LOS ANGELES -- When an ownership group led by Jim Crane purchased the Astros late in 2011, the deal was contingent on the team agreeing to switch to the American League from the National League, where it had been for a half-century.
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Houston fans were frustrated, and with the games not available to most of the local television sets and attendance on the decline as the club embarked on a massive roster reconstruction, a World Series championship seemed so far away. That's what made the Astros' 5-1 win over the Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night so special.
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Five years after general manager Jeff Luhnow began his rebuilding plan, the Astros are on top of the baseball world by winning their first World Series since their inception in 1962. They took down the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers in the postseason -- three teams with a combined 40 World Series championships -- and in the process won a pair of seven-game series. The 1985 Royals were the only other club to do that in a single postseason.
"We knew we had a process, and we stuck to it and we knew we would get a chance at some point," Crane said. "It's just so hard to do it. We beat three exceptional teams with big payrolls. I know our guys work hard, not only the players and the coaches but the entire staff, all the way down to the guys cleaning the stadium. We really wanted to thank everybody for pitching in."
While interviewing to be the Astros' general manager shortly after Crane purchased the team, Luhnow (who had been in the Cardinals' front office) presented Crane with a binder on his master plan to rebuild a franchise that had a bare farm system and aging roster. The Astros, driven by analytics, would tear it down and build it up. They would cut payroll, amass Draft picks and young talent through trades and strengthen the farm system.
The goal was to become competitive and stay in position to be competitive for years.
"He does a great job," Crane said of Luhnow. "They make great decisions. He's got a good staff behind him. I'm just so happy for him that he's won one."
Houston lost 111 games in its first year in the AL in 2013, including 15 in a row to end the season. The payroll dropped below $20 million at one point as the Astros believed it didn't make sense to spend money when they weren't going to be competitive. But the club did have some pieces, including Jose Altuve and George Springer, two young talents who had been signed as amateurs by the previous regime. A parting gift, if you will, for Luhnow's group as it began its ambitious rebuild.
"We weren't going to be a division-winning team at that point," Luhnow said. "So we did what we could, we made trades. We got [Chris Devenski], we got [Joe Musgrove], we got the guys that we needed to get, and it paid off at the end of the day. But I'll tell you, the plan changed. I mean, as the years went by, there is no plan that is there for five years that doesn't change. Every year, we made adjustments, we figured out how to improve it, and I got a lot of really talented people working behind me that help me adjust it."
Houston nailed its first Draft pick in the Crane-Luhnow era, taking Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012. The Astros whiffed on Mark Appel at No. 1 a year later and didn't sign Brady Aiken, their No. 1 pick in '14, but that led to them drafting Alex Bregman No. 2 overall a year later -- a pick they received as compensation for not being able to sign Aiken. That same year a surprising run to the playoffs ended with a heartbreaking loss to the Royals in the AL Division Series. The Astros were close, and on Wednesday, they reached the pinnacle.
"We kind of had a feeling that we were on the right path after 2014, when Springer came up and we won an extra 19 games and kind of felt like now we're a competitive team," Luhnow said. "But I think the experience that Carlos and George and [Dallas Keuchel] and all these guys had in the playoff taking Kansas City to the brink, and also being disappointed by the loss. If you don't soak in those losses and use those as motivation to get better, we had that series won."
Luhnow did the heavy lifting, but for Crane, the plan was more simplified.
"We work hard at communicating and treating people right and holding people accountable, just like we do a lot of stuff," he said. "We wanted to prove to them that we would be fair, and we could build an organization from the bottom up and include everybody in the system.
"It took a lot of hard work, but every decision we tried to make, we tried to make the best decision we possibly could over and over and over. You could start to see it come together a few years ago, and this year we were able to get there."