- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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This is going to sound crazy considering they did lose 107 games a season ago, but don't go sleeping on the Houston Astros' chances of a reunion with Nolan Ryan. And you, all you Astros. Stand up straight, for god's sake. Tilt up your chin. Beat your chest and at least fake a little bit of swagger. Daybreak Wednesday marked Day 5 of Ryan's self-imposed silence about the way that Texas Rangers' principal owners reorganized him out of part of his job, did it not? And the best reason to believe Ryan could be just mad enough to consider an offer to return to the cellar-dwelling Astros is this: The Rangers fear it too.
"Don't think I haven't thought of that," Rangers co-owner Bob Simpson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway on Sunday, laughing as he said it.
It had to be a nervous laugh.
Ryan is 66 years old, it's true, with more of his career behind him than before him. But he is also the big league's career leader in hit batters and he is reproving that he still knows how to play a little chin music. Other than his seven no-hitters, one of the more indelible moments of Ryan's career was when 26-year-old Robin Ventura, a man 20 years Ryan's junior, stormed the mound to fight Ryan for drilling him in the back. Ryan was 46 and half-bald at the time, and yet he grabbed Ventura in a headlock and proceeded to land five noogies on his addled skull before finishing him with an uppercut that left Ventura rubbing a fat lip.
To this day, the video lives on the Internet, of course, and there should be an unbreakable universal rule that every iteration of it must be titled: "Best. Baseball Fight. EVER."
Especially since Ryan's amused quote afterward was the perfect coda: "It was like bulldoggin' a young calf," he drawled.
The point here is Ryan is not a man who shies from confrontation. He is also not a man who is likely to be willingly led out to pasture until he's damn good and ready, as his 27-year playing career attested. So the Rangers should have anticipated (or at least been better prepared to spin) that Ryan might be displeased about their announcement Friday that he was still CEO, but that they had split his other title -- team president -- into two parts, promoting general manager Jon Daniels to the dual role of president of baseball operations/GM and Rick George to president of business operations.
Now that the Rangers have gone and diluted Ryan's power, the Astros should woo Ryan until he gives them a yes or no. They should work the back channels like crazy, show up on his front lawn, rent a plane to fly over the Dallas-Fort Worth area towing a banner that reads "It's nicer in Houston" or goose a Twitter trend (#rangersaredumb). Whatever it takes.
The Rangers have tried to act as if their announcement just formalized the way things already ran. But Daniels didn't exactly quash the speculation that Ryan lost some organizational clout when he was asked Sunday if Ryan still held veto power over all decisions. Daniels feigned a bit of confusion, saying why, um, he, uh
"He has the ability to veto something, I think," Daniels finally told The Dallas Morning News.
That represents a shift, all right. By then, Galloway had already first reported that Ryan (whom he has known for decades) refused to address the reshuffling on the record, but he might be mad enough to walk away as soon as the end of spring training. And Daniels seemed to confirm that speculation too, when he wishfully said on Tuesday that all of this would surely die down and become clearer when Ryan surfaced to publicly address things himself -- and still Ryan refused to be smoked out.
Ryan just let the awful silence gather. By the end of the day -- roughly 96 hours into the mess now -- the new headline was this plaintive promise from Daniels: I Don't Want Ryan to Leave.
The Astros should at least try to make it a tough decision for Ryan. They're a teardown compared to the penthouse level the Rangers are now on after two World Series runner-up finishes and three playoff trips since Ryan arrived in 2008 -- two seasons after Daniels became GM. Ryan was credited with saving the Rangers again in 2010, when he engineered the sale of the team from financially troubled Tom Hicks to a new ownership group (of which he's part) co-chaired by Simpson and Ray Davis.
Even if Daniels has handled more of the day-to-day work and heavy lifting on things like the draft, Ryan has been invaluable to the Rangers in myriad roles. His business acumen is unquestioned. He remains as iconic in his native Texas as he was back when a 30-by-20 foot banner of him hung outside Arlington Stadium smack between large Texas and American flags the year that Ventura charged out to fight him. Ryan also has relationships throughout baseball and insights into players that can't be matched by the 35-year-old Daniels and his so-called "geek squad" of young lieutenants. Davis and Campbell want to retain them so badly; that wish figured into the co-owners' decision to change Ryan's job description too.
Establishing that organizational line of succession is certainly the Rangers' prerogative. And there's nothing wrong with that.
But the Astros could assure Ryan it would be different with them.
He could be President, CEO and Chief Calf Bulldogger for Life if that's what it would take to get him back.
He played in Houston longer (nine seasons) than any of his other big league stops. He also spent four seasons as an adviser in the Astros front office from 2004to 2008, working for previous owner Drayton McLane. When he left to run the Rangers, the two teams' records were almost identical. Texas had 75 wins and Houston had 73 in 2007.
Now look at them. Houston lost 106 games in 2011 before adding one more loss in 2012.
Bringing Ryan back to Houston wouldn't be simple. He has a slice of ownership with the Rangers that's rumored to be as much as 5 percent.
Houston owner Jim Crane already has a deep commitment to general manager Jeff Luhnow, whom he hired away from St. Louis after a terrific front-office run with the Cardinals.
But Luhnow, who never played baseball even at the high school level, is more in the mold of Daniels than Ryan. They're both new-age executives who rely heavily on analytics and corporate managing techniques they apply to baseball. If sharing the turnaround job with Ryan didn't throw him into a snit, Luhnow and Ryan could reprise the sort of yin/yang combination that Ryan and Daniels had with so much success.
Besides, the Astros are so adrift that fixing them is a huge job for just one man. They've gotten big and small things wrong for years on the field and in the community. It's almost incomprehensible to read that in this day and age, even their local TV coverage stinks. Their games are on TV only about 40 percent of the time.
Ryan would know how to handle that. Early on, he dwelled on every detail for the Rangers from picking the ballpark franks to putting "Texas" on the front of their uniforms because his ambition was clear: He wanted the Rangers to "own" the entire state. He is not a man content to float along as a figurehead or settle for downsized ambitions. His return to Houston would give the Astros' makeover instant momentum and excitement and hope. Someday, the 19 times the Rangers and Astros will play each other -- now that the Astros have switched leagues and joined the AL West -- might even become must-see TV.
The Rangers have a right to make this Daniels' team, all right. But the equation the Rangers wittingly or unwittingly created by shuffling Ryan's role is very similar to the ill-advised calculation Ventura made that day he charged him on the mound in Arlington. History suggests only two things can happen when you pick a fight with Ryan: Either you look like you were trying to beat up an older man. Or the old man beats up you.
For once, Houston doesn't have the biggest problem -- the Rangers do.
They forgot you don't mess with an outsized Texas legend like Ryan.
Not unless you're prepared to get your nose bloodied worse.
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