Nolan and Ruth Ryan are walking on a trail overlooking a breathtaking section of their South Texas ranch when filmmaker Bradley Jackson cuts to an interview in which Jackson asks the question that just might define Facing Nolan, the director’s exquisite documentary that traces the lives of one of baseball’s all-time greats. But the question isn’t for Nolan—it’s for Ruth, the woman he’s been married to for 55 years.
“Did you ever think this would happen to you?” Jackson asks. He poses this question against the backdrop of the ranch’s splendor and all it represents in terms of fame, wealth, family, and success.
Ruth Ryan instantly senses the deeper meaning of the question, and her response is so heartwarming that it has become one of the film’s signature moments. In test screenings before the documentary’s June 24 theatrical release, the scene has prompted such powerful, audible aaahhhs from audiences that the director initially didn’t know what to make of the reaction.
“I never dreamed this would happen,” Ruth Ryan says. “But then again, I just wanted to be with him.”
This is not the answer Bradley Jackson expected, and that’s why Facing Nolan isn’t the film he set out to make. Beyond the crackling fastballs and punches thrown and bloody uniforms—there’s all of that—and beyond her husband’s journey from Alvin, Texas, to baseball glory, this documentary is a love story.
“I thought I’d be telling an uber-masculine Texas, big-balls sports story,” Jackson told me in a recent interview. “And there are elements of that in the movie. But telling the love story was something I didn’t expect and something I’m really proud of.
“As we were filming, we kind of started to understand that we had this other story—a family story, a marriage story,” Jackson said. “It’s not more interesting than all his major league records, but those are things you can see. It’s the intangible stuff—him working cattle on the ranch, him with his family on the Fourth of July—that stuff is pretty magical. We live in a day and age where a lot of our athletes have become tainted in our eyes, mostly because they’re humans. It’s nice to see an athlete who is a superstar but who has kind of remained the same person that he was when he started out.”
Jackson, 37, attended Second Baptist School in Houston and the University of Texas at Austin before moving to the West Coast. He came up with the idea of a film on Nolan Ryan in 2020, as he drove across Texas after having watched ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance more times than he can remember. Is there, he wondered, a similar story in the Lone Star State?
“Nolan hasn’t been forgotten by any means,” Jackson said, “but he keeps a low profile. He’s very humble about all of it, but when you dig deep into the records, it makes your jaw drop.”
Nolan Ryan might also be the most admired Texan ever. Yes, ever. Think about it. He has no damning political baggage. He’s beloved throughout the state, having pitched for both the Astros (1980–88) and the Rangers (1989–93). Neither franchise has had a more popular player. Beyond that, there’s a decency and an everyman quality about him that appeals to almost everyone.
On the mound, though, Ryan—to be blunt—scared the hell out of opposing hitters. He threw hard. He threw inside. Sometimes way inside. If he saw a hitter getting too comfortable at the plate, he did not hesitate to drill him in the ribs, legs, shoulder, you name it. George W. Bush, a former Rangers owner, grimaces in the film when he recounts a conversation with Ryan after an opposing batter had gotten one in the ribs.
“Did you hit that guy on purpose?” Bush asks. Then, doing his best Nolan Ryan imitation, he quotes the answer: “George, sometimes, you’ve got to take control of the situation.”
When the filmmakers ask Ryan if he liked “scaring people,” the pitcher with the most career strikeouts in MLB history returned a pragmatic answer. “I used it to my advantage when I could,” Ryan says in Facing Nolan. “With that mindset, you’re gonna hit some people.”
Former Houston teammate Craig Reynolds tells the camera, “I remember Nolan saying `When I step across that white line, I don’t even like myself.’”
Jackson and his filmmaking partner Russell Groves pitched the idea of a documentary to Ruth Ryan and the couple’s sons, Reid and Reese, at a meeting in Round Rock in 2020. As for Nolan Ryan, he had so little interest that he skipped the initial talk.
“I think it took Ruth convincing Nolan to agree to it,” Jackson told me. “I don’t think he was super excited to have some young kids with cameras following him around for a couple of months.”
Indeed, early in the making of the film Reid Ryan saw cameras following his dad as he worked his cattle. “No one is going to watch this stuff,” his dad said.
But Jackson was onto something. Those pastoral scenes add crucial detail and insight into Nolan and Ruth’s life together. Reid Ryan, one of the movie’s executive producers, said he and his brother loved the idea from the beginning, but they also wanted to be involved in what he calls “quality control aspects.”
“I think the quality of it is one thing we’re really proud of,” Reid told me. “Bradley and Russell did a great job. Reese and I had a very high standard for the vision in our heads. We made sure we were able to put the proper budget in.
