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

From there, the younger Ryan knew what to do. He called the Padres as well as other independent minor-league clubs seeking his services (and the novelty of his last name) and said no thanks.

"After getting released, I still wanted to do something with baseball," Ryan said. "I'd been in baseball as long as my dad had been. I kind of grew up in the game and had seen it from the inside out. I'd bat-boyed, worked in the clubhouse, traveled with the big clubs and, of course, played."

He turned to television, an industry he had studied in college, and got a job as the featured reporter on a weekly Fox Sports Southwest show about Big 12 baseball. He also worked for a broadcast company that produces Texas Rangers games on television. Ryan either would roam the stands of The Ballpark in Arlington in search of features or sit in the studio relaying baseball scores to viewers. It was fun, but not terribly fulfilling.

So Ryan again turned to his father. He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. "Hi, Dad," he said. "I've got this crazy idea."

That night over dinner, Ryan asked his father to buy a baseball team that he could run. Reid Ryan says baseball team ownership had never occurred to his father before that moment. Nolan Ryan was retired from baseball, but plenty busy with other things. He owned two banks, sat on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, oversaw the maintenance of the family's two ranches, and had become a prolific product pitchman for everything from Dairy Queen to Advil. (He could not be reached for comment for this story, however.)

"The main reason he's doing this is because of me--and him wanting to do something father-son and be in business together," Reid Ryan said.

That dinner occurred in the summer of 1997, and Reid Ryan had his plan all figured out. The team, once purchased, would play somewhere in Central Texas. The Austin metropolitan area, with a population of about 1 million, was the largest urban center in the country without professional baseball, even though the area is baseball-crazy. Round Rock High School won the state's 5A baseball championship in 1997. University of Texas games, played in the heart of Austin, always drew big crowds. Both seasons, though, ended in mid-spring, right about the time a minor-league season begins.

Central Texas had been teased with baseball twice in the 1990s, but voters in both Austin and Round Rock shot down the ill-conceived proposals. Not only did both attempt to pay for a new stadium by taking money from the city's general revenues, but neither had Nolan Ryan behind them.

Through his connections in baseball, Nolan Ryan found a willing seller in Con Maloney, owner of the AA Texas League's Jackson (Mississippi) Generals, which is a farm team for the Astros. As the Ryans negotiated with Maloney, Reid Ryan contacted the mayors of Austin, Round Rock, Georgetown, and San Marcos. The young man's only connection to any of the mayors was the phone book, which was how he looked up their numbers.

When Round Rock Mayor Charlie Culpepper answered Ryan's call in December 1997 and heard about his plans to bring a team to Central Texas, his first thought was "That's great!" They had lunch together at Chili's, where Culpepper laid out the ground rule that no property or general sales tax would be used for the stadium. Culpepper was a member of the Round Rock City Council in 1990 when a ballot proposal calling for new taxes for baseball failed 2-to-1.

"Yeah, I was skeptical when Reid called, but I figured if Nolan Ryan couldn't bring baseball to Central Texas, then no one could," Culpepper says. "I told the city staff to figure out a way to make it work."

When Round Rock City Manager Bob Bennett heard that Culpepper was on a new baseball kick, his first thought was "Oh, no!" Bennett remembered the bloodletting from the 1990 election. But Round Rock was different now. The city 15 miles north of downtown Austin was emerging from its slumbering reputation as an ultra-conservative bedroom community. Dell Computer Corp. had moved its headquarters to the edge of town, which led to an economic explosion. The population had swelled in eight years from 30,000 to more than 50,000, and new people were moving in every day. Several hip Austin restaurants were expanding into Round Rock.

Since 1995, seven new budget hotels had opened in town, and more were on their way. The city's hotel-motel occupancy tax revenue, spent exclusively on quaint community festivals such as the "Cowboy Jubilee" and "Frontier Days," would grow faster than the city could ever spend it. Bennett and other city officials recognized a stadium revenue source when they saw it. The deal, though not done, was taking shape nicely.

On April 30, Nolan Ryan, Reid Ryan, and Sanders announced that they had bought 70 percent interest in the Jackson Generals for an undisclosed amount (the typical value of a AA franchise is about $4 million) and that they desired to move the team to Round Rock. City officials beamed as they posed for pictures with baseball's greatest fireballer. Critics of the marriage, however, say city officials spent more time fawning over Nolan Ryan than they did in objectively evaluating his proposal. While city officials say they weren't blinded by Nolan Ryan's fame, neither can they hide their rapture in becoming business partners with him.

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