Nolan Ryan part of everything good Rangers ever been and everything great they could become

By Stephen Hawkins, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

Texas Rangers are really Nolan Ryan’s team now

ARLINGTON, Texas — Nolan Ryan went to the Texas Rangers planning to pitch one more year to end his Hall of Fame career. That turned into five seasons on the mound, and so much more.

When Ryan finally retired in 1993 after the last two of his seven no-hitters, his 300th victory and 5,000th strikeout — plus that pummeling he gave Robin Ventura — the Rangers no longer were a faceless franchise known for, if anything, inventing ballpark nachos and scoreboard dot races.

“The Rangers gained legitimacy as a major league franchise the day they signed Nolan Ryan, and particularly when he showed that he wasn’t washed up,” said radio play-by-play man Eric Nadel, part of Texas broadcasts for 32 seasons. “That was crucial in the history of this franchise.”

Now with Ryan as their president and part-owner, the Rangers are AL West champions and in the playoffs for only the fourth time.

Ryan never led the Rangers to the postseason as a pitcher, but they built a new ballpark thanks to the goodwill he generated. The added cash flow from that helped lead to three AL West titles from 1996-99, though the New York Yankees beat them in the first round each time on way to World Series titles.

Texas bottomed out again in the 2000s, until the Ryan Express roared in again.

Everything good the Rangers have ever been and everything great they could become — starting with Game 1 of the division series Wednesday at Tampa Bay — all trace back to Ryan.

“When he came here as a player, he brought instant credibility,” said Steve Busby, the former Kansas City pitcher with two no-hitters who is part of Rangers broadcasts. “When he came back as president, he brought that same credibility.”

Especially since Texas was mired in a string of losing seasons when Ryan became team president in February 2008.

“When I reflect back to how it was in 2008, when I was here and how painful and embarrassing at times it was to sit down there, it’s been so much improvement,” said Ryan, a regular fixture in the front-row seats by the Rangers dugout. “It doesn’t seem like the same situation.”

Largely because of the influence of Ryan, whose most significant victory for Texas came in a federal bankruptcy court this summer when his group outbid Dallas Mavericks billionaire owner Mark Cuban in an unusual auction for the team.

Major League Baseball owners quickly and unanimously approved the sale, making Ryan the first Hall of Fame player since Hank Greenberg a half-century ago to be an owner.

“Nolan’s inclusion in this group, I would not only say is important, I’d say extremely important, and is very beneficial not only for Major League Baseball but for the Texas Rangers,” commissioner Bud Selig said last week in Texas. “Nolan’s presence is not to be taken lightly.”

Ryan and Chuck Greenberg had an agreement in January to buy the team, but the sale became a drawn-out mess when creditors of former owner Tom Hicks balked at a prepackaged bankruptcy plan.

The Aug. 4 auction came 17 years to the day after Ryan, then a 46-year-old in one of his last games as a pitcher, got the 26-year-old Ventura in a headlock and landed several punches on the youngster who had charged the mound after getting hit.

After his last game, Ryan fulfilled a 10-year personal services contract with Texas while also pursuing profitable ventures in banking, ranching and owning two minor-league baseball franchises. He then spent four years in a similar role in Houston, where he pitched nine seasons.

Hicks enticed him back to revitalize the Rangers, who then had only one winning season since their first three division titles. They are still the only current major league franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series.

“Obviously we haven’t accomplished that much on the winning side, but I think that we’ve positioned ourselves to do that,” Ryan said. “The organization is probably on better sound footing than it’s ever been.”

The season attendance of 2.5 million was the highest since 2005 at Rangers Ballpark, where a larger-than-life bronze statue of Ryan is prominent in center field and one of the main roads to get there is Nolan Ryan Expressway.

Ryan made no immediate wholesale changes in 2008, when general manager Jon Daniels was working on a plan to build from a minor league system considered among the best in baseball.

But the former pitcher known for toughness and an unmatched work ethic during his record 27 seasons emphasized pitchers being in better shape to throw longer. That went for youngsters in the low minors to veterans in the major league rotation.

When the postseason became a distinct possibility this summer, Texas had stocked its system with enough talent to use prospects in midseason deals for ace left-hander Cliff Lee, Jorge Cantu and Bengie Molina.

Even with batting champion Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero in the middle of the lineup, Texas is no longer known only for slugging.

The Rangers led the majors with a .276 average, but the 162 home runs were their lowest total since 1992. They had fewer than 1,000 strikeouts for the first time since 2000.

More telling of Ryan’s influence is the team ERA of 3.93, the lowest since 1990. Along with a Rangers-record 1,181 strikeouts.

Texas unseated the Angels, AL West champs five of the last six seasons. Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia, who as a player faced only seven pitchers more than Ryan, sees the obvious difference the pitcher-turned-president has made for the Rangers.

“A lot of that is down to Nolan’s influence on the franchise in everything they do,” Scioscia said. “There’s definitely been some impact from Nolan on a lot of parts of that team.”

AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas and Greg Beacham in Anaheim, Calif., contributed to this report.

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