Ryan’s 7th no-hitter was his least likely
As he walked into the Texas Rangers' locker room in Arlington Stadium, Nolan Ryan didn't feel at all like pitching that evening, May 1, 1991, against the Toronto Blue Jays. The right-hander had agreed to pitch on only four days' rest instead of h...
As he walked into the Texas Rangers’ locker room in Arlington Stadium, Nolan Ryan didn’t feel at all like pitching that evening, May 1, 1991, against the Toronto Blue Jays. The right-hander had agreed to pitch on only four days’ rest instead of his usual five because it was Arlington Appreciation Night, a tribute to the fans in the city midway between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Ryan felt he owed the crowd an appearance, but he was hurting. He had awakened that morning with more than the usual aches expected of a pitcher in his 25th major-league season.
As a trainer applied a heating pad to his back, Ryan saw Tom House, the Rangers’ pitching coach. Ryan bemoaned his physical woes.
“I don’t know how you feel at 44, but I feel old today,” he said according to news reports. “My back hurts. My finger hurts. My ankle hurts. I’ve been taking Advil since noon, and it isn’t helping.”
Aches aside, Ryan’s physical appearance contrasted with his young teammates, as noted by sportswriter Alan Greenberg at the time.
“Walking around the dressing room in his shorts, he looks every inch the middle-aged, 44-year-old man he is. Despite being a fitness fanatic who religiously rides a stationary bike, the balding Ryan has a slight paunch, concave chest and slender arms.”
Years later, author Rob Goldman wrote in his 2014 book, “Nolan Ryan,” about House’s recollections of Ryan’s bullpen session before the game: “Nolan was bouncing his curveball, huffing and puffing on his fastball. He had no location, and his changeup was non-existent. I’m thinking, Whoops, this is not real good.”
House told Texas manager Bobby Valentine that Ryan might be headed for a rough outing, and they should have one of the relievers start warming up. Ryan, walking by the two men in the dugout on his way to the mound for the top of the first, echoed House’s concern, “Get someone ready.” With six previous no-hitters to his credit, a seventh seemed unlikely.
However, the actual outcome of the game, one played 25 years ago Sunday, surprised not only Ryan and House, but also the 33,439 people in the stadium.
Not an overnight sensation
Ryan grew up in Alvin, Texas, south of Houston, and learned at a young age that his mother, Martha Lee Hancock Ryan, was a descendant of founding father John Hancock. Ryan quickly became a star in high school for the Alvin Yellow Jackets, and pitched them into the state finals in 1965. He caught the eye of a regional New York Mets scout, Red Murff, who wrote a glowing report about Ryan, according to author Goldman. “This skinny high school junior HAS THE BEST ARM I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE.”
But a poor showing later in front of the Mets’ scouting director led to a disappointment for the teenager in the 1965 Major League Baseball amateur draft. The Mets picked him in the 12th round, making Ryan the 295th player chosen.
After two stints in the minors, Ryan went up to New York for a cup of coffee and made his major-league debut on Sept. 11, 1966. The slender 6-foot-2-inch right-hander pitched two innings in relief and gave up a hit and a run to the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. On Sept. 18 in the Astrodome in front of his family and friends, the Astros shelled starter Ryan for four runs in the first and only inning of his outing. That was it for the coffee.
Back in the minors, a sore arm ruined much of the 1967 season. But he made the Mets roster the next spring, and a solid start yielded a laudatory article in Life Magazine on May 31, 1968. But Ryan missed a number of games during the 1967-69 seasons because of his commitments in the U.S. Army Reserve. There were no deferments for professional baseball players during the Vietnam War draft.
The Amazin’ Mets’ won the 1969 World Series, beating Baltimore, 4-1. New York had swept Atlanta for the National League pennant in a five-game series, with Ryan winning the decisive Game 3 in relief. In the Series against the Orioles, Nolan earned a save in Game 3.
By this time the New York news media had nicknamed Ryan’s fastball barrage the “Ryan Express.” It was taken from a popular film of the time, “Von Ryan’s Express,” a tale of American POWs in World War II who fled German captors on a speeding train.
The Mets traded Ryan to the California Angels after the 1971 season, a deal that netted New York little while the Angels gained a future Hall of Famer. As an Angel from 1972 through 1979, Ryan became a more complete pitcher with the help of pitching coach Tom Morgan. And relieved of his Army Reserve duties, he benefited from a consistent rotation as a starter. Although the team languished most years near the bottom of the American League West, Ryan’s results were impressive.
He led the majors with 329 strikeouts in 1972. But the next year was even better.
Ryan pitched his first no-hitter on May 15, 1973, against the Kansas City Royals in their home park. California shortstop Rudy Meoli and outfielder Ken Berry saved the no-hitter with sterling defensive plays. Two months later, Ryan faced Detroit in Tiger Stadium. His stuff was so good that the Tigers’ Norm Cash mischievously brought a wooden table leg to the plate in the ninth and said to umpire Ron Luciano, “I might as well use this.” Meoli made another great play in the ninth to preserve the no-hitter.
