‘Facing Nolan’ Documents Flame-Throwing Baseball Legend Nolan Ryan – Deadline
As Major League Baseball pauses for the All-Star Break, let’s break to talk about an All-Star for the ages, fireballer Nolan Ryan.
The Hall of Fame pitcher holds a number of records that many experts believe will never be broken, including seven career no hitters and 5,714 total strikeouts, almost a thousand more than the guy at number two on that rarified list—Randy Johnson.
Ryan’s incredible accomplishments are detailed in the documentary Facing Nolan, directed by Bradley Jackson, which debuts on digital platforms next Tuesday. The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March in Ryan’s home state of Texas, and has gone on to earn about half a million dollars in theatrical release.
It may be appropriate that when Jackson first proposed the documentary to Ryan (if you’ll pardon the baseball metaphor) he struck out.
“At first when we pitched Nolan, he said no,” Jackson tells Deadline. “I had the idea in the summer of 2020 when I was doing a road trip through Texas and I just couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Why hasn’t somebody made a documentary about Nolan Ryan?’ And after having finished it, I realized, ‘Oh, the reason nobody’s made a documentary about Nolan Ryan is because of Nolan Ryan. He hasn’t wanted it.’ He’s a pretty quiet, unassuming guy.”
Given that Ryan is a man of relatively few words, the director turned to others to speak for him—family members, teammates, ex-managers, fellow hurlers and batters who faced him.
“He’s rubbing the ball, he’s staring at you,” Dave Winfield recalls of squaring off against Nolie, saying that Ryan glare communicated, “’I’m the sheriff around here.’”
“Without a doubt he is the most intimidating pitcher in the history of the game,” Randy Johnson states. “He’s mythological.”
It took some time, of course, to reach that mythic status. Facing Nolan reveals the future great wasn’t the most highly touted prospect in the mid-1960s. He was signed by the New York Mets, but only in the 12th round of the draft. Salary: $7,000.
He wound up spending five seasons with the Mets and winning his only World Series title there in 1969, contributing important post-season innings as a reliever. He wasn’t the star of the Mets staff—that designation belonged to Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
Undervalued in New York, Ryan contemplated giving up baseball. His wife Ruth convinced him to keep going. Nolan and Ryan met when they were in grade school, later became high school sweethearts, and married in 1967. The film makes it clear how important she has been to Nolan at every stage of his life.
“That, to me, was the biggest revelation making this film, because I thought I knew a lot about Nolan,” Jackson says. “When I found out that he was contemplating quitting after the Mets–I don’t think that’s a very public fact. Then when I dig deeper and find out the reason he didn’t quit was because of his wife, I knew then that she was going to be a really central character to this film.”
Ruth Ryan sat down for interviews for the film, recalling her disappointment that her husband never won a Cy Young Award (an almost inexplicable oversight). Without her, the documentary wouldn’t have happened.
“[She] was able to convince Nolan to agree to do it,” Jackson notes. “And we’re very glad she did.”
Early in his career, Ryan did not possess great command of the strike zone. In a word, he was wild. Some belated advice from a pitching coach help correct his delivery, which became awesomely machine-like. He cocked the left leg high, the glove tucked in his lap; glanced at the mitt like a gambler taking a furtive peak as his cards, then opened the long stride toward the plate, the right arm hinged at the elbow, the ball leaving the hand at a consistent release point.
“Great pitchers are great repeaters,” Jackson says, quoting one of Ryan’s pitching coaches, Tom House. “You just need to be able to repeat the same motion in perfect sequence over and over again and never deviate from that repetition. That’s what pitching is. You create a set of mechanical tools and all you do is just repeat them perfectly every single time. Obviously, that’s so hard to do.”
Ryan threw flames—the film estimates his top pitching velocity at just over 108 mph. But he also possessed a wicked curve, the 12-6 kind, meaning it spun high to low instead of side to side, from the 12 on a clock to the 6, proverbially speaking. It turned hitters’ legs to spaghetti, and we’re not talking al dente.
Ryan played a record 27 years, retiring in 1993 after stints with the Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. He was a workhorse of a kind not seen in the major leagues anymore: in one 1974 game, for instance, he pitched 13 innings against the Boston Red Sox, throwing 235 pitches. Over his career, he tossed 222 complete games.
One of his most famous starts came in his final season, against the Chicago White Sox. Ryan, then aged 46, hit 26-year-old Robin Ventura with a pitch. Ventura paused, then charged the mound. But the younger man didn’t get the better of the veteran. Ryan latched Ventura in a headlock, then unleashed a flurry of noogies (well, in reality, it was more like a close-fisted repeated thumping). The legend of that fracas lives on.
“Somehow this moment has taken on such a life of its own,” Jackson marvels. “Nolan laughs about it because he’s just like, ‘I’ve done all these things in my life. And this is the third question that everybody asks me. And they only ask me it third because they think it will be rude if they ask it first.’”
Jackson continues, “We screened the movie at Rangers Stadium after the Braves played the Rangers a couple months ago. And about 10,000 fans stuck around. And during the Robin Ventura sequence in the film people were giving a standing ovation, applauding. And I’m like, this moment happened 30 years ago! Why are people still so in awe of it? Nolan’s son Reid captures it pretty well in the movie when he said, ‘I think it’s a little bit of like the old guys getting one over on young guys. Like, I still I still got it. I still got it.’ …Obviously, the moment resonates.”
Nolan Ryan is an executive producer of the film, as are his two sons, Reid and Reese. At the age of 75, the elder Ryan maintains a ranch in Texas, as he has done for many decades. He and his wife have been married 55 years and have seven grandchildren.
About his achievements, Ryan remains stubbornly matter of fact.
“Nolan would rather talk about his grandkids than his seventh no hitter,” Jackson says. “I remember the first time I asked him about his seventh no hitter. He said, ‘Well, everything worked out for me that day.’ I’m like, ‘Come on! You threw your seventh no hitter! Nobody has ever done this, nor will ever do this ever again.’ ‘It was just a good day. I worked out some kinks and got some good defense behind me and it was one of those special nights.’”