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.

Reid Ryan remembers bumming around the streets of San Francisco alone as a 12-year-old kid, carrying $20 that his father slipped him before heading to work. It was enough cash to cover Reid's cab fare to Candlestick Park, the windswept stadium on the bay where the boy's dad suited up that night as a star pitcher for the visiting Houston Astros.

Nolan Ryan trusted his son to take care of business, even then.
"If I didn't make it to the ballpark," recalls Reid Ryan, now 27, "that would be my fault, because my dad taught me how to do things and how to do things right."

Father's faith in son is the same today as it was then, but now he entrusts Reid Ryan with more than $20. After encouragement by his ambitious and energetic son, Nolan Ryan bought a minor-league baseball team last year. It will begin playing in the northern Austin suburb of Round Rock in spring 2000.

Reid Ryan wanted to be a major-league baseball pitcher, just like his dad. But his right arm couldn't carry him past the minors. Of all things, the fair-haired progeny of the game's strikeout king didn't have enough speed on his fastball to make it in the big leagues. So Reid Ryan became the next best thing: president and chief executive officer of a baseball team. His dad's team.

Nolan Ryan and partner Don Sanders, who owned the Astros when Ryan played in Houston, are investing $6 million toward the $15 million it will cost to build a 7,500-seat stadium in Round Rock. Following the pattern of sports franchise owners in the late 20th century, they are relying on public money to pay the rest.

Faced with the ignominious prospect of being branded as the city that told Nolan Ryan to take a hike, Round Rock voters in November overwhelmingly approved an initiative for the city to spend $9 million to finance the ballpark. The money will come exclusively from the Round Rock's hotel and motel occupancy tax, a tourist tax that is always easier for voters to swallow than increases in sales or property taxes. The Ryans and Round Rock got around a pesky state law requiring that hotel tax revenue be spent expressly for tourism by cleverly tucking into the stadium a conference center -- no bigger than a Cracker Barrel restaurant, opponents eagerly pointed out. An association representing hotel and motel operators considered a legal challenge but backed down after the stadium issue passed with 72 percent of the vote.

Reid Ryan helped devise the wildly successful public relations campaign for the election, a strategy that exploited the best marketing tool the team had going for it: his dad. Every time the small but vocal opposition seemed to gain momentum with charges of corporate welfare, Nolan Ryan showed up to mow them down -- the same treatment he used to give batters.

The baseball icon, who was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this month, regaled the people of Round Rock with a handful of campaign appearances, including a Saturday downtown rally during early voting. Reid Ryan, who conceived the idea, says the rally was meant only to celebrate the great game of baseball. But a full-color poster touting the "Big Event" highlights an opportunity to meet Nolan Ryan and, in bold type, lists the city's three early-voting polling places. Opponents called the event a straightforward political rally, one they begrudgingly admit was sheer genius.

"Yeah, it pissed me off, but it was one of the most brilliant things politically that I have ever seen," says Don Hansen. He is executive director of the Texas Hotel-Motel Association, which contributed $5,000 toward defeating the stadium proposal. "I knew when that [rally] happened that we were dead ducks."

On that sunny October day, Nolan Ryan sat at a table for four hours (legend already has some in town saying it was more like six hours), signing autographs for fans, some of whom happened to be voters. An early balloting location, not coincidentally, was right around the corner. About 3,500 people attended, Reid Ryan estimated. According to the local newspaper, lines to the voting booths extended onto the sidewalk -- and lines to obtain Nolan Ryan's autograph stretched two blocks. The newspaper also reported that the city's Wal-Mart and Target stores sold out of baseballs that day. A baseball signed by Nolan Ryan is valued at $50, according to the Beckett price guide of sports collectibles.

Convincing Round Rock voters to spend $9 million of a tourist tax on a baseball stadium for Nolan Ryan's team turned out to be a cakewalk.

"How do you fight baseball, apple pie, motherhood and Nolan Ryan?" laments David Oatman, a 58-year-old retired engineer. Oatman's wife is a former Round Rock city councilmember with a reputation for denouncing city projects as boondoggles, including previous attempts to bring minor-league baseball to the city.

