No. 70: Nolan Ryan

Hi, my name is Joe. I write a lot about baseball. I write about lots of other things too. If you’d like to take a look around, the archive is open for your enjoyment. You can see stuff I’ve written about Hamilton, about Harry Potter, about Bruce Springsteen, about Tiger Woods’ remarkable win at the Masters and so on.

The following is part of my series about the 100 greatest Major League Baseball Players ever. These are usually for subscribers, but it’s July 4th and I can’t imagine a more enjoyable American story than the one of Nolan Ryan. Hope you enjoy.

There are rare players in sports who defy lists such as these. They defy the very point of ranking. Barry Sanders was such a player. Was Barry Sanders the greatest running back ever? Some would say that, but I think they are wrong — I don’t think you can be the greatest running back ever when your coach takes you out on third downs, when you are not a particularly good pass catcher, when you do not unleash savage blocks on blitzing linebackers.

It’s that word, “greatest.” When you talk about the greatest players ever, you are talking about a box. Sure, it’s a good box to be in, yes, but it’s still a box. To be the greatest, you have to somehow be comparable (and superior) to other greats — Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning vs. Aaron Rodgers vs. Joe Montana, for instance. LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan, for instance. You need defined terms. You need clear rules.

What Barry Sanders was, in my view, was uncategorizable.

He simply did things no one else in football history could do. He was, I believe, the most electrifying football player ever, maybe the most electrifying athlete ever alongside Messi and Pelé and Orr and Bolt and Clemente and Mays and Magic and Pistol Pete and other uncategorizable superheroes.

Sanders did things that made your eyes pop out of their sockets, and he did them so often it felt like something of Greek mythology. He took the football and he would appear and disappear, shape shift and shrink and bend into Matrix-like poses, whatever it took to make defenders miss and look silly. He would run at full speed, stop like a video on pause, violently jump sideways as if chained to a moving train, well, there aren’t enough words, so watch these — the 50 most ridiculous Sanders plays as released by the NFL:

The thing about that video is, you keep seeing plays that you think: “Oh that HAS to be in the Top 5. How is that not in the Top 5?” And then you see the actual Top 5 and you go: “This person was not human.”

But the point is, you diminish Sanders and you diminish other greats by comparing them. I used to do that. I used to compare Sanders and Emmitt Smith. If I was starting a team, honestly, I’d take Emmitt Smith for reasons I’ve written about many times before.

So what? If I was picking a player to WATCH, though, it’s Barry Sanders and there’s nobody else.

And so it goes with Nolan Ryan. He’s on this list, but he’s impervious to comparisons. He was a singular baseball figure who was better at things and worse at things than any other pitcher in baseball history. If you needed someone to start Game 7 of the World Series, there are dozens of other pitchers who you might trust more than you would trust Ryan. But none of them, not one, could do what Ryan does. You could rank Ryan 70th or 23rd or 99th or 1st or not on this list at all, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Nolan Ryan was large. He contained multitudes.

Nolan Ryan was a sophomore in high school when he threw a softball 100 yards, from end zone to end zone of the Alvin High School football field. This didn’t impress Ryan much; he could always throw a ball farther than anyone else in the neighborhood. But it did impress the Alvin High School baseball coach who, as the story goes, asked Ryan to come out and pitch to the varsity team. Unsurprisingly, no one could touch him.

What’s more, nobody wanted to face him because Ryan’s control was, um …

“He didn’t know where the ball was going,” that coach, Jim Watson, said in the book, Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher. “And neither did the batter, which worked to his advantage.”

That fear — that Nolan Ryan did not know quite where the ball was going — would work to Ryan’s advantage for the rest of his life.

How did Ryan develop that sort of arm strength? The romantic version of the story is that he built it up by delivering Houston Post newspapers; Ryan and his father had a 1,500-customer paper route, and Ryan flung paper after paper before sunrise.

And let’s not dash the romance. Satchel Paige built his arm up throwing rocks at birds. Bob Feller (and Roy Hobbs) built his arm up throwing baseball’s against his father’s barn door. Nolan Ryan threw newspapers. All of them undoubtedly worked hard to develop their gift.

But there was also something supernatural about all of them. I mean, I delivered newspapers too.

When Ryan was a high school junior, he was discovered by scouts — there’s some debate apparently about which scout saw him first. Let’s go with Red Murff, a strong-armed Texas pitcher himself who, in a brief 26-game big-league career with Milwaukee somehow managed to strike out Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson;, Willie Mays AND Roberto Clemente. I mean: I’d take that career.

Murff often said that fate brought him to Clear Creek, Texas where he saw Ryan the first time. As soon he got home, he wrote a note to mark the occasion:

“This skinny high school junior HAS THE BEST ARM I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. This kid Ryan throws much harder than Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati reds or Turk Farrell of the Houston Colt 45s (I saw them pitch Thursday night, 4-23-63).”

Ryan would say a couple of years later: “He seemed to see something in me no one else did.”

Two years later, his Mets drafted Ryan in the 12th round of the first amateur draft.

Ryan’s minor league career was a whirlwind.

In Greenville, S.C. as a 19-year-old he struck out 272 and walked 127 in 183 innings. Hits? Nobody hit him. He allowed 5.4 hits per nine innings and only two of those hits were home runs. Nolan Ryan was — and this in the trait that would mark his career — out there alone, pitching to the catcher with the hitter at the plate a mere inconvenience.

He was called up to Williamsport where on September 1st, he pitched what was probably the first quintessentially Nolan Ryan game. He faced Pawtucket, pitched 10 innings and struck out 21 batters. Yet, he still lost 2-1. How did he lost a game where he struck out 21?

