Journey to See a Legend
Like millions of baseball fans all over the United States, my love for our national pastime as a young boy centered around the exploits and feats of one player. Back in the 1920's, many youngsters idolized Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; in the 1950's, a kid may have gone to the ballpark to see Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, or Yogi Berra. In the 1970's and 1980's, I followed, from April to October, the career of Nolan Ryan.
Perhaps my only regret is that I wasn't born five years earlier. Had I been born in 1963, I would have been old enough to see Ryan pitch during his first few seasons after being traded to the California Angels. It would have been a thrill to see him begin his assault on the record book as he harnessed his tremendous ability to throw a baseball by overcoming the control problems he had during his stint with the New York Mets.
With the exception of my parents, there's nobody who did a better job of leading by example. I think former Blue Jays third baseman Rance Mulliniks said it best when asked what the world would be like if everyone were like Nolan Ryan. "Everyone would love each other", he said, "and nobody would get a hit." In all the years I have been following baseball, I have never seen a better competitor, and there certainly been no player who was a better role model.
Baseball became so important to me because of Nolan Ryan. On July 13, 1979, I saw Nolan pitch for the first time. I remember as if it were yesterday. It was on a nationally televised broadcast, and Nolan was pitching in Anaheim against the New York Yankees. At that point of his career, Nolan had four no-hitters, and on this particular night was working on what would have been his fifth. Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson broke up his no-hit bid in the late innings with a slap shot off Nolan's glove. Even though Nolan failed to break Sandy Koufax's no-hit record that night, the Angels won 6-1, and he struck out 9 in pitching the seventh one-hitter of his career.
I was in awe. From that point on, Nolan Ryan was my idol. I have always been in awe of pitchers who can throw smoke by hitters anytime they want to. Throughout his career, Nolan oozed intimidation and he commanded respect because of his fastball.
Fast forward to April 8, 1988. On the first Friday of the new season, I was a college student on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, reading the sports pages of the USA Today. As always, I checked the probable pitchers that morning and saw that Nolan was scheduled to make his first start of the season in Cincinnati. I felt a huge adrenaline rush as I hurried to the nearest Ticketmaster outlet to purchase a single game ticket. That evening, I made the 90-minute trip to Cincinnati and watched Nolan strike out 11 Reds in 7 innings. Undoubtedly, it was the biggest baseball thrill of my life. At the age of 41, his fastball gained momentum as the game progressed. It was a tremendous feeling to be watching a legend at work!
As opposed to watching him on TV, it was a much different experience watching him in person. As I sat in my seat not far from Houston's dugout on the third base side, I could focus only on Nolan. I watched him and made mental notes of how he reacted to certain situations during the course of the game. Early in the contest, Ryan found himself in trouble twice. Reds centerfielder Eric Davis stepped up to the plate twice with the bases loaded, and each time was the victim of high octane fastballs timed in the high 90's--Davis K'd on six pitches in two at-bats (K's # 4,548 and 4,553). Reds Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman stated on the game's broadcast (700 WLW, the flagship station for the Cincinnati Reds' radio network) that Nolan's fastball during Davis' two at-bats averaged 96 mph!
Nolan Ryan is my favorite pitcher not only because of the tremendous ability he had to throw a baseball, but because of the type of person he is. A proud Texan who is deeply committed to his community, he has always been faithful to his wife, Ruth, and three children (Wendy, Reid, and Reese). His fame and fortune never changed him. He donates money to charities and owns several cattle ranches and two banks. If there ever was an example of an All-American athlete, it is Nolan Ryan.
September 22 will marked the 8th anniversary of the end of Ryan's brilliant career. In many ways, he was the last of the great athletes in the truest sense of the word. So many athletes today are moved only be money and greed. Today's players complain to the media about the mistakes their teammates make and blame everyone else for their team's woes.
Not Nolan Ryan. He never complained about other pitchers in the major leagues making more money than he did, even though he was better. Not once did he complain about his bullpen losing leads for him in the late innings.
5,714 strikeouts, 7 no-hitters and 324 wins. These are numbers for the ages. He pitched 27 seasons in the major leagues and, some estimate, threw nearly 100,000 pitches over the course of his career. Simply put, he was amazing. His love for the game of baseball and his dedication to making sure he stayed in shape in order to maintain his style of pitching all paid off. While other players whined about money, Ryan was establishing his place in baseball history. And, I might add, a place that is very well deserved.
» Rob Olds, 34, is a Nolan Ryan historian and has his own website highlighting the career of the Ryan Express: http://www.nolanryanheat.com