Working Hard On the Mound

Nolan Ryan's motivational story about never giving up

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- Posted on Apr 3, 2009

It did not start out like a good day. I woke up with a sore back and took painkillers before leaving our house in Alvin for the long drive to Arlington Stadium where my team, the Texas Rangers, plays their home games. I was slated to be the starting pitcher that night.

It was early last season, May 1, a Wednesday. The heavy-hitting Toronto Blue Jays were in town. I was going with just four days rest since my last start. I hadn't been very successful the previous season with less than five days rest, and at age 44 I could've used that extra day.

Right before leaving I said goodbye to my wife, Ruth. Whenever I'm pitching a home game Ruth just about always comes over from Alvin to watch me play. If she can't make it, she watches on TV.

Of my six no-hitters the only one she hadn't seen was my third one, with the California Angels in 1974, when she was moving us and the kids from Anaheim back to Texas and I was making my last start of the season. Ruth still hasn't forgiven herself for missing that one.

On this particular day Ruth didn't think she could get away. "I'll see it on TV," she said as I threw my stuff in the car and waved goodbye.

At the park I went through extra stretching exercises and even wore a heating pad during the scouting meeting where we go over the hitters.

Then, while I was loosening up in the bull pen, scar tissue tore open on the middle finger of my pitching hand. I told pitching coach Tom House, who was also 44, "I don't know about you, Tom, but I feel old today. My back hurts, my finger hurts, my ankle hurts, everything hurts."

Even my kids—Wendy 15, Reese, 16, and Reid, 20—tease me about being an old man and losing my hair and ask when I'm going to get a hairpiece. I just tell them that's the way the Lord wanted me, so I don't worry about it.

I worry more about losing something off my fastball than off the top of my head. On that day it didn't feel like I would have much of anything on the ball.

Late in the afternoon Ruth found out that the Toronto game wouldn't be televised locally after all. So she phoned one of my ranching partners, Jim Stinson, and asked if she could come over to his place (Jim has a satellite dish for his television).

"I thought he was pitchin' Friday in Detroit," Jim answered.

"No," Ruth said, "they switched him to today."

"If I'd known that, I'd have flown up for the game," said Jim. "Fact there's still time to hop up there in the plane if you want to, Ruth."

Meanwhile I had one of my worst warm-ups ever. Right after the national anthem our manager, Bobby Valentine, came out to the mound and asked how the back was.

"It'll be history once I start pitching," I told him. Adrenaline always takes over when I'm on the mound, even after 25 seasons in the majors.

But I wondered how long I'd last after the kind of stuff I had—or didn't have—in the bull pen. I learned later that Tom House had told Bobby to keep a close eye on me and not leave me in too long. We'll just take this one hitter at a time, I told myself before the first pitch.

At least Ruth had made it. She and Jim had made the trip to Arlington in his plane. I'd got word that she was in the park. I was glad she was there. As it ended up, she was glad too.

With two out in the first I walked Kelly Gruber, the Jays third hitter, on a full count. I was mad at myself, but settled down and got out of the inning by retiring Joe Carter. In the second I struck out all three Toronto hitters on curveballs. The fastball was hopping too.

I started to feel all the hard work that I do in the weight room between starts kick in. If you want to know my key to success, it's that simple: hard work.

Work. I truly like work. It's a philosophy I got from my parents, growing up in Alvin. If my baseball career ended next week, I'd still be working. I enjoy manual labor. I enjoy working cattle on my ranch outside town.

I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing a good job, whether it's mowing a yard, doing a flower bed or building a fence. I look out at my property and see the fence I put up, and it makes me feel good that I dug the postholes and did the final paint job.

My dad was known as a hard worker, even in a town full of hardworking folks. He was a supervisor for an oil company, but at night—or rather at an unearthly hour of the morning—he, my brother Bob and I would deliver The Houston Post around Alvin in the family van.

We had about 1,500 customers, and every one of those papers had to be rolled individually.

There was an old movie theater next to the spot where we'd roll papers—at the Sinclair filling station on the corner of Sealy and Gordon—and I remember watching skunks pop up from the storm drain to eat the popcorn people had dropped.

But what I remember most is that Dad could always roll as many papers as Bob and me together.

