Jim Crane may be about to have the kind of opportunity that the owners of sports franchises dream about.
He can bring Nolan Ryan home.
To the Houston Astros.
Nothing Crane could ever do as owner would be as well received. With one move, he can restock his franchise with credibility and goodwill. He can bring fans back to the ballpark, too.
Suddenly, the massive rebuilding program -- the one fans are wondering about -- would look like a pretty darn smart plan. Simply having Ryan associated with the Astros would elevate the franchise in the hearts and minds of Texans, especially those in Houston who've endured two straight 100-loss seasons and have stopped buying tickets.
If that sounds like too much, know this: There's no sports figure in Texas as popular as Ryan. He's revered in every corner of the state, from El Paso to Beaumont, from Amarillo to Laredo. He's the only athlete adored in both Houston and Dallas-Forth Worth. When he signed with the Astros on Nov. 19, 1979, it was one of the greatest days the franchise has ever had.
Ryan was born in Refugio and raised in Alvin, a few miles from Houston. He played his high school baseball there and returned there every offseason to work his cattle. He raised his two sons and a daughter there. When the Astros showed him the door eight years later, it was the darkest day the franchise has ever had.
It wasn't just that he was shown the door. It was that he was allowed to sign with the Rangers, a franchise he put on his shoulders and elevated to a place it had never been before.
In the past five seasons, Ryan has gained a reputation as a shrewd executive. His hiring as team president in 2008 gave the Rangers the kind of credibility they'd never had in their previous 36 years.
The Astros could use Ryan's presence, but they could use his judgment and input as well. Not just in baseball, but in every aspect of running a club. Before taking over the Rangers, Ryan had operated two very successful Minor League clubs in Corpus Christi and Round Rock. Just as he did with the Rangers, Ryan hired good people and empowered them to do their jobs.
In the 18 months since Crane bought the Astros, he has worked furiously to rebuild a franchise that was once one of the best in baseball. Crane has made massive changes up and down the masthead, hiring waves of gifted data-driven people to run the baseball operation.
Ryan does not pretend to know that stuff. But he knows people. He understands winning clubhouses. He respects people, too. Ryan would make everyone with the Astros appreciate their jobs a little more. He would make sure of that. He would reach out to all of them.
Right about now, you might be rolling your eyes and thinking I'm overselling Nolan's impact.
Ryan is the living, breathing definition of how Texans like to see themselves. He's honest, blunt, tough and smart. He's a handshake kind of guy.
This is his public image, but it's more than that. It's the way Ryan's employees and the people who know him best feel about him. They trust his decency and his judgment. One of Ryan's employees with the Rangers left a very good job with another team.
That employee had been routinely courted by other clubs, but was never interested. And then one day he was working for the Texas Rangers.
When asked why the change of heart, he shrugged.
"Nolan called," he said.
About the last thing Crane probably thought he'd ever have a chance to do would be to hire Ryan. That's because until last week, no one in baseball believed Ryan would leave the Rangers.
Now, with the Rangers giving the final say in business and baseball decisions to other men, Ryan may be leaving the Rangers. That he hasn't spoken publicly in the seven days since the announcement speaks volumes. He's said to be furious, if not humiliated.
Crane has his front office in place. He hired a team president in George Postolos and has a legendary former player, Craig Biggio, serving as an adviser. It's no disrespect to Postolos and Biggio to say that neither of them come close to having the stature of Ryan.
But it can't be a symbolic job. Ryan has one of those now. And there's precedence for a Rangers-to-Astros move. When his playing career ended in 1993, then-Rangers owner George W. Bush gave Ryan a personal services contract.
Ryan grew disenchanted because he didn't think he had enough real responsibility. So then-Astros owner Drayton McLane lured him to Houston, where he worked as an adviser.
Former Astros general manager Tim Purpura put Ryan to work, seeking his advice and counsel, making him feel important. Some of the best times were the offseason mini-camps when Purpura would bring in the franchise's young pitchers to work with Ryan and Roger Clemens.
It wasn't just that they had so much to offer kids. It was how much they seemed to enjoy working with one another and with the young guys. There's another idea for Crane: Another round of Ryan-Clemens mini-camps for all that young talent general manager Jeff Luhnow has assembled.
Again, though, Crane must hire Ryan for a real job, not a figurehead one. Ryan must be involved at every level and must have a voice in decisions. I'm guessing Ryan would jump at the opportunity to help rebuild his hometown team. He's 66 years old and in good health.
Ryan's best friend, Don Sanders, lives in Houston. The point is that there has to be a substantive role in which Ryan could contribute and feel appreciated. He does not want the day-to-day duties of, say, general manager, but he clearly isn't interested in retiring either.
Ryan's hiring would be the best decision Crane could make. It came out of the blue, unexpected and almost shocking. It's also an opportunity and one Crane shouldn't let pass.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less