He walked the most batters in baseball history (2,795), 52% more than the next highest total belonging to Steve Carlton (1,833). He lost the most games of any pitcher (292) except for Cy Young (316) and Pud Galvin (310), two players who peaked in the 1800s. He never won the Cy Young award. Pundits of baseball’s bottom line—wins and losses—insist that Ryan was just a .500 pitcher.
Yet the Ryan Express was so stunningly dominant for so long that he came about as close as any baseball player has ever come to perfection as a Hall of Fame candidate. Thanks to 401 BBWAA members who were able to see a plentiful forest despite a few wilting trees, Ryan’s name was checked on 98.79% of the ballots in 1999—the second highest percentage in history behind Tom Seaver’s 98.84%.
Like Kleenex or Aspirin, the name Nolan Ryan has become a brand name that has turned generic—it’s another way of describing “absolutely the fastest pitch imaginable.” Yeah, the game has a couple of new howitzer legends-in-the-making in Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman, two young hurlers who seem to be pushing the mph envelope up a notch. I’m sure there are dozens of 15-year-old phenoms out there training in baseball factories around the world destined to rip through a few ulnar collaterals vying to become the next Nolan Ryan. But let’s see what turns up in 10-15 years. In this age of pitch counts, signing bonuses large enough to fund a major tech startup, and year-round youth baseball—which many think is a formula for accelerating the operating life of human tissue, Nolan Ryan’s indelible imprints on baseball history are probably safe for a long, long time.
More than any other player, Ryan’s impact is measured by huge numbers that seem to border on the illogical. Like a turbo-charged engine that somehow ran for about 500,000 more miles than expected, Ryan played in 27 seasons, five more than the careers of Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Kirby Puckett combined. His world-leading 5,714 strikeout total is so far out in the stratosphere that 26-year-old Tim Lincecum, already a K-collecting two-time Cy Young winner, would have to strike out 250 batters a year for the next 19 seasons to catch Ryan…and he’d still be 57 short.
In those “Who would you rather face?” or “Who would you want on the mound?” conversations, Ryan is often compared to the revered Sandy Koufax, probably due to how utterly dominant and practically unhittable both pitchers were during their best of times on the mound. Of course, it was Koufax’s records that Ryan broke—most no-hitters in a career (Ryan: 7, Koufax: 4) and strikeouts in a season (Ryan: 383, Koufax: 382)—that link them forever in the books. While Koufax’s reign of mastery was confined to roughly a five-year stretch, Ryan scattered seven no-hitters—and 24 others that were broken up in the 7th inning or later—over two decades. Ironically, ESPN writer Jayson Stark, who has probably banged out enough Ryan factoids and trivia over the years to wallpaper his entire house, tabbed Ryan and Koufax as the most overrated pitchers of their respected handedness in major league history in his book “The Stark Truth.” But he did it in a way that didn’t slight their greatness in the least, making the point of how enormous their legend has grown despite the number of counterpoints in their otherwise fantastical careers.
Ryan’s list of victims spans decades. Rob Deer against Nolan Ryan should be a classic all-or-nothing matchup, right? Turned out to be a huge collar for Deer—he went 0-for-14 with 10 K’s. You’d think that batting magician Edgar Martinez, a fitness nut who used to train his hand-eye response by bunting against tennis balls fired at 150 mph, would present a challenge to Ryan. Turns out not so much—Edgar went 1-for-19 against him, also with 10 K’s. On the flip-side, Manny Sanguillen’s bad-ball hitting style seemed to be compatible with Ryan’s not-so-accurate control—Sangy went 11-for-21, striking out just twice. (Makes me think what kind of damage Vlad Guerrero might have done if he had the opportunity). Will Clark struck out 12 times in 36 at bats against Ryan—but he also took him deep six times, tuning him up with an .889 slugging percentage.
Nolan Ryan wowed and amazed fans in much the same manner as players like Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio did. He is a big chunk of baseball history, and his Hall of Fame election is completely justified.
