Ryan's FA signing changed Rangers' destiny

Hall of Famer tossed 2 no-hitters, recorded 300th win with Texas

Ryan's FA signing changed Rangers' destiny

Before bidding adieu to the Hot Stove season, we asked our 30 beat reporters to look back at their club's past and answer the following question: Who is the best free-agent signing in the team's history?

We narrowed the choices with the following parameters: The signings had to be multiyear contracts, to exclude fluky one-year deals and to focus on players who got real commitments. And contract extensions don't count. Only instances when every team in the league had a chance to bid on the player were allowed, including international free agents who received Major League contracts.

ARLINGTON -- Who is the best free-agent signing in Rangers history? There have been some good ones, but one stands above the rest even if it was originally for one year and an option.

Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.

There is no doubt that when the Rangers signed Ryan on Dec. 7, 1988, it forever changed the franchise.

"He provided us with a legacy," former President George W. Bush, who became one of the team owners the following spring, once said. "For a franchise to have tradition, it must have legends. Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth are legends in New York. Nolan Ryan is a legend in Texas."

Ryan came to Arlington planning to pitch one more year and he stayed for five as a player. He ended up being club president much later when the Rangers went to the World Series in 2010-11.

Nolan Ryan on time with Rangers

Ryan's jersey is retired and he went into the Hall of Fame wearing the Rangers cap. He also provided some of the most memorable moments on the field in club history.

"I think when Nolan came to Texas, he was a superstar, and when he left, he was a legend," said former club president Tom Schieffer. "He came to epitomize everything that was good in baseball, all the values that are enduring and why people hold the game with so much affection."

The Rangers had just finished their 17th season in Texas in 1988. They were an expansion franchise and spent their first 11 seasons as the Washington Senators.

They were playing in Arlington Stadium, a renovated Minor League facility, and they had never been to postseason. They had good people working in the front office, but they were basically viewed as a small-time franchise.

Ryan helped change all that, beginning in 1989, when the Rangers drew over two million fans for the first time in club history. Ryan, at age 42, went 16-10 with a 3.29 ERA and a Major League-leading 301 strikeouts. On Aug. 22, he recorded his 5,000th career strikeout before a sellout crowd of 42,869.

Ryan enjoyed his season so much in Arlington that he decided to come back in 1990. He ended up staying through '93 and was still throwing 95 mph in the end. He pitched his sixth no-hitter and won his 300th game in 1990, and he pitched one more no-hitter in '91.

That was the same year the Rangers announced they were going to build a new ballpark for 1994. The Ballpark in Arlington can be known as the House that Nolan Ryan built.

Honorable Mentions

Will Clark, 1993: Clark was in the second half of his career when he signed a five-year deal with the Rangers. He wasn't quite the same player he was with the Giants, but he did bring personality and a winning attitude to the clubhouse. The Rangers won their first two division titles with Clark as their leader.

Ivan Rodriguez, 1997: The Rangers were close to trading Rodriguez at the non-waiver Trade Deadline as he was eligible for free agency at the end of the 1997 season. Instead he went into Schieffer's office and told him how much he wanted to stay in Texas. The Rangers signed Rodriguez, who was elected to the Hall of Fame for 2017, to a five-year extension.

Adrian Beltre, 2011: The Rangers unofficial team captain signed a six-year deal and then a two-year extension through 2018. At some point, Beltre will be enshrined in Cooperstown.

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.