When I told someone recently my prediction from 2014, that the Astros would make it to the World Series within 3 years, they practically mocked me and then showed me this: Astros Predicted as World Series Champs in 2014 by Sports Illustrated. And, it immediately burst my bubble a bit because I thought it hurt my cause as me going out on a limb with my original prediction and bringing it back up as if it was an original idea. But then I thought, hey, I’m not the only one who made the connection that the Astros would soon be a championship caliber ballclub! Mind you, I did not know this article existed until yesterday, so I still would like full credit. They ran this article around June 24th of 2014 and I made my comment on Facebook July 9, 2014. In any case, it’s all in good fun. I do think there are some lessons to be learned from it. Let’s start with my thought process and logic in how I came to this prediction in the first place.
The Background of Astros vs Rangers And Nolan Ryan
In 2014, the Houston Astros placed 4th in their division with a record of 70-92 (.432), that’s 28 games back behind the leader of their division, the Los Angeles Angels. The only team behind them was the Texas Rangers, who had 95 losses and a .414 percentage. This was the year after the Rangers lost a tie-breaking game between the Tampa Bay Rays to be eliminated and not make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. In 2012, they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the Wild Card game. If you remember in 2011 they advanced to the World Series and lost (handedly) to the St. Louis Cardinals. Even then, they were the American League Champions two years in a row, in 2010 and 2011. So, it wasn’t just a one year wonder. They had a few years of building a team that looked like it would continue dominating for years to come.
In July of 2014, when the Rangers were in a major slump and not doing well, there were a lot of speculations going on about how to get the Texas Rangers back on top again after a disappointing 2014 showing and possibly even salvaging the current season. There are certainly a lot of factors that could have played a part in their drift back into consistently abysmal performance that was so common in the early 2000’s. But if you step back and look at the bigger picture instead of all of the many details, understanding my prediction should be fairly straightforward and simple.
And my answer is, Nolan Ryan. Nolan Ryan, the baseball legend became the president and CEO of the Texas Rangers in February 2008. He took a few different roles while there and apparently he did not mesh well with some of the ownership. For whatever the reason, in October of 2013, Nolan Ryan stepped down as the Texas Rangers CEO.
On February 11, 2014, Ryan accepted an offer from the Houston Astros as a special assistant to the Jim Crane, the Astros owner.
Nolan Ryan – A Success Factor
I cannot remember the last time I watched a regular season baseball game. I certainly went to the ballpark a handful of times, and by a handful, I mean, maybe once or twice a season. I would follow along with the Rangers in the postseason haphazardly, watching maybe a 3rd of the playoff games. I did get the opportunity to go see one of their playoff victories against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before they went to the American League championship series to play the Detroit Tigers and after winning, facing the Cardinals in the World Series. So the question begs, how could I have predicted the success of the Astros so off-handedly? You need to understand, when I made this prediction on Facebook, I was totally serious and actually thought it was a good bet.
My theory is very simple. If you knew anything about Nolan Ryan when he was the CEO of the Rangers, is everyone could see that he was involved, he had a seat right behind the catcher in a good majority of the games. You could just feel that he had a big part in the organization from who the team traded for down to the determination of the players on the team and the staff and the organization as a whole. I had been to the stadium off and on for years, like I said, once or twice a year. And, I could feel a difference about being in the ballpark during the years when Nolan Ryan was here. It felt more fun, you could tell our team was playing with more confidence. They certainly had their slumps, but if you stepped back and looked at the big picture, it felt like something interesting and almost special was going on. The environment was a great place because it seemed the players were enjoying themselves and it was fun to watch. In addition, in all the years that I watched the Rangers off and on from a distance, they could never get pitchers to come play at Texas. I don’t blame them, playing a lot of games in 100% weather in the summer couldn’t be very fun. But, somehow, after Nolan was there, one by one, we either saw good pitchers born from the existing squad we had, or pitchers signed on to come play for the Rangers. Many others give the credit to Jon Daniels, the general manager, for the two AL pennants and building the team. Certainly, some credit is due. But if you look back at the history, Jon Daniels became the GM in 2005 and is still the GM. Nolan joined at the beginning of the 2008 season and left at the end of the 2013 season. We did not become a playoff contender until 2009 and into 2010. In 2013, we were still fighting for a spot in the playoff wild-card game. But by 2014, we plummeted to the bottom of the league.
It’s interesting though, even after Nolan had left for a couple of years, some of those good pitchers seemed to be not as good. This is where a lot of the confusion came in when I made my prediction. The Rangers still had a lot of the same talent they had when they were back to back AL champions and they still had the same general manager, Ron Washington (who retired a few months later – which is another story), through the 2014 season. Yes, there were some injured players. But, many fans were scratching their heads about why the Rangers were so bad ‘all of a sudden’ and making suggestions on what needed to be done.
This post is not about how ridiculously amazing I am at predicting the success of the Astros. You can see that I don’t even watch baseball. I have certainly played on good sports teams and bad ones and observed a lot of sports over the years. I admit, I have no idea the ins and outs of the Texas Rangers organization or the specific details involved. I simply am looking at the big picture from my point of view, which is certainly very limited. But, you have to give some credence to this idea regardless: good leadership builds a culture of success. There is some luck to winning, certainly. And suggesting that the Astros would make it to the World Series is not the point. That is certainly lucky. But, success is a lot about other factors. My theory about Nolan Ryan is around building a competitive, championship caliber team. The actual prediction of where they would land in the post-season is less relevant. The takeaway for me is more that winning is about the culture, the grit and the determination, and quite frankly, the confidence that you can win. Not that they will win every game but that they will continue believing that it is possible and they will continue to come back to the drawing board and fight to do their best every day and every game. It can be boiled down to, having a presence of someone as legendary as Nolan Ryan, one who seems like the most down to earth guy while also being one who can be a sort of hard ass at times, someone who expects excellence. This is the kind of person that rubs off on people, the type of people others want to play for, to be on a team with, and to work hard for – that is contagious. In some cases, like in the Texas Rangers case, after a few years of success, Nolan decided that the environment wasn’t right for him. And now, the Astros are benefitting from a presence like Ryan’s. Could success be as simple as that?