Before landing in his current position of president of business operations for the Astros in May 2013, Ryan served as founder and CEO for Minor League teams in Corpus Christi and Round Rock.
Ryan sat down with Community Impact Newspaper founder and CEO John Garrett on April 2 to discuss his lifelong passion for baseball and for people. He said the sport has taught him about teamwork and bouncing back from failures, which has led to his dedication to serving and creating a positive experience for employees, guests and players at Minute Maid Park.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anybody who loves baseball wants your job. How did you get the best job in the world?
I guess I got lucky. Things work out in strange ways. I had met [Houston Astros owner] Jim Crane briefly, and he reached out to me and said, “Hey, I'm looking to bring somebody in that's kind of done what you've done with customer service and building a team in a market and building a fan base, and I’d love to visit with you about this opportunity.”
I really wasn't looking to take this job. I was living in the Austin area, owned a couple businesses and was working with my family. But the opportunity to come home and be a part of building a World Series Champion in your hometown was pretty special, and I'm honored that I got to sit in this chair the last seven seasons and we've done some really good things.
It was a crazy time because we were going on our third hundred-loss season. Everybody thought we were idiots, and the team's terrible, and most days I just had people yell at me.
It also gave me an opportunity to sort of sell people on our vision of what Jim Crane was doing, what [Houston Astros general manager] Jeff Luhnow was doing. I walked into the job with a lot of trust because people knew my dad, they knew my family. We were from here; they had seen me build Round Rock and Corpus Christi.
There was a lot of credibility when I walked in the door, and I think that bought me some grace and bought the Astros some grace in the eyes of the fans that [said], “Hey, let's give these folks a little bit of time because their plan sounds good. Let's see if they can do it.”
In 2013 when you were losing all those games, what were you thinking about?
Internally, we had a plan. Jim Crane really started the vision of how the Astros compete with teams that have a lot more money. There's a story in there about trying to be the best that you can be—not trying to be what someone else is. Jim has several gifts, and one of those gifts is being able to see through the clutter and figure out how we become successful.
The [St. Louis] Cardinals are a very successful team; they're not in the biggest market in the country, they grow and build from within. They've been able to add free agents, they have a very rabid fan base. And so we said, “That's what we're going to do—we want to try to be like the Cardinals of the American League.”
He went out and brought in Jeff Luhnow, our general manager. He's been the architect, and he helped build the Cardinals. We found a new way of doing things through analytical evaluation, trading all of our players that had value, bringing draft picks and prospects in, and then trying to build this thing right.
My job was two things—one was outside the four walls of Minute Maid Park where I was out telling people the plan, what we were going to do and why it's going to work. And then inside the four walls, we were having to convince the employees what we were doing was going to work because we have a lot of commission salespeople, and it’s hard to sell when you have a really bad product.
We got buy-in from everybody because there were lots of little wins along the way. And then obviously in 2017, we won the World Series.
What has it been like to grow up as Nolan Ryan’s son?
I tell folks I lived every kid's dream. I literally grew up on a ballpark every day, having my own locker from the time I was little until I was playing college ball flying on team charters all around the country.
There's so many good lessons that come from sports, [such as] teamwork—no matter how good of a pitcher you are, someone has to be there to catch it, somebody has to score runs. You're literally only as strong as your weakest link, and my secret to success has been bringing people together to make a really good team. Some need tough love, some need more hugs, some need to be challenged—everybody's a little bit different.
I love this game of baseball because people leave what's ailing them at home, and they come to the ballpark to spend time with their loved ones, to spend time with people in their community and to be entertained. There's a real connection with baseball—strangers are high-fiving in this world of so many things that divide us. It’s a uniter of the community, and so the fact that I get to bring joy to people's lives on a daily basis is a blessing.
I appreciate it when people recognize what I've done for myself, but I also understand that I've been given a lot of opportunities because of who my dad is. Being Nolan Ryan’s son might help get you in the game, but once you're in the game you're either going to be the winner or you're going to be the loser, and there's nobody there helping you so you’ve got to be ready. I feel like all the years I had building the Express and the Hooks prepared me for this moment, and we’ve taken the Astros to a whole other level.
I’m really proud that when we won [the World Series], we bought everybody rings—all the concession workers, the grounds crew—everybody got rings and then we gave a ton out to the fans. We wanted people to celebrate this because growing up here, I had my heart broken in ’80 by the Astros, in ’86 by the Astros. We finally got one, and it was very satisfying.
That's probably the best word I can use—it was just a deep sense of satisfaction and pride and accomplishment to know that we were a team that did something not only for all the fans that have loved the Astros for some time, but really for the community with Harvey. It was a crazy, crazy time, and to see the joy that this thing brought to our town and the state was really special.
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to go on the World Series run so close to Hurricane Harvey and what the Astros’ role in the recovery of this city was like?
Mayor [Sylvester] Turner showed a ton of leadership and same with [former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett]. They wanted us to play because people wanted to get back to normality.
You would meet people that were affected, and it was so weird as to who got affected and who didn't. The mayor really led by example and said, “We just need to get back up on our feet. We’re going to help these people; let’s just get back to normal.” We were a part of that, and after our guys went out and did a lot in the community, there was a connection there.
Then we got to the playoffs, and I just felt like this was meant to be; there’s no way we’re losing. It would have been heartbreaking had we not won it all, but you look at how many times we could have lost—we could have lost in Boston very easily, we could have lost against New York, we could have lost against the Dodgers. But it all went our way, and sometimes when fate is on your side, you just have to get out of the way and let it happen.
You have a unique history with Harvey, but what is a sports team’s role in serving the community?
I come into this job with a servant's heart. There's nothing we make that anybody has to have, so we have to be doing a great job of connecting with the community and making sure that we're using our platform. We have to make a decision—are we going to use that for good or just for our own self-interest? My belief is that you have a great opportunity to do a lot of good. In that, you have an opportunity to build a lot of fans, which in turn helps you out and lets you continue to help the community.
It has to be part of your DNA and if it's not, I don't think you're ever really going to make it. You might be able to fake it for a little while, but either it is or isn't who you are as a person.
Even though you've come from a famous background, you talk to everybody like they matter as an individual. Where did that come from?
People do matter. We’re all important, and everybody on the team is important. Even though my dad was a Major League Baseball player in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was not a very rich baseball player. He had to come back and pump gas in the offseason because I think in his first year he made $5,000. A lot of things have changed as TV and the internet has grown, and the sport has gotten a lot bigger.
It really wasn't until he signed the first million-dollar contract—which at the time, was the richest contract in sports—that people started to look at him and maybe treat us a little bit differently.
In 1979 when I was 8 years old, I actually got run over by a car when we lived in California. I lost my kidney, my spleen, broke my femur and ended up spending 10 weeks in the hospital. To whom much is given, much is expected, and I felt like I was given a second chance at life at a very early age, and my goal was to maximize that opportunity.
When your dad is someone like Nolan Ryan, I meet people and they want to tell me stories about him because he played for so long and they have so many memories of him. Now people stop me and they want to share their World Series story, which is pretty cool.
Everybody who’s an Astros fan at some point had to be drawn into our organization by somebody. That’s a gift we have. I just remind our staff every night at the stadium that this is somebody’s first Major League Baseball game. Even if it's a Tuesday night, we’re playing the Marlins and there's 8,000 people in the stands, it was still somebody’s very first Major League Baseball game. You have a chance to create a lifetime fan if you do it right.
See the full interview below: