BRINGING IT HOME : Ryan Returns With Memories of Glories, Frustrations
The nickname should have been the tipoff. The Express . It was borrowed from the title of a 1965 movie, “Von Ryan’s Express,” which alone should have foretold all that awaited Nolan Ryan and the Angels during their eight-year partnership of a decade ago.
In “Von Ryan’s Express,” the hero dies in the end.
To this day, Nolan Ryan still stands as the greatest Angel of them all. From 1972 to 1979, he burned like hot neon on the mound at Anaheim Stadium, bringing fans to their feet and American League hitters to their knees. He pitched four no-hitters with the Angels. He struck out 383 men in a single season, an all-time record. He won 20 games in consecutive seasons, threw the fastest fastball ever recorded on radar and struck out 19 in a single game four times--twice in an eight-day span.
Yet, Ryan’s reign in Anaheim was not so much a pitching career as it was a modern-day Greek tragedy, played out in the open air. With the Angels, Ryan was Achilles in spikes, the fearless warrior, winner of legendary battles but ultimately cursed by that fatal flaw.
Or, in Ryan’s case, two.
One was the sheer speed of Ryan’s fastball, which made him not only the most overpowering pitcher of his era, but also the wildest. Unable to get a handle on the unprecedented kick of his fastball, Ryan walked 204 in 1977, 202 in 1973 and led the league in walks in six of his eight Angel seasons.
The other, more crucial handicap was Ryan’s support during those eight seasons. When Ryan was at the peak of his abilities, the Angels fielded some of their poorest teams. From 1972 through 1978, the Angels failed to finish within 14 games of first place. In 1974 and 1975, the Angels placed last in the AL West. In 1972 and 1977, they placed fifth.
Worse still, from a pitcher’s standpoint, those Angels didn’t hit. In 1976, the Angels batted .235 as a team. In 1975, the Angels hit a total of 55 home runs--or, six less than Roger Maris hit in 1961. The same year, Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee observed that “The Angels could take batting practice in a hotel lobby and not break the chandelier.”
(Lee was proved correct, too, when Dick Williams, then the Angels’ manager, accepted the challenge and passed out plastic bats and balls to his players and instructed them to whack away. The hotel chandelier emerged intact.)
It was not a good combination, a lack of control coupled by a lack of support. It saddled Ryan with a burden he was unable to shake, a burden that denied him three of pitching’s richest prizes during his years with the Angels--the Cy Young Award, the World Series and the universal respect of his peers.
In 1973, Ryan won 21 games, pitched two no-hitters, struck out 383 hitters, threw nine shutouts and had a 2.87 earned-run average. But he lost the Cy Young Award to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer, who won more games with a better team and lobbied hard against presenting the award to anyone who walked 162 batters, as Ryan did.
In 1974, Ryan won 22 games, pitched another no-hitter, struck out 367, had three 19-strikeout games and finished with a 2.89 ERA. He also finished third in the American League’s Cy Young voting, behind the New York Yankees’ Catfish Hunter and Texas’ Ferguson Jenkins.
Looking back on those days still pains Ryan some, despite the passage of 10 years and two uniform changes.
“All I can remember about those games is that they were hard,” Ryan says. “I knew if I went out there and gave up a run or two that my chances of getting a win weren’t really good.
“I can remember a lot of hard games, like in ’72, getting beat, 1-0, by Wilbur Wood, you know, where the ball was hit over the first baseman and hit the chalk line. Things like that.
“That’s why it frustrates me when people make reference to the '.500 pitcher’ stat, because I know how hard it was to win ballgames over there. There were times when you wouldn’t give up a run, but you didn’t have anything to show for it except some innings pitched.”
Perhaps that explains the unique bond Ryan developed with Angel fans during the 1970s. He remains the most popular player ever to wear an Angel uniform, for reasons extending beyond strikeouts and no-hitters. No one among the thousands who clamored to see him pitch was ever going to experience the sensation of firing a baseball 100 miles an hour through the air. But each of them could identify with what Ryan was feeling out on the mound, agonizing over another 1-0 defeat.
Ryan was one of them. He epitomized the Angel fan experience, the never-ending torture that continues to this day. When you spotted Ryan’s name in that day’s pitching probables, there was hope, there was anticipation, there the promise of making history before the night was through.
