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At the ballpark with Reid Ryan: As fans' advocate, Astros president makes a pitch to millennials

At the ballpark with Reid Ryan: Astros prez makes pitch to millennials

Reid Ryan, JJ Watt at Astros game
Astros president Reid Ryan chats with Houston Texas star JJ Watt before an Astros game at Minute Maid Park. Photo courtesy of Houston Astros
Reid Ryan Houston Astros president
The first thing Reid Ryan did after being hired by Astros owner Jim Crane in 2013 was open the stadium gates earlier, so fans can watch batting practice Photo courtesy of Houston Astros
Reid Ryan Houston Astros president with youngsters
Reid Ryan encourages a new set of future baseball stars. Photo courtesy of Houston Astros
Reid Ryan Houston Astros president, Nolan Ryan
Reid Ryan, left, with his father, Nolan Ryan. Photo courtesy of Houston Astros
Reid Ryan, JJ Watt at Astros game
Reid Ryan Houston Astros president
Reid Ryan Houston Astros president with youngsters
Reid Ryan Houston Astros president, Nolan Ryan

Before each Astros home game, team president Reid Ryan takes a lap around the main concourse, the Club Level and upper deck of Minute Main Park. He answers fans’ questions, listens to their endless advice, checks to make sure the stadium is gleaming and sees how pre-game promotions are going.

I tagged along with Ryan one night last week. We bumped into one of Ryan’s childhood heroes, Astros legend Jose Cruz. We dropped by “Pinot in the Park,” a wine-tasting and fashion show in the ballpark’s Union Station lobby. We watched fans pick up their giveaway fedoras.

And got pumped for the game against Cleveland.

On the main concourse down the right field line, a fan stopped him. “Excuse me, Mr. Ryan, you did something for me a few years ago and I’ve never had the chance to thank you. I bought a plate of chicken tenders and as I was leaving the stand, someone bumped into me and I dropped the plate. You saw this and told me to stay where I was. You went back and got me a fresh plate of chicken tenders. It was just a little thing, but it meant a lot to me.”

Manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow take care of the 25 players on the field. Ryan is in charge of everything else —  the 30,000 to 40,000 fans in the seats and the 100,000-plus watching on TV at home and listening to the radio in their cars.

“I’m responsible for the business operations of the Houston Astros,” Ryan said. “I deal with budgets, broadcasting, marketing, tickets, sponsorships, facilities, grounds crew … everything except the selection and development of the players.”

One more job, and maybe most important: the team president – this one, anyway – gets fresh chicken tenders for fumble-finger fans. 

Ryan is the fans’ advocate. The first thing he did after being hired by Astros owner Jim Crane in 2013 was open the stadium gates earlier, so fans can watch batting practice. Now fans have full run of Minute Maid Park 90 minutes before the first pitch. Just another little thing.

Best seat in the house

Let’s grab our seats and watch the game. Ryan has a field box at the edge of the Astros’ dugout, next to the space where photographers shoot the action. It’s the best seat in the house.

How seriously does he take wins and losses? Ryan is over the top competitive in a tie and jacket.

“Absolutely, when the team loses, it stays with me. I’m not going to lie, my mood is dictated by how our team is doing. When we’re playing well, everything is just a little bit better,” said Ryan, who played baseball for the University of Texas and TCU, and pitched two seasons in the minor leagues.

Everything is a lot better this year. The Astros got off to their best start in team history. They’re comfortably in first place in the American League West. With more than a quarter of the season gone, the Astros’ 31-16 record is the best in Major League Baseball.

It’s not just Astros losses that tear at his soul. His son Jackson plays baseball for Second Baptist School and Ryan is still hot about an umpire’s call that went against the team in the state playoffs. He took out his phone and showed me video of the play. It looked like a good call to me, but I said, “The ump missed that one.”

Let it go.

While starting pitcher Charlie Morton warmed up on the mound, a cameraman stood next to him – on the field. You’re OK with that?

“I talk with A.J. and ask what he’s comfortable with and what he’s not comfortable with. Then I work with the president of Root Sports. We’ve talked about cameras on the field, in the dugout and in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse. Our goal is to give our fans the best broadcast. Outside of the ballplayers, the broadcast team is the most important group we have. They connect with more people than anybody else” Ryan said.

The television team is new this year. Bill Brown and Alan Ashby are gone from last year. The play-by-play voice is Todd Kalas. Geoff Blum has been elevated to fulltime color analyst. Julia Morales is back as the roving field reporter.

On the radio side, Robert Ford and Steve Sparks do the games on KBME (790 AM), while Francisco Romero and Alex Trevino describe the action for the Astros’ Spanish radio network.

A pitch to millennials

Top of Ryan’s (and baseball’s) must-do list: turning millennials into Astros fans.

“One way is wifi throughout the ballpark. Look, there’s Jackson texting with his friends. He’s also texting with his granddad about pitch selection. Young people are talking about baseball like older fans, except they’re doing it through social media. It’s just different.”

Jackson’s granddad is Hall of Fame strikeout king Nolan Ryan. Lucky kid, granddad may know something about pitch selection.

“My grandma is 91 years old. She sends me letters – handwritten letters,” Ryan said. “My mom emails me. My wife texts me, you know, pick up this or that on the way home. My children will talk to me on social media. We have four generations communicating in different ways.

"Baseball has to engage young people. That’s why we have a guy whose only job is to tweet and Facebook. Fans always have access to me on social media, too. Trust me, I hear from them every night.”

Guilty pleasure

Ryan’s guilty pleasures when it comes to Minute Maid Park concession food: Torchy’s Tacos and NOLA Po’Boys.

He’s at the ballpark for every Astros game at Minute Maid. He used to go on road trips with the team, but this year he’s staying home.

“I have three children and two of them are playing varsity athletics. My dad didn’t get to see me do my sports in high school because he was busy playing. So I may not make any road trips this year. I’m using my time to see as many of their games as I can.”

As a foul pop sailed over our heads into the upper deck, I had a last question for Ryan.

Have you ever caught a baseball in the stands?

“That’s a story. Yes, I have. Once. It was in the Astrodome and I was maybe 15 or 16. One of our pitchers turned to bunt and fouled off the ball into the seats behind home plate. It was coming straight at me. I reached out my hands like Lynn Swann catching a touchdown. The ball bounced off of my hands. An older woman, probably in her 70s, reached down for it. Raw emotion took over. I grabbed her arm and pushed it away.

"I got the ball, but when I turned around, I saw my dad standing there, watching me. I realized immediately, ‘I’m an idiot, what am I doing?' I knew I had to give the ball to the woman or suffer the consequences when I got home.”

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Ken Hoffman's can be reached at ken@culturemap.com or on Twitter: @KenCultureMap. To have all CultureMap stories, including Ken's columns, delivered to your inbox in one Daily Digest every morning, sign up here