Now 63 years old, Ryan finds himself back in the World Series as president and part-owner of the Texas Rangers, playing the San Francisco “Land of Misfits” Giants for the 2010 championship. (Sorry, that’s the Philly heartbreak talkin’ there.)
Ryan’s been to the Fall Classic before—41 years ago, to be exact. At the time, he was a budding 22-year-old fireballer for the Miracle New York Mets of 1969, looking to gel with a rising young core and their promising staff that included Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Ryan made only one appearance in that ’69 series, but it was a pivotal one, a cameo that seemed to announce to the world, “Welcome aboard the Express. Deal with it.”
With the series tied at one game apiece, Ryan entered game three of the series in the 7th inning with the bases juiced, two out, and the Mets leading 4-0. Ryan got Paul Blair out on a liner to centerfield to end the threat. After a 1-2-3 eighth, Ryan made it interesting in the ninth by walking two Orioles and loading the bases, again with Blair coming up with two out. This time, he caught Blair looking at a third strike to end the game, putting the Mets up two games to one. Ryan earned a 2.1-inning save, and the Mets went on to win two more games to claim their miracle championship.
Working out of two bases loaded jams in your first World Series appearance is quite a bold accomplishment for a 22-year-old. But it’s that eighth inning that fascinates me. Granted, it’s only one inning out of the 5400+ he threw for his career, but it’s an intriguing moment in baseball time that captures the essence of Nolan Ryan while showing a glimpse of his future greatness.
It took only 6 minutes for Ryan to dispose of three of the most iconic Orioles in Baltimore’s history: Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Brooks Robinson. As raw as his power and control was back then, Ryan was masterfully effective in how he mixed an unfair curve ball with his blazing heat. Watching a re-broadcast of the game on MLB Network reminded me of Strasburg’s opening act this past June where he somehow matched the impossible hype that preceded him by striking out 14 Pirates in seven innings. In both instances, Ryan and Strasburg made major league hitters look like high school freshmen going up against a senior All-American on the cusp of being drafted in the first round.
What follows is a transcript of that half-inning, rich with national baseball coverage from NBC. Hall of Fame announcer Lindsey Nelson, whose rapid no-nonsense delivery is a perfect fit for any TV or radio baseball broadcast, starts things off, 41 years ago.
Nelson: “We go to the eighth inning now and Frank Robinson is up. The Mets have made two defensive moves. Al Weis is at second and Rod Gaspar’s in right field.”
[At this point, the reader is encouraged to squeeze his or her nostrils and talk in an up-tempo manner to get a sense of listening to Nelson.]
[Pop of catcher’s mitt]
Nelson: “Nolan Ryan pitches high for ball one.”
[Ambient baseball crowd noise…camera zooms in on defensive substitutions.]
Nelson, accompanying camera zooms: “And it’s Weis at second base…that’s Gaspar in right field.”
Nelson: “That’s high. Two and oh….Frank Robinson twice has drawn walks today, and he had a base hit in the fourth inning.”
Nelson: “In there for a strike. It’s two and one.”
[Robinson steps out, shovels up some dirt with his hands, rubs the bat handle, then his pants.]
Nelson: “Nolan Ryan had a lot of trouble last year rubbing up blisters on his pitching hand and he carried a little jar of pickle brine around to soak the fingers in…it seemed to work.”
[Robinson chases and whiffs on high inside cheese out of the strike zone…crowd cheers.]
Nelson: “Two and two.”
Nelson, continuing pickle story: “…it also got him a lot of attention in odd places as a fella will get carrying a little jar of pickle brine around with him.”
[Pop. High and inside again, Robby half-swings but pulls back safely.]
Nelson: “High and tight, it’s 3 and 2 now to Frank Robinson.”
[Robby steps out, rubs more dirt on bat handle. At this point, it seems obvious that he has been using every ounce of his great skills to gauge exactly when to pull the trigger on what might be the fastest pitches he's ever seen in his life.]
Nelson: “Ryan was on the disabled list earlier this year with a pulled groin muscle….payoff pitch…”
[Robby check-swings a foul into the stands. He is finding it very difficult not to commit as soon as the ball leaves Ryan's hands. It’s obvious Ryan’s speed is challenging his response time.]