Much has been made about how I learned to throw by tossing those papers around Alvin. That's pretty much an exaggeration by writers looking for something to write about. But I did learn how to work hard.

So on that chilly May night against the Jays my work seemed to pay off. I felt myself loosening up. We scored three runs in the third, two on a Ruben Sierra homer.

After the walk to Gruber in the first, I got the next 18 hitters before giving up another two-out, full-count walk in the seventh, to dangerous Joe Carter.

Maybe I got a little careful with him. I try not to be too careful. If there's one thing I wouldn't mind being remembered for it's that when I throw my fastball, no matter where it is in the game,

I give the hitter my best stuff and go right after him. It's the only way a pitcher like me should throw. At any rate I got out of the seventh without giving up a hit.

Besides Ruth and Jim, another person who was surprised the game wasn't televised that night was my old teammate and neighbor Harry Spilman, who catches me in January before spring training and whose wife, Kim, is my secretary.

Jim drove all over the place in his car so he could listen to the game on radio. When I got into the seventh with no hits he called my kids to tell them to try to find a TV set where they could get the game.

Fortunately ESPN cut away from their coverage of the Detroit-Kansas City game to follow the progress of my no-hitter.

I've always felt my family was a big part of my career. I could have made more money pitching in another part of the country, but it was important to me to be near home. Ruth and I wanted to raise our kids the way we were raised. That's why we came back to Alvin.

I first met Ruth on the Alvin Little League field when we were kids. We were sweethearts at Alvin High. Ruth was named prettiest girl three years running. I think she could still win.

We were married by the Reverend Ed Mathison at our little Methodist church, and we still go there on Sundays, just like our folks did. That Little League field is named for me now, and our boys played ball on it.

Both my sons were batboys when I was with the Houston Astros. When I pitched my sixth no-hitter, for the Rangers in 1990 against the Athletics at Oakland, Reese, then 14, sat in the dugout and rubbed my sore back between innings.

I don't know if I would have gotten through that game without him.

Anyway, there's always been something special about pitching in Texas, where I can be near my home and my ranch and my family. It's prolonged my career, I'm sure. I never would have kept pitching if I hadn't thought it was a good thing for my family.

That's why I started to get pretty excited when I brought a no-hitter into the eighth. The one the year before, I'd pitched on the road. Now I had the chance to do it in front of the home crowd, and they've always been so good to me in Arlington.

But I had to take things one pitch at a time. In 1989 I'd taken five hitless games into the eighth or ninth inning only to surrender a hit. In fact I hold the record for one-hitters.

I got through the eighth okay. In the ninth I retired the first two batters. I'd racked up 15 strikeouts. All I had to do was retire young second baseman Roberto Alomar for my seventh career no-hitter.

Roberto Alomar's dad, Sandy, had been my second baseman with the Angels 18 years before, the season I pitched my first two no-hitters. He'd been right behind me for both of them. I can even remember little Roberto asking me to help him become a pitcher someday.

Now I had to get him out. A major league ball game is no place to feel sentimental about your career.

I worked the count to 2 and 2. The crowd was going crazy on each pitch. I had to keep my concentration. Behind me my teammates waited tensely, ready to run down the ball wherever it was hit. I took a deep breath and went into my motion.

With a fastball I was later told clocked in at 93 miles an hour, I fired the ball toward the plate. Roberto swung, missed, and my seventh no-hitter went into the books.

Normally I'm pretty stone-faced. But even I had to grin as my teammates piled out of the dugout to congratulate me. It meant so much to pitch this one at home. And thank God, Ruth made it to the ballpark.

They tell me I threw 122 pitches, 83 for strikes, 62 of those fastballs. The radar gun recorded my fastest pitch at 96 miles an hour against Carter in the fourth, with an average of 93 miles an hour for the game. I had pretty good stuff for an old man.

There's no secret to what I do. God gave me a great right arm, but it's up to me to do the hard training it takes to keep playing. If that sounds boring, that's the way many big leaguers feel about it too. It may be the reason why most of them quit in their 30s.

But I'm not bored. I like work. Especially when it pays off, like it did that night last spring when a guy who felt old was able to do a young man's job. And for just a little while, at least, my kids stopped teasing me about losing my hair.

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