Beyond the Boxscore

The shyest owner in sports? The underestimating of new Astros owner Jim Crane begins

The shyest owner in sports? The underestimating of new Astros owner Jim Crane begins

Expect to hear Jim Crane called shy a lot in the coming months, as this town gets to know — or tries to get to know — the Houston Astros new owner. It's an easy assumption to make about the 57-year-old freight shipping wiz. A quick label for a world that loves labels.

Even Crane's wife Franci catches herself making it after the press conference that introduces her husband to the world beyond business.

"Jim is shy," Franci Crane says. "No, that's not the right word. Jim is reserved."

He is also entering one of the most uniquely high-profile designations in America: professional sports owner. You can turn a $10,000 loan from your sister into a Fortune 1000 company as Crane did, go from a 30-year-old that almost everyone but that sister probably figured would never amount to all that much to a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars as Crane did, and still rather easily, successfully avoid the public eye if that's what you wish.

But the moment that mega-rich guy enters the roll call of professional sports owners, especially if it's for one of the big three (baseball, basketball, football) ... well, all low-key bets are off.

It's easy to imagine Crane being overwhelmed by this transformation. It'd be no great leap to declare the signs a little ominous in the introductory day one of his reign either. After all, he does walk away from the microphone and almost right off the dais after his series of opening remarks. For a moment, Crane looks like he wants to bolt right out of the packed press conference room.

And shortly after Drayton McLane had declared, "In almost 50 years of Houston Astros baseball, this is one of the most important days in the history of this franchise" no less.

It is only a moment though. And Jim Crane's overcome much more than having to stand in front of a room bursting with as McLane puts it, "so many people that care about Astros baseball." And more than a few who won't hesitate to tell Crane how he should be running the team.

Franci Crane explains how her husband dealt with dyslexia growing up in an age when few recognized what that even was, how baseball got him through in many ways, makes it clear this packed room obstacle is really nothing for her man.

"He has a real love for baseball," Franci says. "He believes a lot of his success is tied to the game and his experiences in college baseball. Jim was not a natural student. He was smart, but he had dyslexia and school wasn't easy for him. He had some struggles in school.

"But he had a wonderful coach who meant so much to him."

That coach was Robert Tompkins of Division II University of Central Missouri, a man who kept Jim Crane from dropping out of school at least twice, once after Crane's father died and it would have been easy for a college sophomore-to-be to drift home to St. Louis and fall into some dead-end job.

Jim Crane would tell this same story without many of the details, focus on how baseball taught him "discipline" rather than opening up about a tough time. It's clear that Franci Crane is the storyteller in this marriage. Jim Crane? Well, he just wants to get things done.

"Jim doesn't want to be the center of attention," Franci Crane says. "He doesn't feel the need to be out in front all time. He wants to let others be front and center and enjoy the moment."

It's an approach that couldn't be more alien in the character-driven world of Houston sports owners. Even at age 74, McLane can gobble up all the oxygen in a room. He commands the stage with ease at Crane's introduction, does everything but break into a jig.

And Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander? Any reporter knows that you never miss a Les Alexander appearance because you never know quite what he'll say. Sometimes, he might not either.

Even Bob McNair — who has to be considered the gentleman statesman of this veteran trio — will announce to a crowd that his Texans are going to kick someone's ass now and again. Don't hold your breath for any of that from Jim Crane.

Houston sports fans will have to get used to a different type of sports owner. One who is more than content to let the sports people he hires (starting with a new Astros CEO, George Postolos) do their jobs as long as they do them well. Crane may have once partnered with Mark Cuban to try and make his baseball ownership dream come true, but he's about as far from the look-at-me Cuban as one can get.

Not moving into Minute Maid 

This former small college All-American may live and breathe baseball, but that doesn't mean he's barging in. On his first day, Crane says he does not expect to even have an office at Minute Maid Park.

"No, I still have other business interests to keep track of and run," he explains. "I'll probably keep my same office."

That would be at Crane Worldwide Logistics' more low-key digs rather than the bright klieg lights of a Major League Baseball stadium. Crane talked about how his "old company" (Eagle Global Logistics) used to have a suite at Minute Maid, Suite 21 if he remembers correctly. Since, Eagle was nabbed by an aggressive takeover firm — a move that earned Crane well in excess of $300 million, and one that clearly still annoys him ("I lost the business," he says) — he estimates he's gone to 10-15 Astros games a season.

Hey, he's been building another international freight and logistics company. He's been busy.

Those who know Crane well expect him to watch his games as the new owner mostly out of the way in a suite again rather than behind home plate, front and center a la Drayton. Crane says that as a former college baseball ace pitcher he can notice things watching a game that the average fan might not pick up, but jokes that means he "knows just enough to be dangerous." All indications point to the Crane-led Astros relying heavily on statistical analysis and sabermetrics, leaning much more Moneyball than scout's instinct. 

Which doesn't mean that Crane is a cold-hearted numbers cruncher.

"Jim might not come over and slap you on the back and be all 'Hey buddy, how are you doing?' with people," Franci Crane says, doing just that to this reporter to make her point, showing her own All-American people skills in the process. "But that doesn't mean that's not in his heart. He really cares about people."

Yes, this is a different type of Houston sports owner. Jim Crane might take some getting used to around here. But why not give him and this style a shot? What, the other way's left us overflowing with championships?

Remember it's reserved, not shy.

Editor's note: Read about Jim Crane's views on the New York Yankees' model of baseball and why he's a realist on the road ahead for the Houston Astros.

News_Jim Crane_Franci Crane
Jim Crane and his wife Franci. He was an All-American pitcher. She has All-American people skills. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchlightGroup.com
Moneyball photo
Jim Crane seems poised to give the Astros a more Moneyball, stats-based approach.
News_Cinema Arts Fest Nov. 2009_Wyatt party_Bob Cavnar_Jim Crane_Sanford Criner
Jim Crane may be in the center of his this photo, but he the new Astros owner is more than happy to let others have the spotlight. Jeff Fitlow