Editor’s Note: The Grantland Director’s Cut series looks back at classic works of sports journalism and gives the writers, athletes, and other figures involved in making the articles an opportunity to reflect on their work and recall some deleted scenes. For the first edition, Michael MacCambridge looks at Tony Kornheiser’s 1980 profile of Nolan Ryan for Inside Sports magazine.
When Inside Sports launched in the spring of 1980, the cover story of the charter issue was a profile of Nolan Ryan by Tony Kornheiser.1 Though Ryan had already thrown four no-hitters, had developed a mystique as the most exciting pitcher in the game, and had just signed the richest contract in team sports history, he also had a reputation with the press of being a flat, largely colorless character. Inside Sports editor John Walsh (later the executive editor of ESPN) chose Kornheiser for the assignment. At the time, Kornheiser was emerging as one of the best in the art of the long takeout piece, the extended profile popularized by Andre Laguerre’s Sports Illustrated of the ’60s and ’70s. Kornheiser had worked his way up from Newsday to the New York Times, and in 1979 he was lured to the Washington Post, where he could concentrate on the long-form pieces that were his specialty.
There had been an earlier test issue of Inside Sports, published in the fall of 1979, with six different covers, and a Tony Kornheiser profile of Mike Schmidt. But the issue dated April 30, 1980 was considered the official launch, the first issue available nationwide.
Reading the story more than three decades after he wrote it, Kornheiser remains slightly insecure and highly critical of his own work. He professes that he remembers very little about what went into writing the story — “One of my great strengths is the ability to forget” — but allows that he doesn’t think it has aged very well, and that today he would cut it “by about 1,100 words.”2
The line editor for the piece was Jay Lovinger — who had been Kornheiser’s friend and classmate at SUNY-Binghamton and was recommended for the Inside Sports job by Kornheiser. Lovinger’s recollection of the story was that it was his first real editing assignment: “I get the piece, and I was overeager, and I kind of edited the shit out of it. So Tony comes in from Washington by train, because he hates to fly, and me and Tony and Walsh meet in Walsh’s office, I think on a Saturday morning. And Tony looks at the edit, and he just goes, ‘I can’t believe this. This isn’t my piece anymore, I don’t want my name on it.’ So I was feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing, but at the same time, he was saying this in front of Walsh about the first piece I ever edited. So I got a little irritated, and when he said he wanted his name off of it, I said, ‘OK, Tony, here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to take the piece, and we’re going to cut it up into paragraphs, and I’m going to throw them up in the air, and we’re going to run the piece in the order that they land, and we’re going to put your name on it.’” In the end, Walsh brokered a compromise. Today, Lovinger says he “totally overedited the piece, and I had no idea how to handle a writer, let alone a star writer.” Kornheiser, for his part, says “I have absolutely no recollection of the editing process. This is absolutely news to me. I revere Jay Lovinger, he’s one of the two or three wisest men I know, and anything that he had done to edit and help me I would have welcomed.” And Walsh says, “I can’t remember ever receiving a Tony Kornheiser piece where he didn’t say each of the following: ‘I don’t know if it’s any good; you may not want to run it; and if not, that’s OK.’”
From Inside Sports Charter Issue
April 30, 1980
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
Nolan Ryan is rich, handsome, proud, loved, faster than a speeding bullet — and only a .500 pitcher.
BY TONY KORNHEISER
- HOUSTON, Sept. 10, 1980 (AP)3 — Fireballing Nolan Ryan pitched a record fifth no-hitter last night as the Houston Astros edged the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1-0.4 Ryan, whose legendary fastball — The Ryan Express — has been clocked at 100.8 miles per hour, broke his tie with ex-Dodger Sandy Koufax as the only men in baseball history to pitch four no-hitters. The 33-year-old Ryan, now 12-12 on the year, walked five and struck out 14 and was in trouble only in the fourth after he walked the bases loaded and had to whiff Steve Garvey and Ron Cey to escape from the jam. His 14 strikeouts moved him past Bob Gibson on the career strikeout list and within 400 of Walter Johnson’s 3,508 all-time mark. The flame-throwing right-hander already has the single season strikeout record of 383; he also has the major league career mark in walks. His previous four no-hitters came with California. He joined the Astros last winter as a free agent, signing an historic contract for more than $1 million per year over three years giving him the highest annual salary ever paid a professional athlete. “I’m quite proud to pitch my fifth no-hitter,” he said, “but I don’t think that it will change what people think of me. People always judge me by my Ws and Ls.” The win gave Ryan a lifetime record of 179-171.
Ryan’s actual fifth no-hitter was at home in the Astrodome, and it was against the Dodgers, but it came on September 26, 1981, about a year after Kornheiser predicted. Asked if he remembered his reaction to it, Kornheiser says, “I know exactly what my reaction would have been. I would have walked into the Post the next day, and gone to [sports editor] George Solomon, and said something like, ‘I had that one, didn’t I?! I called that sonuvabitch, didn’t I?!’ And I would have felt so happy for him. And for me, too.”
The lead for the story — imagining a news report six months in the future — was, in Kornheiser’s words, “utterly made up and meant to look like AP copy. And we set the lead off in AP copy. Every cliché in the book, and I just thought — I was really proud of that shit.”
It was in 1973. No, maybe 1974. Then again, it doesn’t matter when, only that it happened. Once with Dick Allen and once with Reggie Jackson. Maximum wood. The only kind of hitters Nolan Ryan really likes facing, because they can beat him with one swing.
