Nobody merits ultimate victory like Nolan Ryan
One night, I was watching Nolan Ryan mow down the Padres in the first inning at the Astrodome. San Diego not a good team at the time, and it had a rookie -- who was not off to a good start -- pitching. I remember thinking that the game would probably be an easy win, and it turned out to be just that.
The next day, I asked Nolan if he ever thought a game like that was going to be fun. He gave me that ironic grin of his and said, "Not once."
I suppose that's one of the things that made him great, and continues to make him a formidable opponent. He never takes winning for granted. I have to admit, I did have that feeling a few times. I bet Don Sutton and Catfish Hunter did, too. When you think you are clever, you can sometimes allow yourself to be a little cocky. Despite his enormous talent, Nolan never felt that way. Not once.
As his Rangers ballclub heads into the World Series for the second straight season with a team that appears to be more talented than the Cardinals, Nolan no doubts hopes it will be easy to win the Series. But he's not taking anything for granted.
Why would he?
After his first three years with the Mets, he was 19-23, despite averaging 8.9 strikeouts for every nine innings he pitched. The problem was that he was also averaging 5.7 walks. It's hard to win when you walk that many batters, and Nolan's control wasn't getting better. It was getting worse.
In 1972, he was traded to the Angels, one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball. He wasn't making much money and his family was growing. He was getting impatient with his control problems, but he was also motivated by something Mets manager Gil Hodges said about the trade. Hodges said that of all the Mets' starting pitchers, Ryan was the one they could afford to lose.
At the end of that first Spring Training with the Angels, the Ryan family borrowed $1,500 against their tax refund. Then the players went on strike. The entire history of Major League pitching would be notably different if it had been a long strike. Several years and a lot of wins later, Nolan said, "If that $1,500 was gone, we'd be gone, too." It wasn't getting any easier.
The strike was settled before the money ran out, and the rest, as they say, is history. Nolan's line for 1972 was the stuff Cy Young Awards are made of:
19-16, 2.28 ERA, 284 innings, 166 hits, nine shutouts, 329 strikeouts, 157 walks and 18 wild pitches.
The strikeouts, walks and wild pitches led the league. And the word was out. Nolan Ryan was the fastest gun in the West. He was also a favorite of Angels owner, the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. Life in Southern California was good.
In 1973, it got better. Ryan pitched his first no-hitter about midseason and pitched another one two weeks later, striking out 17 batters along the way. He went 21-16 and struck out 383 batters, one more than Sandy Koufax' all-time record. He did not win the Cy Young Award. (In fact, Dick Williams didn't even pick him for the All Star team!)
In 1974, he went 22-16, pitched another no-hitter, and failed to win the award again. The next year, he missed 10 starts with groin pulls and was not a candidate. He went 14-12, however, and pitched another no-hitter.
The next four years were excellent. Ryan led the league in strikeouts each year, but only won one more game than he lost, which was actually quite an accomplishment with those Angels teams. He was still the fastest gun in the West, and he was making $200,000, plus several large bonuses.
After the '79 season, the Angels decided he was expendable. GM Buzzie Bavasi said replacing Ryan wasn't a big deal. "All you have to do," he said, "is get two 8-7 pitchers." That had to be one of the dumbest statements ever made. First of all, finding one pitcher who could go 8-7 with the Angels would be tough. Finding two of them would be nearly impossible. And even then, it would take two guys to do what Ryan did by himself.
In 1980, Ryan hit pay dirt in Houston, signing for $1.125 million. But the Astros didn't have much more firepower than the Angels. Despite winning the ERA title twice in Houston and breaking Koufax' record with his fifth no-hitter, Ryan's nine-year record in Houston was a modest 106-94. If you want the definition for a hard-luck season, look no further than 1987, when Nolan went 8-16, despite leading the league in strikeouts (270) and ERA (2.76).
Ryan became a free agent again in 1989, and Astros owner John McMullen didn't want to pay him more than Mike Scott, so Tex played hardball and headed north to join the Rangers. The fans went wild in Arlington and Nolan paid them back in Spades. In his first year there, he went 16-10 with an ERA of 3.20 while striking out 301 batters in 239 innings at the age of 42.
In five years with the Rangers, Ryan went 51-34, blew by the 300-win mark and pitched two more no-hitters. Arm problems finally slowed him down at the age of 45 and finished him off the next season.
After baseball, Nolan went to the ranch, literally. He also went into banking. But the lure of baseball brought him back as a Minor League owner in 2004. He operated two franchises for the Astros, with notable success until accepting the job of president of the Rangers in 2008.
The Rangers got better fast with Ryan at the helm. He became the owner of the team in 2010 and his team took all but the final step, losing to the Giants in the World Series. After all the hard work, over all the long seasons. After all the potential Cy Young Awards that went to other pitchers. After the slights of Hodges and Bavasi. After everyone predicted that Doc Gooden would break all his strikeout records. After all of it. I cannot think of one single person who deserves the ultimate victory more than Nolan Ryan.
I have heard that Roger Clemens had a grueling workout schedule, but I never witnessed it. I did work out with Nolan a few times on the road. We would both do 30 minutes on the Stairmaster and make a pass through the Nautilus machines. Then I would watch him go through the circuit again. Then I would watch him do 30 serious minutes stretching and doing core exercises on the floor. Then I would see him stretching again at the ballpark that night and running line-to-lines in the outfield. Nolan didn't like to call attention to himself. After he left the game, he would go straight to the weight room and ride a stationary bike until all the reporters were gone.
Think about it. A typical pitch count for him was at least 125. On most of those pitches, his effort was so great that he would grunt when he let go of the ball. Then he would work out after the game!
Considering all the things he did to prepare for every start, the thing that impressed me the most was the stretching. Ballplayers hate to stretch. It's no fun at all and it hurts. A lot of guys go through the motions, but Nolan stretched so hard it hurt me just to watch him.
So getting back to my first notion of having some fun out there on the mound -- getting an easy win. I have to conclude that Nolan had the better approach. Has he ever taken the mound, gone to business meeting, roped a bull, or disciplined one of his children without preparing? My guess is, not once.
Now his team is down, 1-0, in the World Series after a tough 3-2 loss to the Cardinals in Game 1 on Wednesday. It's not going to be easy. But he already knew that before the first pitch was thrown.
Up until the last five years or so, I've been a National League guy all the way. But there is no line between the leagues now, no reason to be loyal. There's no National or American League baseball, no National or American League umpires. With Interleague Play, there's no mystique about the other league. I don't like it, but that's the way it is. I guess the only thing I like about one-world baseball is that I don't have to feel guilty in hoping the American League wins the World Series.
Larry Dierker played in the Major Leagues for 14 seasons and guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.