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12/24/11 11:37 AM EST

Baseball lucky to have had McLane around

Drayton McLane slipped out the backdoor that final day in Milwaukee last month, off to a life out of the spotlight after 17 years as the owner of the Houston Astros.

I'm taking this opportunity to say now what I didn't have the chance to say then. Thank you, Drayton.

Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for never having had a bad day, at least not that I could tell.

Thank you for all the times you took my calls when I was a columnist for the Houston Chronicle and working on something that now seems insignificant.

Like that afternoon when no one would tell me how much the Astros had paid a certain undrafted free agent.

Rather than be annoyed, McLane was gleeful.

"I'm on the case!" he said loudly.

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, he telephoned back.

"That would be $165,000," McLane said, "and is there anything else I can be of assistance with?"

I told him thanks, and just like always, he wouldn't end the conversation without asking about my daughters and how things were at the newspaper, and if I didn't agree with him that this is going to be a great year for the Baylor Bears, his alma mater?

McLane did this with almost everyone, and that's why there are probably hundreds of people who consider him among their closest friends.

I annoyed him at times. Lord, did I annoy him. Through the years, he telephoned my bosses more than a few times to point out that I couldn't be more wrong about something I'd written. Once or twice, he even asked Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig to set me straight.

During one meeting, McLane underlined something I'd written about Craig Biggio. He said the information was wrong and demanded to know where I'd gotten it.

"I did not," he said.

"You did too," I said.

We went on like that for a little while, and then he paused and said, "We need to have lunch."

Through it all, McLane never once failed to return a phone call. He believed that part of his responsibility as the owner of the local baseball team was dealing with reporters, even the annoying ones.

Baseball was lucky to have him for as long as it did. His legacy in baseball will be that he led the Astros at a time of their greatest success on the field, including six playoff appearances during one nine-year stretch.

That night in St. Louis in 2005, when they won their first and only National League pennant, McLane wore a grin as wide as Texas.

He made sure that Jeff Bagwell and Biggio never played for another Major League team, and that both stayed engaged with the organization when their playing days were over.

McLane also believed that a visit to Minute Maid Park should be a great experience, and he paid attention to everything -- quality of food, lines at restrooms, ease of buying tickets, etc.

He didn't just take surveys about customer service. He would leave his seat behind home plate almost every home game and make his way around the concourse, shaking hands and making small talk.

Those walks through the ballpark seemed to be the best part of McLane's day, because he believed customer service was a very tangible thing. I occasionally received e-mails from fans who'd had an unpleasant experience at Minute Maid Park.

Maybe their hot dog was cold or their beer warm. Whatever. In every case, I forwarded them to McLane, knowing he would respond, frequently asking the fan to join him at a game as his guest.

Once, when a soldier was about to be deployed to Iraq, his dad asked if I could get him a copy of a photo of his son and McLane that had been taken at the ballpark one night.

When I told McLane the story, he asked for the young man's number. He telephoned him the day before he left, wished him well and invited him to join him for a game upon his return.

His ownership of the Astros was a completely personal experience. Some of his general managers would say he was a little too involved at times, but his personal style wouldn't allow anything less.

McLane was the face of the franchise in good times and bad. He never ducked responsibility. He was available in a way owners seldom are, and maybe there's a lesson in public relations in there somewhere.

Beyond those things, though, he believed that a franchise should stand for something, that it should be good citizens of its community and give something back.

He did not just talk the talk. McLane walked the walk. The Astros annually do hundreds of hours of community work, from building new baseball fields to visiting hospitals and schools.

These last few seasons were tough on him. With the Astros losing, it became less and less fun to own them. At 75 years old, McLane was ready to write the next chapter of his life.

Until a couple of years ago, the Astros had one of baseball's five best winning percentages during McLane's stewardship.

What he didn't know, what he probably couldn't know, was that his best night in baseball was the beginning of some of his worst.

By the time the Astros won the National League pennant, their farm system was already in decline, which led to some tough final years.

Baseball organizations are odd things. Once the player-development system begins to fail, it can take two, three or more years to identify.

By the time management knows it's in trouble, it typically takes three years to fix it. The Astros delayed the process by trying some shortcuts with veteran free agents. That kind of thing seldom works, and didn't in this case.

When McLane hired Ed Wade to be his general manager in 2007, Houston was in need of marked improvement. Wade moved the franchise in the right direction, but there's still work to be done.

McLane said he'll devote this next portion of his life to his other businesses and to charitable work and various projects that interest him.

One of those projects is raising money for and helping design a new football stadium for Baylor University. If he does half as good a job with that stadium as he did with Minute Maid Park, it'll be terrific.

One day a couple of years ago, we were having lunch and McLane began fishing through his pockets looking for a piece of paper.

I picked up a stack of index cards he put on the table in front of him. On them, he'd carefully printed Bible verses.

"This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!" -- Psalms 118:24.

"The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace." -- Galatians 5:22.

"Put God first, and he will direct you and crown your efforts with success." -- Proverbs 3:6.

I asked why he had them.

"Those are notes from my Sunday School class," he said.

I still have some of those cards on my desk, and when I think about Drayton McLane, I think first of those cards. They speak volumes about the man who owned the Astros for 17 years.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.