McLane, Hunsicker weather differences
By RICHARD JUSTICE
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Did Astros owner Drayton McLane come close to firing general manager Gerry Hunsicker last fall? Did he decide the Astros had gone as far as they could go under Hunsicker and that the time had come for a dramatic change?
McLane laughs loudly when the subject is broached. He laughs the kind of laugh that says, "Boy, what a ridiculous question."
And then he doesn't really answer it.
Instead, he talks about their mutual respect for one another, their commitment to winning a championship, and things like that.
Only when he's pressed a bit is McLane emphatic.
"No," he says. "Absolutely not."
Inside the industry, a lot of people believe otherwise. They believe Hunsicker interviewed with the New York Mets only because he was convinced he was about to be dismissed.
Hunsicker denies this flatly. He, too, talks about mutual respect and understanding one another. He says he does not want to work anyplace else. Ever.
Yet there clearly were cracks in a relationship that for eight seasons had been as productive as almost any in sports.
One of the questions hovering over this season of runaway optimism is if the McLane-Hunsicker relationship has been fully healed or if the best general manager the Astros have ever had begins a new year on a probation of sorts.
They have not hoisted a World Series trophy, but together Hunsicker and McLane have finished first four times and lower than second only once. They've won because of McLane's judgment and success in getting a ballpark built, and they've won because he hired one of the best baseball men on earth.
Since Hunsicker arrived, the image of the Astros has been transformed from that of a losing franchise to a winning franchise, a team with sound judgment, good guys and a terrific player development system.
But for a few weeks last fall, things seemed to be coming unraveled. The Astros collapsed during the final weekend of the season. Then McLane, citing losses of more than $15 million in 2003, ordered the trade of closer Billy Wagner.
In the avalanche of negative press that followed, McLane grew disenchanted with his general manager, according to several sources. He apparently became convinced for at least a few days that Hunsicker was contributing to some of the negative articles written about him. Or at the very least, he wondered why he was the one always being criticized when everyone else, especially Hunsicker, flew above the storm.
On this most delicate of topics, the two men are reluctant to talk.
" We have different personalities and different approaches," McLane said. "I think that's one reason we work well together. You can't have everyone thinking the same way. Don't marriages work like that? I mean good marriages have some of those issues."
Sometime after the Wagner trade, things did get patched up. McLane gave Hunsicker a one-year extension through 2005, and the two men agreed to revisit a longer commitment after this season.
What caused the problem in the first place? What they will admit is that because their personalities are so different, there are going to be days when they get on one another's nerves. They say this does not mean they can't continue to form a productive partnership.
McLane is upbeat and talkative, quotes motivational tapes, writes hundreds of thank-you notes, and seems to want nothing more than for people to like him.
He never met a microphone he didn't like, and even though he has been harshly criticized at times, does not appear to hold a grudge.
Once, though, when a player's agent used a curse word during a meeting, McLane told him: "We do not use that kind of language in this office. If you're going to talk like that, this meeting will be over."
Hunsicker is just the opposite. He wears his emotions on his sleeves, does not take defeat well, and views his ballclub through a critical eye. For this, he does not apologize.
And some days, he and McLane wear on one another like Felix and Oscar.
"If you're expecting Dale Carnegie to show up every day, you're going to be disappointed. That's not me," Hunsicker said. "Drayton is always upbeat and positive. I'm different. If we've played an awful game, you don't want to be around me. I'm miserable. I'm frustrated. Drayton will simply say, `We'll get 'em tomorrow.' "
McLane admits he would like Hunsicker to be a bit more upbeat but adds that he understands how important his GM has been to the franchise.
Hunsicker won't say it, but he probably wishes McLane would stay completely out of personnel decisions. McLane overruled his baseball people to bring Ken Caminiti back. He extended Craig Biggio's contract without much input from Hunsicker. He hired Larry Dierker as manager.
Hunsicker also understands that McLane is not as involved as many other owners, that he at least listens, and that in the end he has almost always done the right thing.
If they were very close to agreeing to a divorce last fall, McLane and Hunsicker seem to be making their marriage work once more.
Another disappointing season could change the dynamics again. But maybe they'll continue to understand how much they need one another and how much the Astros' success is a result of both of them. Together.