Another Top Gun Movie? Yes, It’s About A Pitcher Who Had ‘A Need For Speed’ Like No Other – The Great Nolan Ryan

I’ll never forget the moment I walked next door from my waiter’s job in New Orleans to a newstand and saw Nolan Ryan on the cover of something called “Inside Sports.”

Never saw the magazine before. It started the previous fall, but this was its Major League Baseball preview issue on April 30, 1980, and I rarely missed one for the next 18 years. I had also never seen Ryan, the no-hitter savant for the California Angels with four at the time, in an Astros jersey – and that crazy, rainbow stripe concoction to boot.

I had been an Astros fan since I was 7 in 1968, and they were terrible. When they debuted those classic ’70s orange and yellow candy tops in 1975, they promptly went 64-97 to finish last in the National League West. But they almost won the National League West in 1979. And Ryan with his 100 mph fastball and five seasons of 327 strikeouts or more could put them over the top. He signed for $4.5 million over four years, becoming MLB’s first million-dollar man.

The writer of the Ryan piece that I consumed faster than my customers downed beignets was the great Tony Kornheiser. Never heard of him at the time, but what a piece it was. And I packed it when I went to the University of Missouri Journalism School the next fall.

Kornheiser revealed a side of Ryan I did not know from reading Associated Press stories and watching highlights of his no-hitters. Ryan told his catchers to tell hitters like Reggie Jackson and Dick Allen, “Nothing but heat.”

That’s some serious gamesmanship. He wanted them to know what was coming when he struck them out. If he didn’t, but still got them out, he called that a “draw.”

This is because Nolan Ryan was a gunslinger. He was Top Gun long before the first “Top Gun” movie in 1986 and the Maverick of Baseball a lifetime before the “Top Gun: Maverick” sequel in theaters now.

Like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise in both films, Ryan didn’t always listen to authority, drove his early managers – or commanding officers – crazy, and frequently dove into individual pursuits – particularly when he was younger.

Another “Top Gun” movie just premiered in theaters across the country for one night only on May 24. It is a documentary called “Facing Nolan” that will have more showings nationwide on June 24. More information is at facingnolan.com. The film is expected to land on a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon by the fall.

The film by Houston native and University of Texas film graduate Bradley Jackson captures Ryan’s Fastest-Gun-In-The-West id.

Hall of Fame hitters in Ryan’s era (1968-93) like Rod Carew, George Brett and Dave Winfield discuss the fear factor of facing him in the movie.

“I asked him if he liked intimidating people,” Jackson told OutKick in an interview over the weekend. “And he just smiled sort of shyly and said, ‘I used it to my advantage. I’d throw inside.'”

Sometimes the intimidation led to players skipping games against Ryan.

“Guys came down with a rare flu,” former A’s manager Dick Williams said in the Inside Sports story. “I called it Nolan-itis.”

Carew says in the film that he feared going 0-for-4 whenever Ryan pitched for the Angles against his Minnesota Twins in the 1970s. Never mind, Carew won seven batting titles and hit .328 for his career.

But Ryan does not brag in the movie.

“Nolan is a very humble man despite his greatness, and he really didn’t want to do this film,” Jackson said. “He had to be coaxed. He does not like to talk about himself.”

Ryan was not so shy and rarely tried to “just manage expectations,” as an older Maverick says in the sequel, when he took the mound. At least, not until maybe when he was in his mid-40s still pitching for the Texas Rangers. He threw his final two no-hitters at age 43 and 44,by the way, in 1990 and ’91.

Known for his workout rituals, nutrition, and soaking blisters on his pitching fingers in pickle juice, the bionic-armed man pitched until he was 46 in 1993.

“When I watch the film, I really kind of reflect back on how long 27 years (in the Majors) is,” Ryan said in a rare interview last month in Arlington, Texas, picked up by the Associated Press. “It almost made me tired – the commitment that I had to make to compete for that long. But I took a lot of pride in being in shape and being able to compete with people half my age.”

Ryan’s workouts that fueled his “need for speed,” and a real good curve ball, are why he still holds MLB records for strikeouts (5,714), no-hitters (7), one-hitters (12), two-hitters (18), double-figure strikeout games (215), 300-strikeout seasons (6), lowest hits average allowed in nine innings for a season (5.26 in 1972) and lowest career batting average allowed (.204).

But he was a gunslinger, so he also holds the record for most walks in a career with 2,795. Ryan finished with a career record of 324-292, which is not great on the surface, but most of those Angels, Astros and Rangers teams were either bad or average.

Ryan was just 167-159 when he became an Astro, and Kornheiser touched on a near-.500 pitcher getting the biggest yearly salary for an athlete ever at the time at $1.1 million.

“He is the most spectacular pitcher of his time, but he can’t win for losing,” Kornheiser wrote.

“Certain nights when I’ve thrown, I can’t imagine anyone ever throwing any better,” the maverick Ryan says in the story.

And he did help put the Astros over the top in 1980 as they won the West for the first time and nearly reached the World Series before losing to Philadelphia in a best-of-five-game series, 3-2. But Ryan finished only 11-10 with a 3.34 ERA and blew a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of game five. Before that, Ryan was 109-2 when he went to the mound with a lead after the seventh inning.

“He talked about that game in the film,” Jackson said. “It was one of the few times he failed in that situation.”

OutKick 360 contributor John McClain, who recently retired from the Houston Chronicle, is in the movie discussing the heartbreak of that 1980 series.

Ryan helped lead the Astros to the National League playoffs again in 1986 when he went 12-10 with a 3.35 ERA. The New York Mets won a classic, best-of-seven series, four games to two.

But the Astros were bad again in 1987 and couldn’t score for Ryan. Still, in one of his finest achievements, he won the ERA title with a 2.76 mark despite finishing with an 8-16 record. The Astros averaged 1.69 runs a game in those losses. Ryan also led MLB in strikeouts that season with 270.

Jackson’s film includes Ryan’s early years with the New York Mets, who drafted him in 1965 just after Ryan graduated from Alvin High. He won game three of the Natonal League Playoffs in 1969 against the Atlanta Braves and saved game three in the World Series against Baltimore before the Mets won it all, four games to one.

Ryan was 29-38 in his Mets career and traded to the California Angels in December of 1971 in what is known as one of the worst Mets’ trades in history. It included Angels shortstop Jim Fregosi going to New York. Fregosi had a lifetime batting average of .265 and is more known as a manager – with the Angels and three other MLB teams.

“I didn’t know Nolan won a World Series with the Mets,” Jackson, 37, said.

Jackson also learned that Los Angeles Dodgers pitching great Sandy Koufax was Ryan’s idol.

Ryan, who grew up in Alvin, Texas, near Houston took his high school sweetheart and future wife Ruth on their second date to see Koufax pitch late in his Hall of Fame career against the then-Houston Colt 45s at Colt Stadium – before the Astrodome opened in 1965.

“She said she wasn’t sure about him at the time, because he barely said a word during the game,” Jackson said. “He was just so focused on Koufax. Nolan said, ‘That’s how you do it. That’s how I want to do it.'”

Koufax pitched his last game on Oct. 2, 1966. Less than a month before, Ryan made his Major League debut with the Mets. In 1973, Ryan broke the modern record (after 1884) for strikeouts in a season with 383 that still stands. Koufax struck out 382 in 1965 for the Dodgers.

Ruth Ryan is the soul of the movie, Jackson said. She convinced her husband to stay in the game after he contemplated retirement while struggling with the Mets.

“She really shines through as the reason Nolan was so successful,” Jackson said.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

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