Commentary

Nolan Ryan hasn't lost his fastball

Rangers president and co-owner is transforming the franchise into a winner

Updated: October 4, 2010, 2:28 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

There is a statue of the Texas Rangers owner at Arlington's ballpark. Of course, there is a statue of George Steinbrenner at the new Yankee Stadium as well, but the big difference is the Nolan Ryan statue was erected before he became the team's owner in August. And if ever the Rangers someday feel the need to add a plaque honoring Ryan, they would have to make it twice as big as any other, not because of his ego, but simply to provide ample space for all that he accomplished as a player.

Which explains why this owner receives a whole lot more autograph requests than his players. This is not the situation with, say, Boston's John Henry.

"It's not even close," Rangers third baseman Michael Young says of the owner-to-player autograph ratio. "Nolan is synonymous with Texas sports. You think about the icons in our area and Nolan is at the top of the list, maybe even ahead of some of the Cowboys, or all the Cowboys. Nolan is just on a different level. It's another reason for us to realize how lucky we are.

"I can't think of another scenario where a guy has had such a significant impact on the field and now is calling shots as an owner."

[+] EnlargeNolan Ryan
AP Photo/LM OteroNolan Ryan is fully invested in the Texas Rangers. On Aug. 5, he became a co-owner.

Ryan, who bought an unspecified share in the Rangers with majority owner Chuck Greenberg in August, is the first former major leaguer to become a big league owner since Haywood Sullivan (192 career hits), who had a minority stake in the Red Sox, and the first Hall of Famer since Hank Greenberg (who was a partner with White Sox owner Bill Veeck). He also is the first owner with 5,700 strikeouts and seven no-hitters.

Ryan retired 17 years ago as a player, but he has not retired. He's just turned his competitive juices into transforming the Rangers from a last-place team when he took over as team president in 2008 to American League West champions this season. In other words, Stuart Sternberg better not try charging the owners' suite or they may learn the same lesson Robin Ventura once did.

"You have other challenges in life, but they're not that one-on-one competition that you have with a hitter," Ryan said. "You get to the point in your life that you've moved on from that and obviously that's where I am, but you enjoy the challenge of putting the team together and working with other people to try to have an organization that has put a winner on the field and hope that they accomplish what everyone's goal is. And then when they do, you get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and so it's rewarding in different ways, but it's still the game that you love and being involved in."

Baseball ownership is a bit different now than it was when Ryan struck out his first major leaguer in 1966. The most obvious change is that back then, the owners told the players what their contract would be and the players could do little else but say thank you for not cutting my salary. Ryan's rookie year, the big league minimum was $6,000 and the average salary was $19,000. With wages like that, Ryan had to work in the offseason, pumping gas one winter and installing air conditioning another.

Does Alex Rodriguez do that?

"You knew who the owners were, but you never -- or very seldom -- saw them, and they were very low profile," Ryan says. "That's not the case nowadays with owners of major sports franchises. So it has changed a lot. You knew who they were and usually they were the senior citizens of the community. They made their money outside the game and they were fans of the game and they just wanted to own a baseball team."

Ryan played 27 seasons, long enough to sign baseball's first $1 million yearly contract (1980) and earn another $24 million before he struck out his 5,714th batter in 1993. Now his team has a payroll of $56 million, and that's lower than 25 other teams. The rise of the players' union, baseball work stoppages, expansion, the leagues splitting into divisions, the evolution of relief pitching, the beginning of the steroid era … Ryan's career spanned it all.

"Whether it's baseball related or injury related, anything we go through as players, I'm sure Nolan has gone through and then some," Young says. "It's very easy to bounce things off him because he's experienced everything there is to experience as a player."

Ryan is around the team a lot more than previous owner Tom Hicks, who rarely had much to offer other than a hello or a cordial conversation or a ridiculous contract to a certain free agent represented by Scott Boras. And Ryan isn't shy with his comments. The other week, he went up to Darren Oliver and said that he noticed the pitcher's arm was "dragging a little" Says Oliver: "Coming from him it means more than somebody who's never been there before."

[+] EnlargeNolan Ryan
AP PhotoAug. 4, 1993: A moment that Robin Ventura would probably like to forget.

Ryan twice topped 300 innings in a season and reached 299 in another. Obviously, it was a different game then, but one of Ryan's passions is working to get pitchers at least a little closer to that.

"I don't blame the pitchers for not pitching longer, I blame baseball and management for that because we produced that," Ryan said. "I mean that's the course we set and so that's what we have to deal with. And so we're going to change that course, and we have to start it and it won't be a process that comes overnight.

"What we're trying to do is get our starters to pitch deeper into the games, so we don't have to use as many people in the bullpen and then I would also prefer to not carry as many pitchers to give the manager an option to have another bench player. Will we get there? I don't know, but that's my hope."

Attempting to change a mindset ingrained in baseball over several decades isn't easy, but pitchers are more open to the idea when it's suggested by someone who pitched 332 innings one season without hurting his arm, than say, an owner who made his fortune analyzing stock derivatives.

"He just wants to get the best out of us; he wants us to push ourselves a little bit," Rangers starter Colby Lewis said. "I think that's the biggest thing. He doesn't want us to go out there and be satisfied with 95, 100 pitches, 105 pitches and feel like we've done our job. He wants us to go out there and feel like I can throw another 20 pitches and I can throw 130 pitches. That's his type of background, his motivation for pitchers."

Ryan pitched in only one World Series, in 1969 with the Mets when he was 22. He would like to experience another with Texas, which would be the Rangers' first. At this point, he can't do much more than watch Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, Young and all the Rangers give it their best shot.

Then again, this is one 63-year-old owner who might be able to help by adding himself to the postseason roster. He says the famed Ryan Express can still bring it in the 80s.

"I haven't thrown this year, but I continue to throw to my children and to some of the guys in Round Rock and to different people," he says. "What's interesting is that I can still throw; it's the recovery factor that comes into play."

In that case, better save him for Game 7 of the World Series.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com