THE NEWBERG REPORT — FEBRUARY 7, 2008
From where I sat yesterday, there were moments when Nolan Ryan’s face was framed perfectly by the Texas Rangers logo, as if it were a halo.
(One with red on top, blue on bottom. How fitting.)
I smiled at the corniness of my realization, and imagined the predictable email responses I’d get from two or three readers who never miss an opportunity to rail on me, that is, if I were to actually decide to mention the halo vision.
Two hours later, as I walked out of the stadium toward the parking lot, I noticed a cluster of excavators and cranes just to the north and east, busy doing the work designed to improve the roads leading to the Ballpark, and it made me think of the construction process that’s been going on inside the building for the past couple years, the last seven months in particular. It occurred to me then that the way that the new Rangers president can truly add to his baseball saintliness around here is to allow the general manager’s construction effort to continue on its current path, unimpeded, unaltered, untweaked.
Those concerns weren’t completely eliminated during yesterday’s press conference, but they were minimized for me, significantly.
As Tom Hicks, Jon Daniels, Jim Sundberg, and Ron Washington stood alongside Ryan at the podium, with high-level business-side officials like Casey Shilts, Rick McLaughlin, Kellie Fischer, and Andy Silverman in the room, the announcement was made that Ryan was not only the organization’s new president, but in fact would oversee all aspects of the Rangers’ operations – in other words, both baseball and business, a job description that the club presidency hadn’t entailed since Tom Schieffer’s departure nine years ago.
It made me a little nervous, given the prevailing sense that the baseball operations effort here is as encouraging now as it’s been at any time since before Ryan arrived as player in December 1988.
But judging by Ryan’s comments yesterday, not to mention his decision to leave the Astros and rejoin the Rangers, it at least appears that he is as big a fan of Daniels and his crew as any of us are, and that he has no designs on messing with a good thing. Far from it.
You might say that Ryan’s decision to leave the organization that is closest to his home, that has partnered with the Ryan family by affiliating its AA and AAA farm clubs with franchises he owns in Round Rock and Corpus Christi, is essentially an endorsement of Daniels, an indication that he’s intrigued enough by the path that he perceives the Rangers to be on that he’d leave Houston to be part of it. Ryan said that he comes in with no preconceived ideas on how things should be done, and in terms of player development it was the work that Daniels has engineered the past two years, in the trades he’s made and the drafts the club has had and the work the minor league staff has done in dramatically improving the club’s farm system, that made this a “unique opportunity” that the 61-year-old didn’t want to pass up.
Ryan said he believes in building from within, a philosophy that is already in place and in full force here, and he sees himself as a “resource” for Daniels, who retains final recommendation power, and ultimate accountability, with regard to baseball decisions. He says he has no intention to micromanage, and it sure seemed like he meant it. He doesn’t seem to have any urge to do Daniels’s job, or to recalibrate the way Daniels is taking care of business. To the contrary, Ryan repeatedly praised his general manager.
Ryan’s endorsement of Daniels was matched by that of Hicks, who, according to several reports, is extending Daniels’s contract once again. In June, after the draft but before the standout work Daniels did in July on the trade front, Hicks extended Daniels’s contract one year, through 2009. We don’t know how much longer Hicks has extended his contract this time, but reportedly it matches the length of the franchise’s commitment to Ryan, which is interesting. In June, Hicks noted that Daniels had not only earned the benefit of added security as he headed into a long-term plan that would start with the trading of veterans for prospects, but he was also contracted, as a result, for the same term as Washington (assuming his option for 2009 was picked up, which it would be in September). Now it’s Daniels and Ryan whose commitments are tied together.
And it’s not just in the name of rewarding Daniels for the good job he did in 2007. It’s in the interest of stability, something that the Rangers seem to have, finally, after years of not having it. Surely Hicks wouldn’t have entertained the idea of bringing Ryan in, in this capacity, if he thought the arrangement would endanger the franchise’s stability.