Well, in the 10th inning, a player named Don Gadbury reached on an error, moved to third on a wild pitch and stole home for the game-winning run.

How Nolan Ryan is that? But here’s the best part. The first run of the game was ALSO scored on a steal of home. Dave Nelson — who would go on to steal 50 bases in a season for the Rangers a few years later — singled in the sixth inning and then stole second, stole third and stole home.

You think Ryan was slow to the plate or what? That too never changed.

Anyway, the Mets called him up (“I’m scared to death,” he told reporters) and he made his debut on Sept. 11, 1966, two innings. Ryan struck out three including Eddie Mathews, but he got a fastball up to Joe Torre who deposited over the left field wall.

“I knew it was a little high when I threw it,” Ryan said after the game. “It kept on getting higher after Torre hit it.”

He was drafted into the Army Reserves in ‘67 … he returned in June and pitched seven innings in Jacksonville, Fla and struck out 18 batters. “As great as Nolan Ryan is pitching,” Dick Young wrote in the Daily News, “I just know that the day the Mets bring him up, he’ll get a sore arm.”

And, yep, that’s exactly when his arm popped. He went to see doctors, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong and suggested exploratory surgery. Ryan said no. They eventually found that his forearm tendon was torn and offered surgery to fix it. Ryan again said no. He said he’d fix the arm himself.

He did. By 1968, he was throwing as hard as ever but now for the New York Mets.

Everything the guy did was like that, like something out of a storybook.

The record in the non-Nolan world for strikeouts is 4,875, held by the incredible Randy Johnson.

Ryan struck out 5,714.

The record in the non-Nolan world for walks is 1.833 held by the incredible Steve Carlton … just ahead of the 1,809 walks by the incredible Phil Niekro.

Ryan walked 2,795.

The record for most no-hitters in the non-Nolan world is four held by the incredible Sandy Koufax.

Ryan pitched 7 no-hitters.

The record in the non-Nolan world for stolen bases allowed is 547 held by the incredible Greg Maddux.

Ryan allowed 757 stolen bases.

The pitcher over the last 100 years with the most errors in the non-Nolan world is the incredible Don Drysdale with 59.

Ryan committed 91 errors.

The record for fewest hits per nine innings in the non-Nolan world is 6.8, and is basically shared by those two remarkable Dodgers lefties, Koufax and Clayton Kershaw.

Ryan allowed 6.6 hits per nine innings.

The modern record in the non-Nolan world for wild-pitches is 226 and belongs to the aforementioned Phil Niekro, who threw a knuckleball that would do whatever it wanted to do.

Ryan threw 277 wild pitches.

The modern record for losses in the non-Nolan world is 279 and belongs to the incredible Walter Johnson.

Ryan lost 292 games.

The record for most complete games allowing two hits or less in the non-Nolan world is 25, held by Walter Johnson.

Ryan threw 37 two-hitters or better.

We can keep going … and this is why Nolan Ryan is incomparable.

In 1979, late May, there was a Sunday afternoon game between Nolan Ryan’s Angels and the White Sox. The leadoff hitter for Chicago that day was Ralph Garr, who struck out on three pitches, raced back to the dugout and shouted in his distinctly high-pitched voice: “Boys, we got NO shot today.”

Ryan threw a two-hit shutout and struck out 11.

This is what Nolan Ryan was going for every single game. He didn’t pitch for the moment. He pitched for posterity, for history, for ultimate dominance. Randy Johnson and Tom Seaver combined for an amazing 67 three-hitters in their awesome careers. Ryan alone had 69 of them.

Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez combined for an amazing 215 games with 10 strikeouts. Ryan alone had 215 such games.

Every … time … out, Ryan aimed for history. He refused to compromise, to moderate, to take his foot off the throttle even for a second. He could have tightened up his windup so that base-stealers didn’t run on him at will. He wouldn’t do it. He could have spared a couple of miles per hour off the fastball to refine his command. He wouldn’t do it. He could have given in a little and thrown a few more pitches over the plate so not to talk so many hitters. He wouldn’t do it.

No. Nolan Ryan was given great gifts, and he turned them into what is probably still the hardest fastball ever thrown and a curveball that ran away like an angry child, and every game he started he intended to throw a no-hitter. Every game he intended to strike out 27 batter. Every game, he intended to do something incredible, something worthy of his unique talent.

And it never stopped. When he gave up a hit, he intended to throw a one-hitter. And when he gave up two hits, he intended to throw a two hitter. Etc.

If he walked you, hell, he walked you and didn’t think much more about it. Gaylord Perry could have had his career TWICE and not walked as many batters as Nolan Ryan. There’s an incredible stat that I keep tabs on; as you knew, Ryan gave up fewer hits per inning than any pitcher in baseball history.

But where is he on the WHIP list, which includes walk plus hits?

At the moment, he’s 291st. THAT is how many walks he had.

If he threw a ball away as a fielder, or he threw a wild pitch, or he gave up a stolen base, hell, that was just part of the deal. Those were unfortunate but inescapable parts of being Nolan Ryan. He wasn’t the greatest pitcher ever. He was the most unhittable pitcher ever. Those sound similar. But they aren’t.

It’s possible (not certain, but possible) that Ryan could have moderated his game and become a somewhat different kind of pitcher. There were coaches through the years who tried to get him to do that. And he did adjust some after he got into his 40s — he reeled in his control a bit and even led the league in WHIP at ages 42 and 43.

But, realistically, if he had moderated his game, he would not have been Nolan Ryan.

And what fun would that have been?