Chalk up another win for Nolan Ryan, the biggest of his second career in baseball.
The Hall of Fame fireballer-turned-owner watched from the front row as the Texas Rangers beat the New York Yankees 6-1 Friday night to advance to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, then got to join a celebration like few others in the Lone Star State.
"It's unbelievable," said Ryan, who has the only plaque in Cooperstown with a Texas "T" on it. "You never know where life takes you."
Ryan played for 27 years, the last five for the Rangers. But the only time he made the World Series was as a 22-year-old reliever on the Amazin' Mets of 1969.
"To be here tonight, I can say I have a better appreciation than I ever had," Ryan said.
When Alex Rodriguez took a called third strike to end the AL championship series, the career strikeout king pumped his fist, hugged his wife and clapped. He high-fived fans near him, including former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, then went to the middle of the diamond to join the fun.
Already wearing a black Rangers polo shirt, he slapped on a spiffy blue AL champion hat and greeted the guys who made it happen. He slipped into a red commemorative T-shirt and hugged Jackie Autry. Her late husband, Gene Autry, owned the California Angels when Ryan signed with them in the 1970s and now she had the honor of presenting him the AL championship trophy.
"Our fans have waited a long time, this organization has waited a long time," Ryan said. "I think it's a credit to our organization, (general manager) Jon Daniels and the staff he put together, Ron Washington and his staff. I'm proud and honored to be here tonight."
Ryan got the series off to a great start with a high-kicking, hard heater before Game 1. It was too fast to call it a ceremonial first pitch, and it fit perfectly with the aggressive way his club played.
"We all started having a certain feeling at some point in time," he said. "They just kept fighting back and fighting back, and we started believing in them. They were determined to get it done."
Ryan brought the Rangers to prominence simply by signing with them in 1989. They needed another couple of decades to get to the top, and the Ryan Express was still the one pushing them there.
He returned to the club as president in 2008. He changed the culture of the organization, emphasizing the principles that made him so great -- such as having pitchers throw often and for starters to try finishing games. In spring training, he predicted this club would win 92 games. They fell two shy, their 90 wins the fewest of any team in the postseason.
"Coming out of spring training, this team showed such a heart," he said.
Now they're the only AL team still playing. The World Series begins Wednesday night in either San Francisco or Philadelphia.
"This team is very close," Ryan said. "They believe in each other, they pick each other up. they just believe in the team spirit and what it takes to win something like this."
Ryan hasn't even attended the Series since 2005, when the Astros -- another team that retired his jersey -- were in it. Houston got swept by the Chicago White Sox, so the Rangers have a chance to be the first team from the Lone Star State to win a World Series game.
"We've come a long ways," Ryan said. "There have been a lot of things that have happened that have contributed to this. It's all very special."
Ryan nearly lost the club this summer. His deal to buy the club was jeopardized by previous owner Tom Hicks putting the club in bankruptcy court. A legal mess ensued, with billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban forcing the sale into a courtroom auction. Ryan and his partners prevailed, but at a higher cost than they were planning.
They're off to a good start making up the difference.
"Let's get used to it Texas," co-owner Chuck Greenberg hollered during the trophy presentation. "Let's do it every year.