Both times Ryan was pitching in games that were already tubed; he was down two or three, late. Ryan, who always thought like a bullfighter anyway, figured it was time to go for the kill. The prospect of having Allen’s tail and Reggie’s ears in his pocket appealed to his ego. So, each time, Ryan called his catcher to the mound and told him to tell the hitter, “Nothing but heat.” Which is something of a direct challenge in the same way that spitting in a man’s face is something of an insult.
Allen looked out at Ryan and said, “Let’s get it on.” A few pitches later he flew out to right, and when he jogged past the mound he smiled at Ryan and said, “You got me.”
Reggie said nothing at all. He flew out to the leftfielder. He says it was a line drive. Ryan says it was routine.5
It was Ryan who first told Kornheiser about conveying the “nothing but heat” messages to Allen and Jackson. “Reggie would have loved that more than anything in the world,” Kornheiser says. “Every swing Reggie Jackson ever took, he wanted to hit the ball to the airport. Every. Single. Swing. So, if he was getting fastball after fastball after fastball, and not hitting it to the airport, that must have pissed him off, and made him say to himself, as Reggie would have said, ‘Well, fuck, I’m a Hall of Famer, so I damn well know this guy’s a Hall of Famer.’ Reggie appreciated that. Reggie appreciated the artistry, and Reggie appreciated the ego, and Reggie must have seen that in Nolan — he must have.”
“We both consider it a draw,” Ryan says.
In fact, Ryan considers the Allen duel a draw too “because I didn’t strike him out.”
Nothing less would have satisfied him — not even a called strike three — but a screw-yourself-into-the-ground-from-the-aftershock swinging strike three.
Nolan Ryan, who has the arm, the money and the power, would seem to have all the right stuff to control his destiny. But he has that kind of pride the Greek playwrights burdened their tragic heroes with. Only on the field, but always on the field. He has to be definitive, always the perfect pitch to the perfect spot for the perfect strike. In his heart, he wants to turn a team game into solitaire. He has told his close friends, “The greater the pressure, the more I like it. I’d get the most satisfaction accomplishing something that people didn’t think I was capable of.” He is a romantic: You want to see if I’m worthy of this gifted arm? Fine. Get things just the way you want them and give me the sign. Then, if you can see me, try and hit me. He is the most spectacular pitcher of his time, but he can’t win for losing.
This is what is now important to Nolan Ryan as far as baseball is concerned — that he is a pitcher, not a thrower. The distinction? Sandy Koufax and Steve Dalkowski. You’ve never heard of Dalkowski? Well, he could bring it, faster even than Ryan, according to Harry Dalton, who, when he was general manager of the Angels, traded for Ryan. Dalkowski may have been the fastest ever, but he couldn’t find the plate with a road map. Just another thrower. Ryan was too when he came up with the Mets. An awesome blur “but as raw as talent came. I didn’t know the first thing about pitching.”
He spent the next 12 years obsessed by the pursuit of excellence, claiming the same prerogative as a junkballer like Randy Jones to throw the 3-2 curve on the corner. “Nolie has thrown more 3-2 curves than any power pitcher in history,” says Tom Morgan, his former pitching coach at California, the man whom Ryan credits with teaching him how to pitch. “I tried to change him, believe me. Many, many times I told him, ‘Just throw it as hard as you can down the middle of the plate — they won’t hit it anyway. Just pitch one full game like that for me and see how it turns out.'”
“Nope,” Ryan says. “If I do, they’ll call me a thrower.”
While this appears to be contradictory — Ryan’s need to get a 3-2 curve past a slap hitter with the bases loaded vs. Ryan’s need to get a 100-mph heater past a dangerous slugger with nobody on — the appearance is deceiving. There are two sides to the coin of pride — and Ryan is standing firmly on both. Ryan’s hope is to get each batter out in the manner that pleases him most as a pitcher.
So, at the risk of squandering his talent, he took the road less travelled, and it has made all the difference. Over the last eight seasons Ryan has allowed just 6.27 hits per nine innings; the American League has batted a collective .193 against him, by far the best performance of any starter, almost 30 points lower than Jim Palmer and almost 40 points lower than Gaylord Perry, who are, statistically, the two best pitchers in the league for a comparable period.
But because he seeks to control a game so completely by being super fine, he doesn’t give anyone anything to hit and hitters wait on him. One, they fear his speed, and two, they realize no one can throw perfect pitches to perfect spots forever. “You can’t wear him out, so you wait for him to get wild and beat himself,” says Dick Williams, who managed Ryan at California. Ryan won’t miss by much, but he’ll miss often. His 5.37 walks per nine innings over the last eight seasons is by far the worst of American League starters. When you pitch for teams like the Mets and the Angels of the mid-seventies, that considered two runs a month’s work of slugging, you can’t give away that much and win.
“The bottom line is wins and losses,” says Williams. “Look at his record. It’s .500. It’s nothing.”
The Orioles’ Mark Belanger: “It’s amazing with his stuff that he doesn’t win more.”
Dick Williams: “He throws a lot of pitches. The way the game is supposed to be played is to throw the least amount possible. My opinion is that he’s trying to strike out every hitter he faces, and every time he throws the ball he wants the hitter to swing and miss. You’ve got seven fielders behind you. Use them. You like the arm, but is it productive for the team?”
