By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Of all the great nights in Rangers history, August 4, 1993, stands out as the proudest. The way ol' Nolan, at age 46, plunked that 26-year-old punk Robin Ventura and then put him in a Lone Star headlock right there on the mound! Awesome. Don't mess with Tex's ass!
Ryan long ago fanned the game of life.
A family man, he has been married to Ruth for 40 years and his sons Reid and Reece run his minor league outfits. And with a stack of major league records and a bust already collecting dust in Cooperstown, his legacy is secure. So is his financial portfolio, bolstered by success in the beef and banking industries, and an aura of integrity that annually earns him millions in endorsements.
He sometimes gets invited to the White House, where President George W. Bush asks him the same exact question you're thinking right now: Why?
Why would a shit-kicker from Alvin trade his leather glove for a leather attaché? Why would a 60-something with unorthodox credentials and minimal major league business acumen accept a job to save a floundering franchise whose season-ticket renewals are lagging off last year's pace? Why would Nolan Ryan agree to attach his name—his revered brand—to the Texas Rangers?
"He asked me the same question," Ryan says of his February 27 lunch with Bush in D.C. "Why would I take this job?"
Winning a World Series—something Ryan accomplished only once as a seldom-used New York Met back in 1969—seems the logical answer. But there's more.
"This kind of opportunity might not ever present itself again," Ryan says. "It had to be the Rangers or the Astros, and at my age, this was good for me because I've wanted to do something like this for a while in baseball. If we're able to build a team that was a consistent winner, it would be very rewarding."
It's hard to create a carrot tantalizing enough for the man who has everything, but the Rangers and their eternal quest for that initial championship have provided one.
"A lot of guys who've had success in this game let it go to their head," says Daniels, parked in his golf cart alongside Hicks' golf cart at a Rangers spring practice field. "But that's the farthest thing from the truth with Nolan. He's down to earth. He's open to suggestions. His intention is very simple: He's here to win a World Series."
Considering the life-sized statue in Arlington's center field, "Ryan Expressway" running along the Rangers Ballpark and the carte-blanche autonomy afforded him by Hicks, you'd think Ryan had won multiple Cy Young Awards (0), had countless 20-win seasons (2), dominated World Series (only 2 1/3 innings pitched) and brought at least one title to Texas (not even close). He is undoubtedly one of baseball's most dominant all-time pitchers. His seven no-hitters are a record, and his seemingly untouchable 5,714 strikeouts remain more than 1,000 ahead of second-place Clemens even 15 years after Ryan's retirement. He also threw 12 one-hitters, 61 shutouts and more 100 mph fastballs than anyone who ever picked up a cowhide orb.
But his short, sweet stint with the Rangers was more about blinding highlights than steady success. Few recall he went 51-39 with a 3.43 ERA in his five-year career here, or that his Texas teams never finished closer than eight games out of the AL West. Dwarfed by the two no-hitters, the 300th win, the 5,000th strikeout and the bloody bludgeoning of Ventura, Ryan's walks rank higher (9th) among all-time Rangers stats than his wins (11th). The bulk of his numbers reside below pitchers like Charlie Hough, Jon Matlack and Juan Guzman.
But that's Ryan. Always able to catch your eye with a shiny object in the middle of a lightning storm.
Legend, of course, props him up as the only Ranger to have his number retired. Legacy saw to it that he's the lone Ranger in baseball's most hallowed shrine, inducted into the Hall of Fame with the second-highest approval rate (98.7 percent) behind only Tom Seaver.
Maybe even more impressive, just four years shy of discounted green fees and endless Advil, he still looks like he could kick your ass. But can he still bring it?
Former Rangers manager turned Japan coaching idol Bobby Valentine can attest that Ryan may have lost some velocity, but not his ferocity. Last summer while in Japan promoting U.S. beef, Ryan was asked to throw out the first pitch before a game in which one of Valentine's teams was about to play.
"I'm in the bullpen in my dress shoes, just trying to get limber so I don't embarrass myself," Ryan recalls. "But when I walk out there Bobby's digging in the box wearing a helmet and there's a camera strapped to the catcher's mask. I called Bobby out and asked him what the heck these people expected, and he just laughed and said, 'Bring the heat.'"
Ryan's wayward fastball buzzed Valentine's head, sending him to the dirt and the crowd into a frenzy. Witnessed the radar gun: 85 mph.
"Well," shrugs Ryan, "I was in front of the rubber."
Despite a verbal delivery that meanders between Texas tough and lazy regionalism—Ryan knows a "thang" or two about "'Merica"—his economical communication transcends barriers. Hicks is absolutely giddy about walking into his first owners meeting with Ryan in tow. And just three days after accepting his new gig, Ryan was at KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket's annual "Ticketstock" carnival in Plano, fielding questions from the fake Nolan Ryan and revealing details about a recent South Texas encounter with wild snow monkeys.