Astros president Ryan driven by love for the game
In exclusive Q&A, Reid Ryan offers insight on state of Astros for 2014
HOUSTON -- Entering his first full season as president of business operations for the Astros, Reid Ryan has packed enough work into nine months to last a few years.
Ryan, hired in May by owner Jim Crane to replace George Postolos, has given the Astros a friendly public face, while he works around the clock behind the scenes to make sure the team's front office, sponsors and fans are content and understand the direction the club is heading while it rebuilds.
Of course, much of Ryan's time since being hired has revolved around the team's messy television situation in which Comcast SportsNet Houston -- the regional network partnership started prior to last season with the NBA's Houston Rockets and NBC -- is available to only about 40 percent of the Houston television market. That remains tied up in court.
During the season, Ryan wasn't shy about sitting in the stands with fans, engaging them on Twitter and having focus groups to hear what they want. As a result, the team moved the Community Leaders billboards that blocked the downtown view for some at Minute Maid Park, opened the gates earlier so fans could attend batting practice and expanded its winter caravan, among other initiatives.
And now, the former Astros batboy who grew up just south of Houston is working alongside his legendary father, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, who last week was hired by the Astros as an executive adviser.
Reid Ryan spent some time with MLB.com prior to the start of Spring Training for a Presidents Day question-and-answer session.
MLB.com: You've been on the job now for nine months. What have been some of your biggest challenges outside of trying to get the games on TV?
Ryan: I think when I look at the big picture, and that's really how I tend to look at stuff, is kind of from a 30,000-foot view. The biggest challenge has been trying to engage the fans and make sure they know this is their team. What I mean by their team, that we're listening to them and we hear their concerns and their concerns are being addressed. And so, I think it manifests itself from the plan that [general manager] Jeff [Luhnow] has in place to put a winner back on the field. It gets down to things, whether it's [relocating] the Community Leaders sign or whether it was opening up early so people could watch batting practice or tweaks with FanFest. We've really tried to be as inclusive and as open and transparent as we can with our fan base. I feel like we've won credibility, and that's really been, I think, over the last nine months.
My goal has been create trust and credibility with our fan base. What happened last year with the Minor Leagues [having the best overall record in baseball] was real big for us. We were saying, 'Hey, look, this is the plan,' and we had some tangible things to hang our hats on. So I think the step for us as a challenge is, one, the big league club is going to be better this year. We're tempering expectations ... 'Look, we doubled the payroll and we all expect a significant improvement.' But does that equal .500, does that equal making the playoffs? Those are probably more of a challenge than picking up 15-20 wins. I think there's credibility issues we're going to have to address with that.
I think the TV situation, we've continued to say, 'Look, we're doing what's in the best interest of the Astros long term and we really have to run that out.' I think fans are starting to see that the things that we're talking about when I first got here and over the last nine months, we've pretty much done them all, and the ones that we haven't finished yet, I think there's evidence that we're moving in the right direction.
MLB.com: You've made it a point to really listen to the fans and sit down with them when you can. What are the most frequent messages you hear from them?
Ryan: I think people want to have a quality organization. When I say that, I think this community holds its sports team to a high standard. And so, it starts with being competitive on the field. Folks are realistic and they understand you've got to get a little lucky to win a World Series. But I think they expect the standard that was set, sort of in the Craig Biggio-Jeff Bagwell era, of how many times we went to the playoffs -- Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. That is what they want. I think they want a consistent team that has an opportunity to win. What else they desire is having an in-stadium product and a front office, game employees, an experience at Minute Maid Park that is of a first-class nature and one of quality. That's what we're working on giving them.
MLB.com: The demands of your job have kept you busy around the clock, but what have you found to be the most enjoyable parts of being Astros president?
Ryan: I just enjoy the game of baseball. For me, the part I probably enjoy the most is when the games are going on, or that I'm out in the community talking about the Astros, or when I'm around the players and taking about the game. I like setting a vision for people and then trying to drive the ship in that direction.
And so, I'm a firm believer that this game serves a higher purpose than having nine guys on the field playing against another nine guys. This game, you become part of the fabric of your community, and you can really carry the hopes and dreams of a lot of people on what you do every single day. There's few jobs in which what you do every day affects so many people's lives and has an opportunity to bring joy to people's lives. [When the team is winning,] kids can't wait to see the highlights of the game, people can't wait to come out. They get up every day and get online ... and see what everybody's been doing. So, there's a responsibility that not just the city of Houston, but those in the Gulf Coast and across the state of Texas expect us to uphold. That's very enjoyable to me. I like the responsibility of knowing that what I'm doing matters to people.
