Well before his brief relationship with and eventual shotgun divorce from Chuck Greenberg, Nolan Ryan was the only player in the history of major league baseball to become president of a big-league team following his induction into the Hall of Fame.
Now as both CEO and president of the Texas Rangers, Ryan finds himself holding the proverbial ball again, not only making the baseball moves but all decisions for an organization whose future looks rosier than at any time in its 40-year history in Arlington.
Ryan had essentially been running the Rangers for three years, ever since former owner Tom Hicks turned over all facets of the franchise in 2008. But now it’s official.
It was Ryan’s character—and his stature among those in the commissioner’s office and other owners—that gave the Greenberg group its greatest validity when the ballclub was placed on the auction block. And later, when push came to shove, there was no doubt that Ryan’s support among members of the new partnership group far exceeded Greenberg’s.
Ryan’s rise in the front office has been remarkable. Very rarely do star players climb beyond the general manager position in major league baseball. In meeting rooms and boardrooms, Ryan no longer has his 100 mph fastball or his Paul Bunyan-esque legend to fall back on. But he’s been pushing full speed ahead.
Even in post-Watergate America, when journalists got around to scrutinizing the country’s heroes, Ryan’s pitching career achieved mythological status with the media and an adoring public. He was, after all, the Ryan Express. His seven no-hitters are three more than anyone else. He had 12 one-hitters and 18 two-hitters, with a macho flare on the mound and an “aw shucks” personality off it. His 5,714 strikeouts are 800 more than anyone else—and 2,500 more than any current active player.
But his 27-year career was also rooted in contradiction. He won only 32 more times than he lost. He achieved 20-win seasons only twice. Even in his best 10-year stretch (1972-81), his won-loss average was a so-so 16-13. He never won a Cy Young Award as his league’s best pitcher.
What he did do was Bunyan-esque, sometimes more myth than man. Three teams (California Angels, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers) retired his jersey number. Three autobiographies and a handful of other books have been written about him. Only one other player, Tom Seaver, received more Hall of Fame votes on his first ballot. And who can forget that August day in 1993 at Arlington Stadium, when 26-year-old White Sox batter Robin Ventura, stung on the elbow by a Ryan fastball, rushed the mound—only to find himself in a headlock as the 46-year-old Nolan pummeled his head with five sharp jabs?
All of which would seem to be irrelevant these days. As the single greatest driving force behind the Rangers’ three-year rise to its first World Series appearance, Ryan could not use his Bunyan-esque past to succeed as the club’s president. What he did (and does) have, instead, is a solid background in a variety of business endeavors.
Tom Grieve, the Rangers’ television commentator who as general manager first lured Ryan to the Rangers for his final five playing seasons (and final two no-hitters), says, “Nolan is not just a former player who got stuck in a front-office position. The guy is a businessman.”
It all began in his hometown of Alvin, not far from Houston, early in Ryan’s playing career.
“As far as getting involved in the business aspect of it, ranching is where I first started,” Ryan says. “I’ve been in the cattle business over 40 years.”
That love of ranching led him into the 21st century with the Nolan Ryan Beef Co., whose cuts are sold at Kroger and other outlets. He has owned two restaurants, has been a spokesman (most notably for Advil) on several TV commercials during the past 20 years, and was majority owner and chair of Express Bank of Alvin before selling his interest in 2005.
He still owns two minor league teams: the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, Round Rock Express, and the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Astros’ AA affiliate.
“I got involved in these various ventures through friends and contacts I had,” Ryan says. “I always thought there was life after baseball, so I felt like I needed to try to develop something to be able to go into after I got done as an active player.”
The move that got him back to the “bigs” came when the Astros hired him as special assistant to the general manager in 2004. But when he joined the Rangers four years later as president and part-owner, his previous front office experience mattered little.
“There’s no comparison,” Ryan says. “The Astros’ position was kind of an extension of what I’d done in baseball. … I never really thought about being president of a team. It was all new territory for me.”
Perhaps surprisingly to some, when he first took over under Hicks’ previous ownership, Ryan did not immediately dive into baseball matters. Many of the team’s closest followers anticipated a quick firing of general manager Jon Daniels, whose earlier trades had backfired, and another quick dismissal of manager Ron Washington.
Instead, Ryan concentrated on honing the front office. He hired Dale Petrovsky—Ronald Reagan’s assistant press secretary in the White House (1985-87) and president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (1999-2008)—to head up marketing and community relations.
He brought in former Astros employee Rob Matwick as executive vice president of ballpark operations. He recruited and brought back John Blake, the club’s PR whiz from 1984-2004, as executive vice president of communications after Blake spent three seasons with the Boston Red Sox.
“It was my first experience of really being involved with the front office of a major league ballclub, and so obviously it was a big learning curve,” Ryan says. “It was a matter of just trying to assess where we were and what I felt like we needed to do. Through my years in baseball, being aware of people I thought were some of the best in the game at what they did, those were the people I tried to bring in to help assist me.”
On the field, Ryan hired his former Round Rock manager, Jackie Moore, to serve as Washington’s primary dugout advisor. Moore had been a big league manager and had coached many years, including in Texas under legendary manager Billy Martin.
Ryan also hired former Round Rock pitching coach Mike Maddux, who was just coming off an impressive stint with the Milwaukee Brewers. And Ryan strongly encouraged pitchers to run more during the off-season, because he wanted his starters ready to pitch deeper into games.
“After watching our ballclub for a year, I just felt like we had to put more emphasis on pitching,” Ryan says. “In trying to take some of the pressure of our bullpen, I felt like our starters needed to pitch more than they were.”
His patience in Daniels and Washington paid off. Now, coming off the Rangers’ first World Series appearance, the bonds within the organization appear strong at all levels.
Ryan’s differences with Greenberg led to another Ventura-style hammering in the eyes of the public. But just like that August day in ’93, Ryan has made quick work of the matter. The only real question now is whether his front-office performance will be as legendary as his time on the mound.