Friday, March 22, 2013

By Rob Goldman, Staff Writer -- 

In eight seasons with the Angels Nolan Ryan had helped lead the team from obscurity to serious contention. And he had conducted himself with the utmost class, professionalism and dignity. The fans, press and ownership loved him unconditionally, so even though Ryan was without a contract heading into the 1979 off-season, there was little speculation that the ace would not be back with the Angels in 1980. Ryan would have been content to play out the rest of his career in Anaheim, which he proved by purchasing a new home in nearby Villa Park, California.

But GM Buzzie Bavasi ruined all that in the off season by not dealing with Ryan’s agent and making some disparaging remarks about Ryan to the press, the worse of which was his off hand suggestion that Ryan could easily be replaced by a couple of 8-7 pitchers. That was the final straw for Ryan. He put a “for sale” sign in front of his new Villa Park house, and told his agent Dick Moss to file for free agency.  Later that winter after he signed a contract with the Houston Astros for 1 million a year for three years, Ryan took out a full-page ad in the Orange County Register thanking Angels fans for their support and kindness. 

Many in the Angels organization wondered how the Angels organization could have ever let this happen. How could owner Gene Autry lose his star player, a once in a lifetime pitcher and someone he admired and admired? 

The Times Ross Newhan later admitted it was the franchises, “Biggest Mistake” 

“Gene had put a lot of faith in the people in the people he had working for him,” recalls Newhan. Should he have stepped in? Probably, because Nolan was one of his favorites and maybe he should have told Buzzie, ‘Lets not lose him. Go to any length that is reasonable.’ It was unfortunate. Up to that point he was probably the biggest attraction in Angels history.”

It’s easy for an Angels fan to look back and wonder, “What if…?”  In both 1982 and ’86, the Angels came within one game of winning the pennant. Would Ryan’s arm have made the difference? Nobody knows for sure, but obviously his presence would have been huge.

Don Baylor was among the many Angels saddened to see Ryan leave. 

“I remember Bavasi saying, ‘We can get two players to go 8-7 and we wouldn't miss Nolan Ryan."

“Well, we missed him. We missed him a lot. It took us a long time to get back to the playoffs. 

“Every time he pitched, 5,000-10,000 or more fans came to the ball game to watch him and that adds up,” Baylor adds. “The people he drew when he pitched would have taken care of his salary right here in Anaheim.”

Bavasi admits that if he had to do it over again, he would have dealt with Ryan directly and not through his agent. He still maintains however, that contracts negotiations should be based on record, pure and simple. Ryan won 138 games for the Angels and lost 121. On a team with a competent offense, his win total would have been significantly higher.

Eventually the Ryan’s came to see the move was for the best.

“He didn't want to leave,” recalls Ruth Ryan,” but it became a matter of principle. He really wanted to be with an organization he felt appreciated him. It was unfortunate but Buzzie was doing his job, and I don’t know if he handled things the right way or the wrong way. But once it happened, it happened. You just have to look ahead. You don’t look back.”

Ryan himself is characteristically gracious and to the point.

“I don’t have any hard feelings or animosity towards anyone,” he says, “because I’m a believer everything works out for the best and it did for me.”

Ryan pitched 14 more seasons, recording three more no hitters and 157 victories. Autry tried in vain to get Ryan back when he became a free agent in 1988, but Ryan opted to stay in Texas, mainly because he didn't want to uproot his family again. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1999 with kind words for Autry, the Angels organization and it’s fans.

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