For those of you into baseball or baseball history, or who love Nolan Ryan (I ask you, who doesn’t?), or who are fans of the Houston Astros, or miss the sounds of the old NBC Game of the Week with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek …. here’s a treat for you.
Today, September 26, 2021, marks the 40th anniversary of Ryan’s fifth career no-hitter, which he tossed for the Astros against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Astrodome.
Strange as it sounds, for a guy who’d already thrown a remarkable four no-nos and was tied with the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax for the all-time lead, Ryan was overdue. He’d pitched his last no-hitter six years earlier for the California Angels, but had come so close numerous times. After all, Ryan ended up with not only a record seven career no-hitters — he also has more one-hitters (12, tied with Bob Feller), two-hitters (18) and three-hitters (a mind-blowing 31) than anyone in history.
So, near the end of a strike-interrupted season, with the Astros trying to hang on to win the second-half title and reach a division playoff series against these same Dodgers, the gum-chomping Ryan used an overpowering curveball and his usual mid- to upper-90s fastball to dominate the likes of Steve Garvey, Dusty Baker, Pedro Guerrero and Davey Lopes to make history.
“He was completely dominating,” Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda said afterward. “He had a curve like Koufax and Herb Score today. He was just tremendous.”
One of the 32,115 fans in attendance that Saturday afternoon was 11-year-old Laura Trost, who would grow up to be our good friend and my former Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram colleague Laura Riddle. She attended the game with her uncle Kevin and remembers sitting high up between first base and right field. As Laura watched the postgame celebration, she didn’t realize until then what a big deal Ryan’s day had been.
As for me, I remember watching the game on TV with my Astros buddies Gerald and Bobby in our dorm, Moore Hall, at Texas A&M, where we had just started our third year in the fall of ’81. That year, Gerald and I had just become roomies (the following year, after Gerald got hitched that summer and moved into married student housing, Bobby and I would room together in Moore).
During his dominant day against the Dodgers, Ryan struck out 11, walked three and threw his 15th wild pitch of the season (he led the National League that year with 16 and also had the league’s lowest ERA at 1.69). Jose Cruz had three hits and an RBI, Phil Garner and Craig Reynolds had two hits and an RBI apiece, and the Astros added three runs in the eighth to give Ryan a 5-0 lead as he finished off his historic feat.
It’s pretty mind-blowing to think that Ryan was 34 that year (matching his number) and would pitch another 12 seasons until he was 46 — and throw two more no-hitters and reach 5,714 strikeouts, a record that will never be broken (neither will his totals for no-hitters, one-, two- and three-hitters). Simply put, there’ll never be another pitcher like him, and we’ve been fortunate to see such a phenomenal athlete in our lifetime.
Not that I figure many of you will rewatch the whole game (I only watched the last couple of innings this morning), so I won’t spoil how the last inning went down. But it is pretty amazing that Ryan retired current Astros manager Dusty Baker on a grounder to future Astros and Rangers manager Art Howe at third to end the game and start the celebration.
I hope you’ll watch that final inning at least, because if you’re a true fan, it should give you chills. And afterward, when NBC’s Kubek, a former Yankee great himself, interviews Ryan, it’s priceless to see Ryan’s mother come up for a minute and have Kubek ask her a couple of questions.
Ryan told Kubek after the game: “Well, it was hard to believe that I finally accomplished it, because I guess if there’s one thing I wanted to do in my career, it was to pitch that fifth one, since I’ve had a shot at it and I’ve had a shot at it for a long time. And at my age, I was really starting to think that I probably wouldn’t get it, because I’ve gotten into the late innings before, even twice this year I went into the seventh with no-hitters going and I just didn’t seem to have that stamina that I used to have to put somebody away. But I think today I felt stronger. I didn’t strike a lot of people out in the later innings, but I tried to be a little finer; I didn’t challenge as many guys in the late innings as I had earlier.”
If you want to see the one play that saved the no-hitter, you can skip to about 1:44:29 to see Dodgers catcher and future MLB manager Mike Scioscia send a seventh-inning line drive into the right-center field gap, where the Astros’ Terry Puhl — he’s not my favorite all-time Astro for nothing — races into the alley to stretch out at the last second and make an incredible catch, saving Ryan’s date with destiny.
Fittingly, when the same two teams faced off 10 days later in the Astrodome to open the playoffs in a division series necessitated by the midseason strike, Ryan battled Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela. The game went to the bottom of the ninth tied at 1, but catcher Alan Ashby’s walkoff two-run homer gave the Astros a 3-1 win.
Houston won the next game 1-0 in 11 innings on Denny Walling’s bases-loaded walkoff single. But Los Angeles won the next three at Dodger Stadium, including the decisive Game 5 pitched by Ryan as Jerry Reuss shut out the Astros 4-0. The Dodgers went on to beat the Montreal Expos in the NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series.
Hope you enjoy the video … and go Astros!