With straight talk, amazing stats and barely a whiff of scandal, documentary gives Nolan Ryan his due
The entertaining ‘Facing Nolan’ gets the taciturn pitcher to discuss his life and his competitive side.
We live in an era in which major-league pitchers are routinely clocking 99 mph on their fastballs. A kid in Tennessee recently set the college record by clocking 105.5 mph, and the average fastball in the majors has a velocity of nearly 94 mph. But when we talk about the pitcher who threw hardest over the longest period of time, we’re talking about Nolan Ryan.
As we’re reminded in the consistently entertaining and old-fashioned documentary “Facing Nolan,” the unassuming but fiercely competitive down-home Texan started his career facing Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, et al., and wrapped it up 27 seasons later going up against Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez — when he was still throwing darts at 46. Ryan’s per-inning strikeout average was actually at its highest when he was between 39 and 46! Amazing.
You know all those sports documentaries about fallen heroes who had enormous talent but squandered it away through a combination of bad breaks and bad decisions, injuries and/or snorting enough cocaine to fill a first-base line? “Facing Nolan” is the antithesis of those cautionary tales, in that Ryan was a straight shooter on and off the field, and the biggest controversies in his career involved trades and contract negotiations — and a fight with the White Sox’ Robin Ventura that has become the stuff of legend, much to Ryan’s bemusement. Director Bradley Jackson gives us an unapologetically sincere biography that plays like an old Saturday Evening Post cover come to life.
Utopia presents a documentary directed by Bradley Jackson. No MPAA rating. Running time: 110 minutes. Screening at 7 p.m. Tuesday; go to fathomevents.com for theaters and tickets.
“Facing Nolan” begins with footage of Ryan pitching in his last season, as narrator Mike McRae intones in a honey-dripped voice, “Now, I’m a bit confused why you’d open a movie on [Ryan] with the second-to-last start of his career. Shouldn’t we start with something a bit more dramatic, like one of his famous no-hitters? Maybe a World Series win . . . I mean, this is Big Tex, the Express . . . like baseball, to understand Ol’ Nolie, you gotta know his numbers.”
It’s an unnecessary move to have an intrusive narrator who sounds like he’s doing a voice-over for a strawberry jam commercial — just as it’s superfluous to occasionally resort to dramatic re-creations, with an actor portraying Ryan on the mound, when we have such a treasure trove of wonderfully grainy color TV and film footage from back in the day.
On the plus side, credit to Jackson for getting the taciturn Ryan to open up his home to the cameras — and when we say “home,” we mean the 18,000-acre cattle ranch in South Texas where Ryan is enjoying his best retirement life with his wife, Ruth, who still looks like a movie star and speaks in honest and warm tones of their 60-year relationship. Ryan has never been the most colorful or animated interview subject, but he’s game to talk about his famously competitive side, noting, “Once I cross that white line, I don’t even like myself.”
For Ryan’s second date with Ruth, he took her to see Sandy Koufax pitch against the old Houston Colt .45s and remembers, “I’d never seen anybody throw like that.” Within a decade, Ryan would be chasing and eventually eclipsing many of Koufax’s most hallowed records. The documentary takes us through Ryan’s struggles with control early in his career before he found his groove after being traded by the Mets to the Angels following the 1971 season. Over a three-year period, the numbers were insane:
• 1972 — 19-16, 2.28 ERA, 329 K’s, 20 complete games.
• 1973 — 21-16, 2.27 ERA, 383 K’s, 26 complete games.
• 1974 — 21-16, 2.29 ERA, 367 K’s, 26 complete games.
“Without a doubt, he is the most intimidating pitcher in the game,” says Randy Johnson, who would know. Rod Carew, George Brett and Pete Rose share their memories of facing Ryan (“He was conveniently wild,” Rose says of Ryan), and former teammates talk about the thrill of playing alongside such a generational talent and all-around good guy.
As for that fight with Ventura in August 1993 . . . poor Robin Ventura.
“Facing Nolan” repeats the story, which may or may not be true, about the Sox agreeing that the first person hit by Ryan would charge the mound or face a $500 fine.
Whether that was the case or not, when you watch the footage, you’re reminded the 26-year-old Ventura didn’t seem to have his heart in it when he charged the mound. (Ventura declined to be interviewed.) Ryan’s legend only grew when he landed punch after punch before he found himself at the bottom of the scrum, fearing he’d lose consciousness — at which point none other than Bo Jackson reached in and scooped him up.
The kicker: Ventura was thrown out of the game, while Ryan buttoned his jersey and went back to work.
“It will go down in Texas sports lore as a defining moment,” former President George W. Bush says. “Texans just love that.”
The curtain closes on “Facing Nolan” with a parade of stats listing all the records set by Ryan over the course of one of the most amazing and impressive careers in the history of the game. Given the ways in which the game has changed, it’s safe to say many of those records will never be broken.