And then that evening, two Angel infielders would let a pop fly fall between them for the only hit of the night and those hopes would come crashing down--only to be resurrected five days later, when the pitching probables, once more, proved irresistible.
And there they are again: Texas (Ryan, 9-4) at Angels (Finley, 9-6), Wednesday night at 7:30. It is Ryan’s first appearance in Anaheim Stadium since 1979, his final year with the Angels. It will be a 10-year reunion among 40,000 or so old friends.
“There’ll be something special in the air,” says Brian Downing, the last remaining Angel to have played with Ryan. “There’ll be some significance to the night. I’m sure most of the fans will be against us.”
For one night, the Angels are the enemy. For one night, the Express is back in town.
There’s a lot of catching up to do.
That was Dick Sharon’s nickname for Ryan. Dick Sharon was a light-hitting outfielder for the Detroit Tigers who didn’t especially relish the thought of stepping into the batter’s box when Ryan was standing on the mound.
“I call him the Exorcist,” Sharon said, “because he scares the devil out of me.”
And Sharon was hardly alone.
“He’s the only guy in baseball I’m afraid of,” said Reggie Jackson during his most formidable days as cleanup hitter for the Oakland Athletics. “If he hits you, you’re dead.”
That Ryan possessed the fastest fastball ever clocked--he hit 100.9 miles per hour in 1974--was only a fraction of the intimidation.
Ryan’s admission that he often “had no idea where the ball’s going” was the clincher.
“There was always the threat that he’d break their bat, break their head, whatever,” says Jimmie Reese, the Angels’ 83-year old conditioning coach. “They were scared.
“There were many times visiting players would see that Nolan was pitching and start walking around the clubhouse, saying, ‘I don’t feel good today. I’ve got a bad leg. I’ve got a sore throat.’
“I can readily understand that line of thinking.”
Ellie Rodriguez, an Angel catcher during those years, wore a dented gold medallion around his neck as a reminder of that one Ryan fastball he didn’t catch. American League umpire Jim Evans used to carry around an extra mask, this one a gnarled memento of the time a Ryan pitch ticked off the catcher’s glove and tagged Evans behind the plate.
To the good fortune of the rest of the American League, Ryan didn’t intentionally throw at hitters. The one time when a fastball truly got away from him, it cracked Boston Red Sox Doug Griffin in the side of his batting helmet so hard it knocked him unconscious. Griffin spent two days in the intensive care ward and missed 51 games before feeling up to the task of facing live pitching again.
Ryan was so fast that he became an adjective. By the end of the 1970s, any pitching prospect owning a particularly live arm was said to have “a Nolan Ryan fastball.” Any high strikeout performance became classified as “a Nolan Ryan game.”
In 1974, scientists from Rockwell International finally decided to gauge the exact speed of a Ryan fastball. They would chart Ryan on two separate dates, Aug. 20 against Detroit and Sept. 7 against Chicago, and flash the results on the Anaheim Stadium scoreboard after every pitch. In advance of the games, the Angels’ publicity department held a contest for fans to predict the exact speed of Ryan’s fastest offering.
At the time, Bob Feller possessed the land speed record--98.6 m.p.h., set in 1946, when Feller was 27. In 1974, Ryan was also 27.
On Aug. 20, Ryan cranked it up to an all-time record 100.9 m.p.h. On Sept. 7, he topped out at 100.8 m.p.h--his fastest pitch coming in the ninth inning. Overall, Ryan threw a total of eight pitches faster than Feller’s record.
Ryan seldom abused such power, but a couple of times, he had some fun with it. Twice in 1974, Ryan “called out” Dick Allen and Reggie Jackson for one-on-one duels, the baseball equivalent to high noon.
“Nothing but heat,” Ryan told Allen during the latter innings of a 9-1 Angel victory. “Let’s get it on,” replied Allen, who fouled off a half-dozen pitches before popping out to right field.
Ryan and Jackson battled to a similar draw. With Ryan firing nothing but fastballs, Jackson hit one to left field for an out, which Jackson would claim as a moral victory.
“He’s faster than instant coffee,” Jackson said.
The Angels’ Reese lends valuable perspective on any discussion of Ryan. When Reese pronounces Ryan to be a better pitcher than Walter Johnson, which he does, you tend to listen.
