The Express’ Last Stop
On September 9, 1966,
before his scheduled start for the AA Williamsport, PA minor league affiliate of the New York Mets, Nolan Ryan had been notified he was being called up to the big league club and would catch a plane to New York.
“Big Mets Call Up Strikeout Artist” was the headline in an Associated Press story that appeared in the September 11th edition of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Ryan was 17-4 with two teams that season, and struck out 307 batters in 202 innings.
Also on that date, the New York Daily News posted a few sentences at the end of a story on Ryan joining the Mets.
“I was set to pitch four innings in my last start and then catch a plane to join the Mets in the big leagues,” Ryan co-wrote in an autobiography, Throwing Heat. “At the end of those four innings I had a no-hitter going, and my manager Bill Virdon asked if I wanted to stay and go for it. I couldn’t see how a no-hitter in the minors could compare with making the majors, so I told him I’d just as soon get going. He wished me luck.”
The 19-year old made his major league debut September 11, 1966. He pitched two innings against the Atlanta Braves, giving up a home run to Joe Torre as well as one walk, and he struck out three batters. His first K victim was the Braves’ starting pitcher Pat Jarvis. He also struck out Eddie Mathews and Denis Menke. He went on to strike out 5,711 more hitters in a 27-year career, two records that will likely remain unbroken.
He made his first start a week later and lasted only lasted one inning, He gave up four runs, four hits, two walks, and a wild pitch. But he did strike out the side.
When Ryan retired 30 years ago this month, he had set the record for the most records by a pitcher in MLB history. In addition to the most strikeouts, he has seven – seven! – no-hitters, the most strikeouts in a season, the most innings pitched, etc.
On September 22, 1993, Ryan took the mound in the major leagues for the final time when as a member of the Texas Rangers he faced the Seattle Mariners. It’s believed he tore a ligament in his right elbow in the bottom of the first. He faced six batters, retired none, and give up a grand slam before leaving. Not the way Hollywood would have ended it for one of the game’s greatest pitchers ever (think of Kevin Costner in For the Love of the Game, about an aging pitcher flirting with a perfect game in what will likely be his last appearance as a professional pitcher).
In Ryan’s previous start on September 17, 1993, against his former club the California Angels, he surrendered one unearned in seven innings in a no-decision. He struck out five and walked none. His final punch-out was Angels catcher Grey Myers in the fifth inning. That offseason, Myers, Ryan’s final strikeout victim, and Jarvis, who was his first, were flown to the Hard Rock Cafe in Houston to celebrate the pitcher’s career.
“My claim to fame,” Myers said, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.
“He’s a trivia answer!” said his wife, Stephanie Myers.
Pitcher Nolan Ryan #30 of the New York Mets unleashes a pitch at Shea Stadium during the late 1960s in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
Ryan announced 1993 would be his final season, but it was a tough year for him health-wise. Including the ligament tear in his final game, he was injured four times. He tore cartilage in his right knee and needed surgery, and he went on the disabled list with a pulled rib cage muscle. Four weeks later he returned, but for only one start, as he strained his hip. He finished 5-5 with an ERA of 4.88 and pitched in 66.1 innings. In 1999, Ryan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving 491 first-place ballots out of 497 cast.
Red Murff, the Mets scout who watched Ryan pitch at Alvin High School, in Alvin, TX, told his scouting director Bing Devine he needed to see the skinny pitcher with the lightning bolt fastball. But the day the two saw the 18-year-old, he did not pitch well against Channelview High School (on May 20, 1965).
According to a biography done by the Society for American Baseball Research, Ryan reluctantly took the mound that afternoon, less than a day after coach Watson had death-marched his team through endless windsprints over a perceived lack of concentration in practice. With his strength depleted, Ryan simply could not perform with distinction in front of his most important audience, causing his stock to plunge on the eve of the baseball draft.
