By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Golly,'' Culpepper says, "if you are a baseball fan like I am, you know that Nolan Ryan has led his whole professional career with class. You never read about any scandals, he's going to be inducted in baseball's Hall of Fame, he's a good family man, and on and on and on. Those people against us were trying to put down Nolan Ryan--and you can't. He's an icon. He's a legend.''
Bennett says that Nolan Ryan selecting Round Rock for his new baseball team was "sort of an affirmation, if that's the right word, that Round Rock had arrived."
While the fawning and self-congratulations went on, a couple of problems crept up that put the project in jeopardy. Oatman and his small gang of opponents began a petition drive to put the stadium issue on the November ballot. They needed only 318 signatures, a number equal to 20 percent of the people who voted in a low-turnout May 1998 city election. It threw Reid Ryan for a loop. He and his wife already had moved from Fort Worth and bought a house in Round Rock.
At the same time, Hansen's hotel-motel association was making noise about challenging the legality of the stadium plan. A state law required the city to spend its hotel-motel tax on tourism. Hansen argued that using the tax revenue to build a new baseball stadium, even one with a 6,000-square-foot conference center, was improper.
"This is a baseball stadium, unquestionably and undeniably," Hansen says. "To call it a convention center by building a small meeting room in it was a spurious attempt to skirt the law."
The done deal wasn't so done anymore.
Back in the old days, when the Rangers or Astros needed a lift, they could count upon Nolan Ryan to make an appearance and get the win. Reid Ryan, faced with the possibility of his dream being shot down, knew he could count on the same thing.
As opponents amassed the final signatures on their petitions, a caravan of buses barreled down Interstate 35, carrying 500 baseball fans from Round Rock. They were headed 100 miles south to watch their future team, the Jackson Generals, play its league rival from San Antonio. Reid Ryan figured the trip was a good way to get Round Rock excited about the prospect of pro baseball. The tickets, which covered the costs of renting the buses and admission to the game, were sold out before noon on the day they went on sale. Nolan Ryan-related souvenirs were raffled off during the bus ride. When the fans arrived in San Antonio, the man himself was there to greet them.
After the petition was submitted and the election was set, a group of supporters--mostly Round Rock business types--formed a political action committee to promote the stadium. The theme of the campaign was "Nolan Ryan and Round Rock: A Winning Team." An ad appeared in the newspaper belittling the opponents for questioning the integrity of the stadium plan and therefore Nolan Ryan's own virtue. It included testimonials from former Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan, Gov. George W. Bush, and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. "He is a man of total integrity," President Bush cooed about Nolan Ryan.
A few days before the election, voters received a letter from Nolan Ryan. The campaign piece, designed to appear to be hand-written by Ryan, asked voters for their support. "Friends," the letter began. "As a native Texan who grew up and played professional ball in Texas, I've looked all over the state for a place to bring a team of my own. Quite frankly, I'd never consider going anywhere except in Texas. And of all the places we looked in our great state, Round Rock is the place we've chosen to build a stadium and bring a team, and to be an integral part of the community."
"It was a killer piece," admits Don Martin, the Austin-based public affairs specialist who wrote it.
Martin did polling during the campaign revealing that voters neither understood nor cared about the arcane issues surrounding the stadium's proposed financing. What they understood and cared about was Nolan Ryan.
"They had a lot of faith in him," Martin says.
While Martin was conducting the campaign for the political committee, Reid Ryan was making sure his dad was mixing with voters. The baseball great not only was the centerpiece of the downtown rally that took place during early voting, but attended the city's Cowboy Jubilee in October.
"I felt like if the opponents were going to sling our name through the mud, then we needed to get back to the roots of what the project was all about," Reid Ryan said. "And it started with my dad and I sitting down and having dinner one night, and me saying let's do something together and telling him my crazy idea."
Making the election a referendum on Nolan Ryan meant supporters could pay short shrift to potentially problematic details related to stadium financing and the team's lease with the city. In fact, the details of neither were completed before the election.
"The mayor, the city council, the chamber of commerce, and the Ryans themselves brilliantly postured Nolan Ryan as an American icon, and anyone who opposed him was downright un-American," says the hotel-motel association's Hansen. "We were portrayed as people who did not care about America or its heroes. It skirted the facts completely."