“I’m proud of the music, that we had access to MLB’s catalogue of video and photos, all of that. It exceeded our expectations because we set out to make a movie that honored my dad’s career, and I thought the guys did a really good job.”
Jackson says they conducted “somewhere between twenty and thirty” interviews with lifelong friends, former teammates, and an assortment of baseball greats, including Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, and Cal Ripken Jr.
But more than the baseball lore, it’s the relationship between Nolan and Ruth that shines throughout the film. They met in elementary school back home in Alvin. Nolan was in the eighth grade, Ruth the sixth, when he asked her to a movie. Their second date was a trip to Houston to watch Nolan’s idol, Sandy Koufax, pitch against the Colt .45s.
When Nolan was eighteen, the Mets drafted him and sent him off to the minor leagues. He pitched his first major league game in 1966, as a nineteen-year-old throwing against men. Nolan and Ruth married the following year.
“We depended on each other,” Ruth says when asked about their newlywed days in New York, when Nolan was with the Mets and Ruth often found herself alone in their apartment during the team’s road trips. “We were just two kids trying to get by.”
On the mound, Nolan was maddeningly inconsistent with the Mets. He had a blazing fastball with little control. In five seasons, he averaged 6.1 walks and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. “I was so frustrated with my inconsistency,” he says in the film, “and the fact that I wasn’t pitching on a regular basis.”
When the 1971 season ended, he was ready to quit baseball. The couple drove out of New York in the middle of the night, after the team’s final game. His plan was to return to Alvin and study to be a veterinarian. “I started thinking maybe this wasn’t what I was meant to do,” he says of his baseball career.
But when the Mets traded him to the Los Angeles Angels that off-season, Ruth told him, “I really wish you’d stick it out just a little bit longer.” In California, Nolan encountered a pitching coach named Tom Morgan, who reworked his mechanics and helped create the pitcher who would throw for 27 seasons, the ace who still holds more than fifty major league records, including seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts.
Nolan Ryan was 46 when his right elbow finally gave out in 1993. Six years later, he sailed into the Baseball Hall of Fame after being named on 98.8 percent of ballots—the highest percentage ever, at the time.
“It was like a light bulb went on,” former Angels catcher Jeff Torborg says in Facing Nolan. In 1972, Ryan’s first season in Southern California, he threw a pair of no-hitters sixty days apart. He led the American League in strikeouts, walks, and wild pitches.
“Nolan never expected baseball to be a long career,” Ruth tells the filmmakers. “His goal was to play four years and qualify for a pension.” He wound up playing 27 seasons and earning wealth and status beyond anything he or Ruth had ever dreamed of. After Nolan’s first year with the Mets, he worked installing central air units to supplement his $7,000 salary. By the start of the 1980 season, the Astros had made him the game’s first $1 million player.
Facing Nolan also contains a fascinating exploration of why White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura charged the mound after Ryan hit him with a pitch in 1993. Ventura became part of the most iconic moment of Ryan’s career, as cameras caught Ryan putting Ventura in a headlock and throwing punch after punch.
The film delves into the history that Ventura could not have known when he chose to go after Ryan that day. Thirteen years earlier, after Dave Winfield charged the mound against Ryan, the pitcher vowed that if another hitter ever attacked him, he’d be the aggressor. There was bad blood between the White Sox and Rangers in 1993, and the Chicago clubhouse had a pact that any player hit by Ryan who didn’t charge the mound would be fined $500. (Ventura should have written a check.)
The film is so deeply reported and so beautifully shot that it seems likely to become one of the enduring texts that teaches future generations why Nolan Ryan came to mean so much to Texans and to baseball. Even better, Ruth Ryan—who was so often photographed with her husband over the years but whose voice hasn’t received the attention it deserves—shines brilliantly alongside Nolan.
“His legacy will be that he had a God-given talent, and he worked hard at his talent,” she says in the movie. “I’m really proud of that. But I’m just so proud of him as a person. I guess I’m just his biggest fan.”
Facing Nolan’s attention to detail and its scenes of Nolan and Ruth with their family, combining remembrances of their early years with the comfortable place they’ve reached, are sweet beyond words.
Reid Ryan said he nervously kept an eye on his parents as they watched an early screening of the film. “They weren’t expecting the love story,” he told me. “They weren’t expecting the retrospective look at their life. My dad was such a fierce competitor and I don’t think he envisioned hearing all these people say those things about him. And for both of them, watching their life flash before their eyes over the course of an hour and a half, it was just emotional for them.”
It’ll be emotional for lots of others too, especially Texans, many of whom will always see Ryan as the man who personifies integrity and work ethic. He is, to many, the Texan they’d all like to be.
“You can have success on the field, but really what matters in the long term is a good set of values,” George W. Bush says in Facing Nolan. “That’s what Nolan Ryan exemplifies.”