Nolan Ryan was sick.
Well, maybe not sick exactly. Tired, maybe? Yeah, that was part of it, but certainly not the whole story.
His back ached. His ankle throbbed. His head was pounding. His stomach was blah. He had a weeping blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand. He was 44 that morning, May 1, 1991, but he felt at least 20 years older.
His wife, Ruth, walked into the bathroom as Ryan was grabbing the bottle of Advil. He looked at her in the mirror, seeing his own image staring back at him at the same time.
“I feel old today,” he said.
Twenty-five years later, it is still Ryan’s most vivid memory of that day, how bad he felt not just that morning but right up until the moment he walked out to the mound at Arlington Stadium that night and made major league history yet again, capping an incredible 27-year career with an unprecedented, unheard of, seventh no-hitter.
Maybe that’s what Advil should have been trumpeting all these years.
The last thing on Ryan’s mind as he warmed up in the bullpen that night was the idea of another no-hitter. The only “no” he was contemplating was the one he was beginning to think he should tell manager Bobby Valentine, as in “No, I can’t pitch tonight.”
Why would Valentine even want him out there? That’s what Ryan was thinking as he bounced curveballs in the dirt and threw fastballs that skipped past the bullpen catcher. Disgusted, he walked off the bullpen mound down the right-field line at Arlington Stadium and didn’t even head to the dugout. He took the back way to the clubhouse, climbing over the short fence and stalking off underneath the stands.
“I didn’t know what to think,” former Rangers pitching coach Tom House remembered from Los Angeles, where he directs the Rod Dedeaux Research & Baseball Institute for USC. “I’d never seen him do that before. I’d already called down to Bobby and told him that things didn’t look good. Now, I wasn’t sure he was even going to pitch. I was worried about my job.”
But Ryan soon appeared in the dugout. He sat down on the bench, took off his cap and toweled off his head, just like he always did. Then he looked over at Valentine.
“He had this weird look on his face,” said Valentine from his office as athletic director of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. “He said, ‘You better have somebody ready, I might be finished.’ ”
Valentine’s faced turned white. He wasn’t sure if Ryan meant finished for the night, or finished for his career. Just in case, he walked over to the dugout phone and called the bullpen to have another pitcher standing by.
“I just had the blahs,” Ryan said from his office at Round Rock last week. “No energy. No rhythm. No timing. Everything was an effort. I was thinking, ‘God, if I can just get through this first inning.’ I honestly didn’t think I’d be out there very long.”
With no idea what to expect from his pitches, Ryan’s game plan against the visiting Toronto Blue Jays was simple. Keep the ball low and away. He struck out leadoff man Devon White with a full-count fastball. Roberto Alomar rolled Ryan’s second pitch to second baseman Julio Franco. Kelly Gruber walked, but Ryan promptly picked him off, only to see him called safe when first baseman Rafael Palmeiro dropped the throw. No problem. Dangerous slugger Joe Carter popped up to Franco.
Ryan took a deep breath and trudged back to the dugout. He’d been around long enough to have been through this before.
“What happens sometimes when you warm up, you just have trouble getting it all together,” he said. “If I was a younger pitcher at that time, I might have panicked, but I’d pitched long enough to know to just keep going, get through the first inning, see if you can get it together. One inning leads to another and you just hope you can put the ball where you want it and make your pitches.”
Somehow, out of nowhere, the old Nolan Ryan magic began to take hold in the second inning. He suddenly found his curveball to pair with his fastball — which was now clicking upward of 96 mph — and the Blue Jays were mesmerized. John Olerud, Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill were each caught looking at curveballs for strike three.
Valentine remembers Hill swinging at a curveball that “might have been the best I’ve ever seen.” Hill almost fell down. As the Rangers’ infielders came off the field after the second inning, third baseman Steve Buechele and shortstop Jeff Huson looked at each other.
“We only need one,” they said in unison.
“We just shared that look,” said Buechele, who played behind Ryan for both of his Texas no-hitters and is now the Rangers’ bench coach. “And he had that look. He was classic that night. He had a great fastball, a great curveball and his changeup was ridiculous. I’d be making something up if I told you I remember anything even close to a hit.”
Ryan, finding a groove now, struck out two more in a 1-2-3 top of the third. Ruben Sierra’s two-run homer keyed a three-run bottom of the inning for the Rangers. If Buechele and Huson were right, it would be more than enough.
Ryan added five more strikeouts in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, and center fielder Gary Pettis saved the closest thing that the Blue Jays would get to a hit, racing in to snare Manny Lee’s sinking pop fly thigh high.
