New York Yankees of 1996 to 2003. Those Yanks went to the World Series six times in eight years winning four of them, three in a row from 1998-2000. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and manager Joe Torre have all been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame off of those teams.

The Astros are not there yet. Crane, 68, is well aware.

“I’ll let you guys write about if this is a dynasty,” he said. “It’s not for me to call. I’m just concentrating on winning this World Series right now.”

All the other accruing numbers are good.

The Astros had 58 wins and home attendance of 2,067,016 in 2011, the season before Crane bought the team from Drayton McLane for $680 million that included the lease on publicly owned Minute Maid Park. This year, Sportico valued the club at $2.4 billion, a hefty increase, and attendance hit 2,688,998, near the team’s all-time high.

“When I bought it, the revenue was so bad we had to hold a few concerts,” Crane said. “I said, ‘We ought to just hold concerts and get rid of the team.’ We were making a lot more money on the concerts.”

The on-again, off-again negotiations with McLane included a stipulation that the Astros move from the National League to American League, which was almost a deal-killer for Crane because of Houston’s decades-long affiliation with the NL.

McLane and then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig had agreed on the league switch and that remained part of the deal. But McLane was so intent on getting out, he and MLB ultimately agreed to refund $70 million off the $680 million price—$35 million from McLane and $35 million from MLB—to close the sale, which happened in November 2011.

Moving to the American League turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Crane and the Astros, who likely wouldn’t have dominated the NL after Guggenheim Baseball Management bought the Dodgers, funding them to a 10-year playoff run and nine out of 10 NL West titles since then.

“We had a contract for the NL, but we agreed to go,” said Crane, whose net worth as businessman is $1.4 billion. “It was one of those deals where they were trying to level out the teams in each league [to 15 and 15]. We have to travel a lot more. They certainly could realign. That’s something I would be in favor of.”

During Crane’s first three years owning the club, it suffered 210 losses as Luhnow built the team with high draft picks and international signings. In Crane’s first season, the Astros went 55-107 and had an active player payroll of $64.7 million, according to Spotrac.

They’ve won 100 or more games in five of the last six full seasons, and this season posted a total payroll of $152.8 million, sixth highest in MLB.

“We could easily afford to go over $200 million now,” Crane said.

More recently, the team took a hit of over $100 million in losses during the pandemic-shortened, 60-game 2020 season, which was played without fans, Crane said.

“That was a big blow to all the teams,” he added. “All of them lost a ton of money. This year, the league has really bounced back very nice.”

The team has all its core veterans tied up on contracts at least through the 2024 season and younger players on arbitration tracks.

Justin Verlander is the only loose end; he can opt out of his $25 million deal for 2023, and Crane expects him to do so.

That leaves Click and Baker pending.

Since the Astros have continued to win even as key players have left in free agency or were knocked out by injury, it’s hard to imagine Crane not asking both of them back.

“Dusty came in here under very trying circumstances and has done a good job,” Crane said.

Of course, Baker will have his say. He’s 73 and trying to win his first World Series in his 25th year as a manager, spanning across five teams. If the Astros prevail over the Phillies, it’s possible Baker could finally walk away.

“I mean my future is now. My future is today,” Baker said during a recent media session. “I’m not really worried about my future, because after having cancer and having a stroke, I’m just glad to be here today and watch the sun come up every day. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that for the next 10 to 12 years.”

Baker’s health will influence his decision about the future. “I don’t want to be a distraction to my team,” he said. “I’ll let you know at the end of this year.”

Now it’s time to play ball.

The Astros have sold 2,000 standing-room tickets for the next two World Series home games and ticket prices are zooming on the secondary market.

“We’re maxed out,” Crane said.

No one can say that about Crane’s Astros. Their future, short term and long term, looks exceedingly bright.

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