Nolan Ryan

June 11, 2007

Life is not like a box of chocolates. When I’m left alone with a box of chocolates I puncture a few with my thumb to see if they have anything inside them that would make me gag, such as coconut or the lurid red guts of sugar-lacquered fruit. You can’t really do this with life. You’ve pretty much got to taste everything that comes your way and then either swallow it down past the rising bile or go hungry.

But maybe life is like a pack of baseball cards, specifically a pack of baseball cards purchased with September looming, the sweet myth that summer will last forever disintegrating. You have been buying cards for months already, the thrill of seeing the year’s new card style long gone. You’re sure to get mostly doubles in the pack, guys you’ve already picked up in previous packs, one monotonously recognizable personage after another posing like zombies in infielder crouches or with bats outstretched. Disappointment, monotony, the taste in your mouth a quick burst of sugary gum then back to what it was before you opened the pack, the gum already a hard rubber pebble. Ah, life: Each new day a low-quality xerox of its predecessor.

But if I had one message to impart in all these many cardboard prayers it would be that there’s always the chance in the late-summer baseball card pack called life that you might find a card like the one pictured here mixed in with all the doubles.

I was 12 when I found this electrifying 1980 card among all the repeating Thad Bosleys and Steve Muras. At that time there was no bigger star in baseball than Nolan Ryan. He had already begun rewriting the record books, but more than that he seemed to have superpowers. Other pitchers such as Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver seemed to have more success winning ballgames and Cy Young awards, but only Nolan Ryan had the power to crack open the hard lid of the late summer sky and let a little of the dreamworld come leaking in. He threw the ball fast, faster than anyone ever had, faster than anyone ever would. A 12-year-old kid who had played his final year of little league and gone through his first demoralizing year of junior high could walk home from the store where he bought this card and hold this card and feel like he was holding a little piece of lightning from another world.


  1. 1.  He threw the ball fast, faster than anyone ever had, faster than anyone ever would. A 12-year-old kid who had played his final year of little league and gone through his first demoralizing year of junior high could walk home from the store where he bought this card and hold this card and feel like he was holding a little piece of lightning from another world.

    That’s pretty much how i felt holding an Eric Davis baseball card, the guy was superman to me. able to leep tall buildings in a single bounce, faster than a speeding bullet etc..

  2. 2.  My little brother had this card pinned to the wall behind his bed. He was a Cardinals fan to the core, but his favorite player was Nolan Ryan, without question. He did have some kind of superhero power, everyone saw it the same way.

    I liked Rickey Henderson, and I really looked forward to him breaking Lou Brock’s base-stealing record in 1991. The day Rickey swiped his 939th bag, to break Brock’s coveted record . . . that very, very special day, the Great showman Rickey Henderson, in the celebratory ceremony he held his base aloft and told a packed crowd, which included Lou Brock: “Today I am the greatest of all time.”

    Well, the braggart was relegated to the bottom of the Sports pages the following day, because Superman was pitching that day. RICKEY WAS UPSTAGED by none other than Nolan Ryan, f*%#’n Superman. That day, Ryan threw his 7th no-hitter, notching 16 strikeouts at the age of goddamned 44. WTF. This guy defied all of natural science.

  3. 3.  Never much liked Nolan Ryan. Was a much bigger Frank Tanana fan when I was a young Angel. The best young LHP I ever saw pitch until Fernando broke into my life.

  4. 4.  I’ll always remember the time Craig Grebeck and Ozzie Guillen hit back-to-back HRs against Ryan. In his next start, he hit Grebeck with a pitch. A brawl broke out after the White Sox retaliated, but Ryan stayed in the dugout. Of course, he was well over 100 years old at the time.

  5. 5.  4: Here’s the box score from that brawl game:


    Interesting game. The 43-year-old Ryan went 10 innings, giving up 3 hits and striking out 15. The Rangers eventually won the game in 13 innings, 1-0, Kenny Rogers notching career win number 8.

    As for the brawl, I guess Ryan showed he was willing to mix it up with the White Sox three years later, at age 46, when he famously pounded on Robin Ventura for a while.

  6. 6.  the fact that Nolan Ryan was still able to throw 90+ at that age is just flat out coolness.

  7. 7.  Nolan Ryan is a very key figure in my life as a baseball fan. This likely will turn into a long story, so bear with me.

    I started to understand the game of baseball a little in 1978. I was 7, living in what’s now known as the “909”, Ontario, California; with a year of little league under my belt. My Dad passed the game down to me as a family heirloom, like so many other fathers did.

    My Dad’s favorite team was the Angels, as it had been since the team’s inception in 1961. He had played second base at Wilson High in Long Beach, CA, and his double-play partner there was a shortstop named Bobby Grich. Grich, of course, made the majors — Bobby could hit; my Dad, unfortunately, could not — so he became a police officer.

