Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When Drayton almost moved the Astros to Virginia

Maybe you remember, maybe you don't. I had to spend some time taking some hate-filled trips down Memory Lane to get the full story in my mind of when Drayton almost sold the Astros to D.C. businessman Bill Collins, whereupon he would move the Astros to northern Virginia.

On October 18, 1995 owner Drayton McLane confirmed the possibility that he had discussed the possibility of selling the team to a group headed by telecom magnate Bill Collins "on three occasions" with the expressed intentions of relocating the franchise to Virginia. Collins had previously attempted to buy the Pirates, Expos, Mariners, and Giants.

The AP report said that "dismal fan support is forcing McLane to consider a sale simply to protect his personal fortune." Among Drayton's claims:

1) He personally lost $65 million in the three years after buying the team from Dr. John McMullen
2) McLane could lose $20 million in 1996.

McLane told the AP:
"I have visited with Bill Collins but it is premature to draw any conclusions from our talks...If we had just been able to break even, this would not be an issue. We have to face reality. I'm not sure whether Houston can be a baseball town in today's financial situation with the game."

This prompted Mayor Bob Lanier and Harris County officials to meet with Drayton the following week. Lanier:
"I think the community needs to help him, and I want to help him as best I can...If we want to keep the Astros, if they are important to this community...it just comes down to people buying season tickets."

Drayton gave the city two weeks to demonstrate the fan support necessary for Drayton not to sell the team, and keep them in Houston.

Yet within that two week window, ESPN and the Washington Post both reported on October 27, 1995 that Drayton had agreed to sell the Astros to Bill Collins for $150 million. George Barton, of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, was quoted as saying "an agreement has been made. There has been a handshake." Denials were made, and "vigorously."

While NL officials were qualifying the deal as in its infancy - McLane hadn't been given permission to even start negotiating - he was still at least asking for permission. (Interestingly enough, in the previously linked NYT story, the Astros had just interviewed Gerry Hunsicker - the Mets' assistant vice president of baseball operations - for the open GM job.

On November 7, we got an update. McLane was alleged to demand the sale of at least 25,000 season tickets to keep the Astros in Houston (who averaged approximately 19,000 fans in the strike-shortened season). McLane's attendance goal was between 30,000-35,000.

Mayor Lanier and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels created a committee to study the possibility of building a new stadium downtown, but Eckels didn't sound optimistic:
"I have no idea what is going to happen. I'm hoping to talk with him before making a decision."

McLane met with two U.S. Representatives and complained further about "losing money:"
"The question is: Do the people of Houston really want to support a major-league baseball team? And if not, the team should go elsewhere."

McLane wanted serious improvements made to the Astrodome, but said in late October that a retractable-roof stadium would be the most ideal option for the team.

Negotiations dragged on for almost a year. 48 of the 81 home games at the Astrodome saw attendance over 20,000 as the Astros finished 82-80, 2nd in the NL Central.

Early on September 13, 1996, McLane told the AP:
"We made a lot of progress in the last two days, so we hope we could reach some agreement in the next three days. I'm very confident that we can. But if we can't, we would move forward."

He told the Chronicle that he wanted $20m - payable over three years - to cover his estimated losses  until financing for the stadium was approved. This was double what Judge Eckels was willing to pay. If this was not agreed to, McLane would resume negotiations with Bill Collins.

Later that day McLane and Houston/Harris County officials struck a deal to keep the Astros in Houston for 30 years in a downtown stadium.

A November 1996 referendum passed in Harris County with only 51% of the vote (out of over 775,000 votes, it passed by under 17,000 votes) to construct a $265m stadium downtown - which was enough to keep McLane happy, and keep the Astros in Houston. McLane said:
 "This will keep baseball here well into the next century. This is something we had to have to be competitive and I'll be happy to tell the other owners that we're moving forward in Houston."

And that, friends, is how Uncle Drayton held Houston hostage until they agreed to build him a shiny new stadium, on which construction began on October 31, 1997 and Enron Field opened on April 7, 2000.