Saturday, June 2, 2012

Nolan Ryan: Always an Angel

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

In college, I once wrote a paper about a baseball player entitled “Why There’s a G-d, and Why He’s a Baseball Fan”. It was about the greatest pitcher I have ever had the pleasure to watch play the game, Nolan Ryan.

When I was a kid, Nolan Ryan was synonymous with the Angels. One couldn’t think of one without the other. When he pitched, attendance in the stadium would double or triple. He was that big of a draw. My cousin, a die-hard Dodgers fan, would take the train down from the Valley just to watch him play. Often that was the only way or time I could go to an Angels game. My cousin didn’t come down for any other Angels player, but Nolan was just that good. You had to see the Express to know what phenomenal pitching was. It was a sight to behold. You couldn’t be a baseball fan without watching him pitch. In an era before Sports Center and ESPN, Nolan was sports news. Period.

I don’t know what I mourned more in the fall of 1979: the Angels not making it past Baltimore, or the Angels losing Ryan. The two were a wicked one-two combination to the gut. I couldn’t believe that he would leave. How could the Angels let him go? How could Bavasi say what he said? I still have not forgiven him for letting Ryan go.

As I grew up, I never forgot about Nolan Ryan. I followed his every start, even though he played for another team. Sure, I was an Angels fan, but he was just that good. In an era before steroids, he was a machine on the mound, pitching harder, longer, and more than anyone else. He defied time better than Kasey Casem.

In my office, I have a lot of Angels memorabilia. I have team photos from 1986 and 2002. I have souvenirs from special games. And, I have one picture of a player in another team’s jersey. It’s a signed picture of a bloody Nolan Ryan still pitching after fielding a hard comebacker from Bo Jackson. Yes, Ryan knows Bo. It’s the only non-Angels photo that I have on display.

I get why some fans, especially younger or newer fans, may be a bit upset with all the praise older Angels fans heap on Nolan. Sure, he had his best years with the Angels but didn’t wear an Angels’ cap into the Hall of Fame. Yes, he is an owner for our principal rivals in the A. L. West. But for me, that’s trivial. I got to see him pitch all of those incredible feats. I could be proud of my team because of him. When my cousin bragged about how great the Dodgers were, I could respond with Nolan Ryan. It was enough. Nothing my cousin could dish out matched up with Nolan Ryan. Nolan Ryan beat all.

Vince Scully once described Sandy Koufax as magical: as someone who could pitch a no-hitter on any given night. I never got to see Koufax pitch live, but I did see Ryan, and I can say with certainty that Ryan pitched like no other. His stuff was so pure, so hard, and so good, that he definitely could throw a no-hitter on any given night.

Tonight, seeing Ryan stand out by the mound in Anaheim once more brought back memories of my youth. It made baseball fun again. Magic was in the air.

How do I know that there is a G-d? Simple: May 1, 1991. Google that date. You’ll see why. That was the day that Nolan Ryan threw his 7th no-hitter. Something that amazing couldn’t just happen by random chance. It had to be the work of a higher power.

Why is G-d a baseball fan? Again, simple, May 1, 1991. When you Google that date, look at the headlines that pop up and the order in which they appear. As Nolan Ryan was busy pitching his 7th no-hitter, another incredible baseball feat was accomplished that no one really remembers. On that date, Ricky Henderson broke Lou Brock’s record for all-time stolen bases. As he did so, he interrupted the game for about 20 minutes, took the bag out of the ground, and with Lou Brock in attendance said "Lou Brock is the symbol of great base stealing, but today I'm the greatest of all time." Meanwhile, there was Ryan, giving a lesson in humility, after pitching his 7th no-hitter, something that no one has ever come close to doing, thanking all of his teammates for making the plays and helping him out to preserve the no-hitter. The contrast could not be more stark. The next day, all the newspapers led with coverage of Nolan Ryan. They buried the story on Ricky Henderson on page 3 as if G-d, a baseball fan, wanted to show a difference in style.

Ironically, tonight, just before Nolan Ryan took the mound to toss out the opening pitch, Johan Santana tossed a no-hitter, the first no-hitter in the Mets’ history. Think about it, the Mets—the same team that traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels back in 1971. It’s as if once again, G-d is trying to remind us of something great. See, there really is a G-d, and yes, He is a baseball fan. And, because of that, Nolan Ryan will always be an Angel.