Reid Ryan on Rebuilding the Once-Hapless Houston Astros

In May 2013, when the Houston Astros hired Reid Ryan, ’91, as its newest president, the team was coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons, the worst stretch in the team’s 50-year history. Just over four years later, the Astros shocked the world, coming back from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS and mowing down the powerhouse Dodgers to win its first-ever World Series. Ryan, 46, the son of Hall of Fame fireballer Nolan, is an architect of one of the most dramatic transformations in Major League Baseball history.

In December, the former University of Texas pitcher spoke to members of the Forty Acres Society, a Texas Exes giving society that supports the Forty Acres Scholars Program, at an event in Houston. He also spoke with the Alcalde about rebuilding a franchise, how the team responded to Hurricane Harvey, and the now-famous 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story that prophesied the Astros as 2017 World Series champions.

Alcalde: What did it mean to you to bring a championship to Houston?

Reid Ryan: The formative years of my life were as an Astros fan—from a nine to 17-year-old time frame, when sports are pretty much everything in your life. Since my dad was a player, I grew up working in the clubhouse, hitting, shagging in the outfield, and when I got older, bat-boying. [From] ’80 to ’86 I was traveling with the team and I had deep, deep ties with the fanbase, what this organization means to the state of Texas, with the dome, and this being the first major league team—and how many times we had our hearts broken. Getting over that final hump and seeing the joy that the championship brought to this city, I cannot go anywhere without people saying, “Man, thank you so much. It means so much.” I have a deep sense of fulfillment and a deep sense of pride that this club was able to achieve something that people have wanted for so long.

Did Hurricane Harvey give the team an extra nudge?

As the time passed from when the storm hit in August and when we started in the playoffs in October, people started to realize what they were dealing with. Once the task at hand had sunk in for the city of Houston, it was a little bit of a dark time. Our playing was an escape for all those people that were facing reality. As we started to achieve success, I think people looked at us and said, “These guys have also been through a massive rebuild.” I think that we inspired people. The way that we play baseball—it’s all-out, it’s full hustle, it’s high energy—this group of guys are very connected to this community.

There were daily reminders from when we came back from that Mets series after Harvey to the final game in L.A. where these guys on their days off were volunteering, raising money, and doing PSAs. It wasn’t a one-and-done where they came in for a photo-op and went away. These guys have walked the walk and they were playing great baseball.

About the Sports Illustrated cover—Did the World Series win feel like a vindication?

I wouldn’t say the word vindication. The plan started with Jim Crane. As an owner he sets the tone for the organization. He found people—Jeff Luhnow, who’s been the architect of this club and the general manager, and myself—to come in and execute that vision and then he never wavered. There were a lot of times that people were not happy when we were rebuilding.

As a fan it’s not fun to go through a rebuild.

It’s not. So every day, I was on the phone dealing with customers, going to events, and telling our story. Jeff was behind the scenes to build the club and develop the minors. When ’14 came and the article came, he really wanted to give [SI writer] Ben Reiter a sneak peek behind the curtain to see what we were doing. 2015 was really a vindication for me, because nobody expected us to be in the playoffs. We were young, we weren’t complete. We had some holes, we struck out a lot. We were a feast or famine team. But we beat the Yankees, and really, we had that Royals series that could have easily gone our way.

Sports Illustrated had pointed to this being the year. [We thought], we already know we have a good club. This nucleus is going to be with us for a while. Let’s go for it, let’s try to get the pieces and win now.

It’s just such a bold statement to have on the cover.

It’s a daily reminder. Everywhere you go, people said: “Hey, this is the year. You going to do it this year?” In the back of our mind, it was a friendly encouragement that we saw around every corner.

Because the Astros have always had an underdog’s mentality, does the organization now have a certain swagger?

I wouldn’t say we have a swagger. This group of players are confident in their abilities because they’re good. But I look at it and say: The Yankees have 27 World Series [wins]. Cardinals have 11. Giants have eight. Dodgers have six. Red Sox have eight. Let’s not get too big for our britches. We’re not there yet, but we’re no longer on the list of teams that’s never won a World Series.

The fans have been saying, “Do something. You’ve been talking, show us.” It was a great year, a great campaign, and here we are, World Series champs. But in baseball you’re only as good as your last pitch—or your last hot dog— and ’17 is gone. We’re on to ’18. We don’t want to be in the group that won a World Series, we want to be in the group that wins multiple World Series.

You sit in the stands during home games with the fans instead of a box. Why is that important for you?

I like watching the game from the dugout. If I had my choice, I’d be there, because I like watching the strategy. I like being able to make eye contact with the guys in the dugout—the manager, the players. I want to be right down in the action.

Secondly, I think you must be accountable. During the bad years, I’m the exact same guy as I am during the good years. I’m at every game, unless my kids have a game. If folks want an answer, I’m not going to run from them. If they say, “Hey I don’t like this price, this food, what this guy did, this tweet, or whatever,” then let’s talk about it, don’t go to social media. You may not like the answer, but here’s what we were thinking. Right or wrong, I’m going to look you in the eye and tell you.

They want to be heard, too.

People are giving us their two most valuable assets. They’re giving us their time, which is more valuable than their money. They’re committing three hours a night pretty much every night of the week, if they’re true fans. We owe it to them to listen to what they have to say. If you don’t listen to your customers, then they won’t give you their business anymore. People want to talk to the guy at the very top, and that’s why I sit where I sit, and why I try to be accessible as possible.

Is there anything about the gameday experience you’ve had a hand in changing?

It starts with cleanliness. If people are going to come out, they expect the best. Second is food. You’ve got to have a lot of options: craft beer, lots of local, lots of choices, and promo items. And when people come out, you want them to be able to have something a little extra, whether it’s promotional items, fireworks, or running the bases. We try to come up with ways to make it entertaining and fun. We want to make it high energy.

They’re coming to the ballpark to escape, whether it’s work, kids, family illness, or whatever it is. They want to have fun and connect with their community and their loved ones. What’s great about baseball is that you eat a little bit, you watch a little bit, and you talk a lot with the people you’ve come with.

From a broadcast perspective, we try to do more stuff with social media. Kids and fans today are not watching the game through one device. They’re either commenting on Twitter with their friends or connecting with our broadcasters in real time on the broadcast or connecting with players over the course of the game. We want to have a cutting-edge, fan-friendly, engaging broadcast both on radio and TV. We’ll continue to evolve. I’ve used my kids a lot: they’re 13, 15, and 17.

That’s perfect, you’ve got different little focus groups.

Exactly. We live in an age where the greatest challenge for businesses is not being multicultural, I think it’s being multigenerational. My grandma sends me letters, my mom emails me, my wife texts me, and my girls talk to me on social media. How you communicate is all about the age group you’re in. That’s one of the great things about baseball—it’s a real uniter of the community.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photos courtesy the Houston Astros.

 

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