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January 24, 2012

The BP First Take

Tuesday, January 24

by Daniel Rathman

One of the best baseball books of the past few years, Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2% took an in-depth look at owner Stuart Sternberg’s rebuilding of the Tampa Bay Rays. After taking over one of the worst franchises in the league, Sternberg took a holistic approach—a “52-48” approach, as he described it—going beyond improving the team’s roster, and taking considerable steps to change the way the organization was viewed by its fans in the St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay area.

Sternberg’s predecessor, Vince Naimoli, had alienated fans with penny-pinching practices that worked in the business world, but failed miserably in the baseball industry. A similar story unfolded in Houston during the past several years, as general manager Ed Wade made mistakes that resulted in the league’s worst on-field product, while owner Drayton McLane enacted or maintained policies that left fans thinking twice about coming to Minute Maid Park.

Though the Astros face considerable challenges, ranging from a barren farm system to the impending move to the American League, new owner Jim Crane has been dealt a much better hand than the one Sternberg held when he became managing partner of the Rays in November of 2005. The Astros have a larger market, a bigger ballpark, and a friendlier competitive climate—although, as Maury Brown observed on Monday, the AL West is rapidly becoming the AL East.

Crane’s first move was hiring Jeff Luhnow, formerly a key member of the Cardinals’ front office, as his general manager. On Monday, to use Keri’s words, he added “the extra 2%.” Crane announced that the Astros would be slashing ticket prices, and implementing other programs to make attending games a more palatable endeavor for cost-conscious fans.

The most important decision, though, was abolishing a rule McLane once said was “kind of a tradition in Houston.” A sausage race in the middle of the sixth inning is a tradition. Singing “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth is a tradition. Being the only team in the league to ban fans from bringing outside food and drinks into the ballpark? That is not tradition; it’s pure stupidity.

By doing away with the policy, Crane and his partners make everyone happy. Fans now have both a greater selection, and the ability to avoid dishing out $15 for a hot dog and beer. Local vendors can benefit from the team’s presence by selling food outside Minute Maid, as is typical at many of the league’s other venues. And, over time, the team will be viewed in a much more positive light. If paired with a revitalized roster, outreach like this should eventually do in Houston what it did in Tampa Bay. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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