Opening ceremonies of Little League seasons tend to bring the same comfortable charms of Americana year after year. It's cute kids, plenty of American flags and good-meaning speeches about sportsmanship that you hope the parents take to heart.
Then, everyone runs off to eat, play games or get out of the Texas sun.
So it was no small surprise when I went to my son's tee ball opening ceremony earlier this spring and found a good part of the welcoming talk centered around Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. It turned out that Crane had visited the Timbergrove Sports Association fields the evening before the opening ceremonies to quietly take a tour of the facilities. It's part of Crane's largely underground effort to visit as many youth baseball leagues in the Houston area as he can to determine which would most benefit from the Astros help, which would most effectively help spread the game in the city.
This is the new Astros way. Needless waiting around goes against everything Crane believes in.
Crane didn't make his visit to Timbergrove to grab headlines. He didn't show up during the opening ceremonies when hundreds of parents would be there. He didn't try to make the kids' day about promoting the Astros or his personal mission. Instead, he did it behind the scenes, impressing the volunteers who run leagues like this with his questions on a night when no games were being played, when no one would see the multimillionaire Major League owner doing his homework.
And Crane's done this type of thing at a number of local youth baseball leagues — with most of his visits going unpublicized.
"We're going to announce something on (the Astros' new youth baseball initiatives) soon," Crane told me when asked, seeming surprised that a reporter knew about some of his visits. "We're doing our due diligence and putting everything together."
I couldn't help but think about this exchange again this week as the Astros shocked baseball by not only boldly taking Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with No. 1 overall pick in the draft, but having him signed, sealed and delivered for a Thursday afternoon press conference at Minute Maid Park. And not only signed, but signed for far less ($4.8 million) than his slot value in MLB's new system ($7.2 million) giving the Astros a real chance at actually signing highly-rated high school pitcher Lance McCullers as a second top 20 level talent as well.
General manager Jeff Luhnow is the man who pulled it off. (Crane didn't show up for Correa's press conference. He didn't feel the need to be on TV draft night either. Jerry Jones — or even Drayton McLane — he is not).
But Luhnow did it following the blueprint of Crane. It is clear that Crane, team president George Postolos and Luhnow share a belief system on attacking a problem.
1). Take as much time as you need to research every angle. (Luhnow says the Astros didn't make the final decision on going with Correa No. 1 until the last hour before the draft).
2). Don't be afraid to take a big risk. (No one had the Astros drafting Correa).
3). Once you make the decision, execute it swiftly, boldly and without second thought. (Correa is signed less than 72 hours after he's picked. It probably would have been closer to 48 hours too if the shortstop hadn't felt the pull of returning to Puerto Rico for a heck of a send-off party — one in which the first Pureto Rican ever taken No. 1 found himself met at the airport by a huge crowd, one in which everyone in Correa's hometown of Santa Isabel seemed to take to the streets once he arrived there).
Still there Correa is at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, taking batting practice with the big leaguers and slapping the hands of fans who got into the building early.
This is the new Astros way. Needless waiting around goes against everything Crane believes in. He made his fortune in the shipping business. Yesterday is his operative timeline for getting things done.
No wonder the Astros drafted a 17-year-old who seems determined to make it to the Majors before he's 20. Plenty of people may roll their eyes when they hear that 17-year-old talked about his drive to make the Hall of Fame in his first appearance as a member of the Astros organization. At least part of Crane probably loved it.
He's not very timid either.
Swing For The Fences
Crane talked about changing the Astros name — and then declared the possibility dead — all in about a week's span. He's attacked making the ballpark more fan friendly in ways both big picture (changing the policy on allowing outside food in) and personal (before the first game of the Texas Rangers' series at Minute Maid, I happened to notice Crane pluck a young kid watching batting practice from the cordoned-off VIP viewing area and bring him right next to the cage with him. So the kid — who was clearly a Rangers fan — could have an even better view of his heroes).
That's Crane. He doesn't discriminate against rival fans. He just loves baseball — and seems to truly love spreading the joy of baseball. Mostly under the radar.
"I'd like to be able to help more kids get the opportunity I had through baseball," Crane said.
It's easy to see why helping youth baseball grow is one of this former small college All-American pitcher's true passions.
"I didn't grow up in an upper class or an upper middle class background," Crane said. "Baseball was very important to my own development. Playing baseball made me a lot more confident and comfortable in my ability to achieve things.
"I'd like to be able to help more kids get the opportunity I had through baseball."
So Crane tours those local youth fields even as the Major League season plays out (including nights in which the Astros lose 14-2). At the Astros Pink in the Park luncheon, which raised money to fight breast cancer, earlier this season, Crane laid out three areas of charitable focus for the Astros: 1). Cancer 2). Youth Baseball and 3). Helping the military, particularly veterans.
"I want us to stress doing bigger and better things for people in the community," Crane said.
You'd better be on board too. The only Astro player excused from not going to Pink in the Park on a game day was that night's starting pitcher. This is the way of Crane.
It's something to think about on a night when Correa took his first hacks in the Minute Maid cage and the hoopla threatened to hit warp speed.
"“This is a monumental day for us, for (Correa) and for the city of Houston,” Luhnow said.
Maybe. Who knows if Correa will ever turn out to be the superstar he expects to be? Who knows if Crane will ever be thought of as a great owner someday?
It's much too early for any of that. What is clear though is this owner and his hand-picked team of lieutenants have clear, concise, bold plans. Plans that they'll attack — full speed ahead.