ON JUNE 11, 1990, LONG AFTER THE GAME WAS OVER, THOUSANDS of people were faithfully waiting outside the players’ entrance to Oakland Stadium. They stood with programs, pictures, popcorn boxes-anything mat would hold ink-hoping to snag an autograph, photo, or just a glimpse of their hero. Nolan Ryan, who had just pitched an unprecedented sixth no-hitter against the defending champion A’s. Every time the locker room door opened, the crowd jerked to attention, Then shoulders dropped as the PR peopie, stadium personnel, and anonymous beat writers left the stadium.
Finally, “There he is! It’s Nolan!” a kid shouted. The crowd surged towards the door.”Nolan! Over here!”: “’Nolan, sign my program!”: “Mr. Ryan, can we take our picture with you?”
But it wasn’t Nolan Ryan. It was me-a similarly tall, middle-aged white guy with a receding hairline. I was the wrong face in the right place.
It might have been the only time Nolan Ryan disappointed his fans.
I’ve held the mike for a lot of heroes, statistic-magicians in the numbers game of baseball whose names will go down in history. Nolan is one of these. “His arm should hang in the Smithsonian,” wrote the late sports columnist Jim Murray. “Right next to the Spirit of St. Louis or the first capsule to land on the moon.”
But the love and respect that Ryan earned from his fellow players- both for his dominance on the mound and for his character and dignity-is what elevates him above his peers. It’s not surprising that more than 30 players who have reached the majors have named their children Nolan.
I remember, after the 1988 season, when talk surfaced that Nolan was going to sign with the Rangers despite their long history of losing. My broadcast partner, the late Mark Holtz, phoned me in bewilderment and asked, “Why in the world would Nolan Ryan want to pitch for us?”
The answer: He wanted to be close to his family and ranches in Al vin,Texas. Sure, California and San Francisco offered more money, but that was never why Nolan played the game. In the post-expansion baseball era. when the important stats include not just RBIs and ERA but also salaries and ticket prices, Nolan remains a down-to-earth hero. He’s basically just a guy from Alvin, unfazed by the fact that he threw seven no-hitters. Nolan was usually the last guy standing outside the team bus signing autographs, jumping on board at the last minute with ink stains all over his shirt.
Now he’s a rancher. When I called recently, he’d just returned from checking on his cows. He talked about the minor-league team he owns, run by his son, Reese. “Reese graduates on Saturday-two weeks later he’s getting married,” Nolan said. “I was reading the wedding announcement the other day and I hollered out to Ruth, ’ Hey. listen to this! ’ “The couple will honeymoon in Paris and live in Fort Worth when they return.” ’Did you ever think you’d read something like that?’ We didn’t have a honeymoon. We were married one day and in Jacksonville at a ballgame the next.”
After he pitched his seventh no-hitter before a sellout crowd in Arlington on May 1,1991, Nolan said, “It was so special because … it was herein front of these fans on Arlington Appreciation Night. They’ve been so supportive of me since I came up here.” Nolan will be the Texas Rangers’ lone star in die Hall of Fame.
I asked him about his upcoming Hall of Fame induction and his recent trip to Cooperstown, where he explored the sanctum filled with myths, legends, and heroes. Although enshrinement in the Hall of Fame was never one of his goals, he was uncharacteristically “pumped” after watching the introductory film, a nostalgic paean to the sport mat restores those sandlot dreams and makes playing baseball seem like a privilege and an honor. “When I watched it.” Nolan told me. “it brought back all the good things about baseball that I liked. Sometimes you lose that feeling under the pressure to win. and it becomes more of a job and not something you are appreciative of. When you actually live in the game of baseball, and in your mind you have the guys you really respect and look up to. you never put yourself on their level. You hold them in a special place.
“When you realize the rest of the world views you in that light, it makes you feel very special.”