Friday, May 16, 2014

By Rob Goldman, Historical Writer - 

Ryan’s 54 strikeouts in April put him well on pace to eclipse Koufax’s 382. He was 3–1 for the month, but following a victory over Detroit in extra innings on May 2, he dropped his next two starts. It wasn’t until May 11, in a rare relief appearance against Chicago, that he got back on track. When the Angels trooped into Kansas City’s brand-new Royals Stadium for a two-game set on May 14, he was feeling good. Not scheduled to start until the following day, Ryan hunkered down in his hotel room with a pile of cattle magazines and rested. 

By holing up in his room, he unknowingly dodged a bullet. The day before the game, center fielder Ken Berry, who lived in the Kansas City area, invited his teammates out to his farm for an afternoon of fishing in a private stock pond. The pond was infested with chiggers, a miniscule insect whose bite resulted in a breakout of hives. Several Angels were bitten, some bad enough to require medical attention and miss the opening game of the series the next day. Before Ryan’s start, his bullpen throwing session was especially strong, recalls catcher Jeff Torborg. “Nolan was really crisp, throwing hard right from the beginning. His fastball was working well, and like in Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, he had a big rolling curveball.” Ryan’s teammates staked him to an early 2–0 lead, and the Royals, overwhelmed by fastballs and knee-buckling curves, got nowhere through the first six innings. 

Recalls Angels shortstop Rudy Meoli, “I remember thinking to myself, You know what, they haven’t even gotten a hit yet. So I started looking at who was coming up and made sure I put myself in the proper position.” Meoli’s extra effort paid off in the eighth, when journeyman lefty Gail Hopkins thumped an inside fastball that appeared likely to soar over Meoli’s head. “I turned around and started running,” says Meoli. “When I looked up again, I figured I could catch the ball. It was almost like a Willie Mays–type catch. On a 1-to-10 degree of difficulty, I figure it was about a nine.” 

Meoli’s fantastic catch turned out to be the play of the game. “I didn’t realize the magnitude of it,” Meoli recalls, “because at the time I was just so into the whole thing of winning the game and that he’s got a no-hitter going and thinking, This is cool, this is good.” Squinting at the game on the tiny TV in the Ryans’ living room in Anaheim, Ruth’s excitement built until finally she grabbed Reid and went next door to their neighbors’ house to watch on their larger set. Soon another family joined them and everyone huddled silently around the tube as Ryan got through the seventh and eighth innings unscathed. 

The Halos were held scoreless in their half of the ninth. When Ryan marched out to the mound in the bottom of the frame, he was still ahead 3–0 and hadn’t allowed a hit. He glanced at the scoreboard. Due up were Freddie Patek, Steve Hovly, and Amos Otis. Ryan made quick work of Patek and Hovly, and now all that remained between him and his first no-hitter was Otis, a former teammate from the Mets and a perennial .300 hitter. Swinging from his heels, Otis missed badly on Ryan’s first offering. When the next fastball came down the pike, Otis was ready, and his bat met the ball with a resounding crack. “Oh, no! Not now, not now!” yelled Torborg from behind the dish. The ball sailed toward deep right-center field. Both Ryan and Torborg thought it had enough on it to reach the fence and maybe go over it. But two innings before, Bobby Winkles had put Gold Glover Ken Berry—who’d somehow avoided the chiggers infestation the day before—into right field in place of Bob Oliver. Berry had started running back the moment Otis made contact with the ball. Just a few feet from the wall he turned, brought up his glove, and made the catch. “I didn’t really give the no-hitter any thought until the eighth inning,” Ryan told the press afterward. “But after Meoli made that catch, in my own mind I decided I was going to throw a no-hitter, and if they did hit me, it was going to be off my best stuff. I only threw two curves in the last inning.” 

“Oh, god, it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” exalted Torborg, who’d now caught no-hitters by both Ryan and Koufax. “Nolie had good stuff early, and when I saw nothing up there on the board in the fourth I started counting the outs myself.” So, who threw harder—Koufax or Ryan? No one would know better than the man who caught them both. “It’s very difficult to say,” says Torborg. “Both threw over the top and had explosive fastballs. Sandy eventually achieved a much more rhythmic delivery, but I’ve never seen anybody throw as hard down in the strike zone as Nolan did. He could drive the ball at knee-high level…unbelievable! “When Sandy got two strikes he would be throwing the ball right by you, letter-high. But when Nolan had two strikes, I had to be careful. If we were trying to get a ball down and away, I really was very careful to protect down, which is what you do with a curveball. But then there were times he just shocked you with a fastball up, and would blow it right by the batter—and me if I wasn’t careful. It was one of those things where a ball would come out of nowhere and just explode. 

“Nolan had another thing: he could throw a ball that years ago they would call a dry spitter. He would choke the ball so tightly in his palm and throw it so hard that he overpowered the ball, and it would come in and dive like a spit ball. Invariably it would be with two strikes on the hitter and when you least expected it, and the bottom would fall out of the darn thing. So whenever he had two strikes I’d look for anything. “Both Koufax and Ryan were very sincere. There was no phoniness about them. You really knew where you stood with both these guys.” Royals manager Jack McKeon insisted that Ryan had cheated during the early innings of his no-hitter and filed a protest. “He was breaking contact with the rubber and pitching two inches in front of it, which is illegal,” McKeon barked until a few of his own players who knew better told him to zip it and withdraw his protest. “If they had a higher league than the majors, Ryan would be in it,” outfielder Hal McRae told reporters. “As a matter of fact, he could be it.” “Is this his first [no-hitter]?” asked Royals shortstop Freddie Patek. “Well, I don’t believe it will be his last.” When Ruth answered her phone later that night, she couldn’t contain her excitement. 

“We all watched the game at the Smiths’ because their TV is bigger!” she shouted before Nolan even said hello. “We were all screaming for you. Do I sound hoarse?” There was a pause as she fought to calm herself down. “You pitched a great game, Nolan,” she resumed, almost in a whisper. “Yeah, I guess I pitched a pretty good game,” Nolan responded as matter-of-factly as if he’d started an intersquad game at Holtville. “I’m just glad it’s over.” The next day, Ryan’s hotel phone rang off the hook. The calls were mostly from family and friends, but there was also one from Cooperstown, New York. The Baseball Hall of Fame wanted the cap he’d worn the night before. 

© Nolan Ryan, The Making of a Pitcher- 2014 

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