In remaking the Minnesota Twins during the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s, Ryan has been a master at laying a strong foundation and then getting out of the way. He doesn't get as much attention these days as millennials like the Rays' Andrew Friedman, the Rangers' Jon Daniels and the Cubs' Theo Epstein, but like the A's Billy Beane, Ryan helped baseball establish the parity that has made the last two decades so fascinating.
Had Ryan not stepped aside to let assistant general manager Bill Smith take over near the end of the 2007 season, he would be baseball's longest-tenured GM and be closing in on his 20th anniversary on the job. He was already in place when the Giants' Brian Sabean, Beane and the Yankees' Brian Cashman got their jobs, and it seems as if all of those guys have been there forever.
But with the Twins in the middle of what ended up as a run of six American League Central titles in nine years, at the height of the Joe Mauer-Justin Morneau years, Ryan initiated a move into a special advisor's capacity in 2007. He'd been on the job 13 seasons and felt it simply was time for a change, in the same way that Tom Kelly quietly handed Ron Gardenhire the keys to the manager's office after 15-plus seasons on the job after the 2001 season.
That's the way things have been done with the Twins, who remain one of baseball's last outposts for true family (i.e, non-corporate) ownership.
Still, it was sort of shocking when Ryan left after the 2007 season, and exciting for Twins fans when he agreed to return four years later. The move to Target Field had brought major increases to the payroll, but the franchise found itself without the pitching to compete, and when owner Jim Pohlad asked Ryan if he would come back for another run following the 99-loss 2011 season, Ryan did what he has always done, which is to do what he thought was best for the organization.
This is a guy who, 10 years earlier, made the most selfless move by an executive in this generation.
With the Twins in danger of being disbanded late in 2001 -- then-owner Carl Pohlad had offered his club up for contraction in the midst of baseball's war over increased revenue sharing -- Ryan was offered a chance to run the Toronto Blue Jays. He had been on the job in Minnesota for seven seasons at that point, and had just watched his young team finish over .500 for the first time since 1992. Still, no one would have blamed him for jumping to a job that offered both stability and the chance to try to win with a bigger payroll.
After all, Ryan's 2001 salary budget had been about $25 million, not even half what teams like the Pirates, Rays and Astros could spend -- and a full $50 million less than the Blue Jays had spent. But instead of negotiating his own deal in Toronto, Ryan called a staff meeting in the cafeteria at the Metrodome and told everyone on the club's payroll that he didn't know how the battle over contraction was going to work out, and that he wouldn't blame anyone who left, but that he was staying in Minnesota.
That's a boss you want to work for.
Ryan never complains about limits in resources. He and his staff instead out-scout the opposition to land players like Morneau, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Michael Cuddyer, A.J. Pierzynski, Brad Radke and Eddie Guardado. He made the right call when he showed the patience required to take local high school legend Joe Mauer over USC ace Mark Prior in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft.
Ryan always seems to know just when to trade guys, too, landing lefty starter Eric Milton and shortstop Cristian Guzman from the Yankees for second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, and closer Joe Nathan and lefty starter Francisco Liriano from the Giants for Pierzynski. He landed a young slugger from the Mariners organization, David Ortiz, for Dave Hollins, and found Johan Santana in the Rule 5 Draft.
At the 2001 Trade Deadline, with his team contending for its first postseason appearance in 10 years, Ryan sent his best all-around veteran hitter, Matt Lawton, to the Mets for All-Star veteran right-hander Rick Reed. The Twins didn't make the playoffs that season, but in 2002, Reed led the club in wins, going 15-7, as Minnesota won its first AL Central crown.
In a game where managers have a shorter life span than some light bulbs, Ryan is the reason Minnesota has had only two managers in the last 27 seasons. He extended Gardenhire's contract for two seasons last fall when the public was clamoring for regime change, with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor a popular choice to replace him.
Instead, Ryan extended Gardenhire and added Molitor to the coaching staff. History says Gardenhire will make that decision pay off, as Ryan has always known the Twins better than anyone else. He remained busy when Smith was the GM, working as an advisor and a scout, but was always careful not to undercut Smith.
Whenever I asked him what he was doing with his time, he'd tell me he was raking leaves, which might explain why he was ready to return. He was 58 when he came back, and while the first two seasons back have been a disappointment, by his own admission, the future is starting to look brighter.
The Twins are paying heavily to add starters Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) and Phil Hughes (three years, $24 million), as well as to hang on to Mike Pelfrey (two years, $11 million). They hope they can close some of the gap on the Tigers, Indians and Royals this season, but most of the excitement in Spring Training will come from an advance look at third baseman Miguel Sano and outfielder Byron Buxton, who are closing fast on playing their home games at Target Field. Both are viewed as impact players.
Ryan will be receiving reports from Spring Training secondhand, however, as he is remaining behind in Minnesota to be treated for cancer. He said on Monday that he is optimistic he'll return to work in the near future.
Ryan has never needed attention, and there's no reason to think that a health scare will change that. But he should know that a lot of people are wishing him the best. I think he'd love nothing more than to get back to being ignored in time for the All-Star Game at Target Field this summer, with the spotlight on Twins players like Mauer and closer Glen Perkins.