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In 1999, then senior executive editor Paul Burka wrote a cover story about Nolan Ryan, months before Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeout leader was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Burka asked how Ryan how was enjoying retirement. “For a moment Ryan fixed me with a pitcher’s stare, a look so deep that it seemed to originate from behind his eyeballs,” Burka wrote. “I didn’t retire,” answered Ryan. “I just don’t play baseball.”
Twenty years later, in a suite at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond—home of the Astros Triple A affiliate the Round Rock Express—Ryan has a similar answer. “I was a retired baseball player, but not retired. That’s still pretty much what it is,” says Ryan, who pitched for the New York Mets, California Angels, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers across 27 seasons. “Your focus changes and obligations change, and I set my own schedule more than I did in 1999. I do more things I want to and less things that require my presence and time.”
And indeed, he has a long list of what he wants to accomplish. Ryan, who served as the Texas Rangers’ CEO from 2010 to 2013, is a principal owner of the Round Rock Express, serves on the board of R Bank, oversees Nolan Ryan Beef, and helps run the Nolan Ryan Foundation, which provides resources for youth, education, and community development. He’s also executive advisor to the Houston Astros, where his son Reid works as the team’s president of baseball operations. Although the Astros didn’t follow up their 2017 World Series win with another in 2018, both Reid and Nolan say their focus heading into spring training and the 2019 season is straightforward. “Our message is, ‘let’s take it back,’” Reid Ryan says. “The players are still hungry, the organization is still hungry, and we have a good team. The core is still together.”
On the podcast, Nolan and Reid Ryan sat together to discuss how payroll affects who wins and loses, the possibility of an MLB team in San Antonio, and how the game has (and hasn’t) changed since Ryan left it behind.
These are some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
Nolan on how pitching has changed
Being from the old school, I think there’s a lot of talent that [teams are] not utilizing as an organization, because I really believe there are certain starting pitchers that can pitch more innings and throw more pitches in the course of the game without jeopardizing their future. But it’s a mindset, and people have to be willing to want to do that and commit to doing that and then do the work that requires you to be able to do that, so the game has changed. People ask me about baseball and talk about all the injuries that we have with pitchers, and I say part of that hasn’t been brought on by the game but by how we use them and prepare them. It just depends on what direction you want to go.
Reid on millennials and baseball
Our fans are consuming baseball more than they ever have before, but it’s across non-traditional media. The streams are off the chart, the amount of people that play fantasy baseball now, what’s happening with these federal regulations of sports gambling and states starting to legalize it—people are involved with the game more than they ever have been before.
Nolan on developing a work ethic
It’s a process that you go through as a youngster. I was very fortunate that I played with Tom Seaver. He came out of USC and I came out of high school in Alvin. To be able to observe him on a daily basis as a teammate for four years and see how he went about his work and his career and the focus that he had, I remember getting to the big leagues and just being thrilled that I was there. All of a sudden, I didn’t have instant success and I had to back up and look at what I would need to do to be successful. Being around other players and observing them, I think there’s a common thread that runs through all successful players and some of the superstars in the game: they have a work ethic. I picked up on that and I thought, I have a unique opportunity and I was given a gift that very few people are given, so now it’s in my hands to take advantage of that and make the most out of it.
Nolan on fear
I think very early on in your career, you have fear because you come to a major league game and you don’t know if you belong there. You don’t know what it takes to be successful, because you haven’t been there before. You’re trying to deal with that and also throw strikes and have some idea how you’re going to approach a hitter, so there are times when your confidence level is very low. I remember standing on the mound and struggling with my control when the game is on the line—you learn to deal with that. Experience becomes a great teacher and develops your confidence in your ability. It’s about knowing when you have to focus, what you have to do, and how you have to execute to get out of a situation like that. Some people aren’t able to develop that and other people are. You have to believe in yourself. If you don’t, you have problems.
Nolan on money in sports
When I broke in, I don’t think that people were motivated by the amount of money that you could make, because there wasn’t pay escalation like we’ve seen in the game in the last twenty or thirty years. People played because of their love of the game and the unique opportunity of being able to play a game that you get paid for. The first couple of years that I was in the big leagues, I had to come home as soon as the season was over and get a job to be able to survive in the offseason. They didn’t pay during the offseason. They paid you during the season. The first year I went to the Mets, the minimum salary was $7,000 [per year; sources show that it was even lower], and that’s what I got. You couldn’t live in New York for $7,000, even in those days.
Reid on the possibility of a professional San Antonio baseball team
I do believe that Texas will have another major league team, either in Austin or San Antonio. There’s four and a half million people in the Austin and San Antonio corridor. The reality is, the sunbelt is where the majority of Americans live today, and there’s a lot of markets without teams that are more prosperous, have more people, and have a better business climate than some of the markets that still do have teams.
Nolan on being a role model
I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction out of the fact that I’ll run into adults now who will come up and tell me, “Hey, when I was a little boy, I ran into you and asked you for an autograph. And you gave me an autograph.” We made a special effort to do those things, because I felt like if you’re in a position to be an influence on somebody, you want to be be a positive influence. You hear these players say, “I don’t want to be a role model.” My attitude was, if you’re in that position, why wouldn’t you want it to be a positive, not a negative?
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