Striking Out

Reid Ryan embarked on a new career as a team owner facing one big obstacle: voter approval of a new stadium. Then he called in a campaigner with the perfect pitch: a father named Nolan.

From there, the younger Ryan knew what to do. He called the Padres and the independent minor-league clubs seeking his services (and the novelty of his last name) and said no thanks.

"After getting released, I still wanted to do something with baseball," Ryan said. "I'd been in baseball as long as my dad had been. I kind of grew up in the game and had seen it from the inside out. I'd bat-boyed, worked in the clubhouse, traveled with the big clubs and, of course, played."

He turned to television, a field he had studied in college, and landed a job with Fox Sports Southwest as the featured reporter on a weekly show about Big 12 baseball. He also worked for a company that broadcast Texas Rangers games on television. Ryan would roam the stands of The Ballpark in Arlington in search of features or sit in the studio relaying baseball scores to viewers. It was fun but not terribly fulfilling.

So Ryan again turned to his father. He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. "Hi, Dad," he said. "I've got this crazy idea."

That night over dinner, Ryan asked his father to buy a baseball team that could be run by his son. Reid Ryan says his dad never thought about buying a team until that moment. Nolan Ryan was retired from baseball but plenty busy elsewhere. He owned two banks, sat on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, oversaw maintenance of the family's two ranches and was a prolific product pitchman for everything from Dairy Queen to Advil.

"The main reason he's doing this is because of me -- and him wanting to do something 'father-son' and be in business together," Reid Ryan said.

By the time of the dinner with dad in the summer of 1997, Reid Ryan had his plan all figured out. Once purchased, the team would play somewhere in Central Texas. He said the Austin metropolitan region, with a population of about a million, was the largest urban center in the country without professional baseball, even though the area is baseball crazy. Round Rock High School won the state's 5A baseball championship in 1997. University of Texas games, played in the heart of Austin, always drew big crowds. Both seasons, though, ended in mid-spring, right about the time a minor-league season begins.

Central Texas had been teased with baseball twice in the 1990s, but voters in both Austin and Round Rock shot down the ill-conceived proposals. Both plans attempted to pay for new stadiums with municipal general revenues, and neither had Nolan Ryan behind them.

Through his baseball connections, Nolan Ryan found a willing seller in Con Maloney, owner of the Texas League's Jackson (Mississippi) Generals, a Double-A farm team for the Astros. As the Ryans negotiated with Maloney, Reid Ryan contacted the mayors of Austin, Round Rock, Georgetown and San Marcos. The young man's only link to any of the mayors was the phone book, which was how he looked up their numbers.

Round Rock Mayor Charlie Culpepper answered Ryan's call in December 1997 and heard about his plans to bring a team to Central Texas. His first thought was "That's great!" Over lunch at Chili's, Culpepper laid out the ground rule to him that no property or general sales tax would be used for the stadium. Culpepper was a Round Rock city councilman in 1990, when a ballot proposal calling for new taxes for baseball failed 2-to-1.

"Yeah, I was skeptical when Reid called, but I figured if Nolan Ryan couldn't bring baseball to Central Texas, then no one could," Culpepper says. "I told the city staff to figure out a way to make it work."

When Round Rock City Manager Bob Bennett heard that Culpepper was on a new baseball kick, his first thought was "Oh, no!" Bennett remembered the bloodletting from the 1990 election. But Round Rock was different now. The city 15 miles north of downtown Austin was emerging from its slumbering reputation as an ultraconservative bedroom community. Dell Computer Corporation had moved its headquarters to the edge of town, triggering an economic explosion. The population had swelled in eight years from 30,000 to more than 50,000, with more new arrivals every day. Several hip Austin restaurants, including one that serves a popular slacker favorite -- chicken enchiladas in barbecue sauce -- were expanding into Round Rock.

Since 1995, seven new budget hotels had opened in town, and more were on the way. City hotel-motel occupancy tax revenues, spent exclusively on quaint community festivals such as the "Cowboy Jubilee" and "Frontier Days," would grow faster than the city could ever spend them. Bennett and other city officials recognized a stadium revenue source when they saw it. Though not done, the deal was taking shape nicely.

On April 30, the Ryans and Sanders announced they had bought 70-percent interest in the Jackson Generals for an undisclosed amount (the typical value of a Double-A franchise is about $4 million) and that they wanted to move the team to Round Rock. City officials beamed as they posed for pictures with baseball's great fireballer. Critics of the marriage, however, say city officials spent more time fawning over Nolan Ryan than they did in objectively evaluating his proposal. While municipal leaders say they weren't blinded by Nolan Ryan's fame, neither can they hide their rapture in becoming business partners with him.

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