Long before he wore a suit and was President of the Texas Rangers, long before he was enshrined in Cooperstown, long before he tossed all those no-hitters and struck out about 5 million batters, Nolan Ryan was a skinny kid with the Mets who was unable to break into our starting rotation.
Born on January 31, 1947 in Refugio, TX, his family moved to Alvin when he was 6 weeks old. At age 9, he joined the Alvin Little League. At age 12, he tossed a no-hitter.
He was drafted in the 12th round by the Mets in 65 and was assigned to the Marion Mets in Marion, VA of the Appalachian League for 1966. He was a late season call up. Pitching in relief on September 11,1966, Ryan struck out opposing pitcher Pat Jarvis for his first strikeout in the majors. There would be 5,713 more to follow.
Nolan’s first full year with the Mets was 1968 but he saw action primarily out of the bullpen. Although he fanned 133 batters in 134 IP, he also walked 75. He had a blinding fastball reminiscent of recently retired Sandy Koufax and as blistering as Bob Gibson‘s. Ryan seemingly reached 100 MPH on every pitch. But his inconsistent command of the strike zone prevented him from breaking into the rotation.
In the 1969 Playoffs it was Ryan who was the winning pitcher in the decisive game 3 against Atlanta. He pitched 7 innings in relief allowing just 3 hits.
In the World Series, 22 year old Ryan only pitched 2 1/3 innings, all of them in Game 3. It was Ryan who was on the mound when Tommie Agee made his 2nd great catch that afternoon. Ryan’s career would last 27 years. He threw 5386 innings and faced 22,575 batters. But this would be his only World Series appearance.
Ryan was itching to become a regular starter. He was growing tired of relieving and spot starting. On April 18, 1970 he put forth a good case by striking out 15 which tied a Mets record. Just 4 days later, however, Tom Seaver fanned 19. Years later Ryan would credit Seaver with teaching him ‘how to be a pitcher and not a flamethrower.’
By 1971 Ryan was growing more restless of his utility role. The Mets were led by Seaver and Koosman. In addition there was the reliable Gary Gentry and a rookie named Jon Matlack was on the horizon. His dream of becoming a starter seemed unattainable and he demanded to be traded.
It was a tough decision for the Mets. It’s not every day you have a guy with a fastball regularly clocked at 100, but there seemed to be no improvement in his control. After 510 IP, he had whiffed 493 but walked 344. On December 10, 1971, Ryan was traded to the Angels along with 3 others for Jim Fregosi. Baseball historians would call this one of the worst trades in the history of the game.
In 1972 Jim Fregosi played in 101 games for the Mets. He hit a paltry 232 with 5 HR’s and 32 RBI’s. Ryan, now starting on a regular basis for the first time in his career, would end the season with a 2.28 ERA. He struck out 329 batters, the 4th highest to date in the 20th century. July of the following year the Mets discarded Fregosi for cash. That same season Ryan would set the AL record with 383 strikeouts. He also tossed 2 no-hitters, striking out 17 in one of them, the most K’s ever in a no hit bid.
He became known as The Ryan Express. In a career that spanned 7 different US Presidents, Ryan would become the games’ All Time strikeout king with 5714. He retired with a 3.19 ERA. He fired a record 7 no-hitters along with 12 1-hitters and 18 2-hitters. He averaged 6.56 H/9, the lowest in history. Opponents hit only 204 against him. He struck out 7 pairs of fathers and sons over 27 years. He fanned 15 or more in a single game 26 times. He is the only pitcher to strike out the side on 9 pitches in both leagues. Ryan is also the only player in history to have his number retired by three different teams. He retired with 324 wins against 292 losses for a 526 winning percentage. Although that leaves much to be desired, one must remember that he pitched most of his career with sub-500 clubs where he received very little run support.
Reggie Jackson once said of him, “Ryan’s the only guy who puts fear in me. Not because he could get me out but because he could kill me.”
Coming into the 1993 season, The Ryan Express announced this would be his final year. In a game against the White Sox on August 4, Ryan hit Robin Ventura with a pitch. Ventura, 26, charged the mound. Ryan, 46, did not move. He grabbed Ventura in a headlock and proceeded to pummel him in the head 6 times before Ventura was pulled away. Ventura was ejected. Ryan was not. After the game Ryan stated that he used the exact same maneuver on steers back home on his ranch in Texas when he had to brand them.
Ryan was voted to The All Century team where he secured more votes then any other pitcher in history. The Sporting News ranked him as the 41st best player to ever play the game. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999 with 98.79% of the vote. The only player who ever got a higher percentage was Ryan’s former teammate and tutor, Tom Seaver.
Ryan’s career ended prematurely. Pitching in Seattle on Sept 22 in what was supposed to be the third from last start of his career, his arm finally gave out when he partially tore a ligament. The team doctor, manager and teammates gathered around the mound. Always the competitor, Ryan was determined to stay in the game. He wanted to throw one more pitch to see if he could withstand the pain. However, with his next delivery, he tore the ligament completely. As Ryan walked off the mound alongside the manager and team physician fans in Seattle cheered his remarkable career. The end had come sooner then anyone expected.
46 years old, torn ligament and all, Ryan’s final pitch was clocked at 98 MPH.