The Texas Rangers have demons.
Demons they desperately need to exorcise, beginning in spring training at Surprise, Arizona. Most are self-spawned. All unwelcome. But the gnarly, persistent, debilitating demons remain nonetheless.
Through the years they've manifested in peculiar places such as Roger Moret's trance and Jose Canseco's noggin and Kenny Rogers' temper. But there's no disguising the evil they spread: the epidemic of losing.
Bedeviled for decades by wretched play and woeful mismanagement, Arlington's professional baseball franchise is one of the saddest and baddest in the major leagues.
Since arriving in 1972, the Rangers have played 5,655 games and managed only one playoff victory. One. Their 36-year streak without a trip to a league championship series is the longest in baseball, providing a decidedly lousier legacy than those lovable loser Chicago Cubs. They've rummaged through—often prompted by nothing but a swift jerk of the knee—19 managers, five logos, umpteen rebuilding projects and exactly zero sniffs of the World Series. Last year seamlessly and anonymously morphed into the previous year and the year before that. The wins decreased, attendance dwindled, interest deteriorated.
But nothing this side of basketball's March Madness and Padre Island's wet T-shirt contests announces spring like baseball. It's the magical time when flowers bloom, animals procreate and Rangers fans reach their gullible, masochistic peak.
Tempering their optimism, as usual, is Rangers owner Tom Hicks' miserly strategy. Despite the $7 million he recouped when former Ranger Alex Rodriguez initially opted out of his Yankees contract, the owner plods along as a billionaire buying knock-offs. His team operates in the nation's 5th-largest media market, yet is inexplicably burdened by a middle-of-the-pack budget. And there is no reason to believe that any of this is going to change anytime in the near...
Hey, lookee here. It's Nolan Ryan! Ya know...Big Tex. The Ryan Express! Surely you remember him? Those were the good ol' days, huh? Wasn't it cool when he blew away Rickey Henderson on August 22, 1989, for his record 5,000th strikeout? Well, good news. He's baaaack! And he's in charge.
On February 6, when Hicks announced that Nolan Ryan was his team's new president during a press conference at the Legends of Game Museum in Arlington, Ryan got a standing ovation and Hicks got the instant affirmation that he had hired the right guy for the right job. "I hope our fans and players are as excited as the employees," Hicks said. "I think they feel like, 'All right, now we have a winner.'"
"Nolan Ryan," Hicks continued, "is our biggest hero."
There you have it, the Rangers' 2008 strategy. Veil the rebuilding. Preach patience. Distract the demons. And when in doubt, trot out ol' reliable. Not bad. Not bad at all.
It's worked before, when Ryan injected credibility and visibility into this woebegone franchise with a handful of milestone moments in the late '80s and early '90s. Now, sent from the heavens by way of Houston, the Hall of Famer has returned to cleanse the Rangers of its gory past and lukewarm present.
When you make a frantic, albeit shrewd call to the bullpen for one of baseball's all-time greatest pitchers to be your pitch man, all other transactions shrink into footnotes.
On this sun-splendid, February 29 morning, about 30 miles of palm trees and desert northwest of Phoenix, the Rangers' spring training complex is abuzz. It's 8:37 a.m., and the clubhouse is waking to Sinatra's "Chicago."
"I guarantee we're going to pitch and catch better," says effervescent Rangers manager Ron Washington, who swooshes through the room sucking on his trademark toothpick. "Guarantee."
But the nervous anticipation isn't about pitching or catching, or new center fielder Josh Hamilton's raw power or third baseman Hank Blalock's return from rib-removal surgery or second baseman Ian Kinsler's productivity from the lead-off spot. The fans, media, players and even the owner are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ryan, their iconic new old face of the franchise.
Four hours later, Ryan finally emerges from the team office, which is located down the right-field line of Surprise Stadium. He looks almost alien, sans his familiar No. 34, wearing khakis, golf shirt and tan cap from Georgetown's Cimarron Hills Golf Course. It seems fitting that he has kept his admirers waiting, since Ryan's debut is all about patience and deflecting attention away from this season's predictably porous play.
"I feel good about our team and our direction," Ryan says in his trademark twang. "But I'm not about to sit here and say we're going to win a World Series in two years. Building a winner takes time."
The Hall-of-Fame starter has been anointed state-of-the-art savior. But take two chill pills and call him in 2009—the sport's fastest pitcher plans to take it slow.
"I'm not going to make wholesale changes and try to fix everything in one day," Ryan continues. "My management style is to give people room, let them do their jobs. If they don't succeed, then it'll be time for change."
Voyaging into yet another season littered with questions throughout the pitching staff, the Rangers' most important position in 2008 might well be commander-in-chief. The team, afforded the luxury of Ryan and his mesmerizing reputation, can funnel fans' concerns away from its mediocre present by conjuring up images from a past saturated with feel-good, Hall-of-Fame highlights. Who needs Criss Angel's illusions when you have the reality of baseball's all-time strikeout king?
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...
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.
"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."
Ryan offering you pitching tips is like Pete Sampras teaching you the mechanics of the serve, Celine Dion showing you how to over-emote or Jenna Jameson suggesting a new position.
"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...
Hello, no-hitters! Who can forget Nolan's 6th no-no on June 11, 1990, in Oakland? Then, just for grins, he went out a year later and blanked the Toronto Blue Jays on May 1, 1991, becoming the oldest pitcher (44!) to throw a no-hitter. Seventh heaven, baby! When the Ryan Express was rolling, nobody could touch him.
