November 17, 2011

Rangers welcome Astros to the AL West for 2013

The club will gain financially and in travel with the Astros' move to the AL West.

MILWAUKEE -- The sale of the Houston Astros wasn't as messy and dramatic as the sale of the other Texas major-league baseball team 15 months ago, even though one of the principal characters was the same.

Jim Crane can finally print business cards that label him as the owner of a big-league club, and all he had to do to get the Houston Astros was move them to the American League West.

That was the concession he had to make to overcome concerns about alleged sloppy and illegal practices by his businesses, issues that were sure to be sticking points had he and Mark Cuban been successful in the courthouse auction to purchase the Texas Rangers in August 2010.

But $610 million and a new league later, Crane was unanimously approved Thursday in a vote by the 30 club owners at their quarterly meetings. The Astros will continue to play in the National League Central in 2012 before joining the Rangers in the AL West in 2013.

The leagues will have three five-team divisions apiece, a balance the players' association has been seeking for several years, and interleague play will be a part of the daily major-league schedule.

The Rangers aren't complaining. They believe the advantages of having a second Texas team in a West Coast-heavy division far outweigh the disadvantages, especially a team that is coming off a 106-loss season.

"I've always thought of the Astros as a National League team," said Rangers team president Nolan Ryan, who played for Houston from 1980-1988. "But when I look at it from our perspective, I like it."

Commissioner Bud Selig concluded the meetings by announcing that Astros ownership had been transferred from Drayton McLane and that Houston would leave the NL.

Selig also announced the addition of another wild-card team in each league, and it's possible a one-game playoff between the wild-card winners could be added to the postseason schedule next year.

Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, said that a new collective bargaining agreement is close to being finalized. Reports on Thursday said a five-year agreement could be announced as soon as Monday.

But the biggest news, at least in Texas, involved the Astros becoming the first team to switch leagues since Milwaukee went to the NL in 1998.

For the Rangers, the benefit of the Astros' jump is multifaceted.

A second Texas team in the AL West should boost the Rangers' TV ratings with fewer road games starting at 9 p.m.

More Astros games at Rangers Ballpark could lead to a bump in attendance. The Rangers already considered the annual three-game interleague series a premium ticket.

Houston is only a 50-minute flight from the Metroplex. The shortest flight to play a West Coast foe is three hours, and the Rangers will be thrilled with the elimination of even just one of those trips each season.

"It's a win for us all the way around," assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "If that cuts down on one trip to the West Coast and allows us to stay in-state to play a handful of games, that is a huge benefit."

Crane initially balked at moving the Astros before receiving a $70 million concession from McLane and MLB to cover a potential decrease in the value of their TV package.

He also hinted at his feelings toward the Astros playing the majority of their divisional road games on the West Coast.

"I was in the air-freight business, so I was flying a lot," Crane said. "And we'll be flying a lot."

But he's also thrilled to get the Astros after backing out of a deal to purchase them in 2008, and missing out on the Chicago Cubs in 2009 before his hastily arranged partnership with Cuban.

During their bid to buy the Rangers, Crane learned about the franchise and believes their model is the one the Astros would be wise to follow as they rebuild.

He acknowledged that their minor-league system is short on talent. Complicating matters is that their revenues have been trending downward.

"We've got some work to do," Crane said. "The Rangers built a very good minor-league system and knew they were going to make a run. We've got to get in position to do that."

If they do, that's when the move to the AL West has a chance to be a boon for both Texas teams.

"If we can both get competitive to where we're playing for the pennant, it'll be a great rivalry for our state," Ryan said.

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

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