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Nolan Ryan, The Making of a Pitcher: Speed Bump -1975 (Part 1)

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By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer - 

In a lot of ways, Nolan Ryan’s 1975 season would prove his most challenging.
Primarily because it