Reese actually saw Walter Johnson pitch.
Reese has been in professional baseball for 72 years and he claims he has yet to see any pitcher excite the home crowd the way Ryan did in Anaheim during the 1970s.
“He had the greatest drawing appeal of any pitcher I’ve ever seen,” Reese says. “No question about it. He meant at least an extra 5,000 to 10,000 fans every time he pitched.”
In those days, that meant Ryan was doubling and tripling average Angel attendance. Ryan remembers the first few games he pitched in Anaheim after his trade from the New York Mets. “Coming from Shea Stadium, it was like pitching in front of a triple-A crowd,” Ryan says. “It was exciting to see the situation grow.”
And Ryan didn’t simply bring in the fans from Garden Grove and Santa Ana.
He brought them in long distance.
In 1973, a 19-year-old named Paul Rosner rode a bus from his home in the Bronx to Anaheim, a trip of 3,000 miles, to watch Ryan break the single-season strikeout record. Why? Because, Rosner said at the time, he saw Ryan pitch a 15-strikeout game for the Mets in 1969 and “just fell in love with him.”
Over the next few years, a couple of UC Santa Barbara undergraduates named Bill Madden and Brad Stewart used to fly down the coast every night Ryan pitched at home. Madden was a Ryan nut, Stewart owned a pilot’s license, so theirs was a friendship that blossomed during Angel home stands.
“It was too long a drive,” Madden says, “so we’d fly into Fullerton and get a ride to Anaheim. We’d watch Ryan pitch and then fly back. The only thing Brad couldn’t do is drink.”
Today, Madden owns a sports bar in Fountain Valley, but his passion for The Express hasn’t diminished. Last winter, when Ryan played out his option with the Houston Astros, Madden organized a Bring Back Ryan campaign, circulating petitions, printing T-shirts and sending filming a videotape designed to influence Ryan’s free-agent decision.
Madden said he collected 10,000 signatures and sent the petition, along with the videotape, to Ryan’s home in Alvin, Tex. “We just wanted to show Nolan how much support there still is for him here,” Madden said.
Ryan ultimately opted for the Texas Rangers, so Madden now has a new favorite team. “I call them ‘The Ryan-gers,” Madden says. “We have five satellite dishes at the bar. We have Nolan Ryan Night every time he pitches.”
Madden offers his own theory about why Ryan was able to mobilize Angel fans unlike any other player in franchise history, Wally World and Reggie notwithstanding.
“He was, like, a silent hero,” Madden says. “He was not your brash Reggie Jackson type. He was a real good role model. He doesn’t say a lot, but he gets the job done.
“And those years with the Angels, there really wasn’t much to cheer for. After the first month, month and a half of the season, the Angels were out of it. If you went to the ballpark after that, you went to see Ryan pitch. You went to see him throw a no-hitter or to see how many strikeouts he might get.
“You never knew what might happen.”
The first came on May 15, 1973 and Ryan suggested it came out of the blue. Immediately after he threw it, Ryan told the assembled media, in total seriousness, “I never honestly felt I was the type of pitcher to throw a no-hitter.”
Yeah, sure, said the vanquished Kansas City Royals. They’d managed all of three baserunners--all of them on walks--during a 3-0 defeat.
“He’s throwing the ball harder than any man I ever saw in my life,” said John Mayberry, the Kansas City first baseman.
“If they had a higher league, he could be in it,” said Hal McRae, the Kansas City designated hitter.
Ryan struck out 12 and didn’t allow anything close to a base hit until the eighth inning, when pinch-hitter Gail Hopkins sent a looping line drive to shallow left field--a ball Angel shortstop Rudy Meoli pulled down with an over-the-shoulder catch. Kansas City’s best-hit ball of the night might have been the last, a drive by Amos Otis that took Angel right fielder Ken Berry to the warning track before the catch could be made.
“The designated hitter rule saved (Ryan),” cracked losing pitcher Bruce Dal Canton afterward. “I’m a fastball hitter and I could have gotten him.”
Precisely two months later--on July 15--Ryan was at it again, only this time, he was positively fearsome. Through seven innings, Ryan struck out 16 Detroit Tigers en route to a final total of 17. One can only wonder how high the number might have climbed--20, 21?--had Ryan’s arm not stiffened during a rare five-run, 20-minute offensive outburst by the Angels in the top of the eighth.
