Larger than life: Ryan's 7th no-hitter still inspires awe

May 1st, 2023

Nolan Ryan was having a terrible time in the bullpen at Arlington Stadium as he tried to warm up for his start against the Blue Jays on May 1, 1991.

Back pain had plagued him in recent years, and it was excruciating on this otherwise pleasant, 78-degree Texas night.

“He walked into the dugout and told [Rangers manager] Bobby Valentine and [pitching coach] Tom House, ‘You better get someone up in the bullpen, because I don’t think I’m getting out of the first inning,’” said Ryan’s son, Reid, who was in Austin that night with teammates from the University of Texas baseball team.

In his 25th Major League season, Ryan was the all-time strikeout king, with 5,345 career punchouts. He had a record six no-hitters to his name, when no one else in AL/NL history had more than four (Sandy Koufax).

He was also 44 years and 90 days old -- that was older than his manager, Valentine, who was 12 days shy of his 41st birthday -- and was coming off a start in which he was hit hard for five runs on eight hits in a loss to Cleveland five days earlier.

And then Ryan did what he had done so many times before: The unbelievable.

‘It’s over’

When Ryan emerged from the dugout on his way to the mound that night, he turned back toward Valentine and said, “This might be it.”

The idea that the legendary Nolan Ryan’s career may be over consumed Valentine’s thoughts as he called down to the bullpen to get someone up and ready.

Something was over, alright. But it wasn’t Ryan’s career.

“He just had that extra gear on his fastball,” said Jeff Huson, who was behind Ryan at shortstop for Texas that night. “You could hear it. And Steve Buechele, who was playing third base that night, he and I were jogging off the field after the first inning, and we just kinda looked at each other and said, ‘It’s over.’”

Huson knew what he was talking about. He was also at shortstop when Ryan threw his sixth no-hitter the previous June at the Oakland Coliseum. Huson made a critical play on a checked-swing roller that Rickey Henderson could very well have beaten out for a hit with one out in the ninth inning, throwing out the all-time stolen base king by a step. A few minutes later, Ryan had completed his first no-hitter in nine years.

There were no real close calls in this one, though. They say that in every no-hitter there’s “the play,” that one defensive gem that keeps it alive for the man on the mound. In this one, the man on the mound didn’t give his defense the opportunity to make that play. 

As the night wore on, and the approach of history seemed inevitable, Arlington Stadium, which had a paid attendance of 33,439 that day, began steadily filling to its capacity of more than 43,500.

Reid Ryan, Nolan’s oldest son, is former president of business operations for the Astros and currently CEO of Ryan Sanders Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Round Rock Express, Triple-A affiliate of the Rangers. He is also the executive producer of a new film entitled “Facing Nolan,” a one-hour, 45-minute documentary that goes in-depth to explore Ryan’s legendary life and career.

Reid was playing baseball for the University of Texas at the time, and he and about 30 teammates squeezed into a small Austin apartment to watch the game on the only telecast that was available, since the game wasn’t televised locally that night -- Canada’s TSN.

“Because it wasn’t on local TV -- and former president George W. Bush was the owner of the Rangers back then, and he talks about it in the film -- people started listening on the radio and started driving to the ballpark,” Reid said. “And at the gates, they were no longer taking tickets by the seventh inning, and they sent everybody who was taking tickets home. And cars started streaming into the stadium parking lot, and soon, the stadium was completely packed.”

The fans who showed up, particularly those who got in for free, weren’t disappointed. They witnessed an iconic baseball moment that has a prominent and permanent place in the game's long and storied history.

Of the 27 outs Ryan recorded, 16 came by strikeout. His Game Score, a metric created by Bill James to evaluate individual single-game pitching performances, was 101, the highest of the seven no-hitters Ryan threw, and tied for the highest of his magnificent career.

All that kept Ryan from perfection were the two walks he issued. He threw 122 pitches, and his fastball, which is thought by many to have reached an otherworldly 108 mph at its zenith, was still nearing triple-digit velocity at age 44.