Jim Palmer: “Nolan’s got so much more natural ability than the rest of us. He’s like a child prodigy. You can’t even comprehend what it’s like to be that talented … [but] he tries to intimidate people. I try to get them out. If you’re going to lose, it’s sure great to strike out 380 guys. I’m not saying he isn’t a winner. Maybe his niche is 383 strikeouts. Mine is winning two-thirds of my games.”6
Upon rereading the story, Kornheiser was struck by Palmer’s barbed response. “Palmer didn’t have a jealous bone in his body,” Kornheiser said. “Palmer was perfect! He may have been dismissive of people, but I don’t think Palmer was ever jealous. Palmer was the handsomest guy in the world. He had a fabulous record, he was on World Series winners, he was brilliant — brilliant — he had total recall of every pitch he ever threw. And he would stand and talk to you, and there would be a twinkle in his eyes, and afterward you’d say, ‘It’s him and Paul Newman — those are the two handsomest guys in the world.’ I don’t think Palmer was jealous, I honestly don’t. I think, if anything, he just said, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? What are you talking about with this guy?’”
It is late January and the flatland of southeastern Texas is swollen with water from three days of rain. The local bayous have overflowed and the gullies on the sides of the road are rivers. The land looks cold and ugly, as far from summer and the abominably large mosquitoes that breed here as possible. Ryan is in his pickup truck, the same pickup he used the day before to load 2,000 pounds of bull-grower at the feed store.7 He is on his way from Houston, America’s largest safe deposit box, to his hometown. As the pickup gobbles ground on the road to Alvin, his voice is as flat as the land he is crossing. In the face of overwhelming criticism he persists: His way is the right way.
Kornheiser says he got to spend “probably two or three full days” with Ryan, which didn’t seem unusual in 1980, when national print media still possessed significant stature. “Nolan picked me up in a truck, and we drove around, and we chatted and chatted and chatted and chatted,” says Kornheiser. “That would not happen — well, I don’t want to say that would not happen now. I think athletes would happily let an MTV crew in, you know, I just don’t think it would be a writer. But I think that they would let media in, because now they’re just used to being filmed all the time.”
“Number one for me was always location. I want to make the perfect pitch. With perfect location, it doesn’t matter how bad your stuff is. I will not throw the ball down the middle. Don’t tell me that Jim Palmer says he wouldn’t throw a 3-2 curveball if he could throw 98; he wouldn’t throw it down the middle if he could throw 98 — and anyway, he wouldn’t know what it’s like because he can’t throw 98. He never stood on that mound with a bad team and no runs and knew if he threw one bad pitch he’d be beat. He was never in that position. Jim Palmer’s always pitched for the best infield in baseball, and his team scored runs.
“I’ve been told all my career that I shouldn’t worry about hitting the corners. That’s not right. You can get away with going down the middle the first time down the lineup and maybe strike out five or six guys, but the second time they get a piece of you, and by the third time they’ve got you timed and you’re out of there. I agree I used to be too fine, but I always felt that was my only hope, the least chance I had of losing.
“I walked a lot of guys. I drove managers crazy. They said I wasn’t pitching the way someone of my ability should. If I’m going to lose, I’m going to lose my way. Who gets the L? Out of nine guys, I live with the L for the rest of my life. If I had to walk off as the losing pitcher, then I had to do whatever I could to make sure it didn’t happen. If that meant I tried to control the game, I’d do it. I don’t like the record. I can’t erase it. I can’t get around it. I wish it’d been different, not so much so I’d be considered great, but because I don’t think people should have to defend me. It sure makes a big difference to a lot of people.”
And now he is chuckling, counting his money in his mind’s eye. “Doesn’t seem to make that much difference to the Houston Astros.”
There is no tape deck in the pickup, which is unfortunate, because you know that in the background, through all this, Frank Sinatra would have been singing “My Way,” followed by Sammy Davis Jr. singing “I’ve Gotta Be Me.”
Nolan Ryan rolls into Alvin doing 55 and laughing.
The house sits behind three 130-year-old oaks and in front of 80 acres of land. There are bird dogs on the patio, horses on the lawn and cattle roaming the pasture. He is very much at home on the range, far away from the vertical claustrophobia of Manhattan and the postage stamp lawns of Orange County. There are 600 more acres on a site 100 miles west in Gonzalez, and his dream is to be self-sufficient as a rancher.
“I like ranching better than baseball,” Ryan says. “I could be very content doing it. Everyone has his dream. I guess I got mine when I was younger and my uncle owned a dairy. I wanted to own a large tract of land, maybe 2,000 acres, and my own head of cattle, maybe 200-250 cows. You could sell the calves each year. That’d be enough to support my family.”
You have to see him at home to know him, see him away from the ballpark in his jeans and flannel shirts and tractor driver cap (caps are de rigeur in southeast Texas; it’s like everyone is a closet conehead), see him hugging Wendy, 3, or playing hide and seek with Reese, 4, or helping Reid, 8, paint his model car, see him open the car door for Ruth, his childhood sweetheart and best friend, see him at the table when Reese says grace, see him in the pickup truck running an errand to the feed store, the three kids climbing all over him and his smiling the kind of smile that Norman Rockwell painted on magazine covers, see him in Alvin waving to the fathers and sons of people he grew up with.
Nolan and Ruth Ryan are straight out of a Stove Top Stuffing commercial.
They stay at Holiday Inns. They call their elders “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
They were reluctant to buy their Mercedes because they felt that a Mercedes was a rich person’s car, and even after they bought the sedan because they were convinced it would appreciate, they promised each other not to buy anything else that would make people think they were putting on airs.
