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Pitching legend Nolan Ryan leaves imprint on Rangers’ success

October 27, 2010

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— For all the influence Nolan Ryan has on Texas Rangers pitchers, there is one thing the Hall of Famer can’t do.

Texas Rangers president and co-owner Nolan Ryan hoists the American League championship trophy on Oct. 22 in Arlington, Texas. Since becoming president in 2008, Ryan has acted as a mentor for the Rangers pitching staff.

Texas Rangers president and co-owner Nolan Ryan hoists the American League championship trophy on Oct. 22 in Arlington, Texas. Since becoming president in 2008, Ryan has acted as a mentor for the Rangers pitching staff.

“It would be nice if he could sprinkle some magic dust on me and I could throw 100 miles an hour,” said C.J. Wilson, who won 15 games and threw 204 innings after moving from the bullpen to the rotation this season.

While Ryan is unable to magically turn every pitcher into a flame-thrower like he was — and looks as if he could still be at age 63 after that ceremonial first pitch he fired to start the Rangers’ first-ever AL championship series — the old-school principles that made the Ryan Express so great do still apply 17 years after he threw his last pitch.

On Wednesday, Ryan will be sitting in the front row when the Rangers play their first World Series game. They had never won a postseason series or even a home playoff game before this season.

Ryan commanded the mound with toughness and an unmatched work ethic during a record 27 seasons pitching, and as team president and part-owner wants Rangers pitchers to approach the game the same way.

Forget the coddling of pitchers that has become so common. The thought in Texas is to throw often and for starters to try to finish games, even in Rangers Ballpark with its reputation as a hitter’s haven and where the summer heat can be brutal.

“The proof’s on the field. Nolan has done a lot for that,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “We’ve shown that anybody with talent and makeup and work ethic can get it done.”

Ryan got to pitch in the World Series only once, as a 22-year-old reliever for the Amazin’ Mets in 1969. He hasn’t even attended a World Series since 2005 with the Houston Astros, another team he worked for after playing there.

The team earned-run average of 3.93 was the lowest for Texas since 1990, when Ryan was still pitching for the Rangers, and the club set a record with 1,181 strikeouts. They’ve been even better in the playoffs with a 2.76 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 11 games.

“The drive that everybody has seen from what he’s put in from the past, it’s easy to follow,” said Colby Lewis, who returned from two seasons in Japan to throw a career-high 201 innings.

“You take everything he says and try to apply it to yourself. It’s actually really awesome to have him around,” Wilson said. “When you have a front office guy or a GM, or now a team owner, that has the experience and knows what it’s really like to be on the field, it gives a whole different level of credibility when he asks you to do something.”

The only plaque in Cooperstown with a Texas “T” on it belongs to Ryan, the only Rangers player whose number has been retired by the team.

Ryan was already in his 40s when he joined the Rangers planning to pitch one more season to end his career. He finally retired after five seasons there. He threw the last two of his seven no-hitters and notched his 300th victory and 5,000th strikeout in that span, though he never got to pitching in the postseason for Texas.

When the American League championship trophy was presented to the Rangers last week, it was first given to Ryan, who then raised the prize up in the air.

“It shouldn’t have been and couldn’t have been any other way,” said Chuck Greenberg, the team’s managing partner. “With what he means and has meant to this community for so long, it really completed the circle.”

The ALCS began with Ryan on the mound, when before Game 1, the all-time strikeout king gave that familiar leg kick and fired in a heater and drew a roaring ovation from the crowd. Ryan came away smiling.

Ryan is such a visible part of the Rangers, sitting in the front row near the dugout where television cameras easily and often show him watching and reacting to his team on the field.

And while his imprint on the team is obvious, Ryan is not an overwhelming presence in the clubhouse. One of the things he did after his first season as president was hire pitching coach Mike Maddux, who believes in the same old-school pitching philosophies.

“He really picks his spots, and I think he is respectful of (manager Ron Washington) and the coaches, maybe to a fault, because he’s been in the clubhouse, he knows the chain of command, the hierarchy,” Daniels said. “When he’s got something he wants to deliver, I think he might go through Mike at times, but he also certainly shares his experience, and his feelings, his thoughts. It’s kind of a unique relationship.”

Reliever Derek Holland says you have to seek Ryan out for advice. He’s talked to Ryan about workouts and keeping focused on the mound.

“He’s not going to come to you and tell you what you should be doing,” Holland said. “And when he talks you really want to listen.”

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