FORT MYERS, FLA. – In 1987, the Twins hired a scout from the New York Mets to become their scouting director. Terry Ryan quickly became as familiar as tourists’ sunburns at the Twins spring training facility, and behind home plates all over the Western Hemisphere.
Early in spring training, especially after he became Twins general manager, Ryan feared that players would injure themselves by trying too hard if they saw him. He would sidle next to a post and watch, usually while wearing a hat bearing the logo of one of the Twins’ farm teams. He would chat with any fan who approached, often directing people who didn’t know him to bathrooms, then turning back to the field.
Even when he stepped down as one of the most successful general managers in baseball and became an adviser, Ryan would work the back fields and backstops, and put in long hours in an office overlooking Hammond Stadium.
Ryan isn’t around this year. He’s home in Eagan after being treated for what he says is a curable form of cancer. His absence stings Twins employees because he is twice a rarity.
He is a high-profile fixture in the transitory world of big-league sports. He is a beloved boss in a pressurized business.
“It’s gonna be a weird spring,” said Twins closer Glen Perkins. “You get used to his presence. I think most of the guys in here listen to most of the people most of the time. With Terry, everyone listens to every word he says. To me, with Terry, when he walks into the room you stand up and shake his hand and pay attention to what he’s saying.
“We’ll see him when the season starts. Him being healthy is the most important thing.”
Ryan began scouting Perkins when he pitched at Stillwater High. He traded outfielder Brian Buchanan for shortstop Jason Bartlett in 2002, one of the many subtle deals Ryan made that turned the Twins into a success story in the 2000s. This spring, Bartlett is back in Fort Myers trying to make the Twins’ roster.
“It’s very weird to not have him here,” Bartlett said. “I think every time I come here, I ask somebody how he’s doing. You expect to see his face, especially at the beginning of spring. Guys in here are very concerned about him.”
Ryan replaced Andy MacPhail as the Twins’ GM following the 1994 season. He has lasted long enough that his tenure can be broken into three episodes.
The first lasted from 1995 through 1998. He was not particularly good at making the big decisions that define any GM. He traded Scott Erickson for Scott Klingenbeck. He fielded awful teams, prompting ownership to strip the roster and payroll.
The second episode lasted from 1998 through 2007. When he traded Chuck Knoblauch for prospects Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton, he began a run of grand thefts that landed the Twins players such as Johan Santana and Joe Nathan, while the farm system improved dramatically. Ryan turned the Twins into annual contenders, and displayed uncommon loyalty by refusing to interview for other jobs even when the Twins faced contraction.
The third episode began when he took over for his own hand-picked replacement, Bill Smith, following the 2011 season. Ryan began strengthening the Twins’ farm system, minor league operation and major league coaching staff. He has yet to win in two seasons since returning to the job, but he has become even more admired within the organization.
‘He was so sweet’
“He has softened so much during his second go-round,” said Molly Gallatin, who used to work in the Twins’ media relations department and now is the manager of media and publicity services for the LPGA. “He was so sweet. He started to care about everyone in the baseball department, to ask, ‘What do you need to succeed?’
“That’s the hard part about seeing him be sick right now, is that he’s more of a people person than he’s ever been. People look up to him so much. That’s why this makes me nervous. I know he’ll be fine, but Terry Ryan kind of is the Twins. We were in disarray when he came back and he seems to be putting everything back together again. I have total confidence in him.
“There are not a lot of women in the Twins’ organization, and Terry was the guy who treated me no differently than anyone else. That was the hard part of leaving the Twins. I told him the day I left, I feel like I feel like I’m sitting across from my dad, and quitting on my dad.”
This winter, Ryan promoted Rob Antony, who has been in the organization almost as long as Ryan, to vice president of baseball operations. Antony will run the team in Ryan’s absence, and will give the traditional first tone-setting clubhouse speech to the full squad on Saturday.
The Twins’ front office includes two former GMs (Bill Smith and Wayne Krivsky), a frequent candidate for other GM jobs in vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, and Antony. Nobody seems to want to work in Ryan’s office.
“I keep holding out hope that Terry will get to come down for a while,” Antony said. “I’d just as soon not be in there if he can make it.”
As the team’s media relations director, Antony would spend many of his spring nights at the nearby dog track with former manager Tom Kelly. When Antony moved to the baseball operations department, he began taking scouting trips with Ryan.
“I think not having him here is tougher on the personal side than it is on the professional side,” Antony said. “The best part of spring training is taking those trips with him and talking baseball. I learned so much from TK, and then from Terry, where in casual conversation he’ll explain how he came to a decision. It’s amazing, everything he takes into account, and what he sees that other people might not see.
“He’s got so many sources and people throughout baseball that he can tap into and that he talks to. They’re honest with him because he’s honest with them. Frankly, that’s rare in baseball. It’s such a competitive business. There are people Terry trusts who I wouldn’t trust. Terry doesn’t look at it that way.
“He’s as consistent as the day is long. He demands accountability. He deserves respect so he doesn’t even have to command it, it’s just natural. You’re never going to hear him talking out of both sides of his mouth or badmouthing anybody. He’s just a stand-up guy.”
Ryan can work sources and make decisions from Eagan. His absence at spring training doesn’t necessarily alter the Twins’ operation.
“It’s just really weird, to not have him here,” said pitching coach Rick Anderson. “I’ve been here for 13, 14 years, and I’ve known him forever. He’s the most respected guy I’ve ever been around in baseball. To not have him popping his head in to talk about pitching is real different, and it’s going to continue to be real different. Everyone in the clubhouse talks about Terry daily. We all miss him.”
Too often, we wait until someone is gone before we praise them. Ryan doesn’t have to worry about that.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org