Reid Ryan’s initiation came early.
He just didn’t think his first challenge would come in a stadium restroom.
But on his very first day on the job as new team president of the Houston Astros, Ryan had to face the unpleasant task of dealing with a snow cones vendor at Minute Maid Park who took his icy inventory into the restroom with him to take care of business while, uh, sitting down on the job.
As president, Ryan has to tackle everything from stadium signage to ticket sales to television contracts to, yes, snow cones in the restroom. He stayed chill.
Even though the ugly incident made national news, Ryan worked through the experience after which a third-party vendor employee working for Aramark concessions was dismissed.
“Yeah, snow cone-gate,” said Ryan, who’s been on the job for three weeks. “I know some gross people, and even they thought that was gross. I didn’t think that on my first day on the job, we would be on Leno.”
The late-night talk-show host labeled it the grossest thing of the week, but the good news was Jay Leno wasn’t referring to the team on the field. The Astros do remain in last place in the American League West, but have shown signs of improvement with a recent sweep of the Los Angeles Angels and a six-game win streak, punctuated by a six-homer game against the Orioles.
“I’ve got to be the biggest cheerleader for the Houston Astros,” Ryan said. “I think I bring credibility for what they’re trying to do. I’m going to shoot people straight. We’re not going to be good every day, but fans will see flashes of what the future is going to look like. If we’re able to get a TV deal worked out with what Jeff’s (Luhnow) doing, we may have the Washington Nationals in the makings. Stranger things have happened.”
A baseball team that’s had frosty relations with its fan base has wisely turned to the astute, well-respected son of baseball legend Nolan Ryan, who has run one of the most successful minor-league franchises in baseball down the road in Round Rock. While Reid Ryan might not be able to fix the on-field operation in Houston, that’s not his job description.
“There’s some talent over here. Don’t sell us short,” he said this week. “We won six in a row on the road for the first time since 1999. That’s not my gig, but this team has more talent than people realize.”
Ryan’s focus will be customer service and in-stadium experience. But the media are already after him to expand a cramped press box. Oh, and return fried chicken to the media cafeteria.
“We’ve got to create a home-field advantage,” he said. “I’m trying to make an emotional connection between the players and the fans.”
With a team payroll of $24 million — the lowest in baseball and a bit less than the Yankees’ $229 million — the Astros might please some fans by simply avoiding a third consecutive 100-loss season. The club is years away from being a contender. “When I talk to scouts,” Ryan said, “they say in the next two to three years, there’ll be drastic improvement.”
Drafting Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the first pick of Thursday’s major-league draft should help speed up the process as Houston awaits the arrival of future draftees like right-handed pitcher Mike Foltynewicz and young shortstop Carlos Correa. The Astros’ farm system has advanced and now ranks ninth by Baseball America.
While fans bide their time, hiring the charismatic, extroverted Ryan might have been an olive branch to them by new owner Jim Crane, who has overseen a big overhaul of personnel and who can use any good publicity he can get. Ryan is one of Crane’s better moves since buying the club from Drayton McLane.
In Ryan, a sharp, upbeat administrator who brings credibility with him, Crane has a throwback of sorts to better times when Reid’s father was striking out his 3,000th victim and throwing his fifth no-hitter for the Astros before leaving in a contract dispute for the Rangers to help make them one of baseball’s strongest franchises. Reid Ryan talks to everyone from umpires to reporters.
Since taking the job, the 41-year-old Ryan has been inundated with questions, and he’d like to clear up a few notions. Even though he was brought on board, Nolan Ryan’s not coming to Houston any time soon. His dad has two years left on his contract. But is Nolan happy?
“When we talk, I don’t ask him about it,” Reid said. “He has good days and bad days. I think at times he’s very happy, and other times he gets frustrated. He enjoys having input in the game and having his mark on the game. If I’m able to have success here and be a good fit, would there be an opportunity for him here if he’s ready for a less active role? There’s a chance, but there’d be four ifs, ands and buts to even make it possible.”
And what about the Round Rock Express; would the Express return to the Astros farm system? The Triple-A affiliate is bound to the Texas Rangers through 2018.
“If somewhere that changed, if we changed it, it’d be for the right reasons,” said Ryan, who is part of the Ryan-Sanders ownership of both the Rangers’ Express and the Astros’ Double-A club in Corpus Christi. “Is it in the works? No.”
The younger Ryan can do only so much to fix the Astros. Until Crane and general manager Luhnow draft and fully develop an improving farm system to supply the big club with winning talent, Houstonians will likely not give the ownership the benefit of the doubt.
Fans remain livid over the fact that only 40 percent of the city can see the games on television while the Astros try to hammer out a deal with Comcast. Crane doesn’t want a quick deal as much as he does a smart contract, which will provide money the franchise can use to sign free agents and retain its own high-priced players.
“In a nutshell, Jim will not take a bad deal,” Ryan said. “I think he has been unfairly criticized at times for the position the club is in. Maybe it’s the party line, but the feel-good short-term, make-everybody-happy deal is to just get the games on TV. By doing that, he would not be able to compete payroll-wise with other teams. We’re the fourth-largest market, but Jim’s not saying he wants the fourth-highest paid deal. He wants the average of what the teams in our division have.”
The Rangers stand to clear $1.6 billion over 20 years with Fox Sports Southwest, and Crane understandably wants a similar deal. If he can’t, Ryan said, “that would make the fans hotter than making a deal to get ‘em on TV now.”
And even snow cones won’t cool them off if that happens.