The opponents kept their spirits up during the campaign by relentlessly pushing Reid Ryan's hot buttons. When they branded the deal deceitful, Ryan interpreted it as an insult to his dad's integrity. His instinct was to fight back and defend his family's honor. Prudent political consultants were able to tame the excitable young man most of the time, reminding him that responding to the opponents' every charge only gave them credibility. But with the election about one week away and Reid Ryan growing ever more nervous about the outcome, he stood up at a city council meeting and fired one final, heavy-handed pitch to Round Rock voters. He reared back and made his case that the biggest loser if the election failed would be the city itself.

A newspaper quoted him as saying: "Instead of stepping out of Austin's shadow and having a team that is associated with a growing and great city, it will be known as the city that ran a Texas hero out of town."

In one sentence, Reid Ryan had hit upon all the insecurities of a suburb wanting to be its own city. It was a strike at the knees.

When Reid Ryan had first approached Round Rock city officials about locating his dad's new baseball team there, they wondered if they were being sucked into a case of a rich dad buying his bungling son a new toy. They now laugh at their own naivete.

"It didn't take long for all of us to realize that Reid is a supersharp kid," said Will Hampton, the city's public information officer.

Even so, some of Reid Ryan's biggest fans still wonder if the team might be the son's way of proving his worth to his father because he couldn't prove it to him on the mound.

Just when it seems like that might be the situation, Reid Ryan tosses a curve that suggests he is very much his own man, a secure, savvy executive who is out to make his sports venture a success, financially and otherwise. On New Year's Eve, Reid Ryan was the only man working at team headquarters, a cozy collection of desks nestled behind an architect's office that fronts the city's main street downtown. Comfortably clad in a Nike warm-up and cross-trainers, leaning against the edge of an employee's desk, Ryan is asked about the team's name, Express. Fans selected it -- Nolan Ryan's nickname -- in a fan balloting contest.

"It's kind of boring," Reid Ryan says of the name for the fireballer. Amazingly, the loyal and doting son preferred a very different title for the team: Fire Ants. "I could just picture the cap with a logo of a fire ant holding a bat."

In minor-league baseball, where merchandising the team's logo can significantly boost a team's profits, he realized that Fire Ants souvenirs would have been big sellers to help make the team a success. The same way using Nolan Ryan during the campaign helped make the election one.

For Reid Ryan, the soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer's son who wasn't good enough to pitch in Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field, taking good care of his dad's business is a great way to prove his worth.

It was 1996, and Nolan Ryan's oldest son was coming to terms with the fact that his good genetics were betraying him.

As a boy in the sandlots and back yards of Alvin, Reid Ryan had hoped that hours of practice would make his pitching perfect. Perfect, as in what his dad epitomized. Cliff Gustafson, the legendary baseball coach at the University of Texas, saw enough potential in Reid Ryan's right arm, along with a faint hope that quality genes would win out, to recruit him to pitch for his talent-rich Longhorns. Ryan's college career began like a dream when he faced his dad in an exhibition game against the Texas Rangers. But during the Longhorns' season, UT coaches called Ryan to pitch only three and one-third innings. After his freshman year, he got his father's blessing to transfer to Texas Christian University where he hoped for more playing time.

Things began looking up for him by his senior year. Ryan helped pace the Horned Frogs to their first Southwest Conference Championship in 28 years. The Texas Rangers, his dad's former team, signed him to a pro contract about a month later, and Reid Ryan began a stint in the minor leagues. But his professional career never took off. In three years, he reached only the highest level of "A" ball, three rungs below the majors. No matter how much will he put into throwing his fastball, he lacked power. Reid Ryan translated his father's pitching technique into his own but could not crack the 90-miles-an-hour barrier -- one his father could break in his sleep. This Ryan express turned out to be, in relative terms of the majors, a slow-moving freight train to be trounced on by batters.

