Baseball fans should be happy to know that the 2011 Major League season opens this weekend for most of the teams in the National and American leagues.

But for the Houston Astros fans, this season will be different than most of the previous ones because the team has been for sale since last November by owner Drayton McLane Jr. and it seems like there is a prospective buyer who appears very qualified to pass the rigid scrutiny of the major league baseball moguls.

The franchise has had only four owners since coming into the National League in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45’s, the first being Judge Roy Hofheinz who was the Astros’ owner from 1962-1976.

The good judge sold it to a conglomerate composed of GE Credit and Ford Motor Credit from 1976-79 when John McMullen purchased the team and owned it from 1979-1992. McLane bought it from McMullen in 1992 and reportedly is in the process of closing a deal with Houston businessman Jim Crane.

Of course nobody either confirms or denies the fact that there even is a deal in the works, although Saturday’s edition of the Houston Chronicle reports that a high-ranking Major League Baseball official said “they’re real close” to a deal between McLane and Crane.

Another former major league official, who had hoped to put together his own group, according to the Chronicle article, said, “I’m hearing it’s a done deal.”

McLane flatly denied a deal has been struck and said discussions are continuing with “three or four people who are aggressively going after it.”

McLane told the Chronicle, “There’s not a deal. We’re farther along with Jim than with anyone else. Whoever the person ends up being, has to be qualified by MLB. No price has been agreed on, and we’ve got to make sure they’ve got the money.”

Crane was a college student/athlete at the University of Central Missouri around 40 years ago and has given upwards of a million dollars to the university in Warrensburg, Mo. which is about 30 miles southeast of Kansas City.

Crane was the ace pitcher for the UCM Mules in the 1970’s and holds the school record for striking out 18 batters in a 1974 win over Ohio Northern in the first round of the Division II College World Series.

He was 21-8 for his collegiate career with a 2.41 ERA, twice winning small-college honorable mention All-America honors, with 23 complete games and seven shutouts.

According to the Chronicle after college Crane helped create Eagle Global Logistics, an international freight forwarding company with headquarters in Houston. He left the company after an unsuccessful bid to take the company private, but reportedly received more than $300 million for his share in EGL.

In 2008, he founded Crane Worldwide Logistics in Houston and also is CEO of Crane Capital.

Crane has always had a love for baseball and has been very generous making sure his alma mater Central Missouri continues to have one of the most successful Division II baseball programs. He was instrumental in helping build a $1.12 million stadium, helping to fund scholarships and financially assisting other projects around the baseball program.

Crane was unsuccessful in negotiating with McLane to buy the Astros in 2008, he fell short in bidding for the Chicago Cubs in 2009 and last year joined Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban in bidding $581.2 million for the Texas Rangers and declined to top the winning bid of $593 million by a group headed by Hall of Fame pitcher and Rangers’ president Nolan Ryan.

Steve Greenberg, managing director of Allen and Company who is assisting McLane in the sale of the Houston Astros said, “Jim Crane has all the qualifications and has to be considered a very strong candidate to buy the team. He has roots in the community and a passion for baseball.

“I think this deal will be done in a matter of weeks, not months,” Greenberg predicted. “We’re deep into negotiations with a number of parties and hope to bring it to a head in the near future. I’d say it’ll be the early part of the season as opposed to the latter part of the season.”

McLane is planning on turning a huge profit on the transaction, purchasing the team for $117 million in 1992. Forbes recently placed the value of the Astros at $474 million and those in the know believe the purchase price may exceed the Rangers’ selling price.

To make the franchise more attractive to bidders, McLane has stripped down the team’s payroll, cutting it from $107 million in 2009 to around $82 million this season. With only $46 million in payroll commitments for 2012 and just $15.5 million in 2013, the new owner will have great flexibility to reshape the roster.

McLane claims to be selling the team for estate-planning purposes and that he intended to devote himself to charity work. “I feel all of us have been blessed and have a duty to give something back,” McLane told the Chronicle.

This Korner hopes the new owner has as much success as McLane did with the Astros franchise. His team made the playoffs six times in a nine-year stretch, culminating with winning the National League pennant in 2005 and bringing the World Series to Texas for the first time.

Although the Astros never have won a World Series, only five major league teams won more games in McLane’s 18 seasons. In the last 14 seasons, only the Yankees (13), Braves (10), Red Sox (8) and Cardinals (7) have made the playoffs more than the Astros.

In three of the last eight seasons when the Astros missed the playoffs (2003, 2006 and 2008) the team wasn’t eliminated until the final week of the season.

If the spring training exhibition season is any indication of how the Houston Astros will fare in 2011, it could be another long and frustrating season for the fans paying the freight. And with the team payroll down to $82 million, the wins may be few and far between.

KWICKIES…While on the subject of the Houston Astros, ace left-hander Wandy Rodriguez just went through his second straight sub-par spring training with a 0-3 record and an 8.04 earned run average, which is an improvement over last year’s 12.10 ERA. He was supposed to pitch six innings Sunday against the Detroit Tigers but lasted only 3 1/3 innings, throwing 90 pitches, including 36 in the first inning. Wandy gave up six hits, five earned runs and walked four and was tagged with the 8-4 loss. His next outing will be Saturday at Atlanta where he will oppose former Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee for real.

Sunset Grove golfer Richard Duffee recorded his first-ever eagle last week on the Par 5 No. 7 hole. Duff holed out a five-iron from 155 yards for his eagle-3.

Another Sunset Grove golfer and marathon enthusiast Kenny Ruane grabbed still another running honor Saturday when he won his 65-70 age division over the hilly 5K Allen Parkway course in Houston. Ruane received a rating in the low 80’s which puts him among the best runners in the nation in his age group. A rating in the 90’s places a runner among the best in the world.

Texas A&M is hoping the fourth time will be the charm when they meet the top-seeded Baylor Lady Bears in the Dallas Regional championship game of the Women’s NCAA Tournament Tuesday at 8 p.m. Baylor (34-2) used the 40 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots from 6-8 sophomore Brittney Griner to down scrappy Green Bay (34-2) 86-76 Sunday while the Aggies (30-5) ripped past Georgia 79-38.

JUST BETWEEN US…It seems as if all those hours spent by the NCAA Selection Committee to make sure all the teams in this year’s Men’s Basketball Tournament were the correct ones that deserved to be among the nation’s best 68 teams was all in vain. Not a single No. 1 or No. 2 seed made it to the Final Four that includes a No. 11 seed (Virginia Commonwealth University) that didn’t even think it would be picked and a No. 8 (Butler) that virtually was overlooked for the second straight year. The top seed in this year’s Final Four is third-seeded Connecticut which plays No. 4 Kentucky Saturday at 7:49 p.m. at Reliant Stadium in Houston. This game follows the VCU-Butler contest that tips off at 5:09 p.m. It would be great if one of these long-shots ends up as the national champion, but this Korner sort of likes Kentucky and their long-time tradition that dates back to the days of Coach Adolph Rupp.