How do we quantify the uncountable?
How do we measure that which defies measurement?
How do we rationalize the unthinkable?
How do we, the fans — and more importantly, the Texas Rangers — move on without the bedrock that is Nolan Ryan?
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Those are the questions we must wrestle with this off-season after Ryan’s announcement Thursday that he is severing his ties with the Rangers.
It’s fair to ask how one organization’s ownership can make this same tragic mistake twice. How can one of the team’s majority owners admit that Ryan is irreplaceable, that there are no more Nolan Ryans on the marketplace, and then still allow him to walk away?
And please, don’t tell me this was what Ryan really wanted. No, what he wanted was for things to be like they were when we last saw the Rangers in the World Series in 2010 and 2011. What he wanted was to build and run this franchise his way. He had earned that right, but that authority was stripped from him by an ownership group that has just matched Tom Hicks for stupidity.
Give Hicks some credit, though: At least he ultimately realized his mistake after misusing and losing Ryan during his post-playing career, letting a 10-year personal services contract expire in 2004. Hicks was smart — some would say desperate — enough to hire Ryan back as club president in 2008, kicking off a six-year run of unprecedented success and prosperity, both on and off the field.
What has Ryan meant to the Rangers these last six years?
• Credibility for an entire franchise.
• Integrity for an organization that had lost its way.
• Stability for a team and fan base desperate for leadership.
• Wisdom and experience for a baseball operations office that severely lacked both.
• Loyalty for employees who had lost faith in ownership.
Never was the latter point better illustrated than on the morning of Aug. 5, 2010, when every Rangers employee available gathered in the fourth-floor lobby at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to greet a bleary-eyed Ryan with a standing ovation as he stepped off the elevator.
In the wee hours of the morning, Ryan and Chuck Greenberg, with money-men Bob Simpson and Ray Davis in the background, had just won the court-ordered auction and the team’s employees wanted to express their appreciation to Nolan.
Someone popped the cork on a bottle of Dom Perignon and, for the second time since 2 a.m., Ryan sipped champagne from a paper cup, the first sip coming in a dark parking lot outside the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Worth.
“Over the last three or four years, he and I have probably been 150 places doing speaking things,” said Chuck Morgan, the team’s longtime vice president of ballpark entertainment and a friend of Ryan’s. “I’d ask him what his greatest moment was with the Rangers and he’d often mention that moment, when he stepped off the elevator.
“That really touched him. He always thought about taking care of the employees, and it really meant something to him to walk off that elevator and have everyone standing there, giving him an ovation.”
One of Ryan and Greenberg’s first acts, in fact, was to reinstate the team’s pension fund for employees, which had been stopped by Hicks.
“Nolan had his good and bad days, but I’ve never seen anyone who almost single-handedly kept something propped up under such difficult circumstances,” noted John Blake, vice president of media relations who left the same job in Boston six years ago to return to Texas at Ryan’s request.
For the fans, it was simply knowing Ryan was there, through thick and thin, rain and heat. He was there, usually with wife Ruth, sitting in that box seat by the dugout where everyone could see him.
“The fact that he sat down next to the dugout in 100-degree temperatures, that he was there, through good and bad,” Blake said. “It was the comfort that he gave the whole organization.
“From an employee standpoint, when morale could have been really awful, he was somehow able to keep it propped up. I’ve never seen anything quite like that. There was always some comfort to know he was here.”
Morgan said his wife, Starr, called it “the grandfather effect.”
“When he was sitting at the ballpark, sitting in that seat by the dugout, you just felt everything was going to be fine,” Morgan said. “He had that calming effect.”
Morgan was pushing hard for Ryan to come back to Arlington as club president after the 2007 season.
“Nolan provided that ‘wow’ factor,” Morgan said. “He brought the credibility we needed at the time.”
Ryan immediately set about changing the culture in the front office, creating a family atmosphere and a positive working environment while also lending his baseball wisdom to young general manager Jon Daniels.
“He brought us credibility in the Major League Baseball offices,” said vice president Jim Sundberg, who had also counseled Hicks to go get Ryan. “He brought a very fan-friendly concept and a family-oriented culture. Fans trusted Nolan.
“He established a pitching philosophy and his leadership, along with J.D.’s moves, helped put us in the World Series. He had the pedigree and respect in baseball to take on the challenge of pushing pitch-count levels and taking them to another level. It took someone of his stature to be able to accomplish that and put it in play.’’
Behind the scenes, Nolan took pains to personally wish each employee a happy birthday.
He was at the center of many practical jokes.
During a long homestand, he would ask the people in HR to give employees a Friday off, or an early departure from work.
He loved the office Christmas parties, often treating the entire office staff to dinner. One year, he presented each employee with his or her own personalized baseball glove from the Nokona baseball glove factory.
“He brought us credibility and respect when we were at a low point with our fan base and really across the baseball world,” Sundberg said. “He was a stabilizing force.
“We will miss his authentic, caring leadership.”
It was Ryan, Sundberg said, who personified the “Texas” brand that Sundberg and others felt the organization needed.
“He never felt the need for credit,” Sundberg said. “He didn’t feel like he needed publicity or for people to know everything he did behind the scenes. He provided J.D. and his group time for their plans to come to fruition.
“It was a privilege to serve under him. I learned a lot about caring for people and patience under pressure. He was a fearless leader.”
Nolan Ryan, who always seemed to show up around here when he was needed most, was, in fact, everything the Rangers could have hoped for, a bigger-than-life, down-to-earth Texas hero.
Now he rides off into the sunset, though even in doing that, he adds his own distinct flavor.
“All those times we traveled together to talk about the Rangers, whether it was in San Marcos, or Waco, or wherever,” Morgan said, “we’d get back in the car and he’d always say, ‘Well, if you can find a Dairy Queen, I’ll buy the ice cream.’”
He’s gone now, but forgotten? Never. He has left an indelible mark, the Nolan Ryan brand, if you will, on the Texas Rangers, now and forever more.
How do we measure greatness?
By the size of the boots that will never be filled quite the same again.