“He was always very sincere and he always treated me special,” Ruth, who is wearing a Ryan Express T-Shirt and curlers in her hair,8 says as she prepares supper. “He’s really old-fashioned and romantic. He bought me a book of poems once, and sometimes for no reason at all he buys me flowers. He calls me at least once a day when he’s on the road. He’s very understanding and protective, the exact opposite of what you see on the mound. He’s never mean with the kids, he’s never mean any time. What can I say? I always feel safe with him.”
Even in curlers, “I just remember how beautiful she was,” says Kornheiser of Ruth Ryan, and that memory prompts another one: “I remember this for over 30 years now. Allegedly the straw that broke the camel’s back with Tom Seaver and the Mets was a Dick Young column in which Dick Young said that Nancy Seaver wasn’t as pretty as Ruth Ryan. And Tom Seaver supposedly went fucking batshit about that. That’s the legend, at least.”
“That’s why I signed with Houston,” Ryan says as Reid, Reese and little Wendy run through the house. “It was for my family, because I thought the kids were getting to the age where moving twice a year and changing schools was disrupting their lives. Ruth and those kids come first, they come before everything. You want to know my greatest responsibility? It’s rearing my children to know the difference between right and wrong. It’s not throwing a baseball.”
Ryan’s eyebrows are jumping beans. “You know how much time I spend thinking about baseball in the off-season?” He makes a fist. And giggles. “Zero.”
Not much on abstract thought either. Doesn’t think too much about being the fastest gun in the game. Likes it. Likes the power. Wouldn’t want to be the fifth fastest, but doesn’t think about it too much. “I think of it mostly as a gift, something I didn’t have too much to do with,” he says. “I accept it. I’m not awed by it. I try to work as hard as I can so I know I did everything I could with it, because I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say well, you know, if I’d worked it, it’d been better, but I don’t spend time thinking about it.”
If you press him on it, Nolan Ryan will say that yes, there have been times, “certain nights when I’ve thrown and I’ve had to believe that I’ve had as good stuff as anybody ever had, when I can’t imagine anyone ever throwing any better.” But when you follow that by asking him what it feels like to be that fast, he just stares. And should you ask him why he was singled out to receive such a gift, you will get a grin and he will say, “When are you going to understand that I don’t think like that?”
His eyes are staring through the wall. “I’m sorry,” he says. “What were we talking about?”
The moment is gone, and he is out of his seat. He can’t sit still for long, can’t sit in a car, can’t sit indoors. Rather be outside doing something with his hands. Can’t spend more than an hour indoors without getting antsy.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s take a ride.”
Cruising the sidestreets of his hometown with his children, Nolan Ryan points out a gas station where unleaded is selling for $1.08 a gallon. “I used to pump gas at that station,” he says, his Texas twang think and rich like a barbecue sauce. “I remember once we got in a gas war and I was selling it at 23.9.” He laughs. He can’t believe 15 years have passed since he was an Alvin Yellow Jacket, and that yellow jacket that now hangs in a trophy case at the high school covered his once 150-pound body like a tent. The citizens of Alvin have retired his number — he can’t remember, it was either 18 or 19 — named a street, Ryan Drive, in his honor and renamed the high school field “Nolan Ryan Field.”
“It’s one of the greatest honors a man could have, having his hometown name something after him, being so proud of him.”
To the paint store and the feed store, and on the way back, when the kids are quiet, Ryan slows the pickup to a crawl and says something about reincarnation. He says if there was such a thing, he’d like to come back as a cougar. And run free.
The contract sings. It calls for a guaranteed $3.5 million over three years and $1 million more for a fourth year if Houston decides to exercise its option.
“When I signed with the Mets I wasn’t even sure I could get past A-Ball,” Ryan says. “When I made the majors I figured I maybe had a shot at getting my four years in for my pension. I never expected to get this far. What’s funny is that scouts said I had a ‘million-dollar arm’ and I laughed at them.”
A possible $4.5 million for a .500 pitcher. Or, as Buzzie Bavasi, the California GM, says when asked — How can you replace Nolan Ryan?: “You mean, could I find two 8-7 pitchers?” So much for the depth of feeling between Bavasi and Ryan.
Actually, had Harry Dalton still been the GM at California, Ryan never would have become a free agent. He liked the area, the field, the organization, and especially the fans. But Bavasi’s coming two years ago changed things. Ryan never liked him. But even with Bavasi there, as late as after the 1978 season, Ryan would have taken an extension on his contract, another three years for $1.2 million. Bavasi looked at Ryan’s 10-13 record and passed. Then, when Ryan became a free agent after a 16-14 season, the most Bavasi offered was $475,000 a year.
“He just wouldn’t negotiate,” says Richard Moss, Ryan’s attorney. “At one point I mentioned a five-year contract with the million-dollar figure for the last two years strictly as a first offer. He didn’t make a counterproposal. He just went public to the papers with it trying to embarrass us. All he succeeded in doing was getting other owners to think about it, and making me intent on getting Nolan that figure.”
Or, as Bavasi says, “We’ve had enough of Mr. Moss.” So much for the depth of feeling between Bavasi and Moss.
Ryan thought five clubs might come after him heavy, and he was wrong only about one, Boston; the Red Sox didn’t even draft him.9 Texas, Houston, the Yankees and Milwaukee, where Dalton is now GM, were hot for him. Ryan felt Texas wouldn’t be able to be competitive in the negotiations, then eliminated the Yankees and Brewers because he thought he ought to make his home permanently in the city he selected, and he preferred staying in Alvin, 30 miles southeast of Houston. The negotiations were handled by Moss and John McMullen, the Houston owner. They did not take long.
