By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
According to a newspaper account, he said: "Instead of stepping out of Austin's shadow and having a team that is associated with a growing and great city, it will be known as the city that ran a Texas hero out of town."
In one sentence, Reid Ryan had hit upon all the insecurities of a suburb wanting to be its own city. It was a strike at the knees.
When Reid Ryan had first approached Round Rock city officials about locating his dad's new baseball team there, they wondered if they were being sucked into a situation of rich dad buying bungling son a new toy. They laugh now at their own naivete.
"It didn't take long for all of us to realize that Reid is a super-sharp kid," said Will Hampton, the city's public information officer.
Even so, some of Reid Ryan's biggest fans still wonder if the team might be the son's way of proving his worth to his father because he couldn't prove it to him on the mound.
Just when it seems as if that might be the case, Reid Ryan tosses a curve that suggests he is very much his own man--a secure, savvy executive of a sports franchise who is out to make his venture a success, financially and otherwise. On New Year's Eve, Reid Ryan was the only man working at team headquarters, a cozy collection of desks nestled behind an architect's office that fronts the city's main downtown street. Comfortably clad in a Nike warm-up and cross-trainers, leaning against the edge of a desk of one of his employees, Ryan is asked about the team's name, Express, which was chosen through a fan balloting contest, after Nolan Ryan's nickname.
"It's kind of boring," Reid Ryan says of the name. Amazingly, the loyal and doting son preferred a very different name for the team: Fire Ants. "I could just picture the cap with a logo of a fire ant holding a bat," he says.
In minor-league baseball, where merchandising the team's logo can significantly boost a team's profits, he realized that Fire Ants souvenirs would have been big sellers and help make the team a success. The same way using Nolan Ryan during the campaign helped make the election one.
And for Reid Ryan, the soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer's son who wasn't good enough to pitch in Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field, making the Express profitable is a good way to prove he is his own successful man.
It was 1996, and Nolan Ryan's oldest son was coming to terms with the fact that his good genetics were betraying him.
As a boy in the sandlots and back yards of Alvin, Texas, Reid Ryan had hoped that hours of practice would make his pitching perfect. Perfect, as in what his dad epitomized. Cliff Gustafson, the legendary baseball coach at the University of Texas, saw enough potential in Reid Ryan's right arm, along with a faint hope that genetics would win out, to recruit him to pitch for his talent-rich Longhorns. Ryan's college career began like a dream when he faced his dad in an exhibition game against the Texas Rangers. But during the Longhorns' season, Ryan was called upon to pitch only 3 1/3 innings by his UT coaches. After his freshman year, with his father's blessing, he transferred to Texas Christian University, where he hoped for more playing time.
Things began looking up for him. In his senior year, Ryan helped pace the Horned Frogs to their first Southwest Conference Championship in 28 years. The Texas Rangers, his dad's former team, signed him to a pro contract about a month later, and Reid Ryan began his career in the minor leagues shortly thereafter. But his professional career never took off. In three years, he had reached only the highest level of "A" ball, three rungs below the majors. No matter how much will he put into throwing his fastball, he lacked power. When Reid Ryan stretched his arm back and then thrust it forward in a motion he learned from studying his father's technique, the ball refused to travel 90 mph or faster. His dad could break that barrier in his sleep. A 90-mph-plus fastball is the difference between batters swinging wildly at the air, as they did when facing Nolan Ryan, or connecting for a hit, as they did too often against his son.
The Rangers, despite the organization's loyalties to the Ryan family, released Reid Ryan in 1996. The San Diego Padres called and expressed interest in signing him to another minor-league contract.
"It became a choice of whether I wanted to spend five to 10 years kicking around the minor leagues and maybe one day making it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee or whether I wanted to get out and become successful in some other field," he says.
He sought counsel from his father.
"You know, people kind of make fun of the fact that Nolan Ryan isn't the most exciting guy in the world," Reid Ryan says. "But he's what I like to call a 'common-sense guru.' He has a way of putting things into perspective that brings out what is right and what is wrong. So when I went to him he said, 'Reid, you should feel good about what you've done. Your goal was to play pro baseball, and you did that. You had one good year in the minors, and you enjoyed it.'"