The Tigers never had a chance in the 6-0 defeat. How hard was Ryan to hit on this day? Detroit first baseman Norm Cash provided a clue when he comically carried a piano leg with him to home plate before his at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Those two no-hitters provided the inspiration for “The Nolan Ryan Story,” a 40-minute documentary produced in 1974 by George Goodale, then the Angels’ film coordinator. Goodale presented Ryan with a copy of the film before the pitcher’s final start of the 1974 season--along with a simple request.
“Now that the film is finished,” Goodale told him, “don’t do anything spectacular tonight.”
Ryan shook his head.
“Don’t worry, I feel terrible,” Ryan replied. “But is it all right if I pitch a shutout?”
Ryan pitched a shutout, all right. This one, a 4-0 victory over Minnesota, came complete with no hits. It was easily Ryan’s sloppiest no-hitter--he walked eight, including seven in the first five innings--but who else in baseball can actually stand back and grade his own no-hitters?
“The Nolan Ryan Story,” by the way, never made it to TV.
Ryan was more prescient on June 1, 1975, the date of his final no-hitter with the Angels. Before the game, Ryan walked up to catcher Ellie Rodriguez in the bullpen and handed him a marble-sized rubber ball.
“This is what I’m going to throw today,” Ryan told him.
Nine innings later, the Baltimore Orioles were still flailing away, trying in vain to hit something as large as a baseball. On his way to a 1-0 victory, Ryan recorded nine strikeouts--and none sweeter than the one producing the game’s final out, coming against future Angel Bobby Grich.
With the count two-two and Grich expecting the obvious, the fastball, Ryan fooled everyone in the stadium by snapping off an off-speed changeup. Grich couldn’t believe it. Helplessly, he stood by while the ball floated in for a called third strike.
Because of that pitch, Ryan would call this no-hitter “the most rewarding” of his career. With it, he tied Koufax’s record of four no-hitters, but more than that, he felt he proved a point.
At last, the thrower was gone. Nolan Ryan, in Nolan Ryan’s mind, had finally arrived as a pitcher.
“It’s funny,” says Jimmie Reese, “but my biggest memories of Nolan pitching here are the one- hitters.”
How could anyone forget?
Twice, Ryan flirted with Johnny Vander Meer’s unequaled achievement of back-to-back no-hitters. Twice he was barely turned away.
Only once was he able to win the game.
The first attempt (July 19, 1973) ended in the eighth inning on a bloop single to center field by Mark Belanger, a .226 hitter that year and the No. 9 batter in the Baltimore Orioles lineup. For reasons still unexplained to this day, Ken Berry, the Angel center fielder, was playing Belanger as deep as he would Carl Yastrzemski. Rushing in from his distant post, Berry just missed catching the ball.
Three innings later, Ryan was still pitching. He lost the game, 3-1, in the 11th when a .203 hitter named Terry Crowley doubled home two runs.
Ryan got his second chance at consecutive no-hitters on June 6, 1975. Coming off no-hitter No. 4, Ryan held the Milwaukee Brewers hitless for 5 2/3 innings before Henry Aaron, then 41 and batting .200, singled cleanly to center field.
“Well now,” Ryan announced after the game, “Henry Aaron will have something to talk about when he looks back on his career.”
You don’t pitch for the Angels as long as Ryan did without developing a healthy sense of humor.
Some other crushers:
--A 1-0 loss to Kansas City in 1972. Ryan takes a no-hitter into the eighth, but it expires on a single by Steve Hovley. The game’s only run? A steal of home by Amos Otis in the fourth inning.
--A one-hit victory over the New York Yankees in 1973. The only New York hit: a first-inning pop fly over second base by Thurman Munson. The only way it fell in: Angel shortstop Meoli and second baseman Sandy Alomar, in a monumental display of miscommunication, call each other off the ball, watching it plop untouched on the grass between them.
--A 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox in 1974. Ryan takes another no-hitter into the ninth inning. Meoli, playing third base for the first time all season, fields a weak grounder by Dick Allen but has trouble removing the ball from his glove. Allen narrowly beats Meoli’s throw to first base and his credited with a scratch single.
