T.R.’s Memoirs: On the Texas Rangers beat with the legendary Nolan Ryan
(AP photo/Linda Kaye)
Nolan is not going to survive this.
That’s what went through my mind on the night of Aug. 4, 1993, when I was shocked to see Robin Ventura charging the mound at Arlington Stadium.
Nolan Ryan is about to get injured and he could get hurt badly.
It’s not that I didn’t think Ryan could handle himself in a brawl. But …
First of all, the White Sox third baseman charging the mound was 20 years younger than the Rangers’ 46-year-old pitcher in his 27th season in the major leagues. Secondly, Ryan had been getting hurt a lot.
He had already had knee surgery earlier in the season and then went on the disabled list a second time with a strained left hip. Ryan even got hurt when he was on the disabled list for the hip. He suffered a gash on his left foot stepping on a water ski during a family Memorial Day outing on the Guadalupe River. Ryan was just driving the boat and not actually water-skiing.
So, when Ventura went to the mound after getting hit in the right shoulder by Ryan’s 96-mph fastball in the third inning that night, you had to expect the worst.
Turns out Ryan survived. It was Ventura who took the worst of it when Ryan delivered six uppercuts to his head during the brawl. As for Ryan …
“I expect to be very very sore,” Ryan said. “I expect to be on Advil for a long time.”
The brawl was one of the most memorable in baseball history, but just about everything Ryan did was a big deal when I covered him for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The standing rule at the Star-Telegram was, when in doubt, write Ryan. You could never go wrong writing about Ryan during his five years with the Rangers from 1989 to 1993.
There was one winter morning when the office wanted me to get a hold of Ryan because, according to a public list in the newspaper, he was among hundreds of people who were owed money by the state of Texas. Ryan was due $5,000 from the state, and Star-Telegram editors eagerly wanted to know what that was all about.
Ryan-Ventura was far more compelling with the biggest question being if Ryan was deliberately throwing at Ventura. Obviously, Ventura thought Ryan hit him on purpose.
“If you don’t think it is, you don’t know the game,” Ventura said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do. I don’t care who it is.”
Said Ryan with disdain, “Evidently I don’t know anything about the game. I’ve had my head in the sand for 27 years.”
One possible motive was retaliation after White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez hit Juan Gonzalez with a pitch one inning before Ryan plunked Ventura. There was also some speculation the Rangers were miffed Ventura had been trying to steal in the ninth inning of Chicago’s 11-6 win the night before.
Obviously, reporters asked Ryan if he threw at Ventura on purpose.
“You know I can’t answer that,” Ryan said. “Our game plan was to pitch him inside.”
Ventura was not the first batter to charge Ryan after getting hit by a pitch. Dave Winfield had done so many years before, and Ryan made up his mind after that altercation he would be ready the next time somebody charged the mound.
“They’re coming out with the intent to hurt me,” Ryan said. “You have to protect yourself. All I know [against the White Sox], I was on the bottom of the pile and it felt like the whole bench was on top of me. I couldn’t breathe. It was just self-preservation, trying to hold your ground.”
The brawl and the aftermath lasted about 15 minutes. From his front-row seat next to the Rangers’ dugout, the future President of the United States said he thought about joining the melee.
“But then I saw [White Sox outfielder] Bo Jackson out there and decided to stay right where I was,” George W. Bush said.
Everybody had an opinion, including Sister Frances, one of the two nuns who attended just about every Rangers home game for almost four decades.
“They have been playing dirty pool with us, throwing at our players,” the good sister told Star-Telegram reporter John Austin.
Two days after the brawl, the Star-Telegram ran an editorial about the brawl. The editorial opined that it was not good for baseball to have players brawling on the field. But given the circumstances, the Star-Telegram closed the editorial by gushing …
“Aw shucks … way to go Nolan.”
It was not a once-great newspaper’s finest moment.
But how silly was it the night Ryan was deemed the hero of the Rangers’ victory over the Blue Jays … even though he didn’t pitch in the game. Welcome to the world of what it was as a beat writer covering “Big Tex,” everybody’s favorite larger-than-life Texas legend.
The night against the Blue Jays in 1990 was the Rangers’ first home game after Ryan won his 300th career victory in Milwaukee two days earlier. Ryan wasn’t pitching that night, so the Rangers decided to congratulate him on the video board in the middle of the third inning.
The problem was they forgot to tell Ryan. He was in the clubhouse when the announcement was made and 30,814 people were giving him a standing ovation. The Rangers waited as long as they could, but Ryan was nowhere to be found.
Out on the mound, Blue Jays pitcher Jimmy Key had finished his warmups and stood there with respectful patience, waiting for Ryan to receive his due. When the game finally resumed without Ryan taking his bow, the Rangers scored two quick runs off Key to take a 2-0 lead.
They ended up winning, and the big story was Ryan’s inadvertent contribution.
You see, the disruption to Key was the deciding factor. Who cared that the Rangers won the game in 11 innings?
Everybody wanted to write about Nolan Ryan. Everybody had their own angle and point of view. The Rangers got interview requests from banking and ranching magazines. Some guy wrote a bizarre book called The Meaning of Nolan, which basically suggested Ryan was the answer to all of life’s questions.
It was hardly a best-seller. But it probably out-sold Nolan Ryan, the Road to Cooperstown. Ever heard it? Didn’t think so. That was the coffee table book I co-authored in 1999, the year Ryan was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not only did it fail to make the best-seller lists, the book helped put the mom-and-pop publishing company in a suburban Kansas City strip shopping center out of business.
Jerry Jeff Walker wrote a song called Nolan Ryan (He’s a Hero to Us All). It was not a big hit. In fact, it’s not even listed in Walker’s discography on Wikipedia.
Ryan comes to Arlington
Nobody expected the Rangers to sign Ryan as a free agent in the winter of 1988. Ryan was 41 and had just finished his ninth season with the Astros. Ryan was close to retirement and there seemed no way he would leave the Astros. Rangers owner Eddie Chiles was in financial trouble because of the Texas oil slump. There was no money for free agents.
Astros owner John McMullen’s stupidity opened the door for the Rangers and other teams. After paying Ryan $1 million in 1988, the same salary as he signed for with the Astros in 1980, McMullen demanded Ryan take a 20% pay cut. Ryan, who wanted to play one more year and then retire, was insulted.
Ryan may have been 41, but he had also just led the National League in strikeouts for the second straight season. He had no interest in a pay cut, and the Angels and Giants were willing to make sure that wouldn’t happen.
The Rangers needed pitching, and their scout John Young told general manager Tom Grieve that Ryan was still one of the top five pitchers in baseball. Grieve and club president Mike Stone trusted Young. Stone went to Chiles and made a convincing argument why the Rangers should sign Ryan. Chiles told them to do it, and Ryan agreed to $1.8 million for 1989 and a $1.4 million option for 1990.
The signing dramatically changed the Rangers. Instead of one more year, Ryan stayed for five. The Rangers didn’t reach postseason with Ryan, but his presence brought new interest and excitement to the franchise, transformed their national image and reinvigorated them financially. In 1994, the year after Ryan finally retired, the Rangers moved into the Ballpark in Arlington.
There are some who doubt Ryan made that much of a difference at the box office. Well, in 1990, a year when the Rangers were a mediocre 83-79, they drew 31,569 fans on days when Ryan pitched and 23,907 in all other games.
“There’s no way to overestimate or overstate what he has meant to the franchise,” Grieve said. “He was not the only star we had. But as far as impact on the Rangers and the ability to gain credibility with the fans, there was no one like Nolan. He was also a superb pitcher. He achieved milestones that are mind-boggling, things that will never happen again.”
The legend comes alive
But if the Rangers profited greatly from Ryan, the same case can be made for the pitcher. Ryan’s career received a big boost from his five years in Arlington, and there is good reason why he went into the Hall of Fame as a Ranger. He might not have made it if he had not come to Arlington.
To be honest, Ryan was not a lock to make the Hall of Fame before he signed with the Rangers. Far from it. After the 1988 season, Ryan had 273 career wins, 26th most in MLB history. Among the pitchers ahead of him were Tommy John with 288 and Jim Kaat with 283. Neither pitcher is in the Hall of Fame. Bert Blyleven would finish with 287 career wins and didn’t reach Cooperstown until his 14th year on the ballot.
Yes, Ryan was the all-time strikeout leader and held the career record with five no-hitters. He was also the all-time career leader in walks and, at the time, had a winning percentage of .519. Let’s put it this way. His final winning percentage of .526 ranks him tied for 603rd, just below, well, Kevin Millwood, Burt Hooten and Tanner Roark. He had just two 20-win seasons and no Cy Young Awards, although Jim Palmer’s exceptional campaigning skills had something to do with that.
The point is, there were more than a few Hall of Fame voters that weren’t convinced in 1988 that Ryan was a Hall of Famer.
After five years with the Rangers, just about everybody convinced. While with the Rangers, Ryan threw two more no-hitters, just missed several others, recorded his 300th victory and finished with 324 for his career. He also recorded his 5,000th strikeout, a major media event orchestrated brilliantly by John Blake, the Rangers’ Executive Vice President for Public Relations.
The Rangers made a big deal out of that, and Ryan greatly appreciated the effort. He told me that was the biggest reason why he stayed with the Rangers longer than just one season. Ryan pointed out the Astros didn’t even have a photographer present when he broke Walter Johnson’s record.
The Rangers, on the other hand, had a congratulatory message from President George H.W. Bush played on the video board. Of course, it helped that his son and future successor was one of the Rangers’ owners.
The simple fact is Ryan was still a dominating front-line pitcher during his five years with the Rangers while pitching well past the average retirement age for any major-leaguer.
During those five seasons, Ryan struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings, the highest among all MLB pitchers with at least 800 innings. Opponents hit .197 off him, the lowest against any pitcher. The .594 OPS was also the lowest.
The problem was keeping him healthy. Ryan was on the disabled list seven times in five seasons with the Rangers. Three of those trips to the disabled list came in 1993, his final season.
Ironically, despite the injuries, two of the more iconic images of Ryan during his time with the Rangers cemented the public’s image of his toughness. One was the brawl with Ventura. The other was the night of Sept. 8, 1990, when Jackson hit a one-hop grounder back to the mound that hit Ryan on the lower lip. Ryan suffered a bloody lip, but he finished the game.
Almost every sports memorabilia store in Texas has a framed photo of Ryan heroically standing on the mound with blood splattered all over the front of his uniform.
On the trail of Big Tex
Ryan was fun to cover for the beat writers. He certainly was the Rangers’ most glamorous player, but hardly a diva who expected special treatment from the media. He was always cooperative, but, more than that, Ryan was just fun to talk baseball with when you got the chance. That’s all a writer can ask for from any player.
I remember one time when Ryan had a rough game and wasn’t happy with himself afterward. His answers to the media were short and terse, and the session was cut short. I wrote about his foul mood in the Star-Telegram the next day, saying this was another side of Ryan, the fierce competitor who doesn’t take losing lightly.
The next day the writers were sitting in manager Bobby Valentine’s office when Ryan appeared at the doorway.
“Boy,” Ryan announced. “You have one bad game and you get subjected to your personality being analyzed in the paper.”
“And free of charge,” I said weakly.
“Yeah, that’s what it was worth,” he said laughing with a smile.
Ryan’s teammates liked him simply as a friend. One time, backup catcher Mike Stanley got in a tussle with the other team and Ryan was right out there in the middle of it.
“I had to defend my buddy Stano,” Ryan said afterward.
I remember also one day in spring training when the Rangers were taking pregame batting practice. Rookie pitcher Mark Petkovsek, at the urging of pitching coach Tom House, went up to Ryan in the outfield to ask him about his curve ball. Ryan stood there and talked to him for 30 minutes.
All right, not every teammate has fond memories of Ryan as a teammate. Goose Gossage ripped Ryan some years ago in an interview. Gossage wasn’t happy Ryan received what he perceived as special treatment because he didn’t always travel with the team or wasn’t with them at times when he was on the disabled list.
Ryan was always one of the last ones to show up to spring training because he had ranching business to attend to at the Houston Livestock Show. But when Ryan did arrive in Port Charlotte, Fla., he was already ahead of the other pitchers in his throwing program.
Ryan had already been throwing back home in Alvin. His wife, Ruth, often caught him when nobody else was around.
As far as the other stuff, the reality is it’s now common for starting pitchers to travel ahead of the team if they are the next day’s starter. It is also standard procedure for injured players to stay back to do their rehab work either at home or at a club’s spring-training facility.
Back then, it was rare, but fellow starter Kevin Brown eventually started demanding the same privileges as well. Brown also wanted the privilege of tearing up clubhouses during his often-impressive temper tantrums.
Gossage is a worthy Hall of Famer, one of the best relievers in the game and just as intimidating as Ryan on the mound. But he was hanging on at the end of his career when the Rangers signed him to a minor-league contract in 1991.
Gossage had spent the previous year in Japan and had lobbied House to get the Rangers to sign him. Gossage agreed to a minor-league deal, although nobody really expected him to make the team.
Gossage did and pitched well, for a couple of months before coming down with a sore right shoulder in mid-June and missing a month. He had a 3.14 ERA before the injury, a 4.63 afterward, and then took out his frustrations on Valentine during a spectacular late-night tirade at the hotel bar in Oakland.
Gossage and Ryan were understandably big pals at the beginning, two long-march veterans and future Hall of Famers in the same clubhouse. Both weren’t thrilled when Valentine announced he was banning beer in the clubhouse.
When the season started, Gossage got Valentine to promise he would bring back beer if the Rangers won 10 in a row. They won 14 in a row in May, still the longest winning streak in club history.
Ryan and Sierra
Then there was All-Star outfielder Ruben Sierra. His relationship with Ryan could best be described as dysfunctional. Sierra was easily the Rangers’ best player and Ryan was their best pitcher.
It’s not that they disliked each other. Sierra was generally respectful of Ryan. In turn, Ryan was always complimentary of Sierra’s tremendous talent. Really, it came down to the fact that Sierra had a hard time accepting why he wasn’t as popular or well-received with the media and fans as Ryan.
The night of Aug. 22, 1989, had a profound affect on Sierra. That was the night Ryan recorded his 5,000th strikeout pitching against the Athletics in front of 42,869 fans at Arlington Stadium. Sierra, starting in right field, was having what would be the best season of his career.
The Rangers began the day 9 1/2 games behind the Athletics in the American League West and still harbored dwindling hope of making a run at the division title. They needed a win badly, and Ryan pitched well that night while striking out Rickey Henderson for the 5,000th strikeout.
But the Rangers lost 2-0. Sierra lost a couple of balls in the lights in right field, and those plays contributed to the Athletics’ two runs. While the media celebrated Ryan’s historic achievement, Sierra’s defensive plays also came under scrutiny. That clearly bothered Sierra, and it didn’t help his disposition when he lost a close vote to Robin Yount for the AL MVP Award.
Then there was the photo. Well, not a photo, a poster. Actually, it was a billboard, two stories high, a gigantic photo of Ryan that the Rangers mounted above the front entrance to Arlington Stadium. It could easily be seen from I-30 as cars whizzed by the stadium. You could probably see it from outer space.
Maybe the Rangers wanted to honor Ryan, or get maximum promotional value out of their marquee attraction. More likely, it was a futile attempt to dress up a ballpark that otherwise looked like the minor-league facility that it really was.
Sierra just knew it wasn’t his photo on the front of Arlington Stadium.
When it was all over …
Ryan retired after the 1993 season and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. He received 491 of 497 votes cast. At the time, the 98.79 percent of yes votes was the second highest in Hall of Fame voting history. Of course, everybody immediately wanted to know who were the miscreants who didn’t vote for Ryan.
That same year, Ryan was also the highest vote-getter (992,040) among pitchers in an MLB promotion known as the All-Century Team. He received almost 400,000 more votes than Roger Clemens (601,244), who was at the top of his game and still a few years away from being caught in the steroids scandal.
Since the day Ryan was inducted into Cooperstown, the internet has taken off and so has the proliferation of advanced baseball analytics. That has led to a generation of serious, highly-reputable analysts who study the game and have published hundreds of articles challenging deeply held beliefs about the game.
Ryan has been the subject of more than a few of them touching on a similar theme that baseball’s all-time strikeout and no-hit leader was perhaps overrated and not worthy of all the excessive adulation. These treatises pointed out the walks, the wild pitches, the mediocre winning percentage and lack of Cy Young Awards. They also pointed out how much Ryan cost himself by being a poor fielder and generally indifferent at holding base runners.
Ryan also had to deal with the occasional accusations of scuffing a baseball. That went back to 1981, when Ryan developed an excellent changeup to go with his fastball and curve. There were some who felt the changeup was really a scuffball.
In 1989, Ryan came within two outs of throwing a no-hitter against the Blue Jays. Afterward, there were accusations from the Blue Jays clubhouse Ryan had been scuffing the ball. Someone even said the Blue Jays had kept a number of baseballs with scuff marks on them. Valentine was asked what the Blue Jays should do with the balls.
“Use them for batting practice,” Valentine said.
Did writers and other members of the media overdo it when covering Ryan? Were we guilty of excessive adulation and a failure to point out his faults? It may be a fair criticism. The guy was definitely helping sell a lot of newspapers.
I do know the Star-Telegram had balanced quotes from the White Sox clubhouse that fairly presented their point of view on the night of the Ventura incident. Not going to go soft on that point. Ryan was asked directly that night if he deliberately threw at Ventura, just as I personally asked him a year earlier if he was trying to hit Oakland outfielder Willie Wilson.
The Rangers were playing the Athletics on Aug. 6, 1992, in Arlington. Wilson hit a seventh-inning triple off Ryan and the two started jawing at each other at third base. When Wilson came up in the eighth, Ryan hit him with a pitch and was thrown out of the game for the only time in his career. Fans reacted by pelting the field with debris, causing a 10-minute delay.
After the game I asked Ryan if it was fair for people to assume he was throwing at Wilson.
“You can assume whatever you want to assume,” Ryan said tersely.
When opposing players accused Ryan of scuffing, that too was reported. We also didn’t gloss over the fact that Ryan might have had something to do with getting hurt all the time.
It’s still amazing he walked away intact from the Ventura brawl.
It could be just as fair to be critical of the coverage given to Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter, Pete Rose or any star athlete. Sometimes too much is too much, but if it’s what the readers want …
The simple fact is Ryan was a great pitcher and, when healthy, was still pitching at a high level while with the Rangers. He was reaching historic milestones in one category after another in almost every game he pitched. The anticipation of something memorable taking place — like a no-hitter — was palatable every time he took the mound.
The greatest of all-time. Top 10? Top 20? Who knows? The numbers are there for anybody to crunch and so are accolades from many who played with or against him.
It’s difficult to ignore when Tom Seaver said Ryan had “the best stuff of any pitcher I have ever seen,” or Rose saying, “You give me a big game, I’ll take Nolan Ryan. I’ll take Nolan all day. I’ll take Nolan against the ’27 Yankees.” Or Tony Gwynn: “It was just a victory getting the bat on the ball.”
Ryan was a big-time news-maker, when he was on the mound or getting injured. Certainly, his contract situation demanded year-round vigilance given there was always the possibility he could retire after any season. That part was far and away the most stressful part of covering Ryan, and there were a few moments when I did wish he would walk away.
But if you are a true reporter, then you live for the big story and you want to be worthy of covering that stuff. For five years covering the Rangers, there was no bigger story than Nolan Ryan.