Beyond the Boxscore
Life in the bullpen for Jim Crane: Astros owner-in-waiting turns to baseballtalk, family & charity as MLB vets on
"I'm in the bullpen waiting to go in," Jim Crane says, shaking hands at the entrance of the Astros Wives Gala.
Crane's life is in the bullpen at the moment as he waits to be approved as the new owner of the Houston Astros in a process that's taking longer than anyone anticipated. This year's Astros Wives Black Ties and Baseball Caps gala was set up to be something of a coronation of Crane with its theme "A night of new beginnings" playing off both all the changes the Astros are undergoing and the hope of new starts for the women helped by Houston Area Women's Center, the night's beneficiary.
When a photographer asks Crane to pose for a picture, he insists that it's his beautiful daughter, not him, who would make any photo, drawing a head shake from Krystal.
When the Thursday night gala was planned, it was expected that Major League Baseball would have approved Crane by now and that he would make his first public remarks as the fifth owner in Astros history at it. Instead, Crane sits at a prominent front center table, largely seen but not heard.
If Crane is unnerved or shaken by the MLB vetting delay, he's not showing it. He escorts his daughter Krystal Thompson and her husband Garrett Thompson down the long aisles of Minute Maid Park to the field where a temporary event floor is laid out over a chunk of the green field. When a photographer asks him to pose for a picture, he insists that it's his beautiful daughter, not him, who would make any photo, drawing a head shake from Krystal.
Being a proud dad and prominent Astros fan seems to be enough for Crane this night. The owner-in-waiting claps through auctioneer Stephen Lewis' fast-paced and funny, money-drawing part of the program, listens to the poignant remarks on women trying to break an often life-long cycle of violence from Carrie Potter of the Houston Area Women's Shelter and stays all the way through impressionist legend Rich Little's closing 40-minute-plus routine (which is more than many in attendance manage).
The night ends up raising an impressive $440,000 for the Women's Center — with the help of auction items like dinner on the roof of Minute Maid Park's Union Station for 10 with celebrity chef Bryan Caswell ("Come on this guy's been on Iron Chef!" Lewis exhorts to get the price up to 10 grand) and a trip to be the guests of Astros slugger Carlos Lee ("The Michael Jordan of Panama") and his wife Mary at their private ranch in Panama.
What's a little public limbo for entertainment like this, especially when it's for a good cause?
"Everyone's been so supportive," says Summer Barmes, shortstop Clint Barmes wife who co-chaired the event with Mary Catherine Melancon, the wife of reliever Mark Melancon, with Michelle Quintero (catcher Humberto Quintero's wife) providing a huge assist as the auction chairperson.
Baseball as Bedrock
Those who know the 57-year-old Crane best aren't surprised when he uses baseball terms like the bullpen reference to describe things in everyday life or business. This former small college baseball star (Crane was an honorable mention Division II All-American pitcher at Central Missouri State) still lives and breathes the game — and leans on the lessons he says that baseball taught him more than 30 years after he threw his last college pitch.
Baseball lingo was part of his everyday business vocabulary long before Drayton McLane agreed to sell him the Astros for $680 million.
This isn't the first business bullpen Crane finds himself in. Whether you think Crane's limbo has been caused by "standard due diligence" as MLB quickly said in a statement — after speculation built that it centered on discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over hiring practices of Eagle USA Airfreight, a company built into a global player by Crane, and claims of profiteering during the Iraq War by a Crane company — or that it really is another issue, Crane is prepared.
Jim Crane wouldn't be human if it wasn't all a little nerve racking. But he still shows up for the Astros Wives Gala in his crisp tuxedo and gray bow tie, knowing he'll be the focus even though he doesn't want to be.
He's painstakingly avoided talking about the Astros like he owns them. Even the sale announcement press conference left him obviously uncomfortable. On that May day, Crane's wife Franci told CultureMap that there had been no real family celebration over reaching a deal with McLane because Crane had been close to his dream of owning a Major League team before, only to see something not work out, and he wanted to be absolutely sure it happened before relaxing.
Crane has never been close to this close before of course. He wouldn't be human if it wasn't all a little nerve racking. But he still shows up for the Astros Wives Gala in his crisp tuxedo and gray bow tie, knowing he'll be the focus even though he doesn't want to be. It's too good a cause, too good a night, to stay away.
Black Tie Moments
There's Hall of Fame broadcaster Milo Hamilton — more than 60 years of baseball history in his voice — touting the Astros Express auction item (a decked-out playhouse train complete with air conditioning, a fridge and a flat screen TV that went for more than $10,000) with "I know the craze of these kids today for the trains." And you didn't think Milo was still hip?
There's John Eddie Williams — the trial lawyer who is one of the investors in Crane's rather large ownership group — enjoying the night with his wife Sheridan.
There're honorary chairpersons George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush delivering a video message that is shown over the mammoth new scoreboard. "One last thing," Bush 41 says. "Go Astros!"
"I can't wait for them to get back from Kennebunkport and be in their seats by Labor Day," Hamilton says of the Bushes.
If you weren't a fan of pitcher Wandy Rodriguez before attending the Astros Wives Gala, you couldn't help but be one after.
There's rookie outfielder J.D. Martinez — he of the less than 80 at-bats in the big leagues — drawing the largest ovation of the night during the player introductions. That draws a chuckle from rookie pitcher Jordan Lyles — the youngest player in the Majors (before getting sent down Sunday to limit his innings) looking even younger all suited up.
There's veteran pitcher Wandy Rodriguez — arguably the Astros' best pitcher — at table 35, staying there with his wife Luz the whole night, even when the rest of the table cleared out and only two fans remained at it, including a loud guy in a cowboy hat. The next day, Rodriguez would throw eight shutout innings against the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants — and get placed on waivers for a possible trade.
If you weren't a fan of Rodriguez before attending the Astros Wives Gala, you couldn't help but be one after.
In some ways, there's nothing more admirable than being a true pro. Maybe that's what Jim Crane shows in keeping his commitment too. It isn't the night he expected, but that doesn't mean he cannot make the best of it.
"I hope you all realize that in change good things happen," Mary Catherine Melancon says. "For the Houston Astros, this is a new beginning."
Is it a good one? The jersey of traded fan favorite Hunter Pence still goes for more than any other player's in auction. Even off the heels of a recent 4-1 run at home, the Astros are still more than 40 games under .500, still headed for more than 100 losses.
Little hits a little too close to home when he closes with, "I like Houston. It's going to be great when you get around to finishing it."
Jim Crane is still stuck in the bullpen.
Is he going to be a good owner? Who can say yet? But he probably gained more than a few fans in his most public night in baseball limbo. That's a start.