An error by Angel first baseman Bruce Bochte and singles by Ken Henderson and Bill Sharp follow. So does another wrenching defeat for Ryan.
--A non-decision against Boston in 1974. Ryan throws 235 pitches, strikes out 19 Red Sox over 13 innings . . . but the Angels don’t score the winning run until the 15th.
--Eight days later, a 1-0 loss to Detroit. Again, Ryan strikes out 19. Again, the game enters extra innings.
This time, Ryan loses when Bill Freehan breaks a scoreless tie in the 11th inning with a two-out RBI single.
--And, of course, the notorious one-hitter of July 13, 1979--Friday the 13th--against the Yankees in Anaheim Stadium.
With a national television audience watching, Ryan takes a potential fifth no-hitter into the eighth inning against the defending World Series champions. He records another out. Five more and Ryan breaks his deadlock with Koufax.
Dick Miller of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the game’s official scorer, is aware of this. So when Jim Spencer hits a sinking liner to center field that kicks off the glove of a diving Rick Miller, he scores it an error.
“The first hit of a game of this nature has to be completely clean,” Miller reasoned. “It was more hit an error, probably 95% hit.”
The call was instantly panned from the Yankee dugout to the Angel press box, where Angel general manager Buzzie Bavasi confronted Miller and yelled, “You’ve embarrassed us.” The controversy didn’t subside until the top of the ninth when Reggie Jackson stroked a ground ball up the middle for a single, a 100% base hit.
With that, Ryan doffed his cap in Jackson’s direction. It was probably the only no-hitter Ryan, deep down, didn’t want.
“It was a hit,” he says of Spencer’s little flare, 10 years later. “Under any other circumstances, it would’ve been a hit. I don’t think (a no-hit bid) should change the way you view a scoring decision.”
Ultimately, it was scored a one-hitter, the sixth of Ryan’s Angel career.
Ryan was closing in on Koufax again, this time vying for the all-time single-season strikeout record, late in September of 1973. With less than a week left in the regular season, Ryan needed 16 strikeouts to surpass Koufax’s mark of 382.
“It was going to be my last start,” Ryan recalls, “unless I needed to go out there one more time and pitch the last game of the season on two days’ rest.”
Ryan got the job done in one remarkable outing against the Minnesota Twins, who nearly broke the pitcher before he could break the record.
In the eighth inning, as he pumped a fastball past Steve Brye for the record-tying strikeout, Ryan landed hard off the mound and felt a twinge in his leg. At first, Ryan suspected a muscle cramp, but Angel doctors diagnosed it as a torn calf muscle.
Still, a record was there for the taking. Ryan was one strikeout away. So, he decided to pitch on, continuing to hobble out to the mound while Angel trainer Freddie Frederico and team doctor Jules Rasinski worked the leg between innings.
Finally, he mustered enough force to sneak a swinging third strike past Rich Reese. Finally, he had become the first man in major-league history to strike out 383 batters in one season.
He did it in the 11th inning of a 5-4 Angel victory.
“That was one time,” Ryan says with a smile, “where not scoring runs paid off for me.”
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
To the fans of the California Angels:
Within the next few days, it will be announced officially that I will not be pitching for the Angels next year. This has been a difficult and emotional decision for me ... “
For fans of the California Angels, those were the saddest of possible words. On Nov. 15, 1979, the sports section of Orange County Register devoted three-quarters of its front page to an open letter from Ryan, in which readers learned that the pitcher’s Angel career was about to end.
The news was not shocking. Ryan and Bavasi has been at odds since the winter of 1978, when Ryan’s agent, Dick Moss, sent Bavasi a letter requesting a contract extension of four years calling for $550,000 per season. At the time, the Angels were paying Ryan $250,000 per season.
Moss’ letter also stated Ryan’s plans of testing the free-agent market after the 1979 season if he was still unsigned by opening day.
With Ryan coming off an injury-plagued, 10-13 season, Bavasi and Angel owner Gene Autry decided to gamble, to wait and see how Ryan fared during the 1979 season.
Bad gamble. Ryan went 16-14, led the major leagues in shutouts, led the American League in strikeouts and led the Angels to their first divisional championship. On the open market, Ryan had become a $1 million-a-year pitcher, which was Moss’ contract proposal to Bavasi at the end of the season.
