RANGERS HALL OF FAME: NOLAN RYAN
This is the second in a series of profiles on members of the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame, and it’s about one of the most dominant and polarizing figures in the team’s history: Nolan Ryan.
As a player he was transcendent. As a leader who assembled the ownership team that rescued the Rangers from bankruptcy, he was superb. As an executive though, he created tensions that divided the fan base which still linger today. Overall though there’s no way the team could have become the successful franchise it is without him.
My editors always told me to follow the advice that the King gave the White Rabbit, “Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end. Then stop.” So, let’s begin.
Growing up in Alvin, Texas, the young Ryan demonstrated easy skill at throwing rocks at things. So his dad, a practical fellow, put his arm to more useful pursuits: a Houston Post newspaper route and baseball. He was a Little League All-Star, and by his junior year at Alvin High School pro scouts were showing up to watch him. The Mets’ Red Murff wrote that Ryan had “the BEST arm I ever saw ANYWHERE in my life!”
Murff scheduled a Ryan showcase for his boss, the legendary Bing Devine*. But Ryan was tired that day. His whole team had spent the previous day running wind sprints for annoying their coach, and he was ineffective. So Murff had to yell, shout, and browbeat the Mets into taking Ryan in the 12th round of the 1965 draft, selection No. 295.
After two seasons in the minors New York called up for his major-league debut in September 1966, a relief appearance in Shea Stadium. His first MLB start came a week later, in front of the hometown Houston fans. That start proved to be an accurate blueprint for the remainder of Ryan’s career. He lasted one inning, allowed four runs on four hits and two walks while striking out the side.
He went back to the minors for 1967, coming up to stay in 1968. He made 18 starts for the Mets, logging 134 innings with a record of 6 wins and 9 losses. He struck out 133, walked 75(3 intentionally), threw 7 wild pitches, and hit four batters. He averaged 8.9 strikeouts and 5 walks per nine innings. In the 1969 World Series victory, Ryan pitched one game in relief, allowed no runs on 1 hit, 2 walks and 3 strikeouts for the Miracle Mets.
Naturally, he got better at “pitching” versus “throwing” as he matured. This painted a picture of what Ryan’s career would look like. He had overwhelming power, a hammer 12-to-6 curve, a decent changeup, a ferociously intimidating mound presence, and often questionable command that kept opposing hitters light-footed in the box.
He holds the big league record for strikeouts by a wide margin, at 5,714. He also holds the big league record for walks, at 2,795, by an even wider margin. In the modern era, he tops the majors in wild pitches, hits allowed per nine innings, career losses, and he’s sixth on the HBP list, one behind Roger Clemens.
By the time Ryan arrived in Texas, he had logged what most people would consider a lengthy, successful baseball career. After four seasons with the Mets he was traded to the California Angels (who still hadn’t decided what their full name should be) in 1971. He played eight seasons for the Angels winning 138 games, logging 10 strikeouts and 5.5 walks per nine innings. Oh, he also had his first four no-hitters there.
In 1979 he signed as a free agent with the hometown Astros, bumping his annual salary from $200,000 to $1.125 million, MLB’s first million dollar plus contract. He played nine seasons with the Astros, posting a 106-94 record with 9.1 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9. His only Houston no-hitter came in 1981, against the Angels ironically enough.
By now he was 42 years old, long past retirement age for most baseball players.
Nolan Ryan wasn’t most baseball players.
In 1989 he signed a 5-year deal with the Texas Rangers for an estimated $2.9 million per year. He immediately gained the respect and admiration of a Rangers fandom that was starved for wins, titles, and heroes. He also earned a nickname from radio announcer Eric Nadel that stuck with him forever – “Big Tex,” a blatant and appropriate theft from the State Fair of Texas’ iconic talking statue.
I don’t recall when Nadel tagged him with that moniker, but it only reinforced our opinion of him. Most Texas fans can easily recall three Arlington Stadium events that forever reinforced that nickname.
The first was his 5,000th career strikeout on August 22, 1989 against the A’s. With two outs in the 9th inning, Rickey Henderson worked the count full, fouled off two pitches, then swung and missed at a low-and-away 96-mph seed. Henderson later told the New York Times, “It was an honor to be the 5,000th.” Former Dodgers third baseman Davey Lopes once said “If he ain’t struck you out, you ain’t nobody.”
The second defining moment was his seventh career no-hitter, on May 1, 1991, against Toronto. That broke his own MLB record of six, which he set a year earlier against Oakland. In No. 7, the closest the Blue Jays came to a hit was a blooper that center fielder Gary Pettis, now the Astros’ third base coach, ran down without much trouble. In the 9th inning, the noise from the fans in the stadium just grew louder with each pitch. When Robbie Alomar whiffed as the 27th out, the fans went berserk. You could hear the racket from our apartment complex four miles away.
There was no authorized TV broadcast of that game save for Canada, so KXAS-TV Channel 5 broke every rule in the books by broadcasting the game’s last two outs live to the Metroplex, from its press-box mini-cam even though that violated MLB’s television agreement. The commissioner’s office fined the station $40,000 for the move and the general manager, my friend Doug Adams, had to apologize. (I suspect he would do it again.)
