Terry Ryan stepped down as Minnesota Twins general manager in 2007 because the demands of the job were testing his patience, making him churn inside and having an adverse effect on his health, well-being and general outlook on life. But the mere act of relinquishing his title did nothing to curb his work ethic or devotion to detail.
It's common knowledge that Ryan feels most at home evaluating talent, and in his new role as senior advisor to Twins GM Bill Smith, Ryan spent more time in places like Elizabethton, Tenn.; Beloit, Wis.; and New Britain, Conn., checking out Twins prospects from a seat behind home plate. Scouting is the purest, simplest form of immersion in the game for a true baseball man, and Ryan relished the opportunity to put away the suits and slather on the sunscreen.
During the winters, freed from the constraints of going into the office every day, Ryan reclaimed some lost time with his family and made occasional forays to a family cabin in his native Wisconsin. When he wasn't shoveling snow or scraping ice off his windshield, he would bundle up in layers and get his heart rate elevated. Running is a drag for lots of people, but he loves the solitude and the opportunity to clear his head amid the endorphin rush.
"Some people think it's torture," Ryan said. "I don't. There's something invigorating about it. I'm semi-religious about it. But once you're a general manager, back here in this chair, you have to really make time to do it.
"I have a lot easier time running in the spring, summer and fall up here than I do in the winter. But I can go out when it's zero [degrees]. As long as the wind isn't blowing, it's not that bad. If you're going to live in this state, that's part of the equation."
Now that Ryan is "back in the chair," as he puts it, the challenge awaits: He has a mandate to return the Twins to prominence while staying in touch with his human side.
In early November, three weeks before Urban Meyer returned to coaching football at Ohio State with an expressed desire to inject more "balance" in his life, Ryan resurfaced to help clean up a mess in Minnesota. He returned from a four-year general managing hiatus to replace Smith, who was fired after the Twins posted a 63-99 record and finished 32 games out of first in the American League Central.
Smith's dismissal came as a shock to the baseball community, because no organization in baseball prides itself on continuity and a family atmosphere more than the Twins do. Since the Washington Senators arrived in Minnesota in 1961, the franchise has had only five general managers: Calvin Griffith, Howard Fox, Andy MacPhail, Ryan and Smith.
Ryan, who values that family concept with every fiber of his being, felt almost sheepish in replacing a close friend.
"It was awkward, No. 1," Ryan said, "It was not a good feeling, because I was one of [Smith's] closest confidants here in how we were going about our business. I know he leaned and relied on a lot of people here, and we didn't get it done last year. That's about as plain as I can put it."
Four years can seem like a lifetime in baseball. Consider that when Ryan walked away in 2007, the Boston Red Sox were one happy, harmonious, World Series-winning group. The Twins were playing ball indoors under a Teflon roof with a baggie in right field. And Twitter, which chronicles every baseball transaction in real time and forces executives to field media inquiries at all hours of the day, was still in its infancy.
It's an understatement to say that Ryan has some challenges awaiting him. The 2011 Twins posted the franchise's worst record since Billy Gardner managed a young, inexperienced club to a 60-102 record in 1982.
You want a recipe for disaster? The Twins ranked 30th in the majors with 940 strikeouts, and were also 30th in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings. When you have a finesse, pitch-to-contact rotation backed by a shaky, unreliable defense and rank 25th in the majors with 619 runs scored, you're probably fortunate to avoid 100 losses. Considering that the Twins ranked last in baseball with a run differential of minus-185, it could have been worse.
There were extenuating circumstances, for sure. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span appeared in 221 of a possible 486 games this season, putting a major crimp in manager Ron Gardenhire's offense. Mauer, who will make $23 million annually through 2018, hit three home runs and slugged .368 in 296 at-bats. He was sufficiently stung by criticism of his 2011 performance that he did a group interview with several local reporters Friday at Target Field. Following another intense workout, Mauer pronounced himself healthy, upbeat and ready to go.
"I think what surprised me a lot was a couple things out there questioning my work ethic," Mauer said. "That bugged me a little bit because I think guys who have been around know how hard I work and how much time I put in to what I do. So that's one thing that frustrated me a little bit."
While his franchise pillars regroup, Ryan is making moves to reshape the roster. Two weeks ago he signed Jamey Carroll, a high-character guy in the classic Twins mold, to a two-year, guaranteed $6.75 million deal. Carroll has spent his entire career as a super-utility guy, but he'll get a chance to be the Twins' every-day shortstop at age 38. Ryan followed up by signing Ryan Doumit, the former Pittsburgh Pirate, to a one-year, $3 million guaranteed contract. Doumit, a switch-hitter, can catch, play first base and right field, so he gives the Twins insurance at a number of spots.
Moving forward, Ryan's biggest chore will be shoring up the pitching. The Twins talked to Chris Capuano before he signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers, and considered bringing back Joe Nathan before he signed a two-year deal with Texas. Incumbent closer Matt Capps isn't exactly Mr. Popularity in the Twin Cities after blowing nine of 24 save opportunities last season, but there's a real chance he could return in a similar role in 2012.
The Twins would also like to re-sign Michael Cuddyer, or Jason Kubel, or possibly both. But as Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune observed in a breakdown of the team's roster, Ryan might be challenged in his stated desire to cut the payroll from $116 million to $100 million.
As Ryan contemplates the possibilities before him, he'll continue to rely heavily on vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, scouting director Deron Johnson and assistant GM Rob Antony. It's likely that the Twins will also bring Bill Smith back into the fold in an administrative capacity sometime after the new year.
The Twins recently hired Wayne Krivsky, who left a job in the Minnesota front office to work for the Reds and Mets, but never stopped admiring Ryan for his ability to raise the performance of the people who work alongside him. Ryan is almost Pat Gillick-like in that way.
"Terry's very modest and humble," Krivsky said. "He treats people with respect -- the way he would want to be treated. He goes about his business in a very quiet, workmanlike, thorough and efficient way, and people respect that."
Krivsky never forgot a scouting report on Ryan from former Twins talent evaluator Larry Corrigan.
"Larry once told me, 'We all try to measure up to Terry. But he sets the bar so high, we all fail,'" Krivsky said.
Some things never change. Ryan is as endearingly gruff as ever. And while he has embraced the convenience of email and text messaging, he's a guy who still answers his own phone at the office and faithfully and diligently returns calls. The Twins crunch the numbers and embrace sabermetrics more than the common perception, but in the end, Ryan believes nothing matters more than the judgment of a dedicated, hard-working scout with the courage of his convictions.
That approach helped the Twins finish first in the AL Central four times in a five-year span from 2002 through 2006, and brought Ryan two Sporting News Executive of the Year awards in his first go-round with the Twins.
"I tried to talk him back into retirement when I saw him last," said White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, who said hello to Ryan at the recent GM meetings in Milwaukee. "That gives you an indication of how I regard him."
When Ryan stepped down as Minnesota GM in 2007, he told reporters, "I look like I'm 75, but I'm 53, and I'd probably be better served out in the field and out there on the diamond instead of behind that desk."
Now Ryan is 58 and fully recharged, back behind that desk, yet noncommittal about his future. He says he doesn't know whether he'll be running the Twins for "one year or 10 years." But regardless how things turn out, rest assured of this: It will be his call to make.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.