    Grich joined the Angels in 1977, thus becoming my first favorite player. By 1979, the Angels had me hooked. Guys like Grich, the gritty but oft-injured Joe Rudi, the artistic Rod Carew, the hulking Don Baylor, the wide-open-stanced Brian Downing, the locked-closed-stanced Dan Ford. But two elements of the Angels fascinated me more than any other: the huge, unique A-frame scoreboard in left field of Anaheim Stadium, and the frightening, unique fastball of Nolan Ryan.

    Ten days before my eighth birthday in 1979, Ryan lit up that scoreboard with a two-hit shutout of the Rangers, posting ten strikeouts. Another message was lit up on that board during the evening — a “happy birthday” message for me. The Angels sent me home happy that night with a 5-0 win that kept them in first place by 5 games over the three-time defending champion Royals.


    The Angels would go on to win their first-ever title of any kind by clinching the A.L. West a little over three months later. They would go on to lose to the superior Orioles in four games, three of which were decided by one run.

    It was true that Ryan was due for free agency in the winter of 1979, but I had seen the Angels bring in player after player with seemingly no regard for how expensive those players were. I knew that Ryan was the dean of the team, he was still the best pitcher on a team that had precious little pitching, and he was still the most popular player among the Angel fans. And I also knew that if there ever was a time to keep Ryan around, it was in the afterglow of the highest success the team had ever attained.

    Angel GM Emil “Buzzie” Bavasi disagreed with that third-grade Angel fan from Ontario. Not only did Bavasi let Ryan walk away, he referenced Ryan’s record in 1979 (16-14) and stated that merely “two 8-7 pitchers” would be enough to replace the first ever Angel icon. I was furious, insulted. I cried the day Nolan Ryan left Anaheim.

    There was more depressing news. Anaheim Stadium was going to turn into a football stadium. That wonderful Big A would take up permanent residence along the 57 Freeway as a glorified message board, so as to allow three decks of new seats to wrap around the entire perimeter of the grounds. Gone were the wonderful views beyond center field. Gone was the chill that went down my spine when the Big A stared me down from my seat. Gone was one of the better-kept fields in the majors, torn up beyond repair by the Rams in the days before Prescription Athletic Turf.

    What was an eight-year-old baseball fanatic supposed to do? Well, I remember what I did.
    I ditched the team.

    I went to Dodger Stadium for the first time in 1980, and saw a new type of beauty. I discovered a Penguin playing third base and hitting home runs, and found a new favorite player. And, at the end of the season, I discovered a pudgy left-handed pitcher named Fernando, and a team that won three straight home games in front of some of the most raucous and enthusiastic crowds I’ve ever seen to this day.

    And, I started a love affair that has endured — painfully endured, at times — for the last 27 years. I still have a soft spot for those “Los Angeles” Angels in Anaheim, and I cheered heartily with my Dad as those Angels won their first World Series in 2002. And, yeah, I might fire up a game of Diamond Mind now and again and manage those ’79 Angels. But the nostalgia wears off after I accidentally bite my lip and notice Dodger Blue leaking out instead of Angel Red.

    Thanks for triggering the memories, Josh.

  8. 8.  I don’t know if I’ve ever found such a fantastic way to describe my last few summers as a teenager, the onset of school looming with summer waning, a terrible feeling…I never did get that damn Nolan Ryan card despite have several thousand 1980 Topps cards.

  9. 9.  7: Thanks for that great story, JT.

    I notice that this 1980 card came out after he’d signed with the Astros, so it must have been painful for an Angels fan to see.

    I think Ryan should have on an Angels cap in his Hall of Fame plaque (he was among the last players to be able to choose what he wanted on the cap, rather than the Hall of Fame choosing, as they do now).

  10. 10.  8 “I notice that this 1980 card came out after he’d signed with the Astros, so it must have been painful for an Angels fan to see.”

    … Oh, yeah. When I got that card in a pack, I might have muttered a couple of f-words toward Buzzie Bavasi — it’s been so long, you know. Ah, who am I kidding? Memory is as clear as if it were only yesterday, my friend.

    And Ryan might have tormented me as a Dodger fan with a no-hitter in 1981 (among other great efforts throughout the early to mid-80s), but I was too busy standing and clapping and jumping up and down in front of my TV to notice. The Dodgers may have recently become my team, but Ryan was my guy.

    “I think Ryan should have on an Angels cap in his Hall of Fame plaque”

    … Of course, I agree. Anaheim is where Nolan Ryan became NOLAN RYAN, after all.