The Rangers, despite the organization's loyalties to the Ryan family, released Reid Ryan in 1996. The San Diego Padres expressed interest in signing him to another minor-league contract.

"It became a choice of whether I wanted to spend five to ten years kicking around the minor leagues, and maybe one day making it to the big leagues for a cup of coffee, or whether I wanted to get out and become successful in some other field," he says.

He sought counsel from his father.
"You know, people kind of make fun of the fact that Nolan Ryan isn't the most exciting guy in the world," Reid Ryan says. "But he's what I like to call a 'common-sense guru.' He has a way of putting things into perspective that brings out what is right and what is wrong. So when I went to him he said, 'Reid, you should feel good about what you've done. Your goal was to play pro baseball, and you did that. You had one good year in the minors, and you enjoyed it.' "

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.

"Golly,'' Culpepper says, "if you are a baseball fan like I am, you know that Nolan Ryan has led his whole professional career with class. You never read about any scandals, he's going to be inducted in baseball's Hall of Fame, he's a good family man, and on and on and on. Those people against us were trying to put down Nolan Ryan -- and you can't. He's an icon. He's a legend.''

Bennett says that Nolan Ryan selecting Round Rock for his new baseball team was "sort of an affirmation, if that's the right word, that Round Rock had arrived."

While the fawning and self-congratulations went on, a couple of problems crept in to put the project in jeopardy. Oatman and his small gang of opponents began a petition drive to put the stadium issue on the November ballot. They only needed 318 signatures, a number equal to 20 percent of the people who voted in a low-turnout city election in May 1998. It threw Reid Ryan for a loop. He and his wife already had moved from Fort Worth and bought a house in Round Rock.

At the same time, Hansen's hotel-motel association was making noise about challenging the legality of the stadium plan. A state law required the city to spend its hotel-motel tax on tourism. Hansen argued that using the tax revenue to build a new baseball stadium, even one with a 6,000-square-foot conference center, was improper.

"This is a baseball stadium, unquestionably and undeniably," Hansen says. "To call it a convention center by building a small meeting room in it was a spurious attempt to skirt the law."

The done deal wasn't so done anymore.
Back in the old days, when the Rangers or Astros needed a lift, they could count on Nolan Ryan going to the mound to get the win. Reid Ryan, faced with the possibility of his dream being shot down, knew he could count on the same thing.

As opponents amassed the final signatures on their petitions, a caravan of buses barreled down Interstate 35, carrying 500 baseball fans from Round Rock. They headed 100 miles south to watch their future team, the Jackson Generals, play its league rival from San Antonio. Reid Ryan figured the trip was a good way to get Round Rock excited about the prospect of pro baseball. Tickets, which covered the costs of renting the buses and admission to the game, sold out before noon on the day they went on sale. Nolan Ryan-related souvenirs were raffled off during the bus ride. When the fans arrived in San Antonio, the man himself was there to greet them.

After the petitions were submitted and the election was set, a group of supporters, mostly Round Rock business types, formed a political action committee to promote the stadium. They chose the campaign theme: "Nolan Ryan and Round Rock: A Winning Team." The local newspaper ran an ad belittling opponents for questioning the integrity of the stadium plan and therefore Nolan Ryan's own virtue. It included testimonials from former presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan, Governor George W. Bush and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. "He is a man of total integrity," president Bush cooed about Nolan Ryan.

A few days before the election, voters received a letter from Nolan Ryan. The campaign piece, designed to appear hand-written by Ryan, asked voters for their support. "Friends," the letter began. "As a native Texan who grew up and played professional ball in Texas, I've looked all over the state for a place to bring a team of my own. Quite frankly, I'd never consider going anywhere except in Texas. And of all the places we looked in our great state, Round Rock is the place we've chosen to build a stadium and bring a team, and to be an integral part of the community."

"It was a killer piece," admits Don Martin, the Austin-based public affairs specialist who wrote it.

Martin's campaign polling revealed voters neither understood nor cared about the arcane issues surrounding the stadium's proposed financing. What they understood and cared about was Nolan Ryan.