“I thought for a minute it might drop,” Ryan said, “but Gary was one of the best there was at that kind of play.”
By the seventh inning, the stands at Arlington Stadium were filling up. The game wasn’t televised, but thousands of those listening on WBAP 820 turned their cars toward Arlington to see history in the making. That’s one of Ryan’s favorite memories of the game, seeing the crowd swelling moment by moment, hearing it roar every time he took the field or registered another out.
Ryan, of all people, knew better than to anticipate a no-hitter. He’d already lost five no-hitters with one out in the ninth. He lost 11 others in the eighth inning, and another eight in the seventh.
“I knew how hard they were to get,” Ryan said. “Besides, I thought that part of my career was behind me. I was shocked when I got the one in Oakland a year earlier. To get another one at 44 was something I’d never even dreamed might happen.”
Yet, he’d started the ’91 season with five no-hit innings before Valentine took him out on Opening Day, a decision Ryan fully supported.
One of Valentine’s favorite jokes on the banquet circuit: “Nolan Ryan would have had eight no-hitters if his manager had just been smart enough to leave him in that night.”
On this night, May 1, 1991, after he got through eight innings, Ryan allowed himself the luxury of looking ahead at the hitters the Jays would send to the plate in the ninth. There was the No. 9 hitter, Lee, who had almost dropped that soft single into center in the sixth, then the top of the order, with White and Alomar.
“I remember they were all three fast runners,” Ryan said. “I was worried that one of them might beat out an infield hit.”
Not on this night. Lee and White each bounced out harmlessly to Franco at second. That left only Alomar between Ryan and his seventh no-hitter.
Standing on the mound, peering in at the 23-year-old Alomar, Ryan remembers being struck by the irony of the situation. Almost 20 years earlier, Ryan had been teammates with Roberto’s father, Sandy Alomar, in Anaheim with the Angels. Sandy had played second base behind Ryan when he spun his first two no-hitters. Ryan had once helped coach the 4-year-old Roberto when he thought he wanted to be a pitcher.
Ryan brushed away the memories. He didn’t want to go there at that moment. It might make him feel old again.
So the kid he’d once coached stood between Ryan and history.
Going almost exclusively with the fastball, Ryan pushed the count to 2-2 on Alomar, then, with his 122nd pitch, fired a 93-mph fastball that Alomar flailed at and missed. Arlington Stadium erupted with noise. On Arlington Fan Appreciation Night, Ryan had thrown his seventh no-hitter.
The closer Ryan got to it, the more determined he became and that feeling, that relentless pursuit of perfection, permeated the entire team.
“As each inning went on, you could see it in his eyes,” Mike Stanley said for a Sports Illustrated retrospective a few years ago. “You could hear him talking to himself. You could see that he really sensed it and knew what to do with it. That was the exciting part, watching Nolan and his mannerisms, the way he went after it.”
Stanley was the seventh catcher to catch one of Ryan’s no-hitters.
Ryan was thrilled for Stanley and all his teammates, but he was especially excited to have accomplished the feat in front of the fans he loved so much, and who loved him even more.
Ryan struck out 16, matching his high during his five years in Texas. Of his 122 pitches, 83 were strikes. His fastball averaged 93 mph. Nine Blue Jays hitters swung and missed strike-three fastballs. Three flailed ineffectually at curveballs and sat down. Three looked at called third-strike curveballs, all in the second inning. One struck out swinging at a changeup.
From a domination standpoint, Ryan’s best no-hitter is thought to be his second in Detroit in 1973, when the Tigers were so frustrated and helpless that first baseman Norm Cash actually unscrewed a leg off a table and took it to the plate instead of a bat. But Ryan believes the seventh was his most complete all-around effort. He didn’t just overpower the Blue Jays, he pitched to them, using all three of his incredible pitches.
As Toronto manager Cito Gaston said afterward, “Two things can happen when you face Nolan Ryan. He can beat you or he can throw a no-hitter. We had no chance.”
“What Nolan Ryan did that night,” Tom House said, “what he did a year earlier with his sixth no-hitter, what he did with his 300th victory and his 5,000th strikeout, was tell the sports world that there’s no reason why you can’t do in your 40s what you did in your 20s if you take care of yourself.”
Perhaps that’s why, three years ago, NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees, looking for ways to extend their careers, took House’s suggestion and called Nolan Ryan for advice. House still makes a living teaching professional athletes about biomechanics, ground-force production, torque and functional strength. All those five-dollar words.
But House would be the first to tell you that Nolan Ryan was way ahead of the game.
“He knew all of that intuitively better than perhaps any athlete we’ve ever seen,” House said. “That was the genius of Nolan Ryan.”