The third instance was the August 1993 plunking of White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura. Most of you don’t need me to re-hash that incident for you. Even if you didn’t see it live, we saw it played on the Rangers video board before every home game for years. Ryan hit Ventura with a pitch, Ventura charged the mound, Ryan pounded the snot out of him. End of story. Ventura was ejected, Ryan was not. Sox manager Gene Lamont’s protested loudly, then joined Ventura in the clubhouse. Umpire Richie Garcia,the only ump who had ever ejected Ryan, said “He had a right to defend himself.”
Every time fans went to the ballpark with Ryan on the hill, it was with the expectation that they would see something special. And depending on how you define special: strikeouts, no-hitter, fistfight, what have you, they were rarely disappointed.
This incredible playing career ended abruptly during a September 1993 game in Seattle, much as T.S. Eliot described the end of the world “Not with a bang but with a whimper.” Except in Ryan’s case, it was with a pop. He threw a pitch, looked down at his right arm, shook it, threw another and waved for trainer Danny Wheat to come out to the mound. He had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in that multi-million dollar arm.**
“I heard the ligament pop like a rubber band. I knew I was done,” he said. “There’s no way I’ll ever throw again. My body is telling me it’s time to move on and do something else.”
In September 1996 the Rangers joined the Angels and Astros in retiring Ryan’s jersey number, thus making him the only MLB player to be so honored by three teams.
In 1999 Ryan was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on the first ballot, six votes shy of unanimity.
In 2003 he was one of four players elected to the inaugural class of the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. The accolades kept coming, cementing his already mythical reputation.
In 2008, desperate to acquire some credibility, Rangers owner Tom Hicks hired Ryan to be team president. You could feel the fans’ perception of the team shift on that day.
Just a year later, Hicks’ financial empire crumbled with the Rangers, his most visible asset, thrown into bankruptcy. After lengthy wrangling, a group formed by Ryan and sports attorney Chuck Greenberg purchased the team in 2010, with lead investors Bob Simpson of Fort Worth and Ray Davis of Dallas as co-chairmen. For local baseball fans, Ryan was once again, legitimately, a hero.***
Greenberg and Ryan got big titles, but the lines of authority weren’t clearly defined. As a result, Greenberg and Ryan butted heads over those ambiguous boundaries. Between December 2010 and March 2011 numerous disputes had been bundled and put before Davis and Simpson, attached to a Ryan ultimatum: Me or him.
Greenberg resigned and Ryan became CEO and president, with GM Jon Daniels reporting to him. Together they made some pretty good decisions. But insiders said the lines of authority still chafed, with Ryan overruling Daniels on some key personnel matters like hiring Mike Maddux as pitching coach, naming Jackie Moore bench coach, inserting former Astros GM Tim Purpura as senior director of player development, and allegedly insisting the Rangers sign pitcher and former teammate Roy Oswalt, over the staff’s objections.
Ownership sought to clarify things by adding President of Baseball Operations to Daniels’ GM title, making Ryan the CEO. The move shrank Ryan’s authority and in October 2013, he resigned. He agreed to a farewell news conference sitting beside Davis and Simpson, with Daniels standing silently off to the side.
Ryan’s remarks were generally positive and supportive of the Rangers, and he declined to rise to the bait when Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway demanded to know specifically what led to the resignation. But some DFW fans are still resentful over the departure, believing (thanks largely to Galloway’s columns) that Ryan was maneuvered out by Daniels, even though both men publicly denied it.
I’ve thought a lot about how this all happened and here’s my opinion, based on experience with and observations of high-achievers, in and out of sports.
Ryan had a history of wanting to do things his way. For example, at age 20 he suffered an arm injury but rejected the team doctor’s advice to have surgery; he preferred to manage his own rehab. Throughout his career, he devised his own system of workouts, off-day routines, weight program, and conditioning plan. He usually ignored those who tried advising him otherwise, including most of his pitching coaches.
His success speaks for itself. He was so gifted and dedicated to his craft that he didn’t feel the need for other people’s opinions. For a major-league pitcher with his levels of commitment, intensity and focus that probably works OK. For a business executive with shared responsibility, it proves difficult.
Today, Ryan is back on Houston’s payroll as an executive adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane. Ryan’s son Reid is President of Baseball Operations there. He also co-owns the Round Rock Express, the Rangers’ AAA minor-league team. His contract with Globe Life Park concessions was not renewed. There’s talk the Rangers’ affiliation with the Express will end when the current contract expires, so it seems that there’s no longer a relationship between him and the Rangers, business or otherwise.
It’s too bad that Ryan’s departure from the Rangers turned out less than happy. For more than 20 years, he gave all of us baseball fans plenty to smile about.
*Devine was the GM who built the St. Louis Cardinals team that would win the 1964 World Series, even though he was fired in the middle of the season by impatient owner Augie Busch. Five years later, Devine led the Mets to the 1969 world championship.
**It’s worth noting that the pitch Ryan threw immediately after blowing out his elbow was clocked at 94 mph.
***Not coincidentally, Ryan was named DFW “CEO of the Year” in 2012 by the SMU Cox School of Business.