- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PALM CITY, Fla. -- Nolan Ryan is 23 years removed from his seventh career no-hitter, and it has been 18 years since he pitched his pain reliever of choice in a television commercial. But he still has enough cachet to make news in Texas' two most prominent sports markets without setting foot on a mound.
The Houston Astros pulled off a coup five weeks ago when Ryan joined the organization as an executive adviser to owner Jim Crane. He's returning to the franchise where he passed Sandy Koufax with his fifth no-hitter, broke Walter Johnson's career strikeout record and worked as a special assistant to former general manager Tim Purpura 10 years ago.
Through no fault of his own, Ryan's recent break from the Texas Rangers isn't entirely in the past tense. Two weeks ago, before Torii Hunter puckered up to an alligator and Barry Bonds rolled into Giants camp, Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler added some spice to spring training with some words he later appeared to regret. In a provocative ESPN The Magazine story, Kinsler called Texas general manager Jon Daniels a disparaging name, expressed hope that the Rangers would go 0-162 and blamed Daniels for running the beloved Ryan out of town.
Ryan, for his part, heard Kinsler's remarks and immediately looked past their harshness into the heart of a fellow ballplayer. He suspects that Kinsler was still smarting from the news that the Rangers had traded him to Detroit for Prince Fielder.
"I told my wife, Ruth, 'People are going to miss the point of that article,'" Ryan said. "The real point of the article was that Ian was hurt by the trade. He was mad, and he just vented, but he was truly in his heart a Texas Ranger and he wanted to retire as a Ranger. I understand reactions like that because I played for the Astros and I wanted to retire in Houston and wasn't looking to leave. You say things when you're mad that you regret later."
And what about the highly publicized power struggle with Daniels? Ryan refuses to paint Daniels as a villain in what was clearly an uncomfortable arrangement. Instead, he suggests they were part of a dynamic that was set up to fail.
"I haven't really commented on that," Ryan said. "But when I came into that situation, I was dropped in J.D.'s sandbox. He had his organization and his group of people, and all of a sudden -- boom! -- Nolan Ryan was there. It was a dimension they didn't anticipate. It probably wasn't handled properly with my coming in."
As much as Ryan might prefer to change some things and invent a more gratifying conclusion to his run as Rangers president and CEO, it's all about looking forward to the salvage job that awaits in Houston. The Astros have their share of problems, but sandbox turf wars won't be one of them.
Ryan is in more of a consultant's role now than a prime decision-making spot. When he's not serving as a sounding board for Crane, he'll be dispensing advice to his son Reid, the Astros' president of business operations.
It's an understatement to say the Ryans, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter have a big challenge in front of them. Last year the Astros became the first team since the 2004-2006 Kansas City Royals to lose 100 or more games in three straight seasons. They ranked 27th in the majors in attendance with 1.65 million fans (compared to the franchise record of 3.1 million set in 2004), and their efforts to reach a broader audience have been stymied by their TV deal with Comcast, which limits them to about 40 percent of their potential market and is now hung up in the court system. If you're an Astros fan in Louisiana, feel free to enjoy the radio broadcasts.
Nevertheless, this is an exciting time for Houston baseball fans with long-term horizons. The Astros' farm system is the best in baseball according to ESPN.com, and is ranked No. 5 in the game by Baseball America. Six of the organization's minor league affiliates made the playoffs last season, and the Astros have a chance to add another elite prospect in the Mark Appel-Carlos Correa mode with the top pick in the June first-year player draft.
The Ryans, father and son, sat down for a 30-minute interview with ESPN.com on Tuesday at the Floridian, the private golf course that Crane bought from former Miami Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga in 2010. They shared their mutual passion for baseball, their distaste for losing and their vision for the franchise with typical down-home candor. Reid Ryan readily concedes the team has work to do to regain the trust of the fan base.
"Sometimes you don't know what you're getting into until you get there," Reid said. "I took the job last May and as I started going around town, I saw there's a pride with the Astros. People are tired of losing. We had a stretch where we swept the Angels last year and you would have thought we won the World Series. As this group of young guys comes up, there will be a lot of folks who come out of the woodwork and bust out the orange and blue and start following the Astros. It can't get here soon enough for the fans."
