Nolan and the milestone that birthed an obsession
Weird things stick in my memory.
First off, I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing 10 years ago today, when the Rangers became the first and only team so far to hang 30 on someone, in Baltimore.I know I read about it, heard chatter during, but I also know I didn’t watch. Mostly, I remember my grandfather wondering why they couldn’t do it more often. Such was the man, and the fan.
I can’t remember most of the details of my wedding day. Honestly. It’s flashes and spots, of all the key stuff, but the details are a wash in nerves. I know I gave eulogies for both my grandparents, but that was like watching from outside my body. To hold off the emotions, I just disconnected until the vows, and washed myself in the moment. So the internal memory is walking up, feeling warm all inside for minutes on end, and walking off. It’s minutes of emotion without detail.
I remember fragments of my childhood. Challenger, and my introduction to all-day news coverage and death, all at once.
The line at Epcot Center in Orlando when it opened, so long and so hot—but few of the actual rides.
Sitting in an F14 Tomcat cockpit, with a helmet on it that said “Maverick”, at an air show with my dad.
A million moments from the 1993 All-Star game, from the most epic home run display I’ve ever seen in person, to Pudge Rodriguez sticking a liner in the wall behind Barry Bonds. (Despite all my efforts, I can’t find video of that Pudge all-star moment–but I was sitting two rows behind Doc Rivers, with my mom, and we BOTH saw it happen.)
Building a snowman with my grandfather. Remembering how tan and strong he looked, even at nearly 70, against the soft, white snow.
Oddly, though, with all these, I can’t remember the dates, or the details, in sequence. It’s all snapshots, jumbled in the timeline. Pictures jog my memory, but never fill in all the blanks.
Not so August 22, 1989. That one is vivid, and I relive it every time I hear Eric Nadel’s call: “He struck him out swinging! Strikeout number 5,000 is history for Nolan Ryan!”
That’s the day I fell in love with baseball.
On that night, in a simmering Arlington Stadium packed to the rickety rafters, Nolan Ryan threw a 96 mph fastball, Rickey Henderson swung and missed, and the only man in history to ever do it had struck out his 5,000th batter.
“It was an honor to be the 5,000th. As Davey Lopes says, ‘If he ain’t struck you out, you ain’t nobody.’ ” – Rickey Henderson
As it turned out, Nolan struck out 13 and gave up only five hits, but lost the game to Oakland, 2-0.
I don’t remember that. But what I do remember hooked me for life.
I was 9 going on 10, and both my parents worked all day. For extra cash, and because we were best friends, I always went to my friend Chris’s house after school. His mom would pick us up, and we’d have designated time for homework, reading, VERY limited TV or video games, and alot of playing outside. We argued over silly things, like who got to be Pete O’Brien (I won that one alot) and which of us threw a knuckleball like Charlie Hough (neither; we played with a tennis ball—no seams, no life to the pitch. Just makes for VERY long home runs…which was training for my travel ball days as a pitcher).
That August night, I didn’t realize the significance of the event out on that mound.
5,000 strikeouts was a number out of context. I had yet to devour the baseball biographies, histories, and Baseball Encyclopedia entries as I would beginning that year. Nolan Ryan was my introduction to all of that, and this night was the Big Bang, the Genesis moment.
It would have been late; I can’t swear to it, but I imagine, since my Dad and I were there well after dark our usual time to leave (5:30 to 6:00). I recall it being dark (TV backs me up), thought it was an early starting game (6:35 CT according to Baseball Reference). The game was fairly fast (2 hours, 32 minutes, including the post-strikeout mini-celebration, which perturbed Nolan as much as anything); this probably meant he was going for the record around 8:00 PM, give or take.
The game was carried on UHF, to the best of my knowledge, as well as on cable (HSE). All I know is, I saw very fuzzy, very broken version of 5,000, complete with my friend’s dad constantly adjusting old rabbit ears and taking out and re-inserting the rabbit ears’ cable (ask your parents, kids) to get the signal better. It was still weak, but I’ll never forget, because I knew a few things about baseball then:
- He who threw hardest was coolest.
- Oakland was the best team in baseball (they’d win the second of three straight pennants and their only World Series that earthquake-marred October)
- Nolan Ryan LOOKED the way a baseball player should look. He was long, lean. Strong. He was everything I couldn’t, but dreamed I could be.
And so, on a sweltering August night in 1989, I had a new hero.
Near obsession followed. I looked up every book on him, new and old, and devoured them. My favorite find was a 1977 tome on hitting and pitching by Sports Illustrated. The pitcher was Nolan Ryan. The hitter: 1971 NL MVP and future Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre of the Cardinals.
More than 700 baseball cards in my collection would bear his likeness. Autographs, lithographs, and baseballs abounded.
I experienced near nirvana getting as close as the ramp above his head for a bullpen session in Port Charlotte in 1991. I constantly compared my hands to his at the hand sculpture exhibit at Baylor Hospital.
His were bigger, with more veins and long, strong fingers.
And I kicked. There is a generation of kids, my age, older, and younger, who probably had to be “un-taught” all the self-styled Ryan drives we tried to learn.
I was 5’6 and an un-athletic 150 pounds by the time I discovered Nolan, if I’m to guess. Seeing me in baseball pants, kicking to the sky, nobody thought Nolan Ryan. Bartolo Colon, perhaps, but not Nolan.
