Culture / Sporting Life

Keeping the Winning Pressure on James Click and Dusty Baker Shows Why Jim Crane Is the Best Owner Houston Sports Has Ever Had

The Astros' Relentless Dominating Drive Starts at the Very Top

BY // 10.07.22

Dusty Baker and Martin Maldonado embrace in the clubhouse, the 73-year-old baseball manager still chasing his first world championship pulling the catcher with orange hair into the hug. Ageless ace Justin Verlander sips an adult beverage at his locker. Relievers Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek sit next to each in front of their lockers, just sharing a few more stories.

This is how the Astros celebrated and commemorated 106 wins and headed into the five day break that comes with earning the No. 1 seed in the American League and a bye in Major League Baseball’s new expanded playoff format.

All around the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, scenes of joy and well-earned satisfaction played out. The Astros are still one of the best teams in baseball after losing Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa along their near dynastic journey. While other franchises win it all and fall apart (see the Washington Nationals, champs in 2019 and losers of 107 games in 2022), these Astros just keep rolling.

Just keep winning. Just keep dominating, sometimes in different ways.

This year the Astros win big with the best one-two-three starting pitching rotation in baseball — Verlander, workhorse Framber Valdez and the ever-underrated Cristian Javier. They win big with the young superstar duo of Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker and the forever brilliance of Jose Altuve, the ultimate teammate.

They win big because Jim Crane, the best sports owner Houston’s ever had, demands nothing less. Crane is anything but George Steinbrenner like. There is almost no look at me in him. In fact, if anything, Crane has steadily tried to keep himself more and more out of the spotlight in recent seasons.

But Crane’s exacting expectations of excellence hover over — and power — everything the Astros do. Jim Crane isn’t satisfied with that one world title, five straight American League Championship Series appearances and four 100-plus win seasons since 2017.  So no one else can be satisfied either.

Not rushing to extend general manager James Click and Baker’s contracts before the playoffs is part of this approach. Other owners might give in to media pressure and just hand out extensions for the public relations aspect of it.

Crane does not allow himself to get boxed into that game. He knows he has time, so he takes it. How these 106 win Astros perform in the playoffs will be part of Crane’s evaluations of Click and Baker’s job performance. And it should be.

That may make things a little uncomfortable for some, but Jim Crane is alright with that. And that’s no small part of what makes Crane one of professional sports’ very best owners. No small part of what makes these Astros the Astros.

The reports of tension between Click and Crane shouldn’t freak out Astros fans. It should reassure them that Jim Crane is just as demanding as ever — and thoroughly unsatisfied with not having won a second world title to push these Astros into true dynasty range. Crane’s track record of picking analytically-driven general managers is awfully good. Having him select another one if things don’t work out with Click should be anything but doom inducing.

It’s just Jim Crane winning business as usual.

“The expectations are high here,” Astros outfielder Chas McCormick says when I ask about the Astros’ remarkable consistency. “We expect to go to the World Series and play for a ring every year. That’s just the mindset.

“Everyone embraces it. There’s more pressure, but that comes with being on one of the best teams in baseball.”

The Houston Astros defeated the Chicago White Sox 6-1 behind the pitching of Lance McCullers with a home runs from Yordan Alvarez during the opening game of the American League Division Series
Astros owner Jim Crane is always ready for some playoff baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jim Crane helps the Astros maintain their winning edge by keeping the pressure on off the field. If Crane and Click still are something of an uneasy fit, how much more aggressive the owner seems to be is surely a major part of the equation. Crane likes to act decisively. It’s how he built his business empire, how he helped transform the Astros into a winning juggernaut.

“The expectations are the same every year here,” says Astros reliever Ryne Stanek, the reliever with the club record 1.15 ERA who made the World Series last fall in his first season with Houston. “It’s just a different feeling.

“We expect to make the playoffs and go far.”

The Astros win big because Jim Crane, the best sports owner Houston’s ever had, demands nothing less.

Jim Crane and the Power of Never Being Satisfied

Crane sets the tone of never resting on what you did yesterday. What’s so wrong with having your general manager and manager feel that too?

That’s smart business. So is believing in Justin Verlander when many did not. Jim Crane turned into the driving force in re-signing the 39-year-old surefire Hall of Famer despite the fact Verlander hadn’t pitched in almost two years. Crane is a former college pitcher at Division II Central Missouri and he and Verlander bonded almost from the moment of former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow’s seismic 2017 trade deadline deal for the ace.

Not many baseball people would have tagged Verlander on a one-year $25 million prove-it contract (notice a trend?) as a better bet than committing to young shortstop and proven postseason performer Carlos Correa. But Jim Crane did. And it turned into another major Astros win.

Verlander paid off Crane’s belief — and his own, of course — with a Cy Young worthy season. The Astros aren’t in this enviable first American League playoff seed position without Justin Verlander. And they don’t still have Verlander without Crane.

Whether Crane elects to hand out a monster multi-year contract to the soon-to-be 40-year-old Verlander, who becomes a free agent again this offseason, will be one of the most interesting decisions of his entire Astros ownership tenure. One where the bond and respect between Verlander and Crane will certainly factor in.

“There’s more pressure, but that comes with being on one of the best teams in baseball.” — Astros outfielder Chas McCormick

One thing is beyond clear. It’s all about winning for Jim Crane, all about pushing for more. For the franchise. For the fans. For the way the future will remember this entire Astros run.

If you don’t think that’s a good thing, you may be watching the wrong sport.

Part of the Special Series:

PaperCity - Astros Playoffs