Hang around Surprise for an hour and someone from the organization, or perhaps a 74-year-old fan in black socks, sandals and a fanny pack, will beat you over the head with the fact that Baseball America recently ranked Texas' farm system the fourth-best in baseball. (The Rangers were 28th a year ago, making theirs the biggest one-year jump in ranking history.)
"We're No. 4!" seems a rather meek rallying cry, but it is significant that the Rangers—considering the age of their star attractions last spring (Sammy Sosa at 38) and this spring (Ryan at 61)—actually boast talent on this side of the hill. Acquired in Daniels' deals, shortstop Elvis Andrus, third baseman Chris Davis, pitcher Eric Hurley, catcher Taylor Teagarden and pitcher Neftali Feliz—all younger than 24—are among the publication's Top 100 prospects.
"What Jon has done in acquiring these kids," Ryan says, "is the backbone of our rebuilding."
This season the Rangers will fixate as much on minor league stats as major league standings, but their future is one of baseball's brightest.
"If rebuilding is a five-step process, we're about at step three," assistant GM Thad Levine said in January at the team's annual mid-winter carnival. "We've turned the corner."
Which brings us, grudgingly, to 2008.
Rangers' frustration in a nutshell: Payroll is down; ticket prices, for a third consecutive season, are up.
"Sometimes it's painful to admit where you are, but the Rangers have done that," longtime TV analyst and former GM Tom Grieve said at the winter carnival. "They're developing. They're taking the slow steps. It's a tough sell to fans, but it's the right direction."
Hicks anticipates a "spike up" on the field, and Daniels chirps that "there can always be a Colorado" unexpectedly surging to the World Series. But most experts are blasé about these Rangers. Neither Fox nor ESPN have scheduled a single Texas game for national broadcast in a season that commences March 31 in Seattle and ends September 28 in Anaheim, California.
"Will this be a much bigger challenge than I anticipated?" Ryan asks. "Probably."
Michael Young will again collect 200-plus hits, and Kinsler will blossom, and diving David Murphy will channel Rusty Greer. But the problem, like it's been since 1972, is pitching. While the New York Mets signed Johan Santana, the Rangers settled for Jason Jennings, fresh off a 2-7 season plagued by arm problems. The Rangers are again stubbornly counting on a staff led by Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla (who last year combined to go 16-23 with an ERA over 5.00) and a bullpen of has-beens (Eddie Guardado) and not-yets (Kazuo Fukumori).
The opening-day lineup should be Kinsler (second base), Young (shortstop), Hamilton (center), Blalock (third base), Milton Bradley (right), Ben Broussard (first base), Marlon Byrd (left), Frank Catalanotto (DH) and Gerald Laird (catcher). Unlike years past, this will not be a Rangers team of the slugging genre. Blalock, in fact, is the only player with a 30-homer season.
The offense, and really any hope of a winning season, hinge on two five-tool players with red-flag histories: drug abuse (Hamilton) and emotional freak-outs (Bradley).
But when you're 0-for-forever, you accept talent, warts and all. Almost.
Despite being desperate for a bat and some buzz, Hicks says he would not sign steroidal slugger Barry Bonds, promising to veto the idea even if it came from Ryan. "Character guys," Hicks frames it. Really?
With a linebacker's build (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and Popeye's forearms, Hamilton is the most physically impressive Ranger since Ruben Sierra in his prime. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo gushes that the 26-year-old has more power than Sosa and Juan Gonzalez.
"The guy is a monster. Outrageous potential," Young says. "Some of the bombs he hits are just ridiculous."
But after eight failed trips to drug rehab, Hamilton found himself on his grandmother's doorstep in October 2005, strung out on crack and clinging to life. Allowing the division rival Anaheim Angels to snatch free-agent gem Torii Hunter, the Rangers gave up coveted pitching prospect Edinson Volquez to gamble on the born-again Hamilton.
"I've got my priorities in order now: God, God and God," says Hamilton, who projects a divine year of hitting .300 with 35 homers, 95 RBI and 25 stolen bases. "I'd be the biggest hypocrite ever, as far as my sobriety and Christianity, if I didn't stay on the right path."
Bradley, whose character repeatedly came into question during angry, infamous run-ins with fans, teammates and umpires, has the same number (21) and locker (double-wide, isolated in the corner) as last year's supposed problem child, Sosa.
"He's a fired-up kinda guy," Washington says. "I'm not about to take that away from him. If I see something cropping up, I'll hurry fast as I can and hope I get it in time."
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But what if, as an assist to the demons, Washington is late to the party and Bradley blows up? What if Hamilton can't stay clean and/or healthy? What if the committee of closers results only in a variety of disappointments? What if Bush leaves the White House and brings his bad karma back to Arlington?
Never fear, Nolan Ryan is here.
But his presence be damned, another awful start and we'll write off the Rangers before we finish our taxes. The Stars and Mavericks are poised for intriguing playoff runs this spring and then the Cowboys' training camp is only a couple months away and this Ranger season has every reason to be as forgettable as...
Tell me you were puffing out your chest when we finally got a Ranger into Cooperstown! When Nolan got inducted wearing that blue cap with the bold Texas "T" on July 25, 1999, it was the franchise's crowning achievement. Shoot, who else but Big Tex do you want trying to save us? From the demons. From ourselves.