Savoring the Private Ryan

Baseball. Values. Family. An afternoon on the ranch with Texas icon Nolan Ryan.

IT WAS A MISTAKE,” NOLAN RYAN TOLD ME later about the pitch he had thrown to Round Rock mayor Charlie Culpepper, but I didn’t believe him. Ryan had come to the Austin suburb to celebrate the groundbreaking for the stadium where the as-yet-unborn Round Rock Express will play baseball starting in the spring of 2000. The Express is a Ryan family business—Nolan is the majority owner of the Texas League franchise, and his 27-year-old son, Reid, will serve as president—and their field of dreams, appropriately, will rise out of what was until recently a cornfield.

Around a thousand people had shown up on a breezy, overcast morning in late February for the ceremony. A patch of ground had been cleared amid the chopped-off cornstalks; it now had acquired a home plate and a barely discernible hump of black earth that functioned as a pitching mound. Ryan shed his navy blazer and began throwing warm-up pitches. He was wearing gray slacks, a blue oxford-cloth shirt, and black dress shoes. At 52, he looked like any middle-aged man who hadn’t thrown a baseball in years. He raised his left foot perhaps three inches off the ground, as if he were scuffing a pebble; gone was his trademark windup, in which he lifted his left leg so high that it seemed his knee might conk his chin. His first toss sailed high and far to his right, causing the catcher to leap up to prevent it from going into the crowd—not that it was thrown hard enough to hurt anyone.

After fifteen or so pitches, most of them off target, Culpepper grabbed a bat and stepped into a batter’s box that had been marked off with white lime, not even bothering to wear a helmet as he awaited the soft lob he knew was coming. But somewhere between the little scuff with the foot and the release of the ball, an atavistic instinct took hold of Nolan Ryan’s arm, and out of his beefy hand flew a very respectable, utterly unhittable fastball—not a hundred miles an hour like the old days, but plenty more than Culpepper had bargained for. As it buzzed across the outside corner at the knees, the mayor swung weakly, the ball snapped into the catcher’s mitt, and the bat went flying down the third base line. Only then did Ryan throw a gimme that Culpepper could hit.

Six years had passed since Nolan Ryan had thrown his last pitch for the Texas Rangers, but in the ways that mattered, he hadn’t changed at all. He was still someone who could not bring himself to do less than his best. Packaged in that fastball were all of the reasons why Texas baseball fans loved him during the fourteen years that he played for the Astros and the Rangers: his passion for the game, his competitiveness, his ability to rise to an occasion, and above all, his refusal to give in to the passage of time. Ryan pitched not just for his team, not just for the fans, but for all of us in his generation. More important than the milestone achievements of three hundred wins and five thousand strikeouts and seven no-hitters that he reached with the Rangers was the time in 1993 when Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox, twenty years his junior, charged the mound after being hit by a pitch. Ryan, then 46 and a month from retirement, dropped his glove and administered a swift pugilistic lesson in respect for one’s elders. Way to go, Nolan. Win one for the geezers.

Ryan holds 53 records, more than anyone else in major league history, and he will be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame this summer, but he will always be remembered as much for the kind of person he was as for the kind of player he was. He grew up in Alvin and still lives there. He married his high school sweetheart and is still married to her. The Sporting News once wrote that he held the record for giving the most free autographs of any professional athlete in any sport. His work ethic, which enabled him to fend off advancing age with a rigorous exercise routine, kept him performing at a superstar level longer than anyone in the history of baseball. Somewhere toward the end of his 27-year career, he came to be perceived by the public as not just a great ballplayer but also a great human being. That is the difference between being a celebrity and being an icon, and Nolan Ryan is the rare hero who has made it across the line.

HEROES SEEM TO BE IN SHORT SUPPLY these days, and not just in sports. So the occasion of Ryan’s election to the Hall of Fame, which was announced in January, afforded the perfect opportunity to check in with him. He and his wife, Ruth, were spending a few days on one of the two ranches they own in South Texas. This one covers around 18,000 acres—28 square miles—of hard-core brush country near Three Rivers. It’s accessible only by a couple of unmapped roads scraped out of yellow dirt so stubborn that it sticks to your car even after a rain. From the ranch gate, which bears Nolan’s N-R brand, it’s another two miles to the one-story limestone house, which sits atop a rise that’s the second-highest point on the property, an island in a sea of brush that runs undisturbed to the horizon on all sides. The only features visible are a life-size bronze in the front yard of a cowboy driving Longhorns, a collection of sheds a couple hundred yards to the north, and in the distant southwest, a single mesa.

Ruth Ryan met me at the door with the firmest handshake I have ever received from a woman and led me into the living room, a large, comfortable gathering place whose decor was aggressively Texan. The chandelier, greater in diameter than a wagon wheel, was constructed of interlocking antlers. Six mounted

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