Kay and I went to a Texas Rangers baseball game with two good friends Sunday, always a great way to spend a few hours. We went not so much for the game as for what came after it — and besides, the team I’ve spent my life rooting for above all others (you know who they are) wasn’t in town to play the Rangers anyway.
We were there to see the greatness of Nolan Ryan.
No, Nolan hasn’t come out of retirement. He threw his last pitch 29 years ago at the unheard-of age of 46 — meaning that the most dominating, feared, remarkably durable pitcher of our generation is somehow 75 years old.
I can’t believe it either.
The drawler from Alvin, Texas, who pitched a stunningly unsurpassable 27 seasons in the majors and left with 51 records — many of which will never be touched — is synonymous with pitching brilliance few others can match. The Koufaxes, Gibsons, Carltons, Johnsons (Walter and Randy), Spahns, Groves, Madduxes, Youngs, Seavers, Kershaws and so many others have achieved the pitching pinnacle. But none did so at such a high level for so long and kept putting up the numbers that Nolan did.
On Sunday, Nolan and his family — wife Ruth, sons Reid and Reese and daughter Wendy — came to Globe Life Field in Arlington for the first public screening of a documentary made by Texas director Bradley Jackson about Nolan’s career. The screening of Facing Nolan followed the Rangers’ 7-3 victory over the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves — who, if you care, are off to a slow start (but not as slow as the Rangers, who are last in the AL West and have one of the majors’ worst records).
After the game and before the 102-minute film, the Ryans came out on the field along with several of Nolan’s old Rangers colleagues, including former general manager Tom Grieve, pitching coach Tom House, pitcher Bobby Witt, third baseman Steve Buechele and infielder Jeff Huson. Thanks to former Astros owner John McMullen, who asked 41-year-old Nolan to take a 20% pay cut after the 1988 season, he took his still-sizzling fastball out of Houston and played his final five years in Arlington.
Chuck Morgan, who’s been the Rangers’ public-address announcer every season but one since 1983, interviewed Nolan, his sons and Jackson for about 15 minutes. I found it surprising and disappointing that, of the announced 38,316 fans on hand for Sunday’s game — the largest crowd ever at Globe Life Field, which opened in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — most left when the game ended.
I’d generously estimate 1,500 to 2,000 stuck around to see Nolan and the documentary, shown on the stadium’s two huge scoreboards in right field and along the deep left-field line. I felt bad for the Ryan family. The tens of thousands who went home missed something truly special. The film is exceptionally well-done, with great interviews, video, photos, and stories most people probably don’t know. There’s not a piece of it that loses your interest.
(Here’s the video I shot of the Chuck Morgan interview with the Ryans and director Bradley Jackson.)
While Facing Nolan focuses on Nolan’s career, it also makes a central theme of the importance of his family throughout his nearly three decades in the majors, which began when the New York Mets drafted him in the 12th round of the ’65 draft. Ruth recounts in the film how, when Nolan told her he’d been drafted, she thought he meant the military. Nolan and Ruth married in 1967 when Nolan was 20, Ruth 18. They’ll celebrate 55 years of marriage in June.
The Ryans’ three children make strong points in the film about how their mother has always been the strongest, most supportive, most encouraging force for their family. That includes at one point early in Nolan’s career with the Mets, when he didn’t think he had what it took to make it in the majors and considered giving up baseball — until she persuaded him to keep pushing forward. To listen to everyone in the family, she’s the glue, the rock, the Ryan with the strongest arm of all.
So, Morgan asked Nolan, who talked you into doing this documentary?
That would be Ruth. And the kids helped.
“I told ‘em no I don’t know how many times, and finally they caught me in a weak moment and I agreed,” Nolan said.
I don’t want to give away too much of Facing Nolan, but I’ll share some special moments. All of Nolan’s biggest career highlights — the 1969 World Series victory with the Mets, the seven no-hitters (including four with the California Angels), the 5,000th strikeout, the on-field encounter with poor Robin Ventura — they’re all there.
There are some baseball greats I never dreamed would be in it — Pete Rose, Randy Johnson, George Brett, Rod Carew, Cal Ripken Jr., Dave Winfield, Pudge Rodriguez and other notables including George W. Bush. A number of my Astros heroes from Nolan’s nine seasons with the team are there to share memories and tributes, including Kevin Bass, Craig Reynolds, Enos Cabell, Alan Ashby, Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, Art Howe, Jose Cruz and Phil Garner. And my favorite Astro of them all, Terry Puhl, whom Kay and I met less than two months ago in Victoria, where he’s wrapping up his final season coaching the University of Houston-Victoria Jaguars.
There’s a great story about the Ryans’ second date — the first had been a movie in Alvin — when Nolan took Ruth to Houston to see the Colt .45s play the Los Angeles Dodgers because he wanted to see the great Sandy Koufax pitch. Of course, Nolan went on to break Koufax’s record of four no-hitters — fittingly, against the Dodgers in September 1981 at the Astrodome, when he threw his fifth — and he tossed two more with the Rangers, when he was 43 and 44 years old.
