By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Besides, seven-game losing streaks go down easier when you're greeted at the entrance to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington by Nolan Friggin' Ryan.
"It's something positive to get excited about," says irrationally loyal season-ticket holder Ken Trosper, who has attended an unfathomable 401 consecutive Rangers home games from his perch in Section 326, Row 5, Seat 1, behind home plate. "I know we're a year or two away from really competing. That's OK. Nolan gives us instant credibility. He'll have us doing things the right way."
Ryan is charged with both winning games and selling tickets as the head honcho over the baseball and business operations. He will see that manager Washington maximizes his talent. He'll work with Hicks and general manager Jon Daniels to nurture the franchise's highly regarded farm system. He'll make fans feel welcomed by literally shaking hands and kissing babies. He'll attend 60-70 percent of the home games, be on the field for batting practice and make himself available to coaches or players who want to lean on his unprecedented experience.
And, of course, he'll fight the demons.
"We've not had a lot to be proud of around here lately," Ryan says. "The fans that have stuck with us, we gotta let them know we appreciate 'em. Greet them in the parking lot. Make the ballpark an enjoyable and affordable experience. Play the game the way it's supposed to be played."
So what if the crown jewel of the team's off-season is 61 years old? It's refreshing that the Rangers at least have a plan. Fingers crossed, they'll muster the cojones and commitment to actually see it through.
Jerked around by Hicks' whims, the Rangers change directions more than Roger Clemens' 'splaining.
One minute they're "going for it" with last-ditch veterans such as Andres Galarraga and Ken Caminiti; the next they are "rebuilding for the future" with can't-miss kids such as Jason Botts and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
In the last 10 years alone the Rangers have endured five presidents, three general managers and four scouting directors. Even hiring Ryan is an abrupt remodeling of the franchise flowchart, expanding the president's perimeter and power—but really now, there's no way in hell this thing is gonna turn around without...
You still get goose bumps remembering Nolan's historic 300th win, don't you? The way he overpowered the Milwaukee Brewers on July 31, 1990. The way he thrust our obscure li'l Rangers into the national spotlight. The man's magic! Pure magic.
Ryan and his record 27-year career serve as a calming influence on the Rangers, like Concerta to an ADHD adolescent or perhaps lithium to the bipolar. Minutes after officially signing a four-year contract, Ryan gave Daniels a two-year extension that syncs the pair through 2011. In Rangers years, it's the onset of 100-year harmony.
"There's been too much turnover," Daniels admits. "Instability is no way to build a championship. Now we've got a philosophy in place. A clear vision, a clear identity. Let's endure the bumps, enjoy the growth and at least let it play out and see where we end up."
There are pockets of doubting fans, hesitant to air their feelings publicly, who feel that Ryan's ascendancy is nothing more than a default-driven publicity stunt casting Ryan as a living, breathing mascot. But for the most part, everyone from Zonk (you can almost hear his drumbeat getting louder) to Charley Pride (you can almost hear the echoes from his annual spring training clubhouse performance) is buying what Nolan is selling. Even if the team remains the pathetic, penny-pinching Rangers. Even if it recycles the "You Could Use Some Baseball" slogan. Even if this is another season of prospects being groomed, veterans traded to contenders for even more prospects and a finish closer to fourth place than first.
Regardless, Ryan's touch is essential to pull the Rangers out of their spiral toward utter irrelevance. It was 10 seasons ago that Texas won 95 games and drew almost 3 million fans. But in this millennium, it has finished above .500 only once and last year attracted only 2.3 million. Nothing will make the boss grasp for the past like losing 23 percent of his customers.
Leadership stability will help. Intriguing young players will help. But, let's face it, the task of restoring the Rangers' prosperity and popularity demands a persona as big as Nolan Ryan's.
"There's no need for me to toot Nolan's horn," Washington says one day before practice. "It's already been tooted a thousand times by a thousand people. He's a great baseball man. How can he not help? How can he not succeed?"
There is only one teeny, tiny blemish: Ryan is not perfectly qualified for the job.
Admits Ryan, "I realize this is a whole different ballgame than the minors."
But it's sacrilege to question the man whose number has been retired by three teams and likely could've won the Texas presidential primary running on his own Hero Party ticket. Offer criticism of Ryan and you might as well torch a flag, use the Bible as a doorstop and dine on filleted bald eagle. Ryan owns profitable minor league teams in Round Rock and Corpus Christi and was a figurehead for the Astros, but the day the Rangers hired him to save them, he'd never spent a day in charge of a major league front office, and his lack of experience will do little to make the Rangers the contenders their fans demand they...