Shaping the Rangers #2: Nolan Ryan

Lone Star Dugout continues winding down its look at the 20 biggest transactions in Texas Rangers history. This time its a historical look back at the winter 1988 signing of Hall of Famer and club president, Nolan Ryan.

December 7, 1988: The Rangers sign free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan.

You could say that leadership has been an issue for the Texas Rangers. In the last 10 years alone, the ballclub has endured five presidents, three general managers and four scouting directors.

Even if it's a living legend like Nolan Ryan, to automatically anoint the first-time president the "savior" of the Rangers might be a premature assumption.

Still, you could make the point that it's a position he's had experience in before.

It all began during an extremely active winter of 1988. With Atlanta as the backdrop, the annual winter meetings were chock-full of wheelings and dealings for the Texas Rangers. The first came on December 5th when the club pulled the trigger on a massive nine player deal to land Rafael Palmeiro from the Chicago Cubs. One day later, trusty first baseman Pete O'Brien, Jerry Browne, and the speedy Oddibe McDowell were sent to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for future A.L. batting champ Julio Franco.

But Tom Grieve and the Rangers barely had a chance to catch their breaths before getting right back to work at the negotiation table. The next target was a true Texas hero and player who'd already reached a career's worth of achievements and notable baseball milestones: It was Nolan Ryan.

The club had been hot on the trail of an experienced starting pitcher after realizing they'd have to give up one to get Palmeiro from the Cubs and ramped up their efforts once Paul Kilgus, a 12-game winner the previous season, had been included in the deal.

On Tuesday the 6th, there were as many as four teams interested in the services of Ryan with one of his former clubs, the Angels, seemingly leading the pack. Former owner Gene Autry had become very close to the future Hall of Famer who hurled four no-hitters for the Angels in the 1970's, and was ready and willing to match any offer on the table for Ryan. But Grieve was ready as well, and upped the ante by raising the original offer from the Rangers while pitching the values of home and family to the native Texan.

The final deal for Ryan was a guaranteed $2 million, which would instantly make him the highest-paid player in club history, but what resonated with fans more than any amount of money was a single soundbyte from the mouth of Ryan himself.

"I am," he declared during an interview, "a die-hard Texan." Ryan also was apologetic that he wouldn't be able to end his career in Houston, which was just a stone's throw away from his hometown of Alvin, but was definitely happy to continue it in his home state.

Not surprisingly, the Rangers were also ecstatic to reach a deal.

Grieve called it "one of the greatest days in the history of the franchise", and former manager Bobby Valentine concurred, adding that Ryan is "not only as fine a performer but as fine a human being as any organization could have associated with it." The excitement around the Dallas/Fort Worth area was also beginning to show. Following the winter meetings, the sudden surge of interest in the club had the Rangers extending hours at their ticket offices.

Ryan's spring debut came in front of a capacity crowd in the Rangers' former spring residence of Charlotte County Stadium. However, he'd quickly felt tightness in his left hamsting after blazing a 2-2 fastball past Pittsburgh Pirates leadoff hitter Barry Bonds, forcing him to call it a day after just one inning. Slowly, he would work his way back into shape making only a few appearances in spring games, but Ryan would give the Rangers a real scare in late March.

In a game with Double-A Tulsa, Ryan pulled a calf muscle while breaking off the mound to cover first base. It marked the third time in five spring outings he had to eave early because of problems with his left leg – a concern the Rangers hadn't bargained for.

Although it was labeled as only a mild strain by trainers, some were pessimistic about the hurlers' availability for his first start of the season, a much bally-hoed date against the Detroit Tigers at Arlington Stadium. But to his credit, Ryan recovered quickly from his calf problem thanks to a steady dose of walking up and down the stairs leading to the club's offices. He worked a simulated game on March 28th and pronounced himself ready to go following a final exhibition appearance against the Astros in Oklahoma City.

The Rangers headed into the 1989 season with a starting rotation of Ryan and crafty fellow veteran Charlie Hough, along three pitchers who had a few notches on their baseball belts in Bobby Witt, Kevin Brown, and Jamie Moyer. After an Opening Day pitching duel between Hough and Jack Morris of the Tigers, the stage was set for Ryan's Arlington debut two nights later.

For Ryan and his new ballclub, the result wasn't what everyone had hoped for.

The righty struggled just to get through five innings in front of a crowd that featured over 300 fans from his hometown of Alvin. While his fastball was repeatedly clocked in the high 90's he lacked command, striking out eight hitters but allowing four runs and seven hits. Still, the Rangers pulled out a victory thanks to the speed of Cecil Espy and Ryan earned a no-decision.

Six nights later, Ryan picked up his first victory as a Ranger following eight innings of one-hit, shutout ball against the Milwaukee Brewers.. He started the game on fire, fanning 12 of the first 18 hitters and took a perfect game into the seventh inning before walking centerfielder Robin Yount on a borderline pitch at the knees.

With Ryan, the Rangers began the season 17-5, ranking among their best starts in franchise history. But although the Rangers slumped in the second half of the season and failed to reach the playoffs, Ryan brought the home crowd to its feet on August 22nd by fanning Rickey Henderson for his 5,000th strikeout.

A year later, Ryan again reached history against Henderson and the Oakland Athletics by picking up his 6th no-hitter. And on July 31st of that same season, Ryan picked up his 300th win with an 11-3 drubbing of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Ryan still had more in him.

In 1991, at the age of 44, Ryan fanned Robbie Alomar for the final out of his seventh no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays. But the legendary pitchers very durable arm finally game out in late September of 1993, which Ryan had already announced would be his final season in baseball.

Facing the Mariners, Ryan tore a ligament in the midst of a rocky first inning against the Mariners. But almost true-to-form for the legendary pitcher, he managed to throw one further pitch after the injury and was still clocked at 98 miles per hour.

The 2008 season will mark the 15th since the retirement of Nolan Ryan. But while his playing days may have come to an end, his presidential term with the Rangers has fans once again looking for someone to breath life into a long-suffering franchise.


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