ARLINGTON, Texas Say Nolan Ryan and one of two images usually spring to mind him whooping Robin Ventura or one of his 5,714 strikeouts, which one depending upon on age and geography.
Nolan Ryan is for many an action verb a fiery, fastball-throwing, Cowboy hat-wearing Texan always ready to go all John Wayne on a problem. The irony is this is exactly what he did not do upon joining the very problematic Texas Rangers in 2008 and exactly why they are preparing to play in back-to-back World Series, a crazy confluence in and of itself. Here is a team that was deflated when Nolan arrived, battling in bankruptcy court less than 18 months ago and now largely considered one of the best organizations in baseball.
What got them here was neither fight nor capricious action from Ryan but rather what Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine calls his "intimidating listening." He was willing to do nothing.
"Knowing Nolan like I do, I thought he would come in, step back and just observe everything and kind of go to school on the situation," Rangers bench coach and longtime Ryan confidant Jackie Moore said.
What he determined was what general manager Jon Daniels had built was not a B.S. list of paper prospects but a solid organization poised to win and win soon. And here they are, again, and not because Nolan powered them here but rather because he was willing to leave the ball in the hands of the GM he inherited and this quirky and diverse group of stat geniuses and baseball lifers that JD calls "his team" Levine, A.J. Preller and senior special assistant to the GM Don Welke.
What Nolan probably initially saw in Preller was a frat brother of Daniels' like almost everybody else. JD and the now senior director of player personnel met at Cornell in the late 1990s, partaking in the requisite craziness that comes standard for a 19-year-old.
"I remember, back in school, we'd go out drinking and come back and you wouldn't see him for a while," Daniels remembered. "He would have taped that day's Yankee game and he'd be sitting there at 3 a.m. charting it."
People who know Preller nod when they hear this story. He is naturally smart, and uses that brain power on baseball. It is unfair just to call him an analytics guy. He is now one of the best talent evaluators in the game period.
Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando is a little bit of his work. OK, a lot bit. He was one of the few guys on him. ("He was the only guy on Ogando," JD corrected.) He saw Ogando as an outfielder in the summer league and told Daniels they had to Rule 5 him and convert him to pitcher.
Oh, and there was another tiny little catch Ogando was banned from coming to America because of a human-trafficking deal. It eventually was cleared up after long hours and many years, and Ogando is killing it for Texas in this postseason. And Preller is why, his approach to personnel and willingness to take chances defines a good chunk of this roster.
"I wouldn't have known Alexi Ogando," Daniels said. "We are not here without these guys."
They are friends, of course, all of them now. They spend so much time together it would be uncomfortable not to be. The reason this works is not because of beers once shared or good-old-boyism. It works because everybody at the table has a voice, and they're not afraid to use it.
Nolan had to have liked Welke. Everybody does. The guy who likes to joke that he has been stationed with The Kiddie Corps because the average age of the team is 12 and he was 12 like 400 years ago. He's a baseball lifer with a long resume of achievement. He is exactly the guy that you would not expect with Preller and Levine and JD, which is why he fits perfectly.
Daniels, like Ryan, is really good at bringing all kinds of voices to his group, and listening. Also at the table for most major decisions are Ryan and Moore and manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux all with very old school leanings. This is the genius and the chaos of the Rangers. No one way of looking at a problem prevails just based on principle. They go on stats except when they go on advice of scouts except when they go on the gut instinct of somebody.
"Sometimes they might not want to hear what I have to say," Maddux said, "but we respect one another's opinion."
In a baseball world, which wants to paint people as either-or, stats or gut, Moneyball or old school, Levine says there are more centrists than we want to believe. JD is more blunt: "If some are leaning this way and others leaning that way, let's not get beat by either."
And so Welke's fingerprints are all over this Rangers turnaround. "He's just got a gift as far as evaluating talent," Daniels said, proceeding to tick off a list of players Welke fought for like Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre. "He was the primary guy in all those moves."
Welke has his own scouting language, and it is almost impossible to keep up with all the words and phrases he uses. When he says "this guy is special," though, JD takes it upon himself to try to get that guy to Texas. It is fool proof.
If Nolan did what everybody else did in the beginning, he would have just assumed Levine was another JD. There was a thought for a while they were the same guy. They are not. Levine does not really fit in The Team either. For starters, he is tall. Not abnormally tall or even really average tall, he is just taller than the other three. "We have cornered the market on 5-8 to 5-10 marginally athletic-looking Caucasians," he said.
And then there is that Thad is funny. In the course of a 10-minute conversation, he joked about AJ's basketball game, Welke's age and his own recent run in with Super Glue.
No really, Super Glue.
Levine had a dab of the stuff above his left eyebrow for a week after the clinching celebration in Tampa where he sustained a champagne injury. And nobody makes more fun of it than him.
"I told these guys I am actually going to go to a plastic surgeon and get my scar enhanced," Thad said. "I was kind of hoping for something more."
The genius behind Thad is that he is the people person. He is able to communicate not only his opinion but understand what the other person is arguing and convey that to the group. He is going to be a very good GM in this league, maybe as soon as this offseason.
The funny thing, well funny now, is he was supposed to be fired too. When Nolan arrived, the assumption was all of them were getting fired. Why they did not is a testament to Ryan and them.
"I remember his first year with us, three different times he went to the instructional league," JD said. "The first time he came back talking about this (Derek) Holland kid. The second time he came back talking about (Neftali Feliz). The third time he was raving about Martin Perez.
This was not some paper B.S. prospect list. This was a solid organization built by good baseball people. This is why Ryan did not rush to action but rather to listen, even if intimidatingly.
"He'll ask a question, glean a ton of information and he's very measured when he'll share his opinion," Levine said. "He's more likely to ask 10 people their input and form an opinion than he is to capriciously form an opinion."
This is being an intimidating listener, and this also should spring to mind when you say Nolan Ryan.