Challenge Nolan Ryan at your own risk

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There is no smoking gun, at least none that has been discovered yet. Nor is this a baseball version of "Clue," the old board game we played as kids, in which Professor Plum did it in the conservatory with a lead pipe.

No, in this case, Chuck Greenberg met his demise Friday in a more traditional baseball kind of way. Nolan Ryan did it, in a boardroom meeting, with a figurative 100 mph heater to the ear.

Nobody's figured out exactly what Greenberg did to make Ryan mad, but it's safe to say that the Hall of Fame pitcher and new CEO of the Texas Rangers hasn't unloaded on anyone quite like this since Robin Ventura made the mistake of charging the mound at old Arlington Stadium in 1993.

Noogies, anyone?

It's always sad to see a marriage break up publicly, and that's exactly what Ryan called it Friday afternoon in a rather non-specific and not-very-informative press conference back at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

"It's like a marriage. You think things are going to work out in business, but until you get in there, you never know how things are really going to work," Ryan said.

Fair enough, but let us also note that Ryan's own marriage, to the unsinkable and beautiful Ruth, has survived 40-plus years now. It's not like the man runs out on relationships without good reason.

What those reasons were as far as Greenberg is concerned will remain fuel for rumor and speculation for a long time.

"I don't think there was really any one thing," said someone close to the situation, who wishes to remain anonymous. "I think Chuck just overstepped his boundaries some."

Greenberg's business was supposed to be business, not baseball. That's how the Ryan-Greenberg tandem said things would work. Ryan, who had served three years as the Rangers' president, would concentrate more on baseball and working with general manager Jon Daniels. Greenberg would oversee the business operations.

So maybe a red flag should have gone up when Greenberg made that sudden trip to Arkansas to make a last-ditch pitch to Cliff Lee after the winter meetings in December. The company line was that Ryan had another commitment and Daniels was tied up. Now, in light of what happened Friday, that trip looks very suspect.

There's also been talk that Greenberg did not endear himself to Major League Baseball during the sales process and subsequent bankruptcy trial. He was also very prominent on the field during the postseason, talking with players.

"He may have wanted to be more of the face of the franchise," the insider said.

Not a chance that was going to happen, not with Ryan here. There's only room for one "face of the franchise," and when you have a living legend and Hall of Famer in that role, everyone else can only hope for the occasional cameo appearance. Who knows? Maybe that wasn't enough for Greenberg.

I'm told there was a buzz in the front office over the past month or so that maybe things weren't going as well between Ryan and Greenberg as it appeared on the surface. Most of us were caught slack-jawed and flat-footed by Friday's bombshell. The Ryan-Greenberg alliance seemed like a perfect fit.

They both seemed to care deeply about the fans and the fan experience at the ballpark.

Greenberg assured everyone that he was happy leaving baseball to the baseball people. It was even Ryan's son Reid, who knew Greenberg through minor league connections, who brought the two together to become the twin figureheads of the new ownership group, though the behind-the-scenes money men were clearly Dallas' Ray Davis and Fort Worth's Bob Simpson.

Maybe, like Ryan said Friday, you don't know someone until you have to roll your sleeves up and really work together.

"From Chuck's perspective and mine, we had a difference of opinion and styles," Ryan said.

He declined to go into specifics about what those differences were.

The surprising thing is that the differences couldn't be ironed out. Greenberg , if nothing else, is a negotiator, a deal-maker. That's what he does best. But in trying to hold on to something he spent over a year trying to make happen, he apparently couldn't make a deal with a guy known for his calm, slow-moving approach to controversy and conflict.

I wouldn't have given either Daniels or Ron Washington a 50-50 chance of surviving another year after Ryan came, but he gave them time and room to prove themselves, to show him that they know what they're doing, and it has paid off handsomely for the them and for the Rangers.

Greenberg? He got seven months.

What this tells me is that the philosophical differences Ryan mentioned were too vast to span.

Or, to put it another way: "I just think the cuts were too deep," the insider said.
Interestingly, that makes it sound as if Greenberg wasn't willing to back off when Ryan thought he was overstepping his boundaries.

Ryan, insiders say, may have also been unhappy that it took so long to finalize Daniels' contract extension.

Something pushed Ryan to the point of letting Davis and Simpson know that it might be coming down to a "him or me" situation. And Ryan, obviously, wasn't going anywhere.

"Any conflicts with Nolan were also with the board," Simpson said at Friday's press conference.

Clearly this was no mutual parting of the ways. Greenberg was putting roots down in Dallas-Fort Worth. He'd bought a home in Westlake. He was active in the community. This is what he'd dreamed of, what he'd wanted for longer than he could remember. He didn't walk away from this willingly, that's for sure.

This is not the kind of situation that will cause a spring training distraction for the players. This is a management thing, and the ripples it has caused here will dissipate quickly. The Rangers have survived much more difficult situations, including last spring's Washington cocaine confession.

But what this does do is cast Ryan in yet another light. He's not just the two-fisted 46-year-old pitcher we remember defending his turf so gallantly almost 20 years ago. He's brought the same determination, the same grit, into the boardroom, and he's obviously willing to defend his turf there with the same two-fisted ferocity.

If you push Nolan Ryan, eventually he's going to push back. Hard.

Divorces are never pretty, and knowing Ryan, this was the last thing he wanted. But make no mistake: These are his Texas Rangers. He won't give them up without a fight, and when you have the money men backing your play, there's only one outcome possible.

Challenge him at your own risk.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.