“I wasn’t concentrating on strikeouts,” Ryan said to the media afterward. “I didn’t want that to get in the way of the no-hitter.”
Ryan finished the 1973 season with not only two no-hitters, but also a record 383 strikeouts.
Ryan notched his third no-hitter on Sept. 28, 1974, beating the Twins in Anaheim 4-0. He walked eight in the game, and the only close call was another web gem from Meoli.
“Nolan definitely had it,” catcher Tom Egan told Sports Illustrated in 1991. “It was like driving a powerful car.”
His fourth no-hitter came at home against the Orioles in 1975, and another great defensive play helped considerably. In the seventh, pitch hitter Tommy Davis hit a sharp grounder up the middle, but second baseman Jerry Remy made a great backhand play and threw out Davis.
In his eight years with California, Ryan pitched four no-hitters and led the league in strikeouts in seven of those years. But he never won the Cy Young Award, likely because of the Angels’ poor offense. The club released the 32-year-old after the 1979 season.
Twelve clubs attempted to sign the free agent, but he elected to join his almost-hometown Houston Astros. He signed a $4 million, four-year deal, making him, at that point, the highest-paid player in the majors.
Ryan pitched his record-breaking fifth no-hitter against the Dodgers in the Astrodome in front of his wife, Ruth, on Sept. 26, 1981. Good defense was again important, and in in this case by right fielder Terry Puhl. Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia lined a shot toward the right-center gap, but Puhl was well positioned.
Ryan met the physical challenges of his advancing age in a young man’s sport through year-round weight training, running and biking. He rode a stationary bike for 45 minutes after every start. He worked hard to keep the Ryan Express on track and rolling.
After a few so-so years, Ryan led the NL in strikeouts and ERA in 1987. But again the Cy Young award eluded him, largely because of his 8-16 record. He led the league in strikeouts again in 1988 at age 41.
Nevertheless, Houston did not resign Ryan and he moved north up I-45 to the Texas Rangers for the 1989 season.
Ryan responded to the welcome by leading the American League in strikeouts in 1989 and 1990.
The Ryan Express reached no-hitter No. 6 on June 11, 1990, against the Athletics in Oakland. After a poor pregame warmup and a slow start, Ryan’s pitches became masterful by the fifth and his teammates began shunning him in the dugout for fear of a jinx. But in the sixth, his back became quite painful - it was diagnosed later as a stress fracture of a lower back vertebrae - but he persevered and Texas won 5-0. He struck out 14 and walked only two, and when asked about the pain afterward, he said, according to SABR, “It wasn’t all that bad. It only hurt when I threw the ball.”
Ryan: 7th no-hitter was ‘the best’
On May Day 1991, after urging Tom House and Bobby Valentine to have a reliever ready, Ryan left the dugout for the mound to start the game. With his assorted pains deadened by Advil, he would have to gut it out on Arlington Appreciation Night against the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays went three-up, three-down in the fourth and fifth. But in the top of the sixth, Ryan and his teammates had a scare. Toronto shortstop Manny Lee hit a blooper over second base that centerfielder Gary Pettis barely caught at his shoe tops.
“That was the only time I was worried,” Ryan said to reporters after the game. “That ball had a chance to fall in, but Gary was playing shallow.”
ESPN switched its live baseball broadcast that evening to Arlington in the top of the eighth, just in time to see Toronto’s Whiten lead off with a sharply hit ball to right field. As the crowd tensed and heads swiveled in the home dugout, Sierra made a clean catch. Ryan got back to business and struck out the next two batters.
In the ninth, Toronto was due to send up Lee, White and Alomar - all switch hitters - and the home crowd was on its feet shouting and clapping. On a 1-0 count, Lee grounded out to second baseman Julio Franco. But White worked Ryan to a full count before also grounding out to Franco. Fans were in a full-throat roar when Roberto Alomar, whose father was a teammate of Ryan’s in 1973, came to the plate.
Roberto fouled off three balls getting to a 2-2 count. Ryan felt the tension and tossed back two balls to the umpire until the third one felt right. He then challenged Alomar with a 93-mph fastball. Swing and a miss. Angels win 3-0. No-hitter No.7.
“I had the best command of all three pitches. This is the best,” Ryan said of his seven no-hitters to reporters later. “This is my most overpowering night.”
Ryan retired after his 27th season in 1993, taking with him the all-time MLB strikeout record of 5,714 and the less glorious career record of 2,795 walks. His 324 career wins has him tied for 14th on the all-time list, and, of course, his record of seven no-hitters may be unbreakable. Ryan was a near-unanimous, first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame in 1999.