ARLINGTON (AP) – If Nolan Ryan had his own 2011 baseball card, there wouldn’t be enough space to list all of his roles with the Texas Rangers.
CEO. President. Part owner.
Pitching guru. Consultant for all other baseball matters, on and off the field. Resident Hall of Famer and living legend.
For Game 4 of the World Series, he’ll even catch a ceremonial first pitch.
And yet, despite all those titles, none captures the essence of what Ryan means to the Rangers.
Ryan is the team’s heart and soul. He brought credibility when he arrived as a player 22 years ago, then stability when he returned to run the front office three years ago. Since moving to the top of the organization’s depth chart last summer, all that’s happened is a first-ever trip to the World Series a few months later, followed by a return trip this year. Texas and St. Louis were tied 1-1 going into Game 3 on Saturday night.
Frame his importance one more way: Try naming another baseball team right now that’s as defined by one person as the Rangers are by Nolan Ryan.
“That’s something we needed here for a long time, to have a bit of an organizational identity,” said Michael Young, who has been with Texas since 2000, long enough to become the franchise’s career hits leader. “Nolan is an icon in this state and in this city for what he’s accomplished as a baseball player. Having him at the top of the team is something we’ve all benefited from.”
Ryan’s most important moves may have been those he didn’t make when he arrived as club president.
Rather than sweeping out the incumbent general manager and manager to put in “his people,” Ryan decided to get to know Jon Daniels and Ron Washington. He was impressed by Daniels, the youngest general manager in baseball history, and by Washington, a first-time manager. He and Daniels also decided to stick by Washington after he admitted using cocaine during the All-Star break in 2009, and again when that story was revealed during spring training in 2010.
Daniels already had begun rebuilding the farm system and Ryan helped put his stamp on the way pitchers come through the organization. As the career leader in no-hitters and strikeouts, he knows a little something about pitching; having set another record by pitching for 27 seasons, he also knows plenty about keeping arms and legs fresh.
Cleaning up the business side was more challenging because it included a trip to bankruptcy court and an auction that pitted Ryan and partner Chuck Greenberg against Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. The Greenberg-Ryan tandem didn’t last, though. Their personalities clashed and the energy billionaires who backed their ownership group were asked to pick only one to stay. Greenberg left the organization during spring training.
The toughest moments of Ryan’s tenure came this summer, when a firefighter taking his young son to a game died while trying to catch a ball tossed to him by the boy’s favorite player, Josh Hamilton. The next day, the 64-year-old Ryan called it “one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen at the ballpark.”
Ryan attended the funeral and became a source of comfort to the grieving family. He kept in touch with the widow and persuaded her to bring her son to the first playoff game — and for the boy to throw the first pitch to Hamilton. First, Ryan made sure Hamilton, a recovering substance abuser still battling his own personal demons, was OK with it. It turned out to be an emotional, poignant start to the postseason. Ryan also has commissioned a statue of the man and his son to be erected next season, representing all fans. The club also will raise the railings throughout the park to the highest in baseball.
“An organization has so many roots expanding in so many directions,” said Jackie Moore, who’s known Ryan for decades and worked for him with the Astros, on the Ryan-owned Round Rock Express and now as the Rangers’ bench coach. “Whether it’s the business office or the baseball operations, baseball decisions, to have someone of the status he has, to stabilize everything that goes on, to have that foundation, how can you do better than Nolan Ryan?”
For all the accolades in Ryan’s pitching career, he’s already built a better postseason resume as management — two trips to the World Series in four years, as opposed to just one in uniform. It came very early in his playing days, as a reliever on the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets.”
It’s a different kind of satisfaction, but the emotions are the same. Just watch the telecast of any big game because cameras are always pointed his way, usually catching a steely stare or a thin, wide smile.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of a group of people as I am of this ballclub,” Ryan said at the start of the playoffs.
The Rangers’ clubhouse is filled with folks who understand and appreciate Ryan and everything he brings to the club.
Take Darren Oliver, the 41-year-old reliever. He was a wide-eyed rookie when he was Ryan’s teammate with the Rangers in 1993, so intimidated he said only “Hi” and “Bye” and never called Ryan by name. Now Oliver has an even greater appreciation for Ryan.
“There’s instant respect when you see him,” Oliver said. “When he comes around and has something to say, people listen.”
Mike Adams grew up in South Texas and idolized Ryan, a South Texas native himself. When Adams was traded from the Padres to the Rangers at the trade deadline, one of his first thoughts was “the opportunity I might have to meet him.”
“I was a little bit awestruck when I did meet him,” Adams said. “I wanted to be professional. But I was a kid at the same time. Now that I’ve been around him a little more, I’ve had an opportunity to sit down and talk with him a little bit.”
Adams is a tall guy who uses a high leg kick to generate velocity, just like Ryan did, so the setup man asked about whether to speed up his motion when there’s a runner on base. Adams smiled as he talked about successfully using the new approach in Game 2. He also acknowledged that what Ryan said — “Don’t sacrifice the hitter for the runner” — was similar to what he’s heard before.
“It’s just the fact it came from him,” Adams said. “It kind of snapped a little bit because it came from him.”
Moore has been in pro baseball since the 1950s, long enough for him to fully appreciate what Ryan has overseen in turning Texas from a perennially mediocre-or-worse team into a back-to-back AL pennant winner. Moore also understands the difficulty of repeating because he was with the Reds when they won went from winning it all in ’90 to last place in the division in ’91.
Moore also has a great appreciation for the challenge of turning around this particular franchise because this is his fourth stint with the Rangers, each in a different decade.
“This was an organization always on the move in all different directions,” Moore said, ticking off the names of all the owners and managers he’s worked for in Arlington. “For a lot of years, we made a lot of promises that did not pan out. Here again, this is why it’s great to have Nolan Ryan’s name on it.
“He’s sitting there in the front office like he does with his cattle ranch — he’s just riding herd over the organization,” Moore continued. Then he paused for effect, smiled and added: “I’m just very happy to be a Texas Ranger.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)