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Nolan Ryan still brings high Texas heat

Hall of Fame pitcher has a no-nonsense style as president of the Rangers.

July 06, 2009|Mike DiGiovanna

ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Nolan Ryan had been retired for two years when he returned to the Ballpark in Arlington to take in the Texas Rangers' 1995 home opener against the Cleveland Indians.

Sitting next to then-general manager Doug Melvin, Ryan, baseball's all-time strikeout leader, a Hall of Fame member who threw a record seven no-hitters -- four for the Angels -- in a 27-year career, watched in horror as balls flew off the bats of the Indians.

Paul Sorrento hit a two-run home run in the second inning. Albert Belle hit a three-run shot in the third. Eddie Murray (third inning), Manny Ramirez (fifth) and Carlos Baerga (ninth) hit solo shots.

It wasn't so much the homers that bothered Ryan. It was the reaction of the pitchers.

"I told Doug, 'I've never seen a team hit five home runs off another team in my career and not one person was pushed off the plate, knocked down, or anything,' " Ryan said.

"These guys acted like they were throwing batting practice. They were like robots. They showed no emotion. I said, 'That's got to change.' "That's when I started thinking, if I ever get in a position to have an influence on them, that's not tolerable."

And so here he is, having accepted an invitation early last year from owner Tom Hicks to become team president.

Not that he needed the job.

The man who racked up 5,714 strikeouts for the New York Mets, Angels, Houston Astros and Rangers from 1966 to 1993 has a street named after him -- Nolan Ryan Expressway -- outside the park here and a statue in his honor beyond center field.

Since retiring, Ryan has owned two minor league baseball teams, a bank, a restaurant and a cattle ranch. He also worked as a special assistant for the Rangers and Astros.

"Whether it's baseball or business," third baseman Michael Young said, "everything Nolan touches turns to gold."

So why would Ryan, now 62 and a grandfather of six, take on a morning-to-midnight job for a franchise that has not reached the playoffs since 1999, has not won a playoff series in 37 years and has been known for its horrendous pitching?

"Well, to spend as much time in the game as a player, I always, in back of my mind, felt like I'd like to be involved in setting the direction of an organization," Ryan said last week, his distinctive, baritone drawl filling the press dining room.

"Owning minor league franchises and working with Houston on the player development side whet my appetite even more. When they asked me, I knew the opportunity probably wouldn't present itself again, and the only place I'd do it is here in Texas.

"It was a unique opportunity, [wife] Ruth was agreeable to it, so I thought, why not give it a try? It's been a big learning curve."

First lesson: Consult Job.

"I thought I had patience, but I found out what patience really is last year," said Ryan, who spent his first year evaluating the club. It wasn't easy.

The team was 79-83 with a 5.37 earned-run average, the worst in baseball. Starting pitchers combined for a 52-53 record with a 5.51 ERA, 29th among 30 teams. The Rangers threw 24,986 pitches -- highest in baseball.

"There were times when I just got tired of watching it," he said. "I was so frustrated with the pitching. We didn't throw strikes. I think we walked in 13 or 14 runs. If you can't throw strikes, you don't have any business being up here.

"And I'm a believer in getting ahead in the count and staying ahead. We'd get ahead and pitch guys right back into counts. And we were pitching up too much. If your park is known for giving up home runs, you have to pitch down."

One night the Rangers gave up a bunch of runs early amid plenty of boos.

"This guy about 10 rows behind me gets up and says, 'Ryan, do something!' I don't know what he thought I could do, cancel the game or something?"

The season ended and Ryan, known for his toughness and work ethic, got down to business.

He retained General Manager Jon Daniels and Manager Ron Washington. He lured highly regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux from Milwaukee and began changing the culture.

"You can pitch here, you can pitch in Fenway Park, you can pitch in Wrigley Field when the wind is blowing out," Ryan said.

"You can't let the pitchers who come into your system start thinking they can't be successful here. You have to change the mind-set."

Ryan held mini-camps for pitchers in November and January in Arizona, featuring strength-and-conditioning and throwing programs designed to prepare pitchers for the brutal heat of Texas summers.

Pitchers threw live batting practice the first day of spring training and long-tossed more, because Ryan believes it helps build stamina. There was more sprinting, because Ryan believes it builds more explosiveness than long jogs.

He didn't abandon pitch counts but made them more individually tailored, so those able to take on more of a workload could build durability.

"Your goal ought to be to pitch longer than that opposing starter," Ryan said.

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