When Kornheiser wrote this, baseball was still employing the reentry draft for free agents. Designed in 1976 at the dawn of free agency, the draft restricted the number of players a team could pursue, as well as the number of teams that could make offers to free agents. No more than 13 teams, including the team the free agent played for in the previous season, could draft a player, and only those teams could negotiate with him.The system was a response to concerns that an open market would allow wealthy clubs to sign all the best players. By 1980 it was already becoming clear that the elaborate draft process made little difference from what would have occurred in an open market, and the system was modified after the 1981 strike and scrapped in 1985.
And now we must ask ourselves what Houston bought for its $4.5 million, because as Ryan himself says, “I don’t know what my potential is, but I’m 33 years old and I’ve got to figure that whatever it is, I reached it somewhere back on down the road. If they expect me to be 25-5 for them, they’re not thinking straight. [It’s always they; Ryan is keeping distance until the Astros let him know he is blood, not just money.] I’ve got to feel they’re paying me on what I already did.”
First of all, this is a business. Dalton says that each time Ryan started, it meant 5,000 extra fans.10 At 36 starts a year, that works out to 180,000 extra fans. At an average of $5 a ticket, it works out to $900,000 in extra revenue to be shared between home and visiting teams, not to mention parking and concession fees — or the reasonable possibility that Ryan will help the Astros to a pennant and fan interest will spill over, increasing attendance, parking and concessions for all 81 home games. Nolan Ryan, even at $1 million a year, should make money for Houston.
This was the sort of specious claim that baseball writer Bill James loved disproving. A year after the story ran, Daniel Okrent’s profile of James in Sports Illustrated mentioned that James had debunked the claim that attendance consistently increased on the nights Ryan pitched: “Although Ryan led the staff in per-game attendance on the road, more folks per start came to the Astrodome [in 1980] when Joe Niekro pitched — or, for that matter, Vern Ruhle — than when Ryan started, which is nothing new. In California in 1976 Nolan was outdrawn in per-start attendance by such Angel stalwarts as Don Kirkwood and Gary Ross. In 1978 he was the fourth-most-watched pitcher per start on the Angel staff.”
Over the last eight years the top pitchers in the American League were arguably Palmer, Perry, Ryan, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Luis Tiant and Ferguson Jenkins. Ryan had more starts, innings, complete games, shutouts, strikeouts and walks than all the others, more victories than all but Palmer — and, of course, more losses.
The most interesting statistic is individual winning percentage as compared to team winning percentage. Ryan’s percentage at California was .533 (138-121) while California’s percentage, even with Ryan, was only .481 — that’s a plus 52. Only Perry (plus 88), Palmer (plus 61) and Tiant (plus 59) were better.
The statistic that Ryan supporters — and Ryan himself — point to with the most pride: In the 114 games in which Ryan took a lead into the eighth inning with the Angels, he won an incredible 109, lost 2 and had 3 no-decisions.
“If you’re down to Ryan after seven,” says Dick Williams, “you just pack up the bags.”
“It’s my game,” Ryan says. “With the Angels we didn’t get the lead that often. When we did, I wasn’t going to let it get away. You look at my record and see .500, but there’s a difference. Some people are losers. I’m a winner.”
As Dalton says, “Every time he goes out there there’s the possibility of a no-no.”
Four no-nos. Seven one-hitters. Fifteen two-hitters. Twenty-five three hitters.
“You beat him early, or you don’t beat him,” says Ruth Ryan. “Either way it’s always exciting.”
That’s what Nolan Ryan thinks the Astros should be selling. Either way, it’s always exciting. Ryan, his new teammate J.R. Richard and Ron Guidry are the only starters in the majors who are truly thrilling, and Ryan is the most thrilling. “Things happen when I pitch,” he says. “A sinker-ball pitcher gets three ground outs and nothing happens. It’s boring watching guys get singles and groundouts. My games are exciting. Fans love ’em. Yeah, they cuss when I walk a run in, but that’s me, that’s the way I pitch.
“My performances are for the fans. I want those fans to say, ‘He gave it all he had.’ When I get out of the game for good I’m probably going to have too many losses for anyone to consider me a great pitcher, but I’d like people thinking of me like this — when Ryan was on the hill we knew we were in the ballgame.”
When Ryan is on the hill and at his best, the hitter has two choices. He can look for the fastball, which is virtually unhittable; it comes in so fast that even Ryan can’t appreciate the speed “because I never see it hit the glove, I’m always on the other end of it.” Or he can look for the curve that breaks down as if it has been poured from a bottle over the side of a cliff.
Then again, you really can’t look for the curve. “If you do,” Belanger says, “you wind up in the hospital.”
They say a hitter can’t have any fear, but Belanger will tell you, “If there is anyone you fear, you fear Ryan.” And Williams will tell you that when he managed the Oakland A’s against Ryan, some of his biggest bats took the afternoon off. “They came down with a rare flu,” Williams says. “I called it Nolanitis.” It’s a sudden attack of the nervous system brought on by the thought of feeling that proud heat rush past your face. “We’re all in the major leagues,” Belanger says. “But he has something special. It’s a moral victory not to strike out against him.”
