“Ryan is the only guy who puts fear in me. Not because he can get you out but because he can kill you.” —Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson
It was the last day of our spring training odyssey: Sunday, March 28, 1993. For the past week, I, along with my friends Mark and John, had been following the Baltimore Orioles around southern Florida. It was our second trip in three years to observe our beloved Birds close-up, when spring’s hopes are eternal, and when fans are able to watch major-league stars—in our case, Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina—play in the intimacy of minor-league-sized ballparks. At the time, Major League Baseball’s spring training had not yet become the money-making industry and major attraction that it is today: Tickets were generally priced in the single digits, hot dogs were a buck, players were accessible for autograph-seekers, and crowds were usually small.
Mark and John were fellow Marylanders, and we had all been friends since attending the seventh grade at our Roman Catholic prep school in Washington, D.C. We were in our mid-20s, unattached, and able to take a week off from life in order to indulge our love for the national pastime. Still living in Maryland, Mark and John had traveled down to my current home in southeastern Alabama, where I was teaching school, and the three of us had driven together across the seemingly-endless, perfectly-straight, mind-numbing divided highways of the Florida panhandle to reach the west coast of the Sunshine State and the towns where the Orioles were playing that week: St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Clearwater, Dunedin. We had purchased our tickets in advance, planning which games we would take in. In addition to baseball, there was plenty of beer drinking, seafood eating, sun enjoying, and girl flirting. We were bachelors then… and young….
John had to fly home on Sunday at the end of the week, as the real world of work loomed on Monday. But Mark and I were staying one more day, and that morning over a newspaper in our cheap motel room, Mark noticed that the great Nolan Ryan, legendary pitcher for the Texas Rangers, who had thrown an astounding seven no-hitters in his career (three more than Sandy Koufax and four more than Cy Young) would be on the mound against the Orioles down at Port Charlotte, the spring training home of the Rangers. The drive was an hour-and-a-half away and we had no tickets, and no guarantee we could get any as the game was sold out. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the twenty-seven-year veteran pitch in what would be his final spring training start ever; just a few weeks earlier, the forty-six-year-old Mr. Ryan had announced that this would be his last season.
“The only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him.” —Two-time National League MVP Dale Murphy
So, Mark and I made the trip and found ourselves milling with the crowd outside the ballpark near the ticket booth. It was a picture-perfect day, with the early spring Florida sky a deep blue, and a few cotton-ball clouds floating in the air. Attired in our Orioles shirts and caps, we stood there discussing exactly how to go about asking people if they had spare tickets—professional scalpers we were not—when two older gentlemen in golf shirts, slacks, and Rangers caps approached us. “Need tickets, guys?” “Yes!” we replied. “How much?” “Oh, just face value,” one of the men said. Shocked, we couldn’t get the fifteen or so dollars out of pockets fast enough. Not bothering to look at where the seats were located—who cared if they were even in the last row of the bleachers!—we rushed into the ballpark, and to our great surprise, found ourselves escorted to the second row directly behind home plate. The baseball gods were smiling on us that day.
Mr. Ryan was dominant that day, striking out several batters—he is the all-time leader with 5,714 strikeouts, 839 ahead of second-place—and giving up only one hit. Unfortunately for Mr. Ryan, he had walked a batter in front of that hit, and more unfortunately, that one hit was a home run to Orioles second baseman Harold Reynolds, a hitter not known for his power. As I recall, Ryan left his final tune-up start before the regular season after either five or six innings of work, down 2-1.
“If he ain’t struck you out, then you ain’t nobody.” —Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson
As Mark and I sat in the stands, taking in what we already knew was an amazing moment in our short lives, we struck up a conversation with a woman about a decade older than we, sitting in the very first row of the stands, just in front of us. She was a Rangers spring training season-ticket-holder, and we cordially discussed Mr. Ryan’s great career and the prospects for the Rangers and Orioles for the upcoming season. After Mr. Ryan finished that fifth or sixth inning of work on the mound, we looked across to the Rangers’ dugout and saw players and coaches congratulating him. The three of us in the stands knew this meant that Mr. Ryan was finished for the day and that we had seen this all-time great player throwing his very last pitch in the Grapefruit League.
Mark, the Rangers fan, and I quickly agreed that we wanted to recognize this fact and honor Ryan. “We want Nolan! We want Nolan!”, we began to chant, clapping along with our spontaneous, simple lyrics. Fans nearby joined us, and soon the entire section of the stands took up the cry: “We want No-lan! We want No-lan!” Within a minute or so, the chant had filled the entire ballpark of perhaps some five thousand people.
“WE WANT NO-LAN! WE WANT NO-LAN!”
In the dugout, Mr. Ryan leaned over and said something to a coach sitting next to him. The coach then pointed in our direction. And then… Mr. Ryan stood up, climbed up the two steps of the dugout and onto the field, removed his cap… and tipped it to the three of us. As we shouted joyously and deliriously in response to this baseball great, he next turned and waved his cap in gratitude to the entire, encircling crowd, who roared their thanks and admiration to the pitcher who had given them more than a quarter-century of thrills, who seemed to defy time by still throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs into his mid-forties, who gave his all to the game he loved.
We did take pictures that day, with what are now old-fashioned cameras—the kind that had real film that had to be developed—and some of these are included above. I think there were a couple long-distance shots of Mr. Ryan in the dugout after the fateful last inning of work, and possibly one with him tipping his cap to the fans. But these particular pictures have been lost somewhere along the road of my life.
But the image in my mind of being saluted by one of the truly Great Men of Baseball will be with me forever.
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The images of Nolan Ryan within this essay were taken at the game in question by the author’s friend. The featured image was uploaded by Chuck Andersen and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.