HOUSTON -- Not long after he was approved as the owner of the Astros last year, Jim Crane contacted Houston mayor Annise Parker to make a pitch for a program he envisioned would raise millions of dollars for the city's parks and recreation department, as well as instilling plenty of goodwill.
It didn't take long for Parker to jump on board with the plan, and Crane went to work. He personally called the CEOs of numerous Houston area corporations to persuade them to make a financial commitment to help refurbish local baseball and softball fields in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The Community Leaders program was born and on Tuesday morning began to come to fruition when Crane, Parker and other team, community and business leaders broke ground on a refurbishment project on the baseball and softball fields at Diez Park on the city's east side.
"I had the idea, but we couldn't get to work on it until we got control of the team," Crane said. "A week or two right after we got the team -- I didn't know if she'd bite on the idea -- I reached out to her. It's a win-win for everyone. The parks department has been great, and we'll help them get these fields ready to go."
Through its corporate partnerships, the Community Leaders program will ultimately contribute $18 million to the city of Houston over the next five years for youth baseball and softball programs at zero cost to the city's taxpayers. The program will also provide money for equipment, uniforms and more.
"We have had great team owners in the past, but I don't know we have really had someone who has invested in Houston the way Jim Crane has," Parker said. "He understands it's not just being a good owner, but he's growing a fan base and he's showing a commitment back to the community that's going to sustain this team."
Officials from seven corporations that have committed to the program were on hand at the groundbreaking -- Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Calpine Corporation, Champion Energy Services, Halliburton, Nabors Industries, National Oilwell Varco and Schlumberger. Crane would eventually like to have 12 corporate partners.
The companies that have committed to the program earlier this year were recognized on new signage above left field at Minute Maid Park.
"We wanted to recognize the contributions those companies made, not only to the Astros but the community," Crane said. "You saw six or seven CEOs from very big companies here and they're all in on this deal, and I don't think they'll stop with what they've done. Once they've put their name on the ballparks, they'll want it to be very nice."
Former Astros players Jose Cruz and Jimmy Wynn participated in the ceremony, along with Houston parks and recreation director Joe Turner, Houston city councilman James Rodriguez -- a former Astros batboy -- and East End Little League president Shorty Sanchez, who was in tears as he talked about the contributions of the Astros to companies.
"I've been around this community, playing ball here since '74 and coached here since the '80s and '90s," he said. "We have board members who played baseball here. We're a baseball community, and this spring is our 60th anniversary and it will be the most beautiful day here at the park."
The Astros hope to break ground on two more renovation projects by next spring -- Sunnyside Park in southwest Houston and Moody Park just north of downtown. In addition to renovating and maintaining the fields, improvements could also include new irrigation systems, covered dugouts, outfield fences with safety caps, electronic scoreboards and improved bleachers.
"The Community Leaders program will pour millions of dollars into the city of Houston to help our youth baseball and softball programs in all our neighborhoods," Turner said. "A large portion of those dollars will go toward the refurbishment of the city fields, and that's extremely costly."
In fact, Parker confided that coming up with the funds to refurbish city parks in trying economic times is difficult.
"If it were just about the fields, that would be an important gift, but it wouldn't be everything that Jim had in mind," she said. "I've now learned that Jim Crane doesn't think in small terms; he thinks holistically. He thinks big. This isn't just about coming and refurbishing a field, because we do do that.
"It's been a tough few years with any government entity with the recession. We could come in eventually and do this, but the key piece is to create the programming around these fields to be able to have not just the on-field maintenance, but the employment of a field manager and assistance in putting teams on the field."
Crane, who rode his bike to city fields to play baseball while growing up in St. Louis, said he plans to assign a team executive to every park to make sure things are going well. He also joked he would personally drag players from the clubhouse to make appearances to the parks.
"This will be our lead project, and it will be first class and we'll do a very good job with it," he said. "We want the community to pitch in, too. We need the parents and the kids to participate. We're very excited about this. This is the first one, and we want to do much more this year."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.