The scout was distraught. “Don’t worry,” Devine told Murff, “you’re a good scout” – and he said he would keep Ryan in mind when baseball had its first-ever draft in June, 1965. Eventually, the Mets selected him in the 12th round and sent him to Greenville, South Carolina. Murff later found out that in the game he and Devine had seen, Ryan wasn’t himself.
In Greenville, Ryan pitched 120 innings and struck out 150 batters, while walking 78.
He lost 1967 to military service, but never went back to the minors. For the next three seasons he pitched below .500, as he alternated between starting and relieving.
Multiple exposure view of California Angels Nolan Ryan (30) in action, pitching during photo shoot on day he threw his fourth career no-hitter during game vs Baltimore Orioles at Anaheim Stadium. Anaheim, CA 6/1/1975 (Photo by John G. Zimmerman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
One of the greatest trivia questions is, who were the other three players the Mets traded to the California Angles to acquire Jim Fregosi? They were Frank Estrada, Don Rose, and Leroy Stanton. But of course, Ryan was the centerpiece of the trade that is often cited as one of the worst transactions ever.
“Nolan at the time was considered a bust, he couldn’t throw the ball over the plate,” said Rose. “The Angels let him throw, and he was learning his craft, so at least he could get the ball over the plate. The Mets were not willing to do that because they had Seaver and (Jerry) Koosman and Gary Gentry. And they had all these players that had control and command. And Nolan Ryan didn’t, so he was expendable. I was very happy to go over with him. And what a wonderful guy he was.
“Probably 15 years after I retired, he’s with Houston, and I yelled at him out of the clubhouse. He came running over, (and) spent an hour talking to me and my son. I said, ‘When are you gonna retire?’ and he said, ‘They’re paying me five million a year, you know.’ But (his success) never, never went to his head.”
In his book, Ryan wrote, “When I got traded to the California Angels, I really wasn’t that excited about going to the Angels because it meant changing leagues and also a whole new set of teammates. But shortly after I got there, I realized that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
At the Angels’ stadium, he found the weight room, and started working out, stressing flexibility and balance. He said the secret to his pitching was keeping his legs strong.
He also refined his breaking ball.
“Nolan Ryan is pitching much better now that he has straightened out his curve ball,” said broadcaster and former major league catcher Joe Garagiola.
Nolan Ryan #34 of the Texas Rangers walks off the field, 1993. (Photo by Louis DeLuca/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
In his first year with the Angels, he showed what he could do when given a chance to start about every three days.
He was 19-16 with an ERA 2.28. Ryan made 39 starts, completing 20 with a league-leading nine shutouts. In 288 innings he struck out 329 batters. He pitched his first two no-hitters.
In 1973, he was even better, winning 21 games with another no-hitter. The next year he reached a career high in wins with 22 and setting a record for strikeouts in a season. In his last game, Ryan had 16 strikeouts to reach 383 Ks, one more than Sandy Koufax in 1966.
(NOTE: In those years, Ryan pitched in a league with a designated hitter. Had he faced pitchers, he most likely would have had more than 400 punch outs.)
On April 28, 1983, Ryan struck out five Montreal Expos. The last one gave him 3,509 Ks, breaking the record of career strikeouts by Walter Johnson.
Ryan, despite his greatness, was little better than a .500 pitcher. He won 324 games but lost 292, a 526 percentage. He’s the all-time strikeout leader, but also the all-time walks leader with 2,795. Then again, his average of allowing only 6.6 hits per nine innings is the best in history. He also hit 158 batters and threw 277 wild pitches. He committed more errors and allowed more stolen bases than any other pitcher.
But as author Joe Posnanski pointed out in his book of the game’s greatest players, The Baseball 100, Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez combined for an amazing 215 games with 10 strikeouts. By himself, Ryan pitched 215 games with 10 strikeouts. (Posner ranked Ryan the 50th best player, Seaver the 41st, and Martinez the 37th.)
His career didn’t end the way he wanted, but we’ll probably never see a career like Ryan’s again.