By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"You think I'm foolin'," Ryan said as the hosts doubled over in laughter, "but it was scary."
During Texas' third exhibition game, also on February 29, Ryan sits in the first row just left of the dugout. Arms folded and legs bouncing, he welcomes the timid advances of both spectators and reporters. You can almost feel his intangibles. When he looks you in the eye with a firm greeting, it's evident you're shaking one of the most gifted right hands in the history of sports. When he thoughtfully answers your questions, you get the feeling it's not total bullshit.
In the seats beside him are Hicks and Daniels, and, for the first time in a long time, the Rangers seem genuinely connected. (Just to keep the hierarchy in check, Hicks has three parking spaces in Surprise, Ryan two and Daniels one.)
"We come from dramatically different backgrounds," Daniels says. "But we share a common vision and passion."
Echoes Hicks, "It's a collaborative effort. We're all partners."
After retiring in '94, Ryan spent 10 years marketing and promoting the Rangers as part of his personal services contract. With his return to Arlington, he promises to be more hands-on decision-maker than ceremonial leader, casually dismissing the "mascot" premise.
Explains Ryan, "That's not who I am."
But how, exactly, will Ryan make an imprint?
Empowered to fire everyone but Hicks, Ryan has instead spent his spring fitting in. He attended a meeting led by baseball commissioner Bud Selig in nearby Scottsdale, schmoozing team sponsors, recording radio advertising spots and familiarizing himself with players and personnel. He brainstormed with Hicks on ways to cattle-prod ticket sales—the result of which was last Saturday's "Select-A-Seat" event in Arlington at which fans got to pick their seats and Ryan's brain. He'll also help with the team's proposed bid to host the 2015 All-Star Game and the construction of Glory Park, Hicks' entertainment development, which will be located near the Cowboys' new stadium just down the street from Rangers Ballpark.
Intermittently, Ryan will poke his head in the clubhouse or, upon invitation from pitching coach Mark Connor, work one-on-one with pitchers.
"He's got a strong desire to not overstep his bounds," Hicks says. "But it'd be stupid to have Nolan Ryan around and not take advantage of him giving tips to our players."
Says Washington, "I guarantee you what he says to our pitchers will be listened to. I'm open to him contributing what he wants, when he wants."
"I don't care who you are or what you've done," Rangers starter Brandon McCarthy says. "It's cool to have Nolan Ryan watching you."
Ryan has also treaded lightly in initial interactions with his new employees, acting more as passive observer than wheel re-inventor. When he insisted on meeting each employee individually, taking the time to shake hands, learn their names and get a feel for their positions, Hicks, who routinely skips the Rangers annual holiday party, was taken aback.
"I don't come here with any preconceived ideas about what I want to do," Ryan says. "There's going to be a giant learning curve until I get up to speed. I know this franchise has tried several approaches, none of which has seemed to work too well. I wasn't here when some of the decisions were made and some of the directions taken, so I'm not exactly sure who's responsible for what. For the most part early on, I'll be a great listener. I'll give my opinions later."
His relationship with Daniels is critical to the process. Though half Ryan's age and admittedly awed, the GM's job is to make suggestions and reach a consensus with one of his childhood heroes.
"When we meet," jokes Daniels, "it's Nolan telling the stories and me listening."
Hicks believes the duo will work in close concert whereas past President Tom Schieffer was buried in paperwork and former GM John Hart was busy reading the greens at Dallas National Golf Club.
"The way it should work is that they agree—then come to me," Hicks says. "It's two people, one decision. The only way these things don't work out is if there are big egos and insecurities at play. That's not the case with these two, I can assure you."
Regardless, a chummy front office and a promotions push led by the most beloved player in franchise history won't mean diddly if the Rangers keep losing.
Says Ryan, "A better start would help."
Unfortunately, this year's Rangers will look a lot like last year's Rangers. Remember them? Like the promiscuous girl gulping morning-after pills a week after, they buried themselves in a 23-42 hole before forging a too-little-too-late 52-45 finish. They didn't hit (striking out a club record 1,224 times) or pitch (the starters' 838 innings were baseball's third-fewest in the last 50 years). And their fielding won the trifecta de terrible: Led the league in errors and unearned runs and were last in fielding percentage. The Rangers have finished third or worse in their four-team division for eight consecutive years, and it doesn't seem as though this year is going to be any dif...