We may never see this again

If Cal Ripken is baseball’s Iron Man, Nolan Ryan is its Superman.

In the season he threw his seventh and final no-hitter, a record which may never be broken, Ryan posted a 2.91 ERA (140 ERA+) and led the Majors in WHIP (1.01), hits per nine innings (5.3) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.6). At age 44, lest we forget.

Ryan’s 5,714 career strikeouts are 839 more than the man in second place all-time, Randy Johnson. The active leader in career strikeouts is Max Scherzer, who is 18th with 3,053. To put what Ryan did into perspective, the 37-year-old Scherzer would have to nearly duplicate his entire 15-year career to this point to match him -- he’d be over 50 years old by then.

Ryan’s modern single-season strikeout mark of 383, which he set in 1973 by eclipsing Koufax’s 382, has never been seriously challenged, other than by Randy Johnson in 2001, when the Big Unit struck out 372. The most strikeouts any active pitcher has recorded in a single season is 326, by Gerrit Cole in 2019.

And the seven no-hitters? Only one man has thrown more than three in AL/NL history -- Koufax (four). After that, four pitchers have thrown three no-hitters, including one active pitcher, 39-year-old Justin Verlander. Only two other active pitchers, Scherzer and 36-year-old Mike Fiers, have thrown more than one.

Pitch counts, which Ryan scoffed at in his time, are now the order of the day for purposes of preserving pitchers’ arms. Bullpen usage is at an all-time high. 

From his age-40 to age-45 seasons, before his career ended with 13 starts in 1993, Ryan averaged 201 innings per season. In 2022, only four pitchers of any age finished with 200 or more innings pitched: Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, Adam Wainwright and Sandy Alcantara.

“I don’t like the word ‘never,’” Huson said. “But we’ll be hard-pressed to ever see someone like Nolan. Especially with the way the game is today -- I mean, think about it: There were times where he’d throw 200 pitches in a game, if not more. I just don’t see that happening again.”

‘Facing Nolan’

‘Facing Nolan,’ which was directed by Bradley Jackson and produced by Russell Groves, was scheduled to premiere after the Rangers’ series finale against the Braves at Globe Life Field on Sunday. It will be released in more than 700 theaters nationwide on May 24.

Its title is fitting. Facing Nolan was, at best, a tall task, and at worst, a terrifying ordeal for opposing hitters.

Perhaps the ultimate microcosm from Ryan’s seventh no-hitter that encapsulates his legendary career, which spanned parts of four decades and features more than 50 AL/NL records, is the final at-bat.

The man at the plate was future Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar.

“Alomar’s dad, Sandy, was teammates with my dad in the early 1970s with the Angels,” Reid said. “Roberto used to play catch with my dad.”

It was much like a scene from the movie “For Love of the Game,” where the protagonist, Billy Chappel (played by Kevin Costner), is a pitcher in the twilight of his career and in the midst of throwing a perfect game for the Tigers at Yankee Stadium. With two outs in the ninth inning, he faced Ken Strout, the son of one of Chappel’s former teammates.

But that was fiction. And it could very well have been inspired by Ryan’s reality, which took place eight years before “For Love of the Game” was released.

Like Chappel, Ryan got the final out. But unlike Chappel, who got it with a ground ball, Ryan did it the way it had to be done -- no other manner would do: He blew a fastball by Alomar for strike three.

The unparalleled longevity. The unmatched fastball. The ferocious competitiveness. Nolan Ryan was Paul Bunyan on a pitcher’s mound. And it was never more apparent than on May 1, 1991, when he didn’t think he’d be able to get through an inning before giving the baseball world one of its most historic moments at age 44.

“Everybody has to make adjustments. Everybody has to try and reinvent themselves at some point in their careers,” Huson said. “Except Nolan Ryan.

“He was larger than life.”