Down the street from the largest video board in the world at the new Cowboys Stadium, the pipsqueak Jumbotron at Rangers Ballpark is practically camouflaged among the signage in right-center field. There is scant reason to pay mind to it, unless it's about 10 minutes before the first pitch of a Texas Rangers home game, when the small screen unleashes an inversely proportionate torrent of excitement.
On the screen, a 46-year-old man throws a pitch. It hits a 26-year-old man in the ribcage. The younger one, aggrieved because his elder still could chase his fastball near triple digits, tosses his helmet to the ground and charges the mound. The older one, angered by the inconvenience of expending his energy on such trivialities, puts the whippersnapper in a headlock and delivers a good Texas ass-kicking: five punches to the head, short crosses that could be confused with noogies but get the point across that this is not a man with whom one ought have considered trifling.
By God do Texans love seeing Nolan Ryan wallop on Robin Ventura. It's been 17 years since the most famous fight in baseball history, and it never, ever gets old.
"Where else can you get away with a guy throwing a beating to a guy and using it as a rally cry at home games?" Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. "Nolan Ryan is everything that Texans want to be when they grow up. He's a living John Wayne that had one of the best pitching skill sets in the history of the game. There are some things that are a lot bigger in the state of Texas. Truly. He pitched in Houston. He pitched in Dallas. The entire state of Texas claims him, from a town of 10 to a town of a million."
If there is one thing Ryan imbues in Texans, it is pride. They are proud the strikeout king is theirs, that the no-hit machine remains true to his state. Before Ryan and Chuck Greenberg bought the Rangers in August, his official title with the team was president. That sold him short. Because if Texas were another country – and some would argue it is – Ryan undoubtedly would be president of the republic.
Nobody speaks in anecdotes or twirls apocryphal tales or yearns to see fights involving Jon Daniels. He is the anti-Nolan Ryan, a New York-born and -bred, Ivy League-educated, crisp-but-conservative-dressing 33-year-old who couldn't complain if he got carded for a drink. Daniels speaks with no discernible accent, certainly with no twang. Though he has plenty of it, he is not a personality. The Rangers already have one of those.
And yet if there's one reason why the Rangers are here in the ALCS, poised to take a 2-1 series lead on the New York Yankees tonight at Yankee Stadium and put themselves within two games of their first World Series, it's Jon Daniels, the general manager Texas has learned to love.
During the last three years, Daniels and Ryan each learned to accept something. For Daniels, it was that as long as Ryan is involved with the Texas Rangers, he will be their public face. He will hang out with President George W. Bush in his seats behind home plate. He will command every ounce of attention when he walks into a room. He will be the sort of presence Daniels never can, though that's not saying much, because nobody in sports owns a place like Nolan Ryan does Texas.
"I think he's got more brand equity, brand awareness, as an individual in Texas than anybody else in any other market," Daniels said. "He's got more brand equity in Texas than Jeter in New York, Brady in New England, Favre in the Midwest. It's remarkable. And I did not appreciate that until I came down here."
Down here, Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus(notes) said, "He's like God." Rangers outfielder David Murphy(notes) grew up in Texas, and his introduction to Ryan was unlike any other. "When you meet him," Murphy said, "you don't know whether you should shake his hand or stand up and salute him."
Daniels opted for the handshake, hopeful a partnership with respect would develop. He had never played organized baseball beyond his childhood and, at 28, had become the youngest GM in history only four years after his first baseball job as a Colorado Rockies intern. Nolan Ryan threw 5,714 strikeouts. Daniels' biggest strikeout was with a girl at a bar.
Still, before Rangers owner Tom Hicks appointed Ryan president in February 2008, Daniels had grown into his job. His early mistakes were costly. He made a pair of awful deals (Alfonso Soriano(notes) for a grab bag of nothing, then Adrian Gonzalez(notes) and Chris Young for a similar pittance). Daniels' string of winners thereafter – getting Nelson Cruz(notes) as a throw-in, making the franchise-changing Mark Teixeira(notes) trade, stealing Murphy from Boston, turning Edinson Volquez(notes) into Josh Hamilton(notes) – showed his acumen as well as his scouts'.
It was curious, then, when Hicks intimated that Ryan had absolute power over baseball decisions. He, too, fell in love with the idea of Ryan more than the truth. Ryan was a businessman, not a baseball man. He came with ideas, sure, but they were general and philosophical. His niggling with day-to-day operations would only harm the team.
And if the Rangers were ever going to move beyond their dreadful history, Ryan would need to accept that Daniels, a baseball man without any baseball experience, deserved his trust.
The oddest things can bring two people together. For Daniels and Ryan, it was substance abuse.
First came the disclosure from Deadspin that Hamilton, a former crack addict who said he had been sober for years, had lapsed into a night of blackout drunkenness in which he licked whipped cream off random women. The pictures were damning, an embarrassment for the organization and enough to question whether Hamilton was the sort of player around whom the Rangers wanted to build.
Worse was the revelation that manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine in a random drug test a month before the Hamilton story broke. Though the news wouldn't leak until spring training this year, the Rangers spent days in meetings weighing the merits of keeping or firing Washington.
"Jon Daniels and I did a lot of soul searching," Ryan said.
This wasn't about Ryan asserting his authority or about Daniels standing his ground. This was about the Rangers' future, their credibility. And when both wanted to keep Washington, it was obvious they were much more alike than even they realized.
"You go through some things together, you bond," Daniels said. "And we definitely have. The longer we've worked together, the more we've been able to appreciate what the other person brings to the table."
When Daniels outmaneuvered the Yankees to land Lee in a July trade, it was the headiest proclamation yet that he is accepting his adopted state's credo: everything is bigger there – the risks and, particularly, the rewards. The Rangers would have made the playoffs without Lee. Their chances against the fortified Yankees, however, would have been drastically lower.
Now, they're the ones with Lee for Games 3 and 7, and a team with Daniels' fingerprints all over it – only Michael Young(notes), C.J. Wilson(notes) and Scott Feldman(notes) have remained with the Rangers since 2005, when John Hart stepped down as GM and Daniels was promoted – is ready to steal the champions' crown.
Late last week, Daniels attempted a pre-emptive strike against stories of the prodigal son returning to reshape the woebegone team of his youth, the New York Mets, who need a GM. And it wasn't just him trying to stop the narrative before it began. Even though Daniels can exercise an opt-out clause in his contract because Hicks sold the team, Ryan was vocal in advocating his return.
"There's been speculation about him getting other opportunities," Ryan said, "but I think we feel pretty comfortable that this is his organization and these are his people, and that it's an exciting time to be associated with the Texas Rangers. So I really would be shocked if he didn't stay with us."
The contract talk can wait. There is an ALCS to win first, and a World Series after that. And the Texan and the New Yorker, the old guy and the young one, the cowboy hero and the preppy brain have learned the best way to do it is together.
- Nolan Ryan
- Jon Daniels