The longtime Astros catcher reminisces about catching a Nolan Ryan no-hitter
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As part of the Astros' 50th anniversary, the weekly "Game to Remember" series features a former Astros/Colt .45s great discussing his favorite game while playing for the Houston franchise. This week: Alan Ashby.
Asking Alan Ashby to pick the favorite no-hitter he's ever caught is like asking him to choose between his kids. They're all special in their own way and are difficult to separate or categorize.
Ashby, who played 11 of his 17 seasons in the Major Leagues in Houston, is the only Astros catcher to have been behind the plate for three no-hitters: Ken Forsch in 1979, Nolan Ryan in 1981 and Mike Scott in 1986. He's second to only Brad Ausmus in games caught in franchise history and has been a part of several of the team's most memorable moments.
Game to Remember
Alan Ashby Facts and Figures
1. Full name: Alan Dean Ashby.
2. Game to Remember: Sept. 26, 1981 (Astros 5, Dodgers 0).
3. Nickname: Ash.
4. Jersey number: 14.
5. Primary Position: C.
6. Bats/Throws: Switch/Right.
7. Born: July 8, 1951.
8. Birthplace: Long Beach, Calif.
9. Major League debut: July 3, 1973.
10. Years in Major Leagues: 17.
11. Years with Houston: 11 (1979-89).
12. Other teams: Indians (1973-76), Blue Jays (1977-78).
14. Claim to fame: Ashby was the starting backstop for the Astros' first three trips to the playoffs. He hit a walk-off homer off Dave Stewart to win Game 1 of the 1981 National League Western Division Series.
15. Did you know? Ashby was the first player the Blue Jays ever acquired via trade.
16. What's he doing now? Ashby has served as a broadcaster on radio and television for the Blue Jays since 2007 but still lives in Houston.
Forsch's no-hitter was certainly special because it was the first one Ashby caught. Scott's was memorable because it clinched the 1986 National League West division title for the Astros and Scott and Ashby are close friends. Ryan's was cherished by Ashby because, well, it was Nolan Ryan.
For Ashby, though, the Ryan no-hitter -- Sept. 26, 1981 against the Dodgers -- had a much deeper meaning.
Ashby grew up in Southern California as an avid Dodgers fan and idolized Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame lefty. In fact, Ashby was in the stands at Dodger Stadium for two of Koufax's four no-hitters, including his perfect game on Sept. 9, 1965. Ashby was 12 at the time.
"I was just a kid that loved baseball, loved the Dodgers and Sandy was one of my idols," Ashby said. "I never dreamed that I would be on the other end, catching a no-hitter that would, in this case, surpass what Sandy did."
Ryan's no-hitter against the Dodgers in the final days of the 1981 season was the fifth of his career, breaking Koufax's record. Ashby had the best seat in the house as Ryan whizzed fastballs and spun curveballs past the Dodgers, striking out 11 batters in the Astrodome and before a national television audience on NBC's Game of the Week. Ashby went 1-for-4 with two RBIs.
"I had bigger days offensively or whatever, but the no-hitters from Nolan and Scott were big," he said. "Nolan had tied Koufax before he came to Houston and while in Houston he broke the record. There he goes throwing his record-breaking fifth no-hitter and I happened to the kid behind the plate."
Ashby's memories of the specifics of the game are few, though he does remember Dodgers slugger Dusty Baker taking a big swing on the final pitch of the game -- a hanging curveball that Baker rolled over and hit to third base.
"I thought he was going to crush it," Ashby said.
No other catcher worked as many games with Ryan (135) or saw him strike out as many batters (874) as Ashby. The two certainly had a good working relationship, and rare were the times they weren't on the same page. Ryan was primarily a two-pitch pitcher, so calling his games wasn't difficult.
"He had great stuff every time he went out there," Ashby said. "What I remember a lot about catching Nolan is coming back to the bench after the innings and my teammates would always ask, 'Is he gonna get one today?' He'd light up the radar gun in the first inning and strike out two or three hitters, and it was always on the mind of his teammates."
Of course, talking directly to Ryan about a possible no-hitter was taboo, though it was certainly on Ashby's mind.
"You leave the guy alone," Ashby said. "With someone else, you might try to get through the seventh inning with a no-hitter and then call the game with that in mind. With Nolan, you could start the process through the fifth inning. You never started to call a game with a no-hitter in mind. With Nolan, after the fifth, I was willing to give up a walk if I could save the no-hitter."
The moments following the game were a whirlwind, and Ashby remembers conducting an interview with legendary broadcaster Bryant Gumbel. Ryan even bought Ashby a television for his efforts, but getting the chance to catch Ryan's fifth was gift enough.
"It was the record-breaker, and for me that was the bottom line," Ashby said. "It was a crucial game against the Dodgers late in the season, and we were both battling to get in the postseason in that strike-shortened season. The win was paramount and I was calling to try to get it."