Reid Ryan, 43, pitched for Texas Christian University before running the family's minor league teams in Corpus Christi and Round Rock, Texas. During his 10 months with the Astros, he has won high marks for his attention to detail, lack of ego and communications skills. He has fostered a more inclusive, upbeat environment than his predecessor, George Postolos, who was known more for his business acumen than his people skills.
Nolan Ryan, 67, is a man of fewer words, but approaches baseball with a curiosity and a sharp intellect that allow him to see the big picture. While stories abound about him scaring the bejeezus out of opposing hitters during his playing days, he's about as approachable as a man who received 98.79 percent of the Hall of Fame vote can get.
For those who wonder if Ryan and Luhnow can find a harmony that eluded Ryan and Daniels, the two men talked everything through with Crane before the Astros brought The Express on board. "I was very comfortable with the value added that Nolan could provide and he was very comfortable with the approach that we were taking," Luhnow said. "So far it's been a wonderful fit. I can't see any downside to it, to be honest."
Since Ryan joined the team in spring training, he has sat in on meetings and received primers on the way Luhnow's regime approaches everything from amateur scouting to player development to salary arbitration. "He has such a breadth of knowledge, he asks really good questions and tells us ways he's seen it done in the past," Luhnow said. "It's not, 'This is the way you should do it.' It's more. 'Have you guys thought about this or that?' It's been very eye-opening and beneficial to us."
If Ryan feels ill at ease with some of the more novel ideas expressed by Luhnow, Astros director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal or anyone else in the team's hierarchy, he hasn't shown it. As he points out, he was open-minded enough to embrace the innovative methods of pitching coach Tom House before they came fashionable. It helped him reach the Hall of Fame.
"I'm open to suggestions," Ryan said. “"If something can help us, I'm all for it."
Mentoring the kids
Like a utility infielder, Ryan will fill any number of roles with the Astros. If they want him to have dinner with a potential sponsor or speak to season-ticket holders, he's game. And if they'd like his opinion on a potential No. 1 pick, he'll be happy to provide it.
In Kissimmee, Ryan watches the big league team at Osceola County Stadium and checks out the minor leaguers when the big leaguers are on the road. The Astros expect him to gravitate toward some of the younger pitchers who he thinks he can help. Two of them -- former first-round pick Mike Foltynewicz and 2013 second-round pick Andrew Thurman -- already have caught his eye.
The Astros are making a conscientious effort to stress tradition and continuity these days. Roger Clemens and Craig Biggio, both special assistants to Luhnow, have spent time in camp this spring. While Clemens is more comfortable speaking to large groups of players, Ryan prefers the more personal, one-on-one approach. For such a tough old cuss, he has a natural human touch that can put a young player at ease almost instantly.
Reliever Matt Albers, a Houston native who broke into pro ball with the Astros in 2001, remembers Ryan giving a talk to the minor leaguers 10 years ago and telling them how the addition of a changeup late in his career helped prolong his shelf life. It was a revelation to Albers at the time, and stuck with him in the six years he spent with other organizations before rejoining the Astros as a free agent in December.
"It's really priceless for young guys when he talks to you and watches your bullpen and he cares," said Albers, who adds that Ryan "is pretty much a god in Texas."
A full 15 years after his induction to Cooperstown, Nolan Ryan has reached the point where he'd rather spend time at his ranch or playing with his grandchildren than being involved in every single organizational decision. He'll help give the vehicle a push when it gets stuck, but someone else will be driving.
"As his son, I know he doesn't want to work every day," Reid said. "Having this job now, I have a lot more respect and appreciation for what he did with the Rangers. There's somebody that wants something all the time, and it pulls at your time. I talked to him and said, 'We want you to come here in any capacity you want. You can have fun, enjoy the game of baseball and contribute. That's all any of us want, is to feel valued and feel like we're contributing."
A few more wins would be nice, but it took a while for the Astros to get into this mess, and it will take a while to get out of it. Note to Houston baseball fans: The Ryans don't enjoy losing any more than you do. Rest assured they're working on it.
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