Stay with the Texas Rangers? Return to your roots with the Houston Astros?
Round Rock Express ownership will face its biggest call in at least eight years, and it’s already a hot topic among fans at Dell Diamond.
The Express’ Player Development Contract with the Rangers will expire when the team’s Triple-A season ends on Labor Day. The franchise was an Astros affiliate from the club’s initial 2000 season to 2010. Many think it’s a given that Round Rock will hitch its wagon to the World Series champions.
Express CEO Reese Ryan is slowing down that train of thought. The son of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and younger brother of Astros President Reid Ryan told the American-Statesman he will carefully weigh his options for the franchise’s next two- or four-year deal.
“We’ll finish this season, evaluate where we are and make a decision,” Reese Ryan said. “We’ll be allowed to negotiate with our current partner and anybody else we want to entertain an offer from in September.
“We’ve had an excellent relationship with the Rangers. It’s no secret that my brother and dad are both affiliated with the Astros, and they’re coming off a World Series championship. That’s all exciting. But I have to do what’s in the best interest of my fans.”
Those fans are divided, just like the Central Texas market for the past 20 years. Before then, this was traditionally Astros country.
The Statesman has interviewed dozens of fans at Dell Diamond. The Rangers hold the edge, but nearly half have no strong Texas team preference.
“We moved to Austin from California, and we’re here because our kids like baseball and it’s a good night out with the family,” said Heather Wood. “Astros or Rangers? I’ve been here long enough to know each team has its backers. You can’t please both groups. We’ll enjoy the games either way.”
Danny Espinoza, a Rangers fan from Round Rock, said: “I know the Astros are the flavor of the month, but I hope Express management looks beyond the current standings. Before the last few years, the Rangers were good and the Astros were losing 100 games.”
Now the Express are in a rut with the sagging Rangers, with back-to-back losing seasons in 2016-17 and a losing record this year. Round Rock, currently in last place in its division, has two playoff trips (2011, 2015) in seven years with Texas.
Astros’ Triple-A teams have enjoyed six winning seasons in a row, and the Fresno Grizzlies are in first place in their division this year.
“Of course, you want to win, but these things run in cycles,” Ryan said. “Our primary job is development, and we continue sending a lot of players to the Rangers.”
The downturn on the field isn’t hurting Round Rock at the gate. The Express lead the Pacific Coast League in average home attendance (9,011), after finishing second to Nashville in 2017 with 8,724.
“Our ticket sales are strong, and sponsorships and revenue are trending slightly up over last year to this point,” Ryan said. “We’re blessed to be in a great market with a lot of good baseball fans and vibrant businesses that like to advertise with us. This club remains profitable.”
In 2016 Forbes magazine listed the Express as the sixth-most valuable minor league baseball franchise, with a worth of $40 million.
All the more reason Texas’ two major league teams want to be here. Austin drew top-four national TV ratings in 2010 and ’11 when the Rangers made the World Series and again last year when the Astros defeated the Dodgers. For a few games, Austin trailed only Houston and Los Angeles.
“The Rangers have enjoyed a strong and productive partnership with the Round Rock Express since 2011,” Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels told the Statesman. “We’ve developed great personal and professional relationships in that time. We understand the factors at play and certainly have respect for the role that family plays. We will see what happens in the future.”
Tampering rules prevent GMs from talking about other minor league teams under contract.
“There is a process in place, and until that plays out, you can’t say much or speculate,” said the Astros’ Reid Ryan, who is credited with founding the Express in 2000. “There have been inaccurate reports, and some people seem to think they know how this will play out, but they don’t. A lot can happen between now and the end of the season.”
The Fresno franchise is 1,766 miles from Houston; Round Rock is 167 miles away. The Grizzlies’ contract is up this year.
“We have not had those discussions, and we can’t visit with anybody else because that would be tampering,” Reese Ryan said. “I’m the person who will make that decision and Jon Daniels or (co-owner) Ray Davis at the Rangers’ level.”
What all parties agree on is the desirability of the market and the franchise, which has finished first or second in PCL attendance every year since 2007.
“Central Texas is a battleground,” Ryan said. “It’s three hours from Arlington, 2½ hours from Houston, and each of those teams have a large fan base in this area. It’s a booming baseball market that has a lot of TV sets that are either tuned in to the Astros or Rangers.
“Why wouldn’t both franchises want to be here? It’s so attractive.”
There should be a soft landing spot for whoever doesn’t snag Round Rock. Colorado Springs, Colo., team owner Dave Elmore plans to move his PCL team to San Antonio next year. The Sky Sox contract with the Brewers will end in September.
Assuming the Astros make a pitch for Round Rock, Ryan will be tugged hard in two directions.
“I have such powerful ties to each,” he said. “I spent a large part of my life developing talent for the Astros and now the Rangers. Dad, of course, has his number retired by both franchises. He went into the Hall of Fame as a Texas Ranger. When he played for Houston, those are some of the fondest memories of my life. We lived at home and grew up in the Astrodome.
“Both franchises are near and dear to my heart.”