I never would have guessed that a Title means more to him than Titles. But that's where we are, it seems.
On February 7, five years ago, I wrote a piece about the advent of the Nolan Ryan era with the Texas Rangers after Tom Hicks comically explained why he was handing over the reins of his crumbling organization to one of the most venerated men in modern Texas history: "I don’t think there would have been anyone else besides Nolan that I would have done this for. Nolan’s the biggest hero we’ve ever had.”
I didn't grow up in Texas or as a Rangers fan. When Nolan Ryan came to Arlington the first time as #34, I was in Baltimore watching the O's and I grew up in Middle of Nowhere, Nebraska as a Royals fan. I never thought of Ryan as a Ranger until he became an executive with the club. Astro? Yes. Angel? Yes. Ranger? Not really. I didn't see Ryan as any more essential to the Rangers identity than Gaylord Perry. I didn't think that Ryan had some sort of mystical power that many old school Rangers fans seem to think he had - and still has.
Still, I was aware of what a model of post-baseball life that Ryan had become, that he was a man of integrity with what certainly seemed to be an exceptionally shrewd instinct for business and that he was likely to bring a lot of credibility to an organization, especially an executive suite, that had very little left.
Notwithstanding the asinine notion that Hicks was doing Ryan some sort of favor at that point, it seemed clear to me then that Hicks had opened the door to eventual Ryan ownership / control of the franchise:
It takes a ton of heat off of [Hicks] who, I think by now, has had all of the heat he can take. Ryan is now the de facto "owner" of the Rangers with "ultimate authority" to run the organization as he sees fit.
In other words:
Why didn’t the Rangers sign Barry Zito? Ask Nolan.
Why is payroll so low? Ask Nolan.
Why are ticket prices going up? Ask Nolan. Ask the Hall of Famer. Ask Mr. Baseball in Texas. Ask the man with the statue in center field.
Ask G-d. If you dare. It’s out of my hands. The great Nolan Ryan is calling the shots.
And for this — for consenting to take the heat — I expect (despite words to the contrary) that Ryan ends up with a piece of the club, which has to be what he really wants. That, I think, is ultimately what Hicks is doing for Ryan.
And that's pretty much exactly how it went down until Hicks had sucked the last dollar he could out of the franchise and drove it into bankruptcy where Ryan and Chuck Greenberg stared down Mark Cuban and Jim Crane in a Fort Worth Federal courthouse (as Bob and Ray stood in the hallway wielding their giant bank accounts) and walked away with an incredible asset on the rise.
And that was it. I thought that Ryan got what he wanted: equity in the franchise. I didn't know a whole lot about the man, but I was pretty sure that he was smart enough to know that he didn't have the time or energy or possess the immense amount of information that was necessary to run the baseball operations. He would be the face of an ownership group that didn't really want to be public and the buffer between what he realized was an immensely talented management team and anybody who might aim to do harm to them.
He was really good at both of these things.
From the beginning, back in February of 2008, Ryan's leadership has rarely been what most expected. The local medial, by and large, seemed to welcome the onset of the Nolan Ryan, CEO- era by cheering on what would certainly be an unmitigated extermination program, removing the decidedly un-Ryanlike Jon Daniels and his crew of nerds from the front office and replacing them with the geniuses whose vision created the Houston Astros that you know and love today.
Ever the contrarian, I expressed my hope for the Nolan Ryan era thusly:
Two years ago, Hicks hired an Ivy League-trained economist as the General Manager of his baseball franchise and what the economist has attempted to do since then is exploit market inefficiencies by selling off overvalued assets for undervalued assets. He’s been wrong. He’s been right. By all accounts, he’s getting better. He’s somehow sold Hicks on a plan that Doug Melvin tried to sell him on six years ago, which is to build the organization for the long haul from within. It’s a plan designed to deliver long-term gains, but which doesn’t lend itself to the landing quick hit. It requires a lot of patience.
Given Hicks’s track record, the chances of Daniels having the opportunity to see his plan through are probably slim and none. Hopefully, Ryan will bring some of that famous Texas hard-headedness to the table and allow Jon Daniels’ plan to play out a little longer.
Much to his credit, Ryan did the hard thing. Which was nothing.
About eight months before Ryan accepted Tom Hicks' self-proclaimed largesse, Jon Daniels had engineered a fifty-some day window during which he radically transformed the franchise. Ryan had the good sense to see that the kid had a plan that made sense - that was sustainable - and that he was well on his way to executing it. Daniels stayed in spite of the fact that Ryan's old media cronies had already begun to pop the corks celebrating his dismissal.
The manager, who was similarly presumed to be shown the door in favor of someone with an Astros pedigree, stayed on and survived a monstrous personal and public relations disaster. Ryan remained the steady hand.
He was no graduate of Harvard or Wharton business schools. He never even attended a day of college. But somehow, Nolan Ryan seemed to understand organizational management and strategy a hundred times better than the well-papered CEO's of American Airlines, Merrill Lynch, Shearson, or any of the other scores of businesses that were going down the tubes in 2008.