If that’s not the most impressive feat in the history of baseball, what the heck is?
Jackson, Facing Nolan‘s director who threw out the first pitch before Sunday’s game, said during the pre-screening interview with Morgan that making the film was “the most fun I’ve ever had making a movie.” As much as it is about baseball, he wanted it to be about Nolan’s family — and it really is.
“I hope this will be a love letter to family, to baseball and the great state of Texas,” said Jackson, who enlisted both of Nolan’s sons as executive producers on the project.
What made Sunday the perfect date for this screening is that it was the 31st anniversary of Nolan’s seventh and final no-hitter. On May 1, 1991, he no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays at the old Arlington Stadium, formerly known as Turnpike Stadium when it was a minor-league park before Washington Senators moved to town as the Rangers in 1972. Nolan struck out 16 Jays that night and walked just two, and was backed by a two-run homer from Ruben Sierra.
The game wasn’t televised locally, and GWB, a part owner of the Rangers at the time, and wife Laura were there (and were in attendance Sunday as well). As the game progressed and folks listened on the radio, many fans headed to the stadium, which gradually filled to a crowd that had to be much larger than the announced attendance of 33,439 who saw the no-hitter that no one will ever catch up to.
Not only was it the seventh no-no by one man, but one thrown by a baseball senior citizen of 44 who still had the overpowering fastball and curve he’d had almost 20 years earlier when he started ringing up 300-plus strikeout seasons with regularity.
In his interview Sunday, Morgan asked about that night, when Nolan felt less than ready to go.
“It was probably one of the worst warmups I’ve ever had,” Nolan said. “I told (pitching coach Tom House), ‘You might want to tell Bobby (Valentine, manager) to get somebody ready, because I don’t know how long this is gonna last.'”
It ended up being yet another of the unending number of complete games (222) Nolan compiled between 1968 and 1992 — he made only one start in his rookie season, 1966, didn’t pitch in the majors in ’67 and had no complete games in his final season, ’93.
It’s a wonder Nolan’s right arm is still attached to his body. There’s a reference in Facing Nolan to the thought that perhaps that arm should go to Cooperstown after he’s gone.
Morgan also brought up Sunday’s other anniversary — that of Nolan’s last major-league home run, hit May 1, 1987, off the Braves’ Charlie Puleo. As those who followed Nolan’s career know, he wasn’t much of a hitter (carrying a .110 average), but he did knock out two bombs. The first, which I’d forgotten about, came in his first start as an Astro — a three-run homer in April 1980 off eventual Dodgers Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who must’ve been as shocked as Nolan was. Sutton ended up being Nolan’s teammate in Houston for the next season and a half.
Just for eye openers’ sake, here are some of the numerous Ryan Express achievements written in permanent ink in the record books:
- 5,714 strikeouts (closest trailing him are Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven). Nolan had 383 K’s in 1973 and 367 K’s in 1974. He led the league in strikeouts 11 times, and led the majors 7 of those.
- 2,795 walks. Led the league in walks 8 times, led the majors 7 of those.
- 6.6 hits per nine innings pitched
- 12 one-hitters (tied with Bob Feller), 18 two-hitters, 31 three-hitters
- 277 wild pitches
- 61 shutouts, tied for 7th all-time with Tom Seaver (9 in 1972, 7 in 1976, 5 in 1979, all of which led the majors)
- 22,575 batters faced
- 12 times leading the league in fewest hits allowed per nine innings, including in three of his last five seasons, when Nolan was 42, 43 and 44 years old.
As if Nolan’s career strikeout numbers aren’t eye- and mitt-popping enough, he led the league 12 times in strikeouts per nine innings, nine of those averages being over 10. The highest average of his career came in 1987, when, at age 40 with the Astros, he averaged 11.5 strikeouts, paced the National League with a dazzling 2.76 ERA and led the majors with 270 strikeouts.
But Nolan could muster only an 8-16 record because the Astros — coming off an NL West title season in which they pushed the eventual World Series champ Mets to the brink in the NLCS — were woeful offensively that year. I went through every one of Nolan’s 34 starts, totaled their runs scored and came up with 114 — an average of 3.4 (for the 162-game season, they averaged exactly 4 runs).
In Nolan’s starts that year, the Astros were shut out or scored just one run 11 times and he took 10 no-decisions, often because the bullpen blew leads. It had to be the most disappointing season of his career.
Every pitcher endures stretches of poor run support and no-decisions. Even so, and knowing Nolan lasted 27 seasons in the bigs, it’s hard to fathom he had over 600 decisions (a 324-292 record) and was still able to craft a stellar 3.19 ERA. He made 773 starts in his career, giving him 157 without a decision. Can you imagine what kind of record he might have had if not for those where leads were blown in the middle and late innings?
Even more mind-blowing, think about what Nolan’s no-hitter record could be sitting at if some of those 30 one- and two-hitters had been no-no’s instead. The prospect gives me goosebumps.