But he was more than my hero. He was a hero to a state—indeed, to a generation. And he changed my life. He birthed in me an obsession with baseball that lives strong to this day, and will only die with me, no doubt. But it went beyond that. He helped bring out an ethos bred from birth.
See, from Nolan, I had a personification of the work ethic and dedication I’d always had preached by my parents. But see, to be fair to my 11-year-old self, my parents were not deified professional athletes. Here was Nolan Ryan, saying, and doing, everything they preached.
And so, so did I.
At 14, just after he retired, I read Nolan Ryan’s Pitchers Bible with it’s flip-corner moving picture of him throwing. Oh, the world before smart phones and laptops. I devowered Miracle Man. I read, cover to cover, over and over, Kings of the Hill (a copy of which I’m even re-reading as we speak. Such are the stories of pitchers he respected).
“One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something.” – Nolan Ryan
I joined a gym, thanks to my dad. I ate grilled chicken at EVERY meal, thanks to my mom’s diligent cooking. My friends made fun of me, but my body fat sank ever lower, towards Nolan levels.
My parents first got me a second-hand exercise bike, then a full-on treadmill. They found a friend from Dad’s work who was a trainer. I started in April at 174 pounds and 24% body fat. By that summer’s baseball season in July, I was down to around 160 and 14% body fat, and things just went lower from there. Always, the image in my mind was Nolan. Through high school, I lifted and did cardio after every practice, every game. Because that’s how Nolan did it.
I haven’t maintained that physique, by a long shot, but I learned that I have it in me to get there. All it takes is the willingness to work, sacrifice, and endure some pain. If I could do it at 14, why not any age. Why not, like Nolan, at 44.
Such was the lesson Ryan brought to so many of us. He birthed a revolution in middle-age vitality, first in Texas, and then across the nation. I am a firm believer: Men’s Health and all it’s kin owes its life to Nolan. He was the original middle-age marvel, and others realized, with his habits and discipline, they could be like him.
By being the exception, he changed the rule.
Why was Nolan worthy of driving a true life change? Well, he was a classic Texas hero, a white-hatted gunslinger who spoke slowly, shyly almost. He was humble but proud, hard working without being showy. I learned in later years that he, like every great athlete, had a tremendous confidence—he once tossed a small handball to catcher Jeff Torborg in Anaheim in the 1970s, after a particularly good warmup, and said, “I’ll be throwing these today.”
But understand, you can’t appreciate what he was unless you realize the wasteland for heroes that Texas Rangers baseball was before Nolan.
He was different than anything we’d seen in Texas in our fandom (or lifetimes) because he was a legit ace, a true (if reluctant) star, and he was ONE of US—and one who embraced his roots, to COME to the Rangers. The hero coming home; it’s a story too good not to love.
And he was old.
Of course, at 9, ALL ballplayers were old. Ruben Seirra—“El Caballo” thanks to his leg kick before swinging—made me wish I could switch hit and thrown strikes from 300 feet; at 23, he was old. Harold Baines, whom we’d traded Scott Coolbaugh plus some kids named Alvarez and Sosa for, was an ancient warrior from the Windy City, come to bring us a division title; he was 30.
To a 9-year-old, Nolan Ryan was basically Methuselah.
By 1989, he was 42 and in his 23rd season. People thought of this as his “glory ride into the sunset.” He’d pitch a year in the AL, avoid having to hit thanks to the DH, pile up a few more key counting stats, and pad his case for Cooperstown (no lock then, given his win-loss record and the weight it carried in that era, strikeouts or no).
Except, apparently, nobody had told him this was a retirement tour. Because he still threw like he was 22, but with a 42-year-old’s experience.
That summer of 1989, Sierra was battling Milwaukee’s own ancient warrior, Robin Yount, for MVP (Yount won; Sierra came in a close second, and Rickey Henderson and Bret Saberhagen both had legit beefs at not finishing much higher).
While Ruben fought that fight, Nolan was giving the AL’s best a run for their Cy Young money. He finished a strong fifth behind winner Saberhagen (who had 9.7 WAR) and probably deserved fourth. Here’s the black and white on Nolan’s intro to Arlington:
Nolan Ryan on August 22, 1989, was yet to be THE Nolan Ryan. He had yet to become defined by his agelessness, or even his numbers; both of those came as they surpassed amazing and peaked at unbelievable. He had yet to move past myth, into legend, and on to icon.
This season, though, was his pinnacle in Texas, and the first true step on that path. He would never quite reach it’s heights again, on the field, although he’d do so much more than could be expected in terms of legend-building. Nobody foresaw no-hitters in June of 1990 or May of 1991. Nobody foresaw him pitching until he was 46, in 1993.
All of that was in the future. But what a future it was. Here’s the full Ryan dossier for five seasons in Texas:
How to sum up what that man meant, to me, on that night in Garland, with friends, family, and a fuzzy TV screen, watching an old minor league park in Arlington, in August of 1989?
I can’t find the words, so I’ll paraphrase a quote about Baltimore’s love of Brooks Robinson, that holds true for thousands across Texas:
Some people have buildings or roads named after them. Nolan Ryan has children named after him.
In closing, if you want a treat, and some nostalgic narration by the late, great Mark Holtz, here’s a full cut of a video I wore out as a kid. Nolan Ryan: Feel the Heat: