Before the game, [New York Mets] Manager Gil Hodges was asked what he expected from Ryan.
"I just want him to give me six or seven good innings," Hodges replied.
—The New York Times, April 15, 1968
Four thousand eight hundred ninety-six and two thirds innings after that game, which brought him his first major league win, a shutout for the Mets, Nolan Ryan has become larger than life, larger than Texas, larger, at last, than football in Texas. The legend of Big Tex—even the nickname is two times large—has swollen with his statistics, has outsped the incendiary fastball that preceded it. Sometime after his sixth no-hitter, on June 11, and before his 300th win last week, Nolan Ryan became Babe Ruth.
"You know how the media can make more of someone than is really there," says Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House. "Nolan is one of the few superstars who is everything he appears to be and more."
"I think it starts with his big numbers, which themselves seem exaggerated or bigger than real," says Rangers manager Bobby Valentine.
The it is Ryan's elevation to the highest rank of American celebrityhood. Just this season, for instance, legions of forty-somethings have begun filing up to him in hotel lobbies, where Ryan now registers under pseudonyms. "They just tell me they're pullin' for me and that they appreciate what's happenin' in my career because we're in the same age group," says baseball's most unfailingly polite player. "It's kind of like a fraternity."
Ryan is 43 and 11-5. Like the budget deficit, though, he should have been a national fixation long before the numbers got so gaudy. "I'm sure people find this hard to believe," Ryan says in what passes for introspection, "but I'm really not number-oriented."
Baseball is. But between Ryan's first win at 21, in front of 29,710 empty seats in the Astrodome, and his 300th, for which one fan flew to Milwaukee from the Dominican Republic, we should have seized on the humbler numbers of Nolan Ryan.
Ten, for example. Ten of his current or former teammates have named a son Ryan in his honor.
Or zero. "Nobody," says Brad Arnsberg, the reliever who saved No. 300, "has anything bad to say about him."
"He is above all a family man," says House. "We never talk about baseball—it's always the kids and how they're doing in school."
So it was fitting that when Ryan walked off the County Stadium field in the eighth inning on July 31 with a 5-3 lead over the Brewers—to a standing ovation from the SRO crowd of 55,097 and from Brewers designated hitter Dave Parker, who applauded while standing on second base—the first person to greet him halfway up the dugout steps was his 14-year-old son and much-celebrated masseur, Reese. It was a wonderful moment, one to be preserved in pickle brine, if it hadn't already been recorded on America's Least Necessary Home Video, shot by Ryan's 18-year-old son, Reid, who was working a hand-held camcorder in the Texas dugout—next to a score of television cameras—all the way to the final out of the 11-3 victory.
The win was iced by Texas second baseman Julio Franco, who atoned for two errors in the eighth inning by hitting a grand slam in the Rangers' six-run ninth. Franco, the most valuable player in last month's All-Star Game, pronounced this night "the highlight of my life."
"It's not that guys try any harder for Nolan than for anybody else," says reliever Kenny Rogers. "But nobody wants to be the guy who messes up when he's involved. You're going to drive yourself on every play for him."
Whenever Ryan attempts to reach another milestone, there is "total team camaraderie," says catcher Mike Stanley. "If runners are in scoring position, people want to drive them in more than any other time in their lives."
Which reliever might be so blessed as to save Ryan's 300th was the subject of three weeks of blue-skying in the Rangers' bullpen. The catchers were also eager to be a part of history. Chad Kreuter had been behind the plate last year when Ryan threw his 5,000th strikeout, and John Russell caught his no-hitter in June. "I'm envious," said Stanley of his colleagues before catching Ryan's first attempt to join the 19-member 300 Club. "I'm happy for them, but I'm definitely envious."
Stanley again had reason to be envious, this time of Geno Petralli, who got the nod to catch in Milwaukee. Petralli, who five years ago was unloading trucks in a Dr Pepper plant in Sacramento, Calif., wept when the game was over. Stanley had had his chance on July 25 in Arlington against the New York Yankees, a team whose starting lineup that night had a combined total of one more year of major league service than Ryan. The day before, children stood silently outside Arlington Stadium, holding aloft posters of Ryan. They weren't looking for autographs; Big Tex had already entered the stadium. They were simply paying homage.
The next night Ryan left the game after eight innings, with Texas trailing 7-4. And even though the Rangers came back to win the game 9-7 in the 11th, the decisionless Ryan, whose fastball had been clocked at 95 mph, was dutifully depressed in the postgame press conference. "Anytime people take away from their normal routines and come from all over the country, you don't want to disappoint them," he said. It was an apology to the 60 friends and family members on his complimentary pass list and to the 250 journalists in attendance, to whom he repeatedly said, "I appreciate y'all comin'."
After the press conference, he entertained more questions in front of his three adjacent lockers in the Texas clubhouse, a mark of seniority that is the ballplayer's equivalent of 36-point antlers on an elk and recognition that Ryan is, after all, the franchise. This is no uppercase hyperbole, as when Reggie Jackson was The Franchise, but a lowercase statement of fact. The Rangers average 24,027 fans at home when Ryan doesn't pitch and 32,648—including five straight sellouts—when he does. He means an extra $100,000 in tickets, parking and concessions every time he takes the mound.
The Rangers have played in Arlington for 19 years; Ryan has played there for 16 months. Yet the four most memorable games in Rangers history were played on:
•April 30, 1989, when Ryan struck out 11 and got a 2-1 win over Roger Clemens and the Boston Red Sox;
•Aug. 22, 1989, when Ryan struck out Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A's for the 5,000th strikeout of his career;
•June 11, 1990, when Ryan threw his sixth no-hitter, against the world champion Oakland A's;
•July 31, 1990, when Ryan won game No. 300.
"Before him," notes Gerry Fraley, who covers the Rangers for The Dallas Morning News, "the biggest game in franchise history was Nickel Beer Night in Cleveland. Really." Really. Is it any wonder that the Rangers are hoping Ryan will return next year instead of retiring?
"I'm not going to consider that until the end of the season," Ryan says of a possible return engagement. "I have no indication right now, nor do I know the team's attitude."
Nor do I know the team's attitude?
"That's not a hustle," says House. "That's him—Joseph Middleclass."
Major league baseball's attitude toward Ryan was expressed by commissioner Fay Vincent, who cruised Arlington Stadium in his Faymobile golf cart before the Rangers-Yankee game. "He is a great player, but it's his stature as a man that we all admire," said Vincent.
This summer it would be enough that Ryan is not behind bars, that he has not been barred, that he is not Roseanne Barr. But Ryan has been so much more than just a pitching phenomenon. For instance, he quit chewing tobacco because baseball asked its players to do so and because he had seen Little Leaguers near his hometown of Alvin, Texas, play with cheeks full of chaw, and he felt culpable.
Never mind that he is largely responsible for children's playing baseball at all in Alvin. "I grew up in a community that wasn't baseball-oriented," says Ryan, who still follows high school football so closely that he's likely to ask teammates, out of the blue, "Who do y'all think's gonna be good in 4A this year?"
"I didn't follow baseball clubs close as a kid," Ryan says. "When I got to high school I listened to the [Houston] Colt .45 broadcasts. My goal when I first came to the big leagues was to play four years so I could qualify for the pension. And there were many times with the Mets when I thought that was in doubt."
More than a decade after Ryan's first win on that Easter Sunday in the Astrodome, a kid named Clemens from nearby Katy would go to the Dome simply to listen to the grunt and pop of Ryan's warming up for the Astros. Last week, Clemens commemorated Ryan's most recent achievement by wearing a patch on his left sleeve that read N300R. Big Tex has always been big in Texas.
But never like this. Despite a forecast of rain, 7,828 people drove to Arlington Stadium and paid $3 to park to watch the Rangers-Brewers game on Diamond-Vision, even though the game was broadcast locally on free TV. Why? "The ticket," explained Valentine. "Because they get to keep the ticket."
Perhaps the folks down in Danbury, Texas, feel the same way about their bank-deposit slips. Earlier this summer, Ryan quietly bought the Danbury State Bank. The marquee outside announced THE RYAN EXPRESS TAKES OVER JUNE 21. Since then, reports bank president Annette Mandola, there has been a "significant" surge in depositors.
Big Tex was the cover boy for an Arlington phone book this year. A local paper last month printed a diagram of what looked like a green bean but was in fact Ryan's 12th thoracic vertebra. Mrs. Tex, Ruth Ryan, was the subject of an exclusive three-part series in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this summer, one installment of which revealed that several weeks ago "Reid ran over Buster the dog, slightly injuring him."
"People come to talk to my mom, my sister, my brother," says Reid, a pitcher who will play for the University of Texas next fall. "I think it's because it's sometimes hard to get anything out of my dad."
Jeff Couvillion of Alvin flew to Milwaukee for Ryan's 300th. As he watched his neighbor emerge from the dugout before the game, then retreat when he saw the phalanx of photographers, Couvillion fidgeted. "I don't think he goes in for all of this," he drawled. "But you take him out of here and put him in the post office or the Wal-Mart and he'll talk to you."
The Nolan Ryan Historical Foundation in Alvin is currently seeking donations to build a museum dedicated to its local hero. Among the pieces of memorabilia to be housed there will be an exhibit purporting to simulate Ryan's heater in its 100-plus-mph heyday. Alas, the technology is still pending, but, says Nancy Williams, a member of the Foundation's board, "We understand there are things you can do with laser beams to simulate a ball being thrown at that speed."
Big Tex just got bigger.