It’s not that he’s so physically intimidating. Ryan’s 6-2, 195 pounds. Many are bigger. But none are faster. And he always saves the fastest stuff for the biggest hitters. Ryan does not like facing slap hitters; hates it, in fact. He considers them gnats, loathsome and annoying. He wants to prove himself against lumberjacks.
So great is the thrill from the challenge of that kind of hitter, that in confrontation Ryan seems to take the other seven men on the field behind him and discard them like pieces of wrapping paper. Nothing else exists but that hitter. It’s not concentration Ryan seeks, but dominance. “The reason I like facing Reggie so much,” Ryan says, “is because Reggie always goes for the downs against me. I like the confrontation. I like facing a threat. That’s where it’s at.”
It goes both ways. “I remember one time a couple of years ago, it must have been 85 degrees out there, and by the 12th inning, he’d thrown maybe 160-170 pitches against us,” says Jackson. “The Angels had bullpen problems, and there was no relief in sight. Back in the eighth, he’d gotten in a jam, and from then on had thrown nothing but fastballs. Everybody in the park knew what was coming, every pitch. Twice I faced him between the eighth and 12th, and twice he struck me out. I don’t remember who won the game, but I remember that. After the second time, I just tipped my hat to the man. Thank you, I was saying, for allowing me to watch that performance, and I had the best seat in the house.”11
The game Jackson remembers was played August 13, 1977, at Yankee Stadium. The Angels won 6-5 in 12 innings, and Ryan threw 11. Reggie went 0-for-4 with two walks that day. Ryan struck out Jackson to lead off the eighth, got him to fly out to end the ninth and struck him out again to end the 11th. No pitch counts are available, according to Baseball Reference, but Jackson was the 49th batter Ryan faced that day. He’d walked seven and struck out 11. After giving up three runs in the first and two in the third, he finished with eight innings of shutout ball. (For the bar bet, Mike Barlow got his first save of the season, stranding two runners in the 12th.) The win put Ryan at 17-10 on the season.
Of all his pitching records, the one Ryan enjoys the most is the 383 strikeouts in 1973. When he talks about it now, he still shakes his head in appreciation. “That proved what I could do over a whole year. I did it against designated hitters, on a flat mound. I look at that record and I get the feeling it might last a long time.”
Which brings us full circle.
Jim Palmer: “I used to think strikeouts were his main criteria for success, and winning was incidental.”
Harry Dalton: “As far as he was concerned, a strikeout was a putout. You can’t argue with that logic.”
Dick Moss: “He goes out every time to pitch a no-hitter. Until he can’t do it anymore, he’s going to do it.”12
“If you look at this story carefully, there were too many quotes strung together,” says Kornheiser. “That’s the insecurity. I needed 12 people to back up what I thought, and I had to show you that I reported it. I had to show you that I had these quotes. And I wouldn’t do that now. One quote’s enough. It just seemed to be overburdened with quotes, and overburdened with a writer seeking desperately to characterize someone in stone for the rest of time. And I wouldn’t do that again. It doesn’t have enough ambivalence. I sort of admire ambivalence, and it didn’t have enough of that.”
Nolan Ryan: “I never think no-hitter, and I’d rather win 5-4 than lose 1-0 in 12 with 16 strikeouts. There’s just no comparison. You can’t put personal goals ahead of your team’s. That’s not right.”
This is it. Three years, four at the most, and counting down.
“The only way this wouldn’t be it is if I was winning 15 to 18 a year and they wanted me and I was enjoying it,” Ryan says. “I don’t expect it. I’m in a pay bracket where they don’t keep you around just because things are going well. I’ll tell you — the amount of pitches I’ve thrown, I’d be surprised if when I’m 38 or 39 I’m still throwing in the 90s.”
Already the phased withdrawal has begun.
Nolan Ryan can leave it. He doesn’t love it like Tom Seaver or need it like Pete Rose. He will not overestimate what he has left and embarrass himself like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, nor will he be tortured by the nightmares like Mickey Mantle. No, he will pick the fruit when it’s ripe, squeeze it, drink the juice and walk away from the table. He is emotionally secure enough to know there is life after baseball, life during baseball. All the trophies, Nolan’s for baseball and Ruth’s for tennis — intentionally placed over Nolan’s in one side of the trophy case — are in one room. “For the kids,” Ryan says. Of all the balls, plaques and cups the one that means the most to Ryan is the Newsweek cover he got in 1975, “because that one wasn’t a sports magazine.”13
“Again, if you sort of look back and you try to connect the fibers there, he’s clearly a more sophisticated guy than I thought,” says Kornheiser. “By the same token, the two things that seemed to mean the most to him, was that he was on the cover of a newsmagazine, and that his high school named the field after him. So in one case, he’s saying, I am this guy, I am this local hero, I like that a lot, and my roots are in sports. On the other hand, he’s saying I’m not a rube, I’m not a guy who just goes out there and performs for you. I’m not a monkey.”
He is tall, rugged and handsome. He has a beautiful wife for whom he still opens car doors and three adorable children for whom he would do anything. He is responsible, soft-spoken, unpretentious and polite, a good and kind man who works hard, does what he’s supposed to, as his father did before him. He’s got big money but small needs, and the envy of his peers because his talent is so astounding that they can only shake their heads in wonder at it. He is a Texan, a rancher — a cowboy — and though Californians personify the American Dream, it is Texas cowboys who personify the American Hero.
But heroes are supposed to be winners.
