Published March 23, 2010
SURPRISE, Ariz. – Back in his days with the California Angels, Nolan Ryan would rarely show up for spring training much before the mandatory March 1 reporting date, although he was in good enough shape that he would immediately throw 20 minutes of batting practice and was ready to pitch in the first game of the exhibition season.
Seems he was delayed because they had the cattle sale in Houston the last week of February, and Ryan, the cattle rancher, had business to take care of before he would switch his cowboy hat for a ball cap and become Ryan, the future Hall of Fame pitcher.
General manager Buzzie Bavasi would fume.
"You know what else,'' Bavasi said one day. "He actually brands the cattle. He ropes them and brands them. What if he loses a finger? Then what do we do for a starting pitcher?''
The questions never had to be answered. Ryan never hurt himself working on the ranch in the offseason. And Ryan, to this day, continues to be active in his ranching operation.
"I never felt it was right to ask someone to do a job you aren't willing to do,'' Ryan said.
And what the folks who worked for Ryan at the bank he once owned or operate the two minor-league teams he runs with his sons, Reid and Reese, or work on his ranches already knew has become very evident to the folks with the Texas Rangers.
As president of the American League baseball team, Ryan is certainly hands-on. He delegates authority and listens to what others have to say, but Ryan definitely has his fingerprints on the direction of a franchise that appears to be building back to the level of a contender in the AL West.
"I think people thought I would be a president in title but not really involved in the operations,'' Ryan said. "One day, somebody said or wrote that I was going to be the mascot for the Rangers. That's not the way I've ever done things."
Right now, Ryan's plate is definitely full.
He's involved with Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenburg in an effort to finalize the purchase of the Rangers from Tom Hicks. It's a process they were hoping to have settled by Opening Day, but now admit could take a bit longer.
"There are a lot of moving pieces that need to be dealt with,'' Ryan explained.
The biggest challenge, according to sources close to ownership, is getting Hicks' creditors to sign off on the sale of the team. The purchase price includes $280 million to meet the claims of the creditors, who reportedly have been holding out for $300 million.
And last week, Ryan was very much in the mix at the Rangers spring training camp in dealing with the public disclosure that manager Ron Washington failed a drug test in July for usage of cocaine.
"You are talking about the impact not just on his career, but also the organization,'' said Ryan. "A lot of strange things have happened over the years in this organization and we are trying to put those things behind us and develop a consistency in the level of play and operation that are consistent with the image we would like to have. Those things don't happen overnight.''
Hard work and challenges have been welcomed by Ryan. A 12th-round draft choice of the New York Mets in 1965 who struggled in his early years, Ryan finished as one of the most intimidating pitchers in the history of the game. His 27-year career that earned him election to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility included a 324-292 record, 3.19 ERA and records for strikeouts (5,714) and no-hitters (seven).
Refuse to lose? In 1986 he was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right elbow and reconstructive surgery was recommended. When he was told he would miss a full year, Ryan balked, admitting that his offseason routine was so rigorous that he wasn't sure he could handle it for two years without pitching. Houston fitness coach Gene Coleman designed a strengthening program for the elbow.
Ryan not only continued to pitch for seven seasons, but he won a National League earned-run average title in 1987 after the diagnosis, led the league in strikeout five times and threw two no-hitters.
That's not the type of response a person has to a challenge if he doesn't like to get his hands dirty.
That's why those who knew Ryan never looked at him as a potential figurehead with the Rangers.
He already had that kind of role with the Astros, where owner Drayton McLane enjoyed having the Texas icon hanging around, but the feeling within the organization was president Tal Smith did not welcome Ryan's presence. Smith had been the general manager when Ryan, after the 1979 season, signed with Houston as a free agent. Then-Astros owner John McMullen not only overruled Smith, who opposed the signing, but replaced Smith as the general manager a year later.
Smith eventually returned as the club president after McLane bought the team.
So when the chance arose to become the key figure in running the Rangers, the team with which he finished his career, Ryan, 63, was ready for the new challenge.
"This is something that in the back of my mind I always wanted to do,'' he said. "When it came up there was no reason I couldn't do it. I didn't come here with the intent to stay until I died. I came here to work on it and see if I can make a difference. I hope to put the organization in a consistent winner mode. I still want to be actively involved in the other things I do."
When Ryan took the job slightly more than two years ago there was some uneasiness in the Rangers front office. Ryan did not know many of the employees. There was speculation he would want his own people in place.
And while he has brought in several front office and uniform personnel that he knew previously, including pitching coach Mike Maddux, bench coach Jackie Moore and vice president of public relations John Blake, Ryan has made minimal changes.
"I had never been in a major league front office before and I realize that it is not until you are actually involved that you truly understand what transpires," Ryan said. "It was a large learning curve. I felt like I needed to be in a situation with controlled change. You didn't want to be doing things just to do them. I felt I needed to get to know the people in charge.''
And in general they remain, including Washington and general manager John Daniels, and daily the working relationships with Ryan have improved.
"They realize I am here for the same reason they are and they are not threatened by my power," Ryan said. "They are comfortable that I am going to be around."
And if Ryan's around, they have come to realize he's going to also be involved.