  11. 11.  2 My memories of Nolan Ryan are tied distinctly to the Oakland Coliseum. I remember the day Ryan upstaged Rickey’s feat–I had bleacher tickets to every single A’s home game from Opening Day through May, in hopes of seeing Rickey break the record. But there was one day–just one day–where I couldn’t go because it was a midweek day game and the first day of the month, which was my job’s busiest day. And of course, Rickey broke the record the one day I couldn’t go. And then when I got home to check out the highlights of the game I had missed, SportsCenter was all over the Nolan Ryan story, and Rickey had to play second fiddle.

    I also remember being at the Oakland Coliseum on September 26, 1981, when Nolan Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter. I don’t remember anything about the game I saw (Mickey Klutts hit two homers; Rickey stole three bases), but I remember distinctly the buzz in the crowd when the word filtered through that Ryan had thrown his fifth no-hitter. Everyone was in awe of Nolan Ryan, not just Angels fans.

    When Ryan came back to the AL in 1989, I looked forward to seeing him pitch in person, but it seemed every time the Rangers came through town, Ryan’s turn in the rotation didn’t come up. So when it finally did on June 11, 1990, I made sure I went to the game. I was glad I did; it was the only time I ever saw him pitch in person, and he happened to throw his sixth no-hitter. It’s probably my #1 treasured baseball memory.

  12. 12.  A simply wonderful post. Thank you.

  13. While still a child, I came to consciousness, baseball-wise, just in time to realize that my Mets had recently traded this super-human fireball-throwing strikeout-machine for a bag of urinal chips and Monumental Failure-at-Third Base #137, “Jim Fregosi.”

    As Ryan continued to dominate throughout my childhood, adolescence, college years, adulthood, and on and on, and so forth, effortlessly chalking up the hallowed no-hitters which continued to elude the Mets, I began to realize that… (in the parlance of showbiz) we’d been “had.”

    The subsequent feeling of disillusionment has still not abated.

  14. That trade was even worse that a trade for another monumental failure at third base (Joe Foy) in which they gave up Amos Otis.

  15. This is the game I always remember when I think of Nolan Ryan:
    I grew up about 15 miles from the “Big A” and the school I attended was even closer. The Orange County Register used to give away free tickets to Angels games for honor roll students (which I was in 4th grade) so we picked this one, since Hank Aaron was coming to town. Well, Ryan through a no-hitter in his prior start in Baltimore, so suddenly this became a hot ticket as he was going for 2 in a row (look at the attendance figure for this game compared to the games before and after). I was 10, and I even then I knew about Johnny Van Der Meer and the chance at history. Ryan held them hitless until the 6th inning (though I’ve always thought it was the 7th) when who else but Hank Aaron broke it up with a base hit. I can still feel the air going out of the crowd & see the mass exodus after Aaron’s hit, but what a great memory.

  16. godfreyjon65: This game is my favorite memory of Ryan during my childhood. ’75 was the first season I was coherent enough to follow MLB on an everyday basis and I listened to Bob Murphy broadcast Mets games all year. The night of the Ryan game against the Brewers, Murphy gave inning by inning updates on Ryan’s progress toward back-to-back no-hitters. The excitement was really building when he mentioned Ryan was hitless through five. When he announced that Aaron had broken up the no-hit bid in the sixth, he did so as if he were announcing a Presidential assasination in terms of urgency and gravity… I love Bob Murphy.

  17. By the way, this is the most aesthetically perfect baseball card I’ve ever see, certainly of the Cardboard Gods era. Never a big Nolan Ryan fan, but I have always loved this card.

  18. Sb1902,

    You’re right, this is a great card. Ryan was very good at taking baseball card photos for some reason. Maybe it’s that whole Texas pitcher/cowboy image he gives off. His cards kind of had a look and feel like they were from an old western.

    The ’74 Ryan is a great looking card, and I like the ’76 & ’77 Clint Eastwood pose that Ryan gives in each of those cards.

  19. shealives,

    That’s so cool! I love the internet for stuff like this: a shared memory from 35 years ago from opposite sides of the country. Those mid 70’s Angels were a very unique team but fun to follow. No offense to speak of (Dave Chalk would sometimes bat cleanup), but they had Ryan and, for a while, Frank Tanana, who was just as dominant. Here’s a link to a game that kind of personifies that era (http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CAL/CAL197608270.shtml). I didn’t attend this one, but my dad & older brother made it through 12 nail-biting innings. I used to fall asleep to the radio broadcast: Dick Enberg (oh, my!) & Don Drysdale were great.

  20. godfreyjon65,

    Tanana was actually the better pitcher during the mid to late 70’s and was actually quite a dominant pitcher who was kind of underrated.

    Dick Emberg used to broadcast Angels’ games back then and he had a saying, “Tanana & Ryan then 3 days of crying.”

    They ended up having some really good position players by the late 70’s, Carew, Grich, and Baylor.

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