San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 7th, 2008
Ryan’s the right fit

Editor at Large

So, now the Texas Rangers become Nolan Ryan’s laboratory. Perhaps that doesn’t pass for an awesome possibility. But neither is it a disquieting possibility.

It might even be the answer. Anyone who thinks the Rangers have brought back the former great for a suit job because he’s too old to wear a jock strap might be right about the Rangers, but they’d be wrong about Ryan.

The Rangers named Ryan their club president Wednesday, returning their all-time hero to Arlington in an executive capacity. Because this transaction involves the Rangers and a big name from their past, we’re tempted to believe the Rangers are giving us another one of these smoke-and-mirrors stories that’s all about making headlines and not one bit about making head way. In other words, because this move involves the Rangers, we’re tempted to think it’s a bad move made for the wrong reasons.

But the key player here is not the Rangers, but Ryan. Indeed, Nolan Ryan as president of the Rangers is a legitimate, intriguing move because he has cut his teeth in the last ten years as a legitimate, successful baseball executive.

In 1998, Ryan joined forces with Houston financier Don Sanders to form Ryan Sanders Baseball, which put together a group of investors to purchase the Jackson (MS) Generals of the Texas League. Ryan Sanders moved the franchise to the Austin area and thus was born the Round Rock Express, one of minor league baseball’s annual attendance leaders.

In 2005, Ryan Sanders purchased the Edmonton Trappers of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, moved the franchise to Round Rock and moved the Class AA franchise to Corpus Christi, thus giving birth to the Corpus Christi Hooks. The two franchises serve as the top two farm clubs for the Houston Astros.

In 2008, Round Rock finished second in attendance among all Class AAA franchises at 662,595. Corpus Christi, fighting a very rainy summer, finished second among all Class AA franchises at 479,289, behind only the Rangers’ franchise in Frisco (545,421).

To be sure, the heavy lifting on these franchises is done by Ryan’s oldest son, Reid Ryan, the Ryan Sanders chief executive. Nolan Ryan is merely one of the principal owners, which certainly doesn’t mean he lacks involvement. Nolan Ryan also has succeeded in cattle and banking, as well as baseball ownership. He’s got the rounded business sense and experience appropriate for the presidency of a baseball club.

If Nolan Ryan doesn’t comes to this position with abundant hands-on experience among baseball executives, that shouldn’t matter too deeply. The presidency isn’t so much about running the baseball operation as setting a tone for the entire operation, which entails all aspects of the baseball business. Ryan is connected in Texas and big hitters in the Metroplex will love associating with him from a business standpoint.

Indeed, it’s much more than arguable that the club’s problems aren’t limited to the major league field. The Rangers just don’t do enough business relative to their market size compared with other major league clubs. The Metroplex, in which the Rangers operate, is the largest single-club market in all of Major League Baseball. But one would think from estimates of their revenues that they’re operating in Milwaukee.

To say the Rangers have lost touch with their public based on ticket sales tells only part of the story. Based on general revenues, the Rangers also have lost touch with corporate Dallas and Fort Worth because the ball club offers a dicey marketing proposition.

If you’re an advertiser, you want to project a winning image to the broadest possible audience. The Rangers offer a broad audience, but on pain of associating the advertiser with a losing image. That is, it almost defeats an advertiser’s purpose to market with the Rangers, because the advertiser risks association with a losing image before a broad audience.

Ryan, in and of himself, is not a winning image, but he is a successful image who can build warm, fuzzy feelings and make people feel good about the Rangers until the club is ready to win through their improving farm system. Better yet, Ryan is believable.

For going on ten years, the Rangers have resorted to pure dupery in their public relations initiatives, from the signing of Alex Rodriguez without a complementary pitching staff in 2001 to the long-term extension for Michael Young last year so he could be the face of a faceless franchise.

One hears of the Rangers signing a player or hiring in their front office and immediately looks for the catch. It could be, of course, that Hicks hasn’t tried to deceive the public so much as he, himself, is deceived about what works in baseball. Indeed, that’s likely.

But if, in fact, Ryan’s installation as club president signals that Hicks will distance himself from the baseball operation, then the club is taking a large step towards prosperity. Ryan hasn’t told us any tall tales. Ryan’s credibility among baseball initiates throughout Texas, at all levels, is unmatched. For a while, it seemed as if Roger Clemens might have tied or slighly surpassed Ryan as the No. 1 Baseball Hero in Texas, but recent developments have turned that tide right back towards Ryan.

In short, moving Hicks to the background and replacing him with Ryan is the absolute maximum improvement the Rangers can realize from a public relations standpoint in baseball. And even that’s selling Ryan short.

Remember that the club presidency is an encompassing job as it reportedly is now structured. The baseball operation is under the president’s umbrella, but so is the business operation. By the way, the club has, in recent years, structured the presidency to deal only with the business side, and that lack of integration could have something to do with the club’s sub-par performances at generating wins and revenue.

Short of structuring their operation so General Manager Jon Daniels reports to Ryan and Ryan reports to Hicks (the Rangers apparently will have both report to Hicks), the Rangers couldn’t have made a better change. Look at all the qualifications Ryan brings to the global role of team president.

Along with Ryan’s status as a Hall of Famer and one of baseball’s all-time great pitchers comes a deep understanding of the culture within a major league clubhouse. As a minor league executive, Ryan has built two successful franchises almost from the ground up. He understands the dynamics of a baseball front office. He understands the relationships between major league clubs and their player development operations. He understands the relationships between baseball franchises and the other businesses in their cities. He understands how to connect with the public in a credible style.

During the course of his baseball career and for a very long time after, Nolan Ryan has consistently proved himself a very capable man in all aspects of baseball and business.

To the naked eye, the Rangers hired Nolan Ryan for their president as a publicity gambit. But on a deeper level, Ryan’s stature and celebrity are merely a bonus on top of his demonstrated capabilities. The combination makes Ryan a uniquely suitable president for the Texas Rangers, for good publicity effect, and otherwise.

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