This is not about change, and it shouldn’t be. It’s about getting better, and both Ryan and Daniels seem enthusiastic about what the partnership could produce. Daniels has said more than once that his baseball philosophy is lifted from John Schuerholz, who was known to say, “He with the best and most information wins.” I wrote recently that I’d be on board with this move if Ryan’s baseball input was available to Daniels without being superior hierarchically to Daniels. Ryan and Daniels described that sort of anticipated relationship, and knowing Daniels, who has always relied on trusted associates, he’s going to be energized by having access to Ryan’s experience and acumen and desire to win that World Series title that has eluded him since his second big league season in 1969.
I’d love to be in Surprise the minute Ryan first sees Neftali Feliz, Wilmer Font, Michael Main, Blake Beavan, Tommy Hunter, and Fabio Castillo throw a side. Or Elvis Andrus do his thing, or Chris Davis or Engel Beltre or Cristian Santana. I want to know what Ryan thinks when he first meets 30-year-old A.J. Preller and 64-year-old Don Welke, if he hasn’t already. Those are the kinds of moments that I bet will have Ryan thinking that, yeah, he made the right decision to hitch on over here. He’s read the same Baseball America accolades we all have. But until you see the quickness of German Duran’s hands at the plate or the way Martin Perez can spin the ball at that age, you can’t fully appreciate what’s being built here.
The fears I’d have about any 61-year-old coming in to oversee all aspects of the organization, in particular baseball operations, would be threefold: (1) the danger of a quick-fix mentality; (2) a tendency to push decisions in spite of a lack of knowledge of the organization’s assets (namely, its young players and prospects); and (3) the possibility that, by human nature, that person would want to come in and tweak things, if not derail them. I feel good after yesterday that Ryan won’t present any of those hazards here, that Daniels won’t have to pull back on his aggressiveness at the helm, and that that’s what Hicks is counting on.
A baseball man I trust told me yesterday that he’s 100 percent confident that while Ryan isn’t the type to want to step in and make changes for change’s sake, even if he were wired that way it’s just not something he’d do at this stage of his baseball life. Ryan, he suggested, values his legacy in the game too much to come in and run the risk of being labeled as the guy who arrived amidst all this positive front office momentum and derailed things. In other words, it’s not Ryan’s nature, and even if it were it’s not a risk he’d allow himself to take.
The impact on the credibility quotient that Ryan’s arrival has is obviously huge. Will his presence alone bring a fringe Rangers fan, or a potential Rangers sponsor, on board? If so, great. I wasn’t thrilled about the addition of Sammy Sosa a year and a week ago despite the marketing possibilities, because I was concerned he’d take at-bats away from younger players I thought we needed to learn more about. This is quite different. Nolan Ryan as a leader of established, talented business executives and as a resource for the baseball operations department – if that’s what he’s going to be – doesn’t take “at-bats” away.
One thing I realized during the press conference was how comforting it was to hear Ryan’s voice. Like Mark Holtz, Eric Nadel, and Chuck Morgan, Ryan’s voice is Rangers baseball to me. To someone in Houston, or Los Angeles, or Boston or Omaha or Vancouver, that familiar drawl may not mean Texas Rangers, but to me it does. He was always one of this franchise’s greatest ambassadors, showing respect and commanding it, and from that standpoint it’s great to have him back.
There were actually several (adult) baseball fans standing on the median between southbound and northbound Ballpark Way as the press conference ended, clearly just hanging around in hopes that they could get a jump on this weekend’s Ticketstock and score a Ryan autograph. Nothing wrong with that sort of vibe returning to Arlington (whether signing autographs or cutting ribbons), no matter how big or small the doses.
Ryan must have used the word “challenge” a dozen times as he explained why he decided to take this position. He acknowledged the learning curve that awaits him, making it clear that he has no game plan coming in other than to learn all facets of this organization, and to get to know everyone involved in trying to make the product on the field better.
One of the comments Tom Hicks made as he introduced Ryan was that the Rangers’ employees, after meeting Ryan yesterday, seemed to all come to a common conclusion about the impact of the legend’s arrival: “We have a winner.”
Ryan’s job, in conjunction with the task of everyone he is now charged with working with, is to help the Rangers get to the point at which every one of us can make the same comment.