By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
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.'"
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.
"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."
Lease negotiations continued through January, and the Round Rock City Council is scheduled to vote on the 20-year agreement this week. The lease requires the team to contribute $6 million toward a $15 million stadium that the city will own outright. The city's part is to issue $9 million in bonds that are to be paid back over time through the 7 percent hotel-motel tax and the rent the team will pay the city.
The team incurs all expenses related to the maintenance and operations of the stadium, including utilities and security. But it also gets to pocket the millions of dollars in profits related to concessions and parking--even for non-baseball events such as concerts that might take place there.
In effect, the city will make no money off the stadium. But it shouldn't lose any either. The team is paying the city $1.725 million in rent over 20 years, with all but $225,000 of it being paid in the first five years. (Rent for each of the last 15 years is a mere $15,000.) The city, however, must use the rent money to help pay off bondholders instead of spending it on city services. As city officials see it, the fact that only the team benefits if the stadium makes money is outweighed by the city being protected if the stadium loses money. And they love the intangible economic benefits of the stadium, which should be a magnet for new commercial development and the tax revenue that comes with it.
The Ryans love the stadium's magnetic appeal too, since they stand to benefit tangibly from it. After the election, the Ryans announced they were purchasing from the city a 48-acre tract adjacent to where the new stadium is being built. City officials had said the tract would be used to expand a city park, but now say their previous pronouncement was in error. Nothing more than a cornfield today, the land almost undoubtedly will escalate in value over the years for the Ryans as the stadium becomes surrounded by suburbanesque strip malls.
The city is responsible for paying for future stadium upgrades, such as a new scoreboard, but city officials think corporate sponsors could help defray those kinds of costs. Overall, city officials are pleased with the lease and point to an independent study by consultant KPMG Peat Marwick, which said the Ryan group's investment in the stadium exceeds what other AA baseball team owners pour into similar projects. Reid Ryan, of course, agrees with those assessments. But as he roosts inside the offices of the team he hatched, he becomes defensive as he contemplates a question about whether the deal also is very good for the Ryans.
"Are we going to have a chance to make money off this project? Yes, we are, if we run our business right," he says. "But we're also having to put in several millions of dollars that we are giving to the city of Round Rock to build a facility that they are going to own."
Then, Reid Ryan compares the deal to a tenant helping a landlord pay for building an apartment that the tenant has to pay rent on for 20 years. He sounds like a sports team owner with experience far beyond his years.
The election now over, Nolan Ryan has withdrawn behind the scenes, letting his son call the shots, although the two chat at least every other day. The younger Ryan has surrounded himself with an experienced team, including Jay Miller, who left his job as general manager of the Astros' Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans to assume the same post with the Express. The architect for the new stadium is the same firm that designed the majestic Ballpark in Arlington. The publicity campaign for season tickets has not even begun, and the team already has sold about 1,200 full-season and 500 half-season packages.
At long last, Reid Ryan is playing in the big leagues. And winning.
"This really is my deal to run," he says, as if he's been trying to convince people of something similar his entire life.