MLB.com: Your dad, Nolan Ryan, was recently hired as an executive adviser. How much do you plan to rely on him, and how much will he be around the ballpark?
Ryan: Obviously, I've had the luxury, because he is my father, of calling on him and talking to him since I got this job. That won't really change, but I think what this will do is it will free him to really sort of get involved with our organization beyond the periphery and beyond just talking to me on the phone. I think what you're going to end up seeing is that he'll be at pretty much most of the home games. He wants to keep the flexibility of the schedule because he's at the point in his life where there's things he wants to do, understandably.
I think you'll see him be involved with the plan that Jeff's executing, as well as the plan Jim's executing. What that means is he'll be in Spring Training for a week to two weeks. You'll see him go down to the Minor Leagues some and be involved with some of our players down there. I think you'll see Jeff use him on some special assignments, whether it's to go look at somebody possibly in the Draft or to look at somebody with another organization, as well as probably meet with the players here at the big league level and help [manager] Bo [Porter] out in whatever capacity that he can. In a lot of ways, he's sort of what we have with Enos Cabell or Craig [Biggio] or Roger [Clemens] in the fact that he'll be bonding with the players, and when he talks to those guys, they listen because of his experience.
But he also brings with him the experience of being in the front office, both with the Astros here and when [former GMs] Gerry [Hunsicker] and Tim [Purpura] were here, being over the Rangers as the CEO and president and seeing them through bankruptcy, the signing of a Japanese player, the trading of players. He brings a lot of front-office experience that all of us will be able to draw upon. So I think he'll be a phone call away from all of us, whenever we need him.
MLB.com: Considering how busy you are, how much are you still able just to enjoy watching a ballgame these days?
Ryan: That's really the best part of the job. That's why you do what you do. I've never understood people who work in this business and then don't go to the ballgames. That's the enjoyment of why you do what you do. For me, that's the time where the fruits of your labor, you're able to enjoy. But really I think when I look at how busy I am, I think it's a compliment to where our organization is going. Because there's so many people that care about the Astros that have felt excluded from the last couple of years or that, because of the performance on the field with the team, maybe didn't want to raise their hand and say, "Hey, I'm an Astro fan."
We're seeing a reawakening of a lot of folks. The amount of former players that have reached out to me over the last 120 days -- guys from Glenn Davis to the guys like Roy [Oswalt] and Lance [Berkman], to Jeff Bagwell or Phil Garner or whoever it is -- Terry Puhl, Billy Dawley. I've had so many players reach out to me and say, "Hey, I want to do something, I want to help, I want to be a part of this." We've recently had a lot of partners and long-time people in the community say, "Hey, we want to help the Astros get back on top." Not just here, but with our extensive caravan and all around the state and Louisiana. I think we're on the verge of something great. It's a fun busy. It's not, "I hate going to work" busy. It's not that at all. It's, "Man, I wish I had more than 24 hours in my day because there's just so much excitement around this team." We've got to do it with these young guys and these first-round Draft picks and all that other stuff, but people can see that there's light at the end of the tunnel and they're getting excited about it.
MLB.com: Is this the year the Astros begin getting people's attention on the field again?
Ryan: In some ways yes and in some ways no. I think that people have heard -- and I've been here nine months and Jeff's been here a couple of years -- people have heard, 'Hey, this is what we're doing,' and they've seen the Minor League teams have responded with rankings and titles and playoff appearances. I think they really, before they're all in, before they're 100 percent committed to being back with the Astros, they want to see the play at the big league level improve.
So, when you ask, 'Is this the year we begin to get people's attention?' I think yes, it is the year, because you're going to see George Springer at some point during this year. You're more than likely going to see [Jonathan] Singleton at some point during this year. Is this the year [Michael] Foltynewicz, [Asher] Wojciechowski or [Mark] Appel come up? I don't know. But there's talent that will be emerging, and I think that talent is going to get people excited, and I think the guys that made their freshman debuts last year, I think you're going to see some of those guys -- and it's not all of them because we had so many -- but you're going to see some of them take another big step forward.
The attention we're going to get, whether we can hold it or not, will depend on how many games we win. I think '14 is going to be a big year, but I really look to '15 to sort of being the year that we're really starting to make a run.