Nelson: ”Check swing foul ball out of play. Count holds full at 3 and 2.”
[Ryan rubs up new baseball.]
Nelson: “Frank Robinson. Most valuable player in the National League (rising tone)… Most Valuable Player in the American League (falling tone).”
Nelson: “Payoff pitch…”
[Robinson turns on an inside fastball and connects. Somehow, this future Hall of Famer made the necessary adjustments in a matter of a few pitches and sends one deep...]
Nelson: “Deep left field…and…it is Cleon Jones at the wall…”
Nelson: “…and Agee makes the catch!”
Nelson, raising volume above crowd’s mini-celebration: “Agee and Jones both there and Agee took the fly ball at the wall!”
[A Mets fan holds up a sign that says "A BIGGY!" This makes me question the creativity in sign-making for sporting events back in 1969.]
Nelson: “One away and Boog Powell is coming up.”
PA announcer heard in background of Nelson: “FIRST BASEMAN…
Nelson: “He’s 2 for 3.”
[Powell settles in to the box. At first glance, his cropped sleeves make it seem like he just came from a bench-pressing session inside the clubhouse. Ryan starts Powell off with a wicked breaking curve that finds the strike zone, a pitch that could be construed as cruel and unusual punishment.]
Nelson: “In there for a called strike.”
[On the next pitch, Ryan fires high heat that Powell takes a cut at so viciously he loses balance and finds himself stumbling toward third base just to stay on his feet.]
Nelson: “And a miss and strike two.”
[Camera zooms into the stands and focuses on an attractive brunette and her finely dressed son.]
Nelson: “There is Jackie Onassis!…here at the World Series today.”
[Onassis is apparently giving John-John instructions. He leaves up the aisle.]
Nelson: “And there’s John-John, just making the exit, and I’ll bet heading for the concession stand.”
[Ryan's next pitch fires just under Powell’s stubble, causing the burly first baseman to hit the dirt as quickly as any 6’4” 230-pound tree trunk could possibly move.]
Nelson: ”High and tight!”
[Camera flashes to stands once again. A chatty woman wearing a white turtleneck, black jacket, and a white fedora is speaking to her friends so enthusiastically that she’s nearly falling from her seat.]
Nelson: ”And there’s a real Met’s fan…Pearl Bailey! She is at Shea Stadium frequently. Star of ‘Hello Dolly’ on Broadway.”
[On the pitch after the brushback, Ryan's master plan falls into place. Powell is already fading toward first base on the delivery. Poor soul. It's no contest as the pitch bites the outside corner.]
Nelson: “He’s outta there on strikes!”
[Crowd roars…Powell glances back toward ump for a split-second like he can’t believe it, then mopes back to the dugout after getting text book'd by young Nolan Ryan.]
Nelson: “Nolan Ryan’s first strikeout. Two Orioles away in the eighth.”
Nelson: “Brooks Robinson coming up. Grounded out, struck out, and flied out.”
Nelson: “Foul ball, back and out of play for strike one.”
[Camera zooms into the stands and zeros in on a bearded gentleman wearing an ascot, looking rather Michael Corleone-ish amongst the New York crowd.]
Nelson: “Jerry Lewis on hand today.”
[Just then, the comedic legend who 13 years later would play it straight as Jerry Langford to Bobby DeNiro's hilarious Rupert Pupkin, gets tapped on the shoulder by a man in a red jacket and long-antennae'd headphones.]
Nelson: “Tony Kubek checking in with him.”
[Meanwhile, Ryan’s next pitch—yes, NBC, there is a game going on here—bends into Robinson, causing him to back away slightly.]
Nelson: “Inside, one and one.”
Curt Gowdy: “Well to show you how effective these Mets pitchers have been, the Orioles have had only 11 hits so far in this series, Lindsey…two yesterday and three today.”
[Whoa, Curt! Where ya been? It's the third batter of the inning before Curt decides to chime in. I didn't realize that there was even a color man in the booth. Maybe he was throwing down a hot dog...]
[The next pitch is high heat that Brooks can barely stop from check-swinging at, causing him to make excuse-me contact.]
