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‘Facing Nolan’ throws some serious heat

June 1, 2022
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Baseball is a game that is utterly enamored of its own history. No American professional sport is as self-referential as baseball, with an obsession of finding ways to compare the stars of the present with the legends of the past.

But what about those legends for whom there simply is no comparison?

Take Nolan Ryan. If you tried to make him up, no one would believe you. The owner of what many would still argue is the fastest fastball of all time; he was the longtime Guinness record holder, with a recorded fastball velocity of 100.6 miles per hour (though extrapolated to the more accurate measurement tech of today, some estimates have him as fast as 108 at his peak).

Ryan holds all-time career records for strikeouts and walks and no-hitters and 48 others, good and bad. His win-loss record in the majors was 324-292. He pitched for 27 seasons and performed at a high level right up until a career-ending arm injury at age 46 cut things short a couple of starts short of the planned end.

This guy wasn’t a pitcher, he was a goddamned folk hero.

And that energy very much carries through “Facing Nolan,” the new documentary about the pitcher by Bradley Jackson. This is that rare sports doc where we don’t get the “fallen hero/redemption” arc … and we don’t need it. Instead, Jackson simply walks us through a baseball career the likes of which we will absolutely never see again.

We get plenty of interviews featuring numerous Hall of Famers (and also Pete Rose) talking about how difficult facing Ryan was. Jackson also spends a lot of time with Ryan’s wife Ruth, who waxes eloquent about her 60-year marriage to the icon. And of course, there’s Ryan himself, a famously taciturn guy who nevertheless agrees to sit down and talk about his life in baseball.

Ryan was just a regular kid who grew up in the small Texas town of Alvin. He grew up as an athletic star, dominating the competition. It was in high school that his lifelong fascination with the cattle business would begin. Arguably more importantly than any of it was when he met Ruth, the love of his life. He’d wind up getting drafted by the Mets in the 12th round of the 1965 draft.

From the beginning of Ryan’s career – he got into two games with the 1966 Mets before coming up for good in 1968 at the age of 21. He was facing the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and other legendary figures in the game. Ryan’s stuff was electric, but he could never get a handle on things in New York. However, when he was traded to the Angels ahead of the 1972 season, everything changed.

His first three seasons in California were unlike anything the game had seen in generations. He pitched 122 games and completed more than half – 72 in all. He threw nearly 950 innings and lead the league in both strikeouts and walks in all three seasons, including his still-standing single season strikeout record of 383 in 1973, a year in which he also threw his first two no-hitters.

Ryan’s legendary dominance really came to be during his tenure with the Angels. He was a force of nature throughout his time there, leading the AL in Ks in all but one of his eight seasons, including striking out well over 300 in five of them.

It’s here where we really see some of the awe that Ryan inspired, both through the low-quality film clips, where some of his pitches literally do look like something from another planet, and through the conversations with players who had to face him. Listening to absolute legends – Rod Carew, Pete Rose, George Brett, Randy Johnson – talk almost casually about Ryan’s unhittability. Brett in particular seemed almost gleeful talking about it, something so far beyond the norm that even a generational hitter could only marvel at it.

Ryan would finish out the ‘70s with the Angels, then spend the back end of his career in the state where it all started – Texas. His contract with the Astros in 1980 was the most lucrative in the history of the sport – he was the first major leaguer to make a million dollars a season. He’d go on to eight strong seasons in Houston – a couple of ERA titles, a couple of strikeout titles – but his middling won-loss record dinged him in the eyes of many at the time.

And then, at the age of 42, Ryan signed with the Texas Rangers and had one of the most iconic final acts in the history of the game. He’d win a couple more strikeout titles, throw a couple more no-hitters, and generally perform better than a pitcher that old ever had. Throw in the legendary beatdown he gave to Robin Ventura (Ventura declined to be interviewed) and you might as well be talking about a guy nicknamed Vinegar pitching in 1911. Only no one named Vinegar ever threw 98, which Ryan still was.

“Facing Nolan” does a very matter-of-fact job of laying out Ryan’s excellence, mixing talking heads with archival footage to paint the picture. His peers still seem just the tiniest bit awed by what he was able to do and how long he was able to do it. His numbers are staggering and the eye test absolutely backs it up; he was just different. Frankly, everyone else is far more effusive about it all than Ryan himself; he’s just a low-key kind of dude who likes cattle more than just about anything.

(Note: There are a series of interstitial scenes featuring a recreation of the young Nolan Ryan. The pitcher playing the part? Former Bangor Ram, UMaine Black Bear and current minor leaguer in the New York Mets system Justin Courtney.)

Having Ruth Ryan’s perspective is key – she’s smart and charming and she and her husband pretty obviously adore one another – because he doesn’t really talk about their relationship, either. In truth, Nolan Ryan simply doesn’t seem super interested in talking about himself. There’s a lack of ego there that’s admirable in its way, but it doesn’t make for particularly compelling viewing.

“Facing Nolan” is a solid sports biography, old-fashioned in its lack of scandal or flash. It’s not revelatory, but that’s largely by design – Nolan Ryan simply was who he appeared to be. A dominant force on the mound, blessed and cursed with unprecedented power, a figure of admiration by even the greats. A quiet loner off the field, content to eschew all the trappings of the big leagues and work his cattle ranch. You couldn’t make him up, so it’s a good thing he’s real.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 06 June 2022 11:32

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