Bavasi’s counter-offer was the $550,000 figure Ryan and Moss had proposed a year earlier.
“At the time, ($1 million) was more than we could afford,” says Bavasi, now retired. “Looking at it in retrospect, it was a bargain. But at the time, Ryan was not pitching as well as he is now. He’s a better pitcher today than he was 10 years ago.
“What held us off was not knowing how much longer Nolan could pitch. He was pitching a great game in the first playoff game, but then he had to leave because he felt a twinge in his leg. He’d had problems with injuries. That concerned us.”
Bavasi and Moss took their dispute to the public and angry words were exchanged, but Ryan viewed the situation as something more than the usual negotiating rhetoric.
“There had been so many ill feelings that developed between Buzzie and Dick Moss and I was the guy kind of caught in between,” Ryan says. “I think Buzzie was counting on the (belief) that I wouldn’t leave Anaheim, with my relationship with Gene and the fans.
“I think he also wasn’t aware of what the market was like then. There was enough said and enough ill feelings during the negotiations with Dick Moss that I couldn’t work for him any longer. In my mind, I was prepared to leave.”
On Nov. 19, 1979, Ryan did, signing a four-year contract with the Houston Astros for $1.1 million a year. Ryan pitched in Houston for nine seasons, adding a record fifth no-hitter, pitching in two more playoffs and leading the National League in strikeouts at ages 40 and 41.
And now, at 42, Ryan is closing in on berth in this year’s All-Star game, which just happens to be hosted by the Angels.
“What’s the name of the song--'What Can I Say, Dear, After I Say I’m Sorry?’ ” Bavasi says. “If I made one mistake in baseball, that was it. At least the one mistake I’ll admit to.”
And what of Bavasi’s infamous, bridge-burning quote at the time of Ryan’s departure, when he sardonically reasoned he could replace Ryan with “a pair of 8-7 pitchers”?
“That was something I shouldn’t have said,” Bavasi says. “We (eventually) came up with (Kirk) McCaskill and (Mike) Witt, but that doesn’t offset the fact that we made a mistake.”
That mistake might well have cost the Angels a few rings on their fingers. Consider:
--In 1982, the Angels blew a 2-0 series lead in the AL playoffs to Milwaukee when Manager Gene Mauch, running thin on starting pitchers, decided to pitch Tommy John on three days’ rest.
--In 1984, the Angels tied for second in the AL West, three games behind Kansas City.
--In 1985, the Angels placed second again in the AL West, one game behind Kansas City.
--In 1986, the Angels blew a 3-1 series lead in the AL playoffs to Boston when starting pitchers McCaskill and John Candelaria were hammered by a combined score of 18-5 in Games 6 and 7.
Do you suppose Ryan might have made a difference in any of those years?
“We’d have been to the World Series three or four times by now, without any question,” Reese says.
Even Bavasi has to second that motion.
“If he was pitching for the Angels the way he is now,” Bavasi says, “the Angels would be in the World Series. No doubt about it. The way he’s pitching this year is amazing--for anyone, whether he’s 20 years old or 42.”
Ryan ended his farewell address in 1979 with these words:
“The Angels will always be very special for me, and I wish them only the best of fortune. To the extent I feel there were certain officials who made it nearly impossible for me to stay, I would hope that they learned from the experience and will not repeat their mistakes with others.
“What I want to say most is, simply, thank you.”
Wednesday night at Anaheim Stadium, Angel fans finally get the chance to return the sentiment.
NOLAN RYAN’S YEARS AS AN ANGEL
YEAR W L ERA G CG SH IP BB SO 1972 19 16 2.28 39 20 9 284 157 329 1973 21 16 2.87 41 26 4 326 162 383 1974 22 16 2.89 42 26 3 *332 2/3 202 367 1975 14 12 3.45 28 10 5 198 132 186 1976 17 18 3.36 39 21 7 284 1/3 183 327 1977 19 16 2.77 37 22 4 299 204 341 1978 10 13 3.72 31 14 3 234 2/3 148 260 1979 16 14 3.60 34 17 5 222 2/3 114 223 TOTAL 138 121 3.12 291 156 40 2,181 1/3 1,302 2,416
* Boldface single-season numbers denotes league leader