Happy Trails To You, Nolan
I was only 11 days old when Nolan Ryan made his major league debut with the New York Mets, but when Houston brought him back to his home state by making him the first million dollar man (per year) in sports history, I was right in my young baseball fan prime at age 13.
In their previous 18 seasons as a major league franchise up to that point (including their first three as the Colt .45’s), the Astros had only finished above .500 three times – the most notable of those being the season before Nolan arrived. In 1979, Houston set what was then a franchise record with 89 wins, which propelled them to their highest-ever finish in the NL West (2nd place).
After finishing just 1.5 games behind the division-winning Cincinnati Reds that season, the Astros finally felt like they were close enough to being legitimate contenders that signing the great Nolan Ryan would finally get them over the hump. It wouldn’t take long for Nolan to prove them right.
Houston made the postseason in each of the next two seasons, including the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. And although they lost 3-2 in a pair of thrilling series – including one of the greatest baseball playoff series ever played, the 1980 NLCS against the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies – the Astros were no longer the laughingstock of baseball.
Nolan brought legitimacy to a previously beleaguered Astro franchise, as they made three postseason appearances during his nine years with the ballclub and finished in the top half of their division four other times. When he left Houston for Arlington, he would then bring credibility to the state’s other perpetually inept major league baseball franchise: the Texas Rangers.
Even though the Rangers never made the postseason during Nolan’s five seasons in a Texas uniform, they did finish above .500 four of those seasons, including an exciting second-place AL West finish in his final season of 1993. Fan interest in Ranger baseball reached previously unseen levels, as attendance broke franchise records for three consecutive seasons during Nolan’s tenure as a player. In fact, after averaging barely 1,000,000 in annual attendance over their first 28 seasons in Arlington, the Rangers eclipsed 2,000,000 in Nolan’s first season and remained over that level for each of his five years with the team.
So while Nolan’s career as a Ranger player did not translate to any playoff appearances, it did increase interest in the team enough to make The Ballpark in Arlington a reality. Without the new ballpark, the Rangers very likely would have ended up leaving the Metroplex for a completely different market altogether.
Almost two decades after he retired as a player (17 years, to be exact), Nolan ended up helping to save the franchise again. In August of 2010, he joined up with Chuck Greenberg to win ownership of the team in the auction that followed highly contentious bankruptcy proceedings, fending off the likes of Jim Crane and Mark Cuban in the process. After years and years of greedy and incompetent ownership at the hands of Tom Hicks drove the Rangers literally to the brink of catastrophic financial ruin, the franchise was finally able to shift its focus from the courtroom to the clubhouse.
The Rangers have experienced unprecedented success since then, including back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. And while Nolan was part of the reason for that success, he certainly wasn’t the sole reason or even the main reason. He was simply one of several key members of a front office team that helped lead this franchise to new heights, along with Jon Daniels, Thad Levine, A.J. Preller, Tim Purpura, Jamie Reed, Don Welke, Ray Davis, Bob Simpson and many, many others.
Whether Nolan is leaving the Rangers voluntarily or otherwise, that really should not be the primary focus (all Jackie Moore scorched earth radio interviews aside) . As much as the fanbase seems to want to divide itself into the same opposing “Nolan vs. J.D.” camps that have been rumored to exist within the franchise’s front office, the reality of the situation is that neither Nolan nor J.D. deserve the lion’s share of credit for this team’s success over the past several years. It’s been a combined effort by everyone in the organization. Trying to assign amounts of credit is a fool’s errand.
And although Nolan has been an enormous figure throughout my baseball life – both when I was an Astros fan as a kid and a Rangers fan as an adult – I realize that no matter why he’s departing the Rangers, it’s the right move. I will always admire Nolan for what he has done as both a player and later as an executive, but I refuse to let that admiration cloud my judgement. It was time for him to go, and I have the utmost confidence in the future of this franchise under the leadership of J.D. and the rest of the Ranger front office.
Thanks, Nolan, for all you’ve done. You’ve made my baseball life immeasurably more rewarding. Best wishes on whatever you choose to do in your future endeavors. Vaya con Dios (as for J.D., Vaya con Rios). Happy trails to you, until we meet again…(that is, unless said meeting involves The Silver Boot, in which case it’s game on!)