July 6, 2022

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‘Facing Nolan’ – a Nolan Ryan documentary

4 min read

“Facing Nolan,” the 105-minute documentary hitting theaters for one-night only Tuesday, bills itself as a study in where Texas legend Nolan Ryan fits among the greats of the game.

Sure, that’s talked about plenty. There’s a who’s who of the game’s greatest hitters – including Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Cal Ripken Jr., George Brett and Dave Winfield – telling their tales of Facing Nolan, detailing the impossibility of trying to catch up to his 100-plus mph fastball, or the feeling you got in your knees when you realize he just threw you a 12-6 curveball when you were least expecting it, but the soul of the film is a love story.

Baseball fans will be giddy with some of the old baseball yarns spun by the greats, including one from the epic 1980 Astros-Phillies playoff series in which Rose promised Ryan if he dared throw him his curveball, the Hit King would “hit it off your blanking forehead,” – we’re assuming Ryan cleaned up the language for the documentary – and then he nearly did it, but Ryan got his glove up in time. Astros fans will love the memories from some of the best to wear the rainbow jerseys, including Jose Cruz, Kevin Bass, Terry Puhl, Phil Garner, Art Howe, Alan Ashby and Craig Biggio, who incredulously tells the camera, “I caught that dude, man. I caught Nolan Ryan. I caught him.”

Ruth Ryan is the real heart of “Facing Nolan”, which debuted at SXSW in March and is being shown Tuesday night at more than a dozen theaters around Houston (tickets available here).

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Nolan and Ruth were high school sweethearts, who are set to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary this summer in a relationship that dates back to when she first saw Nolan on an Alvin Little League field in the fourth grade and spanned 27 seasons in the big leagues and three kids.

“When you marry a baseball player, you really marry baseball,” Ruth says in the film.

Nolan Ryan with his wife Ruth and son Reese and daughter Wendy at their home in Alvin in 1979.

Nolan Ryan with his wife Ruth and son Reese and daughter Wendy at their home in Alvin in 1979.

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

She should have known that from their second date. After Nolan buttered her up by taking her to a movie at the Alvin Theater to see the love story “Rome Adventure” in 1962, Date No. 2 was at Colt Stadium in Houston because the Dodgers were in town facing the Colt 45s and Nolan wanted to see his idol Sandy Koufax pitch.


“He wouldn’t talk to me, he wouldn’t get up, he was mesmerized,” Ruth says.

Nolan would go on to break Koufax’s record for most no-hitters – Koufax held the mark at four, but Nolan went ahead and threw seven, for good measure – and became a legend of whom tall tales already are being told.

Although Nolan’s fastball was once clocked at 100.9 mph back before radar guns were common sights at ballparks, Jerry Grote – his catcher with the Mets in the late 1960s and early 1970s – insists he threw much harder than that.

“Everybody was saying that Nolan was throwing 101, maybe 102 mph, that’s wrong,” Grote says. “Nolan was throwing 107, 108.”

When someone behind the camera chuckles and asks if he really believes that, the straight-faced Grote says, “Yes. I was there catching it, or trying to.”

The legend about how Nolan got such a powerful right arm has always been that he built it up by delivering 1,500 copies of the Houston Post every morning with his dad. Nolan, who threw the papers as he slowly drove up and down the Alvin streets, debunked that embellishment.

“The Houston Post used to say, ‘Nolan Ryan developed his arm from throwing the Post.’ Well, that’s totally false because when you drive a car, you throw with your left hand,” Nolan says.

There also are stories about the night Nolan delivered Robin Ventura a beating when the White Sox hitter dared come out to the mound. As the film makes sure to note: Ventura refused to be interviewed for the documentary.

Astros fans may have to shield their eyes for a few minutes when the documentary gets to that 1980 playoff loss to Rose and the Phillies. By now, we all remember it. Nolan Ryan on the mound with a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of the deciding Game 5. The Astros six outs away from their first trip to the World Series. Instead, Larry Bowa bloops a ball for a lead-off single. Bob Boone follows with a harmless grounder back to the mound that has the chance to be a double-play ball, but bounces off Ryan’s glove for an infield single. Then, Greg Gross has the nerve to drop a perfect bunt down the third-base line to load the bases. Rose walks with the bases loaded, ending Ryan’s day and setting the Astros on the path to sadness.

“The game breaks your heart a lot,” Ryan says.

It would go on to break Houston’s heart again the 1986 playoffs and again when hated owner John McMullen asked Ryan to take a 20 percent paycut after the 1988 season, and instead, Nolan took off for the Texas Rangers. Nolan would go on to win his 300th game, record his 5,000th strikeout, throw two more no-hitters and bully Robin Ventura, all in a Rangers uniform.

Nolan and Ruth Ryan at the Astros Foundation annual Diamond Dreams Gala.
Nolan and Ruth Ryan at the Astros Foundation annual Diamond Dreams Gala.Gary Fountain/For the Chronicle/Gary Fountain

Even with that Houston heartbreak, there’s still nothing but love, especially every time the film gives the floor to Nolan’s bride.

“His legacy will be that he had a God-given talent and he worked hard at his talent. I’m really proud of that, but I’m just so proud of him as a person,” Ruth says. “I guess I’m just his biggest fan.”



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