Nolan Ryan Did Not Save the Texas Rangers

By Martin Johnson

The Hall-of-Fame pitcher is being credited with turning the baseball team around—but things started changing for the club long before he got there

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Reuters


The Texas Rangers' 12-game winning streak, the longest in Major League Baseball this season, ended this week with a loss in Anaheim. But their torrid run (they have lost only four games this month) has re-established them as contenders for the post-season. The rise of the Rangers, who won the American League pennant last year in their first trip to the postseason since 1999, is fast making them the secondary team for fans who hate the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox equally. Now, if only people could give credit where credit is due.

The public face of the Texas Rangers is Team President and CEO Nolan Ryan, who is widely regarded as the best baseball player from Texas (in my mind he's the best player not named Roger Clemens, but that's a different debate). Ryan pitched a record seven no-hitters and struck out more than 5,000 hitters in a Hall-of-Fame career that included a nine-year stint with the Houston Astros and five more with the Rangers. His popularity has helped them navigate several difficult circumstances such as the aftermath of a fan's death earlier this month at Ranger's Ball Park in Arlington.

Ryan is a charismatic, tough-talking Texan, and since becoming President of the Rangers in 2008 and even more so since becoming part-owner last year, he has made several pronouncements against the conventional wisdom of managing young pitcher's workloads via 100 pitch limits. He has even instructed the team's minor-league pitching coaches to lose their counters and make judgments based on observation and not pitch counts. This has made him immensely popular in the press and he is routinely give the lion's share of the credit for the Ranger's rise. Numerous mentions on the MLB channel and ESPN's Baseball Tonight suggest that Ryan is the architect of the Rangers success. This article from the New York Times all but credits him for changing the baseball culture in Texas from the spendthrift, ineffectual ways of previous club owner Tom Hicks. The article states early on, "Ryan has presided over the team's baseball operations for the last three years. Thanks in large part to his guidance, the club is headed to the postseason."

Stephen Hawkins of the Associated Press were even more enthusiastic. In a playoff preview last autumn, he gushed, "Texas bottomed out again in the 2000s, until the Ryan Express roared in again. Everything good the Rangers have ever been and everything great they could become all trace back to Ryan."

Even players are wrapped up in the Ryan love fest. Texas outfielder David Murphy told ESPN, "Ever since Nolan has been on board here, this franchise has gone nowhere but the correct way and the right direction inside and out," Murphy said. "You look at the farm system, you look at the big league club and it's gotten better in all aspects. "

The logic of these stories followed an attractive syllogism. Hicks's signature move was first overspending to sign Alex Rodriguez in 2000, then overpaying to unload him four years later. The signature event of Ryan's reign with the Rangers has been last year's World Series, featuring a team with stellar pitching and defense as well as a bright future and moderate payroll. But this change in the baseball culture predates Ryan's arrival in Arlington.

Most winning baseball teams have a long gestation period, and the Rangers' rise began in October 2005 with the promotion of Jon Daniels to General Manager and then the hiring of Ron Washington as manager. Daniels, a Cornell alum, had worked for the Rangers for four years, and he was 28 when took the GM job, making him the youngest man in history to hold that level of authority in the major leagues. He began to re-orient the team by bolstering the scouting budget in Latin America and the Pacific Rim. In 2007 he traded Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves for four players. Three of them—shortstop Elvis Andrus, closer Neftali Feliz, and starting pitcher Matt Harrison—are integral parts of the current Rangers team.

The Rangers organization had long built their pitching staffs via free agency, an approach that was moderately successful before the team moved to their current ballpark in 1994. Their previous home field, Arlington Stadium, favored pitchers with its spacious dimensions and ample foul ground. Their current ballpark plays as one of the best hitting parks in the American League, and few pitchers with other options signed with Texas. The team's philosophy had been to outscore their opponents and they loaded up on offense. Daniels changed that approach to develop young pitching internally, and it was most apparent in the hiring of Ron Washington as manager.

Washington, a veteran coach, was known for helping players develop their fielding skills, and his primary mentor was Tom Kelly, a manager who developed good defensive teams in a hitting friendly environment (the Metrodome in the '80s and '90s). "We wanted to develop an atmosphere where young players could succeed," he told me in an interview before the playoffs last season. "We want our pitchers to feel that anything that is hit off of them will result in an out."

The Rangers are usually above average if not upper echelon in offense, but now thanks to the new philosophy, the Rangers' defense is routinely among the best in the league, too. It's a savvy move on the team's part to let Ryan get the credit; despite decades of presence Major League Baseball is still taking root in Texas and it plays better with a famous Texan is in the lead rather than two men with few ties to the Lone Star State. And it's hard to stop a media lovefest with a tough-talking Texan, even if the facts get in the way.

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