Drayton McLane stood behind the batting cage at RFK Stadium, watching his team taking batting practice for the first time at the ballpark.
But this was not the first time the Houston Astros owner had been on the field at RFK. He was here in 1995 on a tour of the ballpark with the local businessman to whom he was talking about selling his team, Bill Collins.
McLane liked what he saw of the Washington area then, and he likes what he sees now.
“I think this will be one of the best baseball towns in America,” McLane said.
Of course, he likes it much better that his team was just visiting and that he still owns them. In 1995, that was not the plan.
“At one point, we talked about selling the team to Bill Collins and moving it here,” McLane said.
McLane had been in deep negotiations with Collins, whose group, Virginia Baseball, had been passed over in the expansion process earlier that year in favor of Phoenix and Tampa Bay. So the telecommunications executive went hunting for a team.
At the same time, McLane, who had purchased the Astros in 1993, was having no luck trying to get a ballpark built in Houston. This was in the first few years after the Camden Yards phenomenon captivated baseball, and new downtown ballparks were seen as a way to generate new revenue for franchises.
McLane wanted his Camden Yards, but the politicians in Houston said the Astrodome — touted in 1966 as one of the engineering wonders of the world as the first domed major league ballpark — was just fine.
So McLane applied some pressure, thanks to Collins’ desire to own a team.
“We weren’t generating any interest among the political leaders in Houston and the people there, and I just felt we could not be competitive in baseball without a new stadium,” McLane said. “We became frustrated, and Bill Collins approached me. He and I started a conversation. We had not reached an agreement, but our conversation leaked out. I got a call from the mayor and a lot of business leaders, and that changed everything in Houston.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. The conversations between McLane and Collins had gone pretty far — far enough that Major League Baseball stopped them. That set the stage for a referendum for financing a ballpark, and commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig made his best sales presentation — take this deal or the car leaves the showroom. Pass this referendum, Houston, or the team leaves town.
The referendum passed — barely. As the votes were being tallied, Collins went to bed believing he had a team. When he woke up, he found out the financing plan had been approved with 50.7 percent of the vote.
McLane hedged when asked whether he would have sold the team to Collins (the price at the time was a quaint $160million, less than half what the Nationals likely will sell for) if the referendum had failed.
“I have never looked back at what might have happened if we had not won,” he said. “Houston is a wonderful city. It is where I live. I wanted it to work there, but I never really gave it thought what would have happened if we didn’t.”
The ballpark — first called Enron Field but later changed to Minute Maid Park for obvious reasons (although, by all rights, it should be called Bill Collins Field) — has been a boon for the Astros, who drew 3million their first year there and another 3million last year.
“The ballpark has had a big impact on the franchise,” McLane said. “It has rejuvenated a section of downtown Houston and has given us what we need to compete.”
McLane said he looks forward to coming to Washington’s new ballpark.
“I think baseball will be a big success here,” he said. “I have said that ever since I came here with Bill Collins. Washington has changed. Years ago, it was strictly a government town, but now it is a business environment, especially in Northern Virginia. As you drive in from Dulles Airport, as I did, there are corporations everywhere.”
And McLane will be visiting with Collins — who is now part of a group headed by Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord that is bidding for the Nationals, one of eight groups seeking to buy the club from Major League Baseball — while the Astros are in town.
“He has remained a very good friend,” McLane said. “He still might have a team. He is certainly in the mix of those who are bidding for the franchise.”