One year before Ryan became the CEO of the Texas Rangers, the McKinsey Quarterly published a comprehensive piece on the role of the CEO in Transformation, citing some of the critical elements of successful CEO's in leading a company through change:
Making the transformation meaningful. People will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in, and a powerful transformation story will create and reinforce their commitment. The ultimate impact of the story depends on the CEO’s willingness to make the transformation personal, to engage others openly, and to spotlight successes as they emerge.
Role-modeling desired mind-sets and behavior. Successful CEOs typically embark on their own personal transformation journey. Their actions encourage employees to support and practice the new types of behavior.
Building a strong and committed top team. To harness the transformative power of the top team, CEOs must make tough decisions about who has the ability and motivation to make the journey.
Through the first transformation of the Ryan era (aka the Daniels plan, which was well under way when Ryan arrived), the CEO seemed to embrace these philosophies. He stood behind Daniels & Co. when many were calling for their heads. He openly and publicly endorsed their plan. He led by example and he seemed to enjoy cultivating and protecting not only one of the best on-field franchises in the game, but one of the best front offices in the game (including protecting Daniels from one of his co-owners when he tried to go all early-Tom Hicks and cut a deal that the GM didn't approve of).
To the extent he got the credit, for any of this, he admitted the he got too much credit, implying that the credit belonged to Daniels, Levine, Preller, Washington, Maddux and a powerhouse scouting department as the ones who built the juggernaut rather than he who sat oh-so-visibly by the dugout - sometimes with his former boss and former leader of the free world - and enjoyed the benefits of using the ballclub and the ballpark to market and sell his beef.
And here we stand today in 2013 watching an organization going through another transformation, though not as dramatic as the one it was going through when Ryan stepped in prior to the 2008 season. Back then, it was pretty clear to anyone who was thoughtful about baseball that the organization's best days were coming, probably sooner than later. Today, it faces a challenge that might be more difficult than rising from abject mediocrity to relevance: turning the page and staying on top.
And now the CEO has abandoned ship, raising the question: "What's the point?"
As has been well documented, Ryan has never made personnel decisions, he doesn't negotiate contracts, doesn't spend countless hours on the phone talking to or texting with Byrnes, O'Dowd, Melvin, Shapiro, Cherington, Beane, Sabean, Dombrowski, et al. He has never been involved in the day-to-day rigors of gathering and synthesizing scouting reports.
I sometimes joke that I can't really give the Cowboys' scouting department too much credit for finding Demarcus Ware, and that's sort of my feeling about the Rangers' acquisition of the great Mike Maddux. I suspect that Daniels was aware of Maddux's credentials and his availability.
Ryan's two chief contributions to the Rangers franchise were:
1) Correctly recognizing that Daniels & Co. were smart, talented people who were on to something and protecting them from the reckless whimsey of Tom Hicks for long enough that Daniels' plan could begin to result in pennants; and
2) Delivering the franchise - and more specifically Team Daniels - to Bob & Ray who, so far, appear to be exactly the sort of stewards of a public trust that a sports fan should dream to be at the helm of the franchise they follow.
Ryan brought the right management team together with the right ownership group, and what we have learned this week is that:
1) The current ownership is committed to keeping not only Daniels, but his entire team here for as long as possible because they know that these young men have created a valuable, sustainable asset; and
2) The current ownership has correctly identified that Daniels & Co. and the work that they do is creating more value for them than whatever nebulous symbolic value Ryan brings to the table.
Whether Ryan stays or goes, it will make little difference structurally or functionally to the Rangers organization going forward, but that is not to say that he has not been immensely valuable in the past.
Without him, there is no Bob & Ray + JD, Thad & AJ = Great, Pennant Winning Franchise With A Bright Future.
If you are able to divorce yourself from the notion that Ryan - former Astros great, fromer Angels great, Hall of Famer Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. (who went into the Hall as a Ranger because Tom Hicks paid for the billboard space on the cap of his plaque) - is somehow Mr. Ranger and that this organization has no identity without him, I think that you can begin to realize what the Bob and Ray and the board seem to have recognized: Ryan is wanted here, he is welcome here, he is appreciated here, but his proper role is to do what he has always done best: protect and nurture his management team, highlight their successes, give them the opportunity for growth rather than deter it and be a role model. In other words, be a CEO.
Ryan hasn't spoken yet, but by not speaking it is clear that he is now rejecting the role of CEO. I won't pretend to know why he is rejecting it, but I do know that he is rejecting it. I doubt that there is a board of a single successful company in this country that would tolerate its CEO going into hiding at a time when the company, going through a transformation of sorts, is suffering through what is now a full week of public relations damage, allowing the public and the media to speculate ad nauseum about what caused this mess and who is to blame. In spite of his brilliance as an executive over the past five years, it's going to be very difficult to retain (or regain) his credibility in that role going forward given this week where he is so clearly and publicly putting his own interests over those of the franchise.
There have been titles here and there will be more whether or not Nolan Ryan is here to enjoy them or what his title is.