This hero hasn’t been one. Consider that he was 16-14 last season with a club that scored more runs than any other club in the last 17 years but the 1976 Minnesota Twins. And now he moves to a team that hit only 49 homers all season (only two over a fence at home after July 15 and one of those was by a pitcher) and to a park where 28.3 per cent fewer runs were scored than in the average of the 11 other parks in the National League. Consider that his fastball, like the sun, also rises, and the National League umpires see the strike zone as anywhere at all between the knees and the thighs.
“The strike zone isn’t a factor. I can pitch down. The biggest adjustment will be learning the National League umpires. I like pitching complete games. I’ve always prepared myself for an extra-inning game. I’ve prided myself on my ability to go 12 innings and be as strong in the 12th as in the fifth, but I’ll do whatever the manager says. If he wants to take me out in the seventh, fine, as long as it helps the club. I’ll never express my feelings unless they ask me. You see, I knew all this when I decided to come here, and it was all secondary to my feeling that this would be the best situation for my family. For the first time in years, I’m really looking forward to playing baseball.”
If Ryan is aware of anything at all about coming back home a rich man to play in Houston, he is aware of the pressure that sits on his shoulders like a harpy. He is not ever going to be just one of the guys. If he thinks at all in the abstract, he thinks about this. He does most of his thinking in the car, and the Astrodome is a 40-minute ride from Alvin.
“I don’t know exactly how to say this, but one thing I believe in is not disappointing people who put their trust in me. I want people to say that the Astros made the right move. I’m the highest-paid player in baseball and people expect me to achieve higher levels than others. I think I can put it in perspective because I saw what happened at California when we signed Rudi, Grich and Baylor. The organization built them up like we were getting three Willie Mayses in their prime; they promised the fans a pennant. So Rudi and Grich got hurt that first year because they were pressing too hard, and Baylor got off to a miserable start. The next season Lyman Bostock was our free agent and he was so uptight he swung at balls in front of the plate. Last year even as great a player as Rod Carew got off below his standard. You see what I mean? The free agents have a tendency to give in to the pressure because they want so badly to show the fans they’re worth the money.”
All winter long Ryan worked out so he could be in the best possible shape for spring training. He ran laps and lifted weights in the Dome, worked outdoors and lifted more weights at the house in Alvin. He is conscious of and somewhat alarmed at the effect of aging on his body. He sees his weight settling around his middle, so he lays off beer a little more than he’d like, and he runs more than ever because he has a history of calf and groin pulls and his legs are where he gets his arm from; the legs go and he’s in the 80s in no time.
“Some of these kids on the team look at me like I’m one of the coaches. Time goes by so fast, it scares you. I used to take my ability for granted; I don’t know. I work harder. I don’t go out there and say I don’t have to run cause, hey, I’ve got it. I work hard every day.”
The word “clenched” doesn’t go far enough in describing Tal Smith, the Houston GM. He makes breathing seem like a 50-mile run with full pack. If he ever chose to open his mouth wide enough, he could probably bite through the Houston telephone directory.
“Not the kind of guy you can make small talk with,” says Ryan.
The first thing Smith says about Ryan is, “I didn’t handle the actual negotiations.”
No GM in his right mind would want to take responsibility for giving a player — especially a pitcher — a $1 million a year contract, and furthermore Smith has always been opposed to building a club through free agency; Ryan is the first prominent free agent in the Astros’ history. “One or two men won’t change a club when it’s dead last,” Smith says. “I submit as evidence of that San Diego and Atlanta.”
Ryan was the owner’s call. All the way.
Smith is already setting up the bailout.
Which makes sense. He tailored this club to the dimensions of the Dome. It’s the toughest park in baseball to hit home runs in, so he brought in players who ran fast, played defense superbly and slapped singles and doubles. To complement that kind of a defensive team you need quality pitching, control pitching. You can’t afford a pitcher who walks a lot of people, because a weak-hitting team can’t afford to give anything away. Smith says that “walks may take a bigger toll on a pitcher here than elsewhere.” Sometime this season, if he stays healthy, Ryan may break Early Wynn’s record for walks, career (Wynn has 1,775, Ryan 1,646). Then again, like Smith says, “You sign the best pitcher in the world and he will only get 35 or 40 starts and you hope he’ll win 60 per cent of those — that’s the best you can hope for with a pitcher.” In his years with the Angels, Ryan won 48 per cent of his starts. Smith goes on to say that Ryan “hasn’t enjoyed consistency and has had control problems.” He allows that Ryan “is a potential Hall of Famer,” but qualifies that by saying, “[it’s] in some measure due to the dramatic nature of his performance. He’s certainly memorable.”
But Smith maintains that the time was right to sign a free agent. Now that the Astros are contenders — they finished 1½ games out last season — one player can boost them into a pennant. “We’ve added a quality pitcher.”
For $250,000 you can get quality. For a possible $4.5 million, the seas should part.
Before driving home to Alvin after the workout at the Dome, Ryan takes a shower and standing there, dripping wet, Nolan Ryan’s right arm looks pretty much like anybody’s right arm, fabled or otherwise. A right arm. Not bionic. Not smoking. Not even particularly muscular.14 A right arm.
