There are some incredible perks of being in the sports media. One of them is getting access to things about which I would only dream otherwise.
This week I was fortunate to be Jim Crane’s guest on a trip to Kissimmee for the Astros last grapefruit league game. The Astros generously offered me, and several other local radio and TV members, the chance to join the team owner on his private plane for a one day baseball junket.
Yes, we flew on his private plane. Yes, it’s incredibly nice.
Crane is a gracious host and this is a chance for an extended face-to-face visit with him. And he is surprisingly hospitable, even personally serving drinks and snacks to his guests.
I’m not naïve enough to think this is just from the bottom of his gracious heart. This is certainly a chance to schmooze the media that will be reporting on his historically awful major league team for the remaining fans it has in greater Houston.
But Crane doesn’t come across as a disingenuous huckster either.
He offered surprisingly candid opinions on a number of topics, including CSN, the Astros payroll and his love of baseball. And we also got to see the Astros final game of spring training.
Here are a few of my personal observations from my trip with Jim Crane and our visit to Astros camp.
–The CSN thing is complicated beyond belief. Rather than bog you down in the minutiae, I’ll try to boil it down to the bottom line from the Astros perspective.
Crane has not been getting paid by CSN Houston (his rights fees are $50+ million/year) because the local cable network can’t get other satellite and cable carriers to pick it up. But CSN’s parent company, Comcast, could clearly afford to pay him.
Like him or not, Crane is a shrewd businessman and it doesn’t make sense for him to sign off on a TV contract that will cost him millions of dollars in losses every year.
If he can get out from the CSN Houston deal, he at least has a chance to recoup some of his losses. The problem is the Astros, by design, stink right now, so there is little public clamor for the team’s games to be televised to more than half of the Houston market.
–Crane has a long term plan and he’s sticking to it. The Astros three consecutive 100 loss seasons didn’t come from ineptitude. There’s actually a process in place.
With the stripped down team and barren farm system he bought from Drayton McLane, it didn’t make sense to start pouring money into free agents.
Teams that are successful in the long run start with top-notch farm systems. Unlike the NFL and NBA, top prospects don’t step in and have an immediate impact. It takes time to build a winner.
The Astros, since Crane bought the club, have gone from the bottom to the top in minor league depth. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll be a contender anytime soon. But it gives them some hope for long term success again.
–There is a plan in place to spend more money on players. The Astros payroll is climbing close to 50 million dollars again. And I believe Crane will put more money into the major league payroll in the future, as the team’s top prospects reach the major leagues and the ball club returns to respectability.
–The cavalry will finally be coming to Minute Maid Park this season. George Springer and Jonathan Singleton will arrive in Houston by the end of the summer. Mark Appel won’t be far behind and Carlos Correa, the prize of the system, will follow.
–Correa is the real deal. Most prospects, even the best in baseball, have no better than a 50-50 chance of becoming successful major leagues. But Correa is one of those special players who comes along once in a generation.
He’s still at least two years away. But he’ll be the face of the franchise when the Astros are a contender again.
–The Astros will have the smallest cleanup hitter in major league history, at least to start the season. Bo Porter is going to have Jose Altuve batting fourth against right handers.
The skipper wants to get Robbie Grossman, and his better on base percentage, into the two hole. And he says with Altuve batting in front of Chris Carter, then Carter should get more fastballs because Altuve is the team’s best base stealer.
I doubt it will last but I don’t mind managers thinking outside the box. By the end of April, I’ll bet Altuve is back in the two hole.
–Mark Appel looks the part. The former number one pick made his spring debut Wednesday night. He was impressive.
Appel is a big workhorse-type pitcher. He may never be an ace, but he should be the kind of guy who can anchor a playoff-caliber rotation for years to come.
–Flying private is the way to go. No security lines, no waiting at the gate. You get to the terminal, load your bags in the back and take off. I’ve been fortunate enough to do this a couple of times and I can only say I hope to own my own private jet someday. And a big league ballclub too. And a golf course. And my own private island.