When the documentary covered the 1980 NLCS between the Astros and Phillies during Nolan’s first season with the team, I touched Kay on the arm and said, “I can’t watch.” In the first trip to the playoffs in the Astros’ history, they had a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of the decisive Game 5 with Nolan on the mound, but the Phillies rallied with five runs for a 7-5 lead. The Astros tied it in the bottom of the inning, but the Phillies won it in the 10th and went on to win the World Series.
Facing Nolan also touches on the unbelievable fact that Nolan never won a Cy Young Award. Several of his contemporaries were asked how many they thought he’d won and they answered, oh, three or four? Even when he was piling up all those strikeouts and posting sub-3 ERAs, it wasn’t enough. Nolan finished second in the Cy voting only once, third twice and fourth once.
My memory, which has its ups and downs, can’t recall exactly how many times I saw Nolan pitch. Because I was in college at Texas A&M when he joined the Astros, and after graduating in 1983 spent almost four years working as a sports writer in faraway Odessa, I’m almost certain I never saw him pitch in an Astros uniform. As many games as I attended in the Astrodome growing up, it’s sad to realize that.
But when Nolan became a Ranger, signing after the 1988 season, I saw him pitch twice for sure — and man, were those the most memorable of games.
My dear Texas A&M friend and fellow Astros fan Gerald Gummelt and I scored tickets to the Rangers-A’s game scheduled for Aug. 22, 1989, at Arlington Stadium. I don’t know how we did it, considering 42-year-old Nolan needed just six strikeouts to reach 5,000 for his career, but Gerald and I are pretty sure he projected when Nolan would be pitching and we bought tickets in advance.
Our seats were in Section MM, Row 13, just to the left field side of straightaway center, so we had a great view behind Nolan. And can you believe it — our seats were just $4 each! We were among 42,869 screaming, appreciative fans there hoping to see history, and we weren’t disappointed.
When Rickey Henderson led off the fifth inning, Nolan needed just one more. Henderson, who retired as baseball’s all-time walks leader, worked the count to 3-2 and fouled off two pitches before swinging through a 96-mph fastball. The stadium erupted in long, thunderous applause, and the game didn’t resume for several minutes.
The A’s scored an unearned run in the inning and won 2-0 on a combined shutout by Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley despite Nolan’s 5-hit, 13-strikeout performance on 135 pitches. Nolan posted a 16-10 record that season and led the majors with 301 strikeouts — 11.3 per nine innings.
Gerald I still have our ticket stubs from the game, along with commemorative certificates that fans in attendance could obtain at the box office after showing our stubs. And before Gerald and his family moved to Houston within three years, he had the good fortune to attend a Rangers team event where Nolan autographed his certificate!
The second unforgettable Nolan game I attended came just weeks before his career ended in September 1993 at age 46. Kay and I were dating, and we had gone to the August 4 game between the Rangers and Chicago White Sox at Arlington Stadium with a group of my Fort Worth Star-Telegram colleagues. We had nice seats on the first-base side, not too high up. It was the ballpark’s swan song, as a new stadium was set to open the following year.
The White Sox scored a couple of runs off Nolan in the first inning, including one on a single by third baseman Robin Ventura, hitting cleanup. After White Sox starter Alex Fernandez plunked the Rangers’ Juan Gonzalez leading off the bottom of the second, Ventura came up with one out in the top of the third. Nolan came inside on the lefty-hitting Ventura and drilled him in the right shoulder blade with a fastball as he turned his back to the pitch.
Ventura hesitated, then slammed his helmet down and ran toward Nolan. The 46-year-old grabbed the 26-year-old in a headlock with his left arm, then began pummeling the top of his head with his pitching hand before getting in a couple of blows to his face. In a matter of seconds — as Nolan relates in the documentary — he was at the bottom of a pile, fearful he soon wouldn’t be able to breathe and might pass out.
Thankfully, a strong arm pulled Nolan out, and it was none other than the White Sox’s Bo Jackson, who wasn’t in the starting lineup that day. Ventura was ejected by umpire crew chief Richie Garcia and Nolan somehow wasn’t. He pitched seven strong innings and the Rangers wound up winning 5-2 in a game that provided a startling, capping highlight to a career overflowing with them.
But back to Facing Nolan. During the interview with Morgan before the screening, Nolan said he’s happy with the film.
“I was real pleased with the product — it turned out great,” he said. “I thought they did a great job and I’m very proud of it.”
The documentary will be shown in wide release for one night, on May 24. After that, you’ll have to wait until it comes to Netflix or Prime Video or whatever streaming service it shows up on.
Wherever you can, you should see Facing Nolan. Because Nolan’s not only a legend and one of the greatest baseball players in history, he’s a Texan and someone we all respect for what he’s stood for on and off the field, appreciate for what he’s done and revere for his accomplishments.
If you’re a baseball fan, it’s a must-see. If you’re a Texan, it’s a must-see. If you’re an American, it’s a must-see.
Thanks for always giving us everything you had, Nolan.