"They had a lot of faith in him," Martin says.
While Martin conducted the campaign for the political committee, Reid Ryan made sure his dad mixed with voters. The baseball great not only was the centerpiece of the downtown rally during early voting, he also attended the city's Cowboy Jubilee in October.

"I felt like if the opponents were going to sling our name through the mud, then we needed to get back to the roots of what the project was all about," Reid Ryan said. "And it started with my dad and I sitting down and having dinner one night, and me saying let's do something together and telling him my crazy idea."

Making the election a referendum on Nolan Ryan meant supporters could pay short shrift to problematic details related to stadium financing and the team's lease with the city. In fact, details of neither were completed before the election.

"The mayor, the city council, the chamber of commerce and the Ryans themselves brilliantly postured Nolan Ryan as an American icon, and anyone who opposed him was downright un-American," says Hansen, the hotel-motel association official. "We were portrayed as people who did not care about America or its heroes. It skirted the facts completely."

Lease negotiations continued through January 14 and will be voted on next week. The 20-year agreement would require the team to contribute $6 million toward a $15-million stadium that the city will own outright. The city would issue $9 million in bonds to be paid back over time through the 7-percent hotel-motel tax and rent that the team will pay the city over the life of the lease.

Under the proposed agreement, the team incurs all expenses related to maintenance and operations of the stadium, including utilities and security. But it also gets to pocket the millions of dollars in concessions and parking profits, even for nonbaseball events such as stadium concerts.

In effect, the city will make no money off the stadium. But it shouldn't lose any either. The team will pay the city $1.725 million in rent over 20 years, with all but $225,000 of it being paid in the first five years. (For the last 15 years, rent is a mere $15,000 annually.) The city, however, must use the rent money to help pay off bondholders instead of spending it on city services. As city officials see it, the fact that only the team benefits if the stadium makes money is outweighed by the city's being protected if the stadium loses money. And they love the intangible economic benefits of the stadium, which should be a magnet for new commercial development and the tax revenue that comes with it.

The Ryans love the stadium's magnetic appeal, too, since they stand to benefit directly from it. After the election, the Ryans announced they were purchasing from the city a 48-acre tract adjacent to the future stadium. City officials had said the tract would be used to expand a city park but now say their previous pronouncement was in error. Nothing more than a cornfield today, the Ryans' land investment almost undoubtedly will escalate in value as the stadium becomes surrounded by suburbanesque strip malls.

The city is responsible for paying for future stadium upgrades, such as a new scoreboard, but municipal officials think corporate sponsors will defray those kinds of costs. Overall, city officials are pleased with the lease. They point to a study by consultant KPMG Peat Marwick, which concludes that the Ryan group's investment in the stadium exceeds what other Double-A baseball team owners pour into similar projects. Reid Ryan, of course, agrees with those assessments. But as he roosts inside the offices of the team he hatched, he becomes defensive as he contemplates a question about whether the deal also is very good for the Ryans.

"Are we going to have a chance to make money off this project? Yes, we are, if we run our business right," he says. "But we're also having to put in several millions of dollars that we are giving to the city of Round Rock to build a facility that they are going to own."

Then, Reid Ryan compares the deal to a tenant helping a landlord pay for building an apartment that the tenant has to pay rent on for 20 years. He sounds like a team owner with experience far beyond his years.

The election now over, Nolan Ryan has withdrawn behind the scenes. (He did not return phone calls for this story from the Houston Press.) He lets his son call the shots, although the two chat at least every other day. The younger Ryan has surrounded himself with an experienced team. It includes Jay Miller, who left his job as general manager of the Astros' Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans to assume the same post with the Express. The architect for the new stadium is the same firm that designed the majestic Ballpark in Arlington. The publicity campaign for season tickets has yet to begin, and the team already has sold about 1,200 full-season and 500 half-season packages.

At long last, Reid Ryan is playing in the big leagues. And winning.
"This really is my deal to run," he says, as if he's been trying to convince people of something similar his entire life.

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