Astros hit home run by bringing back Ryan
Franchise great, Hall of Famer will be valuable resource for club executives
Nolan Ryan brings the Astros something money can't buy, and that's credibility. What's that worth to a franchise? To have him sitting there in the front row of Minute Maid Park on Opening Day is going to bring comfort to fans who desperately want to believe that the worst is over. His arrival is a feel-good moment for a franchise that could use a few of them.
Texans trust Ryan in a way they don't trust many people. They see him as a man of integrity and decency, a man who reflects the best in all of them. He's the most admired sports hero in Texas history, beloved in both Houston and Dallas.
Ryan long ago lost count of the number of times he has been asked to run for political office. That he decided there were better ways to spend his time only reinforces his standing in the hearts and minds of many.
When Ryan joined the Texas Rangers as team president six years ago this month, it was widely seen as perhaps the smartest move the franchise had ever made, at least the smartest since signing him to pitch 19 years earlier.
Rangers fans consider it no coincidence that a mere two years later, their team won the first of its back-to-back American League championships. In Nolan they trust.
The truth is a bit murkier. He arrived at a time when Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was putting the finishing touches on a remarkable reconstruction of the organization. In other words, the Rangers probably were going to win the pennant in 2010 regardless of where Ryan was working.
Ryan would be the first to tell you that he got credit for things he didn't do. Again, though, what's the value of credibility? Ryan brought that to the Rangers at a time when they badly needed it. He hired a string of excellent people, both in business and baseball operations.
The Astros are hoping for some of that same magic by hiring Ryan on Tuesday as an advisor to owner Jim Crane, general manager Jeff Luhnow and Reid Ryan, Nolan's son and the club's president of business operations.
Ryan is not being hired to make the decisions but to serve as an experienced voice in the room when decisions are being made.
It's important to point out that the Astros aren't bringing in Ryan to run their baseball operations. In Luhnow, they have a general manager who has assembled a bright, young staff and built one of the best farm systems in baseball.
The Astros have taken no shortcuts, and while three straight 100-loss seasons have been difficult, there's a payoff coming. Their best young players will begin to dot the Major League roster this season, and by Opening Day 2015, the No. 1 picks of the 2012 and 2013 First-Year Player Drafts -- shortstop Carlos Correa and right-hander Mark Appel -- could be at Minute Maid Park.
Meanwhile, Nolan's oldest son, Reid, is in charge of the business side. He's universally respected throughout the Houston business community, and has so impressed employees that some of them would likely run through a brick wall for him.
That said, there's unquestionably a role for Nolan Ryan, a role beyond that of ambassador. He's beginning his 50th season in baseball and has seen it from every angle. He knows the game as well as almost anyone, and also ran two of the best Minor League franchises on earth. He understands baseball, but he understands every aspect of the customer experience at the ballpark as well.
If the Astros are smart, they'll tap every resource Ryan brings to the table. Luhnow would be wise to seek Ryan's feedback on Minor League talent and the makeup of the Major League club.
That's another thing Ryan understands. He long ago figured out that roster building is as much an art as a science. He has tremendous insight into people, because he has played and worked with guys from almost every conceivable background.
No one -- absolutely no one -- understands the mechanics of pitching better than Ryan. Some of the most remarkable scenes in Astros history occurred a decade ago, when former GM Tim Purpura brought Ryan and Roger Clemens to Minute Maid Park for a series of winter mini-camps with Minor League pitchers. They counseled the young guys on everything from the mental approach to bullpen sessions to conditioning to nutrition.
To acquire a half-century of experience in every area of baseball is a nice way for the Astros to open Spring Training. Ryan said he wants to be respectful of both Luhnow and his son, and to let them decide what he has to offer. There's more there than they can ever tap, but they ought to try.
The Astros will be viewed differently by their fans with the Ryan Express back on their side. As days go in the history of a franchise, the Astros on Tuesday certainly had one of their best.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.