For Master of Mound, a New Tight Spot

It has been the perfect life, really, for many of his 61 years. Nolan Ryan had a Hall of Fame pitching career. He was wildly successful in every business venture he touched. He has been married 40 years to his high-school sweetheart, raising three successful kids.

"Really, I couldn't have been happier," Ryan says. "I was very comfortable, and really enjoyed what I was doing. It's just that, well, I wanted a challenge. I love a good challenge.

"And I got one right here. It's just a little more complex than I anticipated."

Ryan, one of the greatest icons in Texas, is putting his impeccable reputation on the line.

Ryan is president of the Texas Rangers, whose club again is in last place in the American League West, with a 7-13 record. The Rangers were embarrassed in a four-game sweep at Boston's Fenway Park and tied with the Detroit Tigers for the worst record in the AL entering their series there Tuesday.

"The way Nolan put it to me," says close friend and former teammate Don Baylor, "'I'm already up to my knees in alligators.'"

Ryan, the first Hall of Famer to become a club president since Christy Mathewson in 1925, inherits a team that has finished last or next to last in the AL West eight consecutive years. They've had one winning season this decade.

For a man who won 324 career games, with a record seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts, it's striking that he's saddled with a franchise defined by pitching ineptitude. The Rangers didn't have a pitcher win more than 10 games or pitch more than 173 innings last year. They've had only two complete-game victories within their division since realignment in 1994.

Ryan had 222 complete games by himself. He threw at least 300 innings twice.

Missed the Game Too Much No wonder President George W. Bush, during a White House luncheon in February, asked Ryan if he knew just what he was getting into.

"Why would you take that job?" Bush, the former Rangers owner, asked Ryan.

Ryan, who relayed the story, told Bush he simply wanted a challenge.

"I guess I didn't realize what a grip this game had on me," Ryan says. "You look so forward to getting away from the pressure of the game, the grind, the schedule and everything else, but when you're away from it, you miss it."

Ryan, baseball's first million-dollar player, realizes the game has changed. Players are averaging nearly $3 million a year. The industry is generating nearly $7 billion. And agents are loathe to let their clients throw 300 innings.

Still, Ryan is determined to change the pitching philosophy in Texas. He would love to confiscate every pitch counter used by coaches. It drives him batty when he watches pitchers being pulled from games because their pitch count hits 110 or 120.

"We have to change this mindset," says Ryan. "Some of the guys have been on a pitch count since Little League. It should be tailored to the individual.

"These pitchers have to realize what their capabilities are, and build up their stamina. I remember it used to be that 300 innings was the benchmark for an ace. If you were a starter, you were expected to pitch at least 250 innings. Now, you may have one guy go 200 innings on your whole staff.

"That's why you see 12, 13 pitchers on every team."

Ryan expressed these sentiments to the Rangers front office and coaching staff. He may be a softy at heart and always a gentleman, but when the boss talks, you better listen.

"He made suggestions along those lines about pitch counts," Rangers manager Ron Washington says. "So we're trying to keep them out there as long as they can. We have to be smart monitoring what they're doing, but if you got the horses, you can let them go a bit."

There was a moderate difference in the first three weeks. The Rangers' rotation averaged 96.3 pitches per game and lasted 5.93 innings per start. A year ago, they averaged 81.2 pitches and 5.44 innings.

Rangers ace Kevin Millwood became the first Ranger in nearly two years to throw a complete game. It was April 5 vs. the Los Angeles Angels, albeit an eight-inning effort in a 2-1 loss. The starters have thrown at least 100 pitches in eight games.

"I love it," Millwood says. "It seems like they've let me go a little longer than I did in the past. I'm not going to jeopardize the game just to be a tough guy, but I can tell you when I'm tired and when I'm not.

"But what [Ryan] did, I don't see anyone doing anything like that again."

Ryan, who threw the fifth-most innings in baseball history, told the Rangers' executives and coaches how critical conditioning was to his career. He would not only routinely throw batting practice to his teammates, but would do wind sprints after each 10-minute interval, lasting about 30 minutes.

"Obviously, he's got strong feelings about pitching," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels says, "and we were able to incorporate some of the things Nolan did into our farm system. We've encouraged a lot of our [minor league] managers and pitching coaches that they have the flexibility to let their pitchers go past 100 pitches. We're not going to call down there [and complain] as long as they're not putting the pitchers at risk. We're having our young pitchers throw live batting practice, too."

So they're running wind sprints between BP sessions, too?

"Uh, baby steps," Daniels says. "We don't want to shock these guys too much."

Letting Others Do Their Jobs

Ryan, who hasn't been to the Rangers' clubhouse this season, isn't trying to impose his beliefs on the club. He hasn't been to Washington's office after a game. He gives Daniels, 30, whose playing experience stopped at Little League, plenty of freedom.

"I wasn't 100 percent sure what to expect," Daniels says, "but it's better than I could have anticipated. I'm not trying to blow smoke or create a false image here, but really, from day one, he's been excellent."

And, just to let everyone know that Ryan had no designs on becoming the next general manager, owner Tom Hicks provided Daniels a two-year extension. His contract expires after 2011, the same as Ryan.

"I understand the realities of the game," Daniels said of his job security, "but I don't have any apprehensions or insecurities."

Ryan didn't go to the Rangers to be a hatchet man, but he's not the mascot, either. The Rangers' players are elated to have Ryan in charge. Pitcher Kameron Loe actually has a tattoo of Ryan on the back of his shoulder blade. Loe plans to touch it up, he says, before showing his new boss.

"It's pretty cool to have Nolan Ryan as your team president," center fielder Josh Hamilton says. "I mean, you're talking about Nolan Ryan."

Seeing What the Fans Are Seeing

The Rangers, who last made the playoffs in 1999, need to persuade their fan base to believe again. Attendance has plummeted by nearly 220,000 fans in two years.

Ryan will take the same steps as when he made the Houston Astros' Class AAA team in Round Rock, Texas, a model franchise. That team wins on the field and traditionally is among the top three minor league teams in attendance.

"I guarantee you're going to see him make a difference," says Jackie Moore, Ryan's friend and hunting buddy, who managed the Round Rock team for eight years before becoming the Astros' bench coach. "He's fired up about this, and when Nolan is fired up, watch out."

Says Reid Ryan, Nolan's oldest son who is CEO of the Round Rock team: "It's great to see him so revitalized. He is so excited about this."

Ryan already is acting different than most club presidents. He sits behind the Rangers on-deck batting circle. He wants to see what the fans are seeing, and hear what they're saying.

"He slowly, but methodically, has put his arms around everything — on the baseball side and the business side," says Hicks. "He has such credibility with the fans that I think they're going to be much more patient with us than if he weren't here."

Yet, faith in a hero can last only so long. Michael Jordan couldn't turn around the Washington Wizards. Alan Trammell never won in Detroit.

There comes a time, Ryan realizes, when the fans demand a winner, no matter how good his beef kabobs at the concession stands.

"I didn't come into this to lose," Ryan says. "I'll be disappointed if we don't finish .500 or above. I've got a pretty laid-back personality, so I'd like to think I'll be patient.

"I guess we'll find out."