Three decades later, the apparent ordinariness of Ryan’s arm — and all that it concealed — still fascinates Kornheiser. He recalled a spring training visit with the Yankees in 1979, the season after Ron Guidry’s dominant 25-3 year, when he interviewed former Yankee Mike Torrez about Guidry: “And Mike Torrez was huge, like 6-foot-5, 230, and handsome. And Mike Torrez couldn’t dent 85. And I talked to him about that, and he looked at Guidry, and he said, in essence, How the fuck? Look at this guy. I can’t pop a balloon, and this scrawny sonuvabitch is throwing 97. Look at him. And Guidry really was, like, 5-10 and 160. And what else is that, but divinity? What else is that?! And you know what? God bless Nolan Ryan, because he didn’t waste it. I mean if you want to talk about every drop to the dregs, he did it. He went, as my friend Bill Nack would say, ‘He went the full classic distance, the mile and a half.’”
In his locker a uniform is hanging. No. 34. The Houston public relations people gave him the same number as Earl Campbell of the Oilers to create potential advertising tie-ins.15 There is a stack of mail waiting for him, an orange Houston cap and a baseball glove. Ryan’s locker is at one end of the clubhouse, diagonally across and some 60 feet away, respectful distance, from that one belonging to J.R. Richard.
Houston was big on iconic no. 34s. In addition to Campbell and Ryan, Hakeem Olajuwon wore the number, both at the University of Houston and with the Rockets.
“Nolan Ryan understands the problem, and he’s been magnificent in attempting to overcome it,” says McMullen, the owner who made the call. “We talked to J.R. He understands, too. J.R.’s position is: I’ll wait for my turn to come. Besides, we came very close to winning the pennant last year. Maybe Nolan Ryan will be the difference.”16
The intimidating Richard had been the Astros’ ace since 1976. A power pitcher in his own right, Richard owned (and still owns) the single-season franchise record for strikeouts with 313 in 1979. But Astros fans only glimpsed at what Ryan and Richard might accomplish together. On July 30, 1980 Richard suffered a stroke, collapsing before a game in Philadelphia. Doctors removed a blood clot from Richard’s neck and saved his life, but he never pitched in another regular-season major league game.
Ryan has seen the arrangement. “I’m very concerned not to create any problems on the club. I feel like I can get along with anybody. I do my work and I keep quiet, but because of the contract I’m sure a lot of people will be jealous and they’ll be looking to see how I handle it.
“If they want to dislike me, let them dislike me because I am Nolan Ryan — not because of the contract.”
There is a noose around his words as he speaks. And he is loosening it with a wink.
“I’m somewhat alert,” he has said. “I pay attention to what I see.”
On the wall, not more than two feet from Nolan’s locker, is a fire extinguisher.
When the issue hit the stands, Kornheiser remembers, “I felt extraordinarily proud that I was going to be on the cover maybe with David Halberstam and Mordecai Richler, or somebody like that, you know, somebody who’d actually contributed to the literature of the world. And I also remember looking at that, and looking at the way that Nolan Ryan posed, with his hat down over his eyes, in a very, very — it struck me as a cocky pose. And I looked at that and I said, Holy Shit! Who was the photographer on that? [veteran sports and entertainment shooter David Alexander17] Because that was great. I didn’t see that guy. And if you would pose like that, the photographer saw that guy, and it must have been that guy.”18
Alexander was a vastly talented photographer far better known for his entertainment work — he shot the cover of the Eagles’ Hotel California album, and the movie posters for The Blues Brothers and Terminator, among his hundreds of high-profile entertainment assignments.
The photo shoot was done at the Astrodome on a day when Ryan was working out. “The original idea completely failed,” says Alexander. “Nolan Ryan was fantastic; he was willing to do anything. I went down there with gold paint, to paint his arm gold — he was going to be The Man With the Golden Arm. And he was perfectly willing to do that. Well, what I didn’t find out from the makeup company where I got the gold paint was that you have to put a layer of white paint underneath it for the gold to really glow. So we painted his arm gold, but the pictures just didn’t work. And this was pre-digital; today, you’d just enhance the arm in gold and it wouldn’t matter. But in those days, you actually had to make it happen on the film.” Alexander, like most everyone else, was pleased with the cover. “I give the magazine a lot of credit for choosing that picture,” he says. “That was not an obvious choice to make. It took an art director with really good vision to select that, especially because it was the first issue of the magazine.”
As Kornheiser’s popularity increased, through PTI and Monday Night Football, his writing slowed and then finally, in 1999, stopped altogether. “I’ve watched too many guys get old, and think they had a fastball, and didn’t have a fastball,” he says, “and I’ve just watched too many people get to the point where they have nothing new to say and so they try to recreate their old moves. And I just don’t want to do it. I’ve told [Bill] Simmons, you can put my name on this Grantland thing, and I’ll be happy to write you e-mails. But I’m not going out there again with my pants off. I’m not doing that. I’m too old for that. There’s a new style of writing now. It’s just different than anything I ever wrote. They write with such enormous confidence. They have no doubts. I could never have done that. I lived with doubts all the time. It was the doubts, I guess, that drove me.”
The last long piece that Kornheiser wrote was the essay “Nothing But A Man,” which argued for Bill Russell as the defining athlete of the ’60s, in the 1999 book ESPN SportsCentury. Kornheiser wrote it after endless badgering from Walsh, who cajoled the story out of him in two brainstorming sessions with Kornheiser and ESPN editor Gary Hoenig. “I just didn’t want to write anymore,” Kornheiser said. “I didn’t have any confidence. I ended up with a piece that I’m told Bill Russell said was the best thing ever written about him. But I’ll never read it. That’s the last piece I’ve ever written. That’s more than 10 years ago. I’m afraid to write.”
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation, and the editor of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.