Perfect game

When Reid Ryan wanted Round Rock voters to build a stadium for his minor-league baseball team, he turned to the one pitchman no good Texan could refuse -- his dad, Nolan

Reid Ryan remembers bumming around the streets of San Francisco alone as a 12-year-old kid, carrying $20 that his dad slipped him before heading to work. It was enough cash to cover Reid's cab fare to Candlestick Park, the wind-swept stadium on the bay where the boy's dad suited up that night as a star pitcher for the visiting Houston Astros.

Nolan Ryan trusted his son to take care of business, even then.
"If I didn't make it to the ballpark," recalls Reid Ryan, now 27, "that would be my fault, because my dad taught me how to do things and how to do things right."

Father's faith in son is the same today as it was then, but Reid Ryan now is entrusted with more than $20 of his dad's money. After being encouraged by his ambitious and energetic son, Nolan Ryan bought a minor-league baseball team last year that will begin playing in the northern Austin suburb of Round Rock in spring 2000.

Reid Ryan wanted to be a major-league baseball pitcher, just like his dad. But his right arm couldn't carry him past the minors. Of all things, the fair-haired progeny of the game's strikeout king didn't have a fast enough fastball to make it in the big leagues. So Reid Ryan has become the next best thing: president and chief executive officer of a baseball team. His dad's team.

Nolan Ryan and his partner Don Sanders, who owned the Astros when Ryan played in Houston, are investing $6 million toward the $15 million it will cost to build a new 7,500-seat stadium in Round Rock. Following the pattern of sports franchise owners in the late 20th century, they are relying on public money to pay the rest.

Faced with the ignominious prospect of being branded as the city that told Nolan Ryan to take a hike, Round Rock voters in November overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative under which the city will spend $9 million to finance the ballpark. The money will come exclusively from the city's hotel and motel occupancy tax--a tourist tax that is always easier for voters to swallow than increases in sales or property taxes. The Ryans and Round Rock got around a pesky state law requiring that hotel tax revenue be spent expressly for tourism by cleverly tucking into the stadium a conference center--no bigger than a Cracker Barrel restaurant, opponents eagerly pointed out. An association representing hotel and motel operators considered a legal challenge, but backed down after the stadium issue passed with 72 percent of the vote.

Reid Ryan helped devise the wildly successful public relations campaign for the election, a strategy that exploited the best marketing tool the team had going for it--his dad. Every time the small but vocal group of opponents seemed to gain some momentum with charges of corporate welfare, Nolan Ryan appeared on the scene and mowed them down--the same treatment he used to give batters.

The baseball icon, who was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this month, regaled the people of Round Rock during the campaign with a handful of public appearances, including a downtown rally on a Saturday during early voting. Reid Ryan, who conceived the idea, says the rally was meant only as a celebration of the great game of baseball. But a full-color poster touting the "Big Event" highlights an opportunity to meet Nolan Ryan and, in bold type, lists the city's three early-voting polling places. Opponents called the event a straightforward political rally, one that they grudgingly admit was sheer genius.

"Yeah, it pissed me off, but it was one of the most brilliant things politically that I have ever seen," says Don Hansen, executive director of the Texas Hotel-Motel Association, which contributed $5,000 toward defeating the stadium proposal. "I knew when that happened that we were dead ducks."

On that sunny October day, Nolan Ryan sat at a table for four hours (legend already has some in town saying it was more like six hours), signing autographs for fans, some of whom happened to be voters. An early-voting location, not coincidentally, was right around the corner. About 3,500 people showed up, Reid Ryan estimated. According to the local newspaper, lines to obtain Nolan Ryan's autograph stretched two blocks, and lines for early voting extended onto the sidewalk. The newspaper also reported that the city's Wal-Mart and Target stores sold out of baseballs that day. A baseball signed by Nolan Ryan is valued at $50, according to the Beckett price guide of sports collectibles.

Convincing Round Rock voters to spend $9 million of a tourist tax to build a baseball stadium for Nolan Ryan's team turned out to be a cakewalk.

"How do you fight baseball, apple pie, motherhood, and Nolan Ryan?" laments David Oatman, a 58-year-old retired engineer. Oatman's wife, Tish, is a former Round Rock City Council member with a reputation for denouncing city projects as boondoggles, including previous attempts to bring minor-league baseball to the city. She was one of the opponents of the Ryans' effort.

The opponents kept their spirits up during the campaign by relentlessly pushing Reid Ryan's hot buttons. When they branded the deal deceitful, Ryan interpreted it as an insult to his dad's integrity. His instinct was to fight back and defend his family's honor. Prudent political consultants were able to tame the excitable young man most of the time, reminding him that responding to the opponents' every charge only gave the other side credibility. But with the election about one week away and Reid Ryan growing ever more nervous about the outcome, he stood up at a city council meeting and fired one final, heavy-handed pitch to Round Rock voters. He reared back and made his case that the biggest loser if the election failed would be the city itself.

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