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STON -- As a kid growing up in the Houston area, Nolan Ryan noticed the Major League Baseball displays around Buffalo Stadium, the Minor League home of the Houston Buffs, and wondered, along with his friends, if big-time baseball could thrive in a new stadium in Houston.
Ryan still remembers walking from Colt Stadium, the home of the expansion Colt .45s from 1962-64, over to the future site of the Astrodome and trying to imagine what a domed stadium might look like.
"I grew up with Houston baseball," Ryan said. "It's still a big part of my life."
As part of their 50th anniversary celebration, the Astros invited Ryan to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Friday's Rangers-Astros series opener at Minute Maid Park. Ryan said it's always fun to come to Houston and see how the organization is developing, even as he tries to run an organization that has made it to back-to-back World Series.
"You got to give [manager] Brad [Mills] and his coaches a lot of credit because they're playing well, they're playing hard and I'm pleased with what I've seen so far from them," Ryan said. "The rebuilding process may not be as far away as people were saying six months ago."
The Astros showed highlights of Ryan's devastating curveball and overpowering fastball before Ryan walked up to the mound and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Rangers and Astros fans stood and applauded as Ryan tossed the ball into Astros catcher Chris Snyder's glove.
Ryan grew up in Alvin, about 30 miles south of Houston. He pitched nine of his 27 seasons in an Astros' uniform, leaving for the Rangers after the 1988 season. As an Astro (1980-1988), Ryan started 282 games, compiling a 106-94 record and a 3.13 ERA. He broke the all-time strikeout record held by Walter Johnson by striking out Mills, then an infielder with the Montreal Expos.
Ryan was named Rangers team president in 2008 and is part of the ownership group that bought the team in 2010.
On Friday, Ryan said he still follows the Astros on a daily basis and that he has been impressed with the organization's ability to farm young talent from Corpus Christi, the Astros' Double-A affiliate of which he is a principal owner. Second baseman Jose Altuve, outfielder J.D. Martinez and third baseman Jimmy Paredes all jumped from Corpus Christi to the big leagues last season.
The Astros' new ownership, headed by Jim Crane, has also impressed Ryan. He said he knows the Astros will try to be as competitive as they can be.
"I think they have a new group of owners that are committed to having a winning product on the field. That's a start," Ryan said. "They have to have that mindset, and I think they do."
Ryan and Crane might see each other on a more frequent basis next season when the Astros move into the Rangers' division, the American League West. Ryan said he thinks that the state rivalry will really amp up once the teams play more than six games a season.
"I think it will be good for baseball in the state of Texas," Ryan said.
At 24-15, the Rangers entered Friday's contest as the AL West leaders, four games ahead of second-place Oakland. Ryan said his players always look forward to the trip to Houston, both because of the short trip and the fact that Rangers' fans often make the trip.
They'll be able to make the trip quite a bit more often in 2013.