Nelson: “Check swing foul ball. It’s one and two.”
Gowdy, continuing his point: ”…and twice, only twice during the season were they held to only three hits in the game. You gotta give these young hard-throwing Met pitchers a lot of credit.”
[That’s it from Gowdy over the entire half inning. Maybe he got paid by the word and had already reached his game quota.]
[A voice in the crowd yells out “Way to pitch, Nolan! Way to pitch!” as Ryan winds up for the next pitch.]
Nelson: “Here’s a one-two pitch.”
[Curve ball has Brooks fooled once more. By now, Brooks is probably thinking there are better ways to spend a Tuesday afternoon than to do battle against this Nolan Ryan fella on national television.]
Nelson: “Breaking ball and he fouled it off to stay alive at one and two.”
[Camera zooms in on batter, then pitcher.]
Nelson, accompanying camera zooms: “Brooks Robinson…Nolan Ryan.”
[On the next pitch, Brooks seems to shove the bat to the outside part of the plate just to knock the ball in the stands and stay alive.]
Nelson: “Fouled off and out of play.”
Nelson [finally, a statement on the potential impact of this impressive young pitcher]: “When Ryan first came to the New York Mets, there’s no question that he could throw as hard as anybody ever did. The thing was to try to work on him so that he can get a breaking pitch to use with the fastball to be able to control the breaking pitch. So that’s what he’s been working on now…Came in a little heavy this year.”
[Ryan’s next pitch is once again a chin-seeking fast ball that Brooks instinctively moves out of the way and at the same time checks his swing, as if he had two parts of brain conflicted in deciding which action was appropriate. One thing is clear: Ryan's velocity is wreaking havoc with Robinson's physiological wiring because his swing trigger keeps activating before his brain has a chance to send the command to "get the hell out of the way."]
Nelson: “It’s two and two.”
[Ryan next throws a curve ball that induces a little knee-buckling from the great Brooks Robinson. Pitch just misses top half of the zone.]
Nelson: “Little low and it is full at 3 and 2….to a breaking pitch.”
[No clue why Nelson called the pitch "a little low." Nonetheless, Ryan is not happy with call…he grabs the baseball and looks in centerfield like “this inning should be OVER.”]
Nelson: “Count full now. The Mets are leading 4-0 and the Orioles are batting in the top of the eighth.”
[Without delay, Brooks immediately digs in for the next pitch in an amazing demonstration of "how things used to be" —Ryan is able to deliver the next pitch within 15 seconds of the previous pitch. Prior to the 2010 season, Bob Watson, V.P. of baseball's rules and operating standards, had this to say on the length of today's games: "My dream for 2010 is to have a pace of 25 seconds per pitch." He must have been dreaming of 1969.]
Nelson: “…payoff pitch…”
[A high and tight pitch causes Brooks to again fade away, and his resultant swing is more like a half-hearted wave. Like Powell, he never had a prayer.]
Nelson: “Struck him out with a fast ball! Second strikeout for Ryan. Retired the side in order. No runs, no hits, no errors and none left. In the middle of the eighth inning, the score is the Mets 4 and the Orioles…nothing! ”
Despite dominating well into his 40s, Nolan Ryan never made it back to the World Series as a player. As of this writing, his Texas Rangers are down two games to none going into game three of the 2010 World Series. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan started keeping a glove stashed beneath his seat with a Ranger uniform underneath his biz attire, just in case.
I leave you with one more morsel from this classic 1969 World Series telecast. Going into the bottom of the eighth, Tony Kubek interviews Jerry Lewis in the stands. You may have noticed that in the pictures of Jackie Onassis and Pearl Bailey above, Dean Martin’s old partner is the guy sitting in an adjacent box looking very much like a professional photographer sizing up the action with a long zoom lens.
And if you look carefully at this video clip, you’ll see a man who’s getting a kick out of Jerry’s goofy manner and pointing at him as if to say “That’s the Nutty Professor! That guys nuts!” while Jackie O. bends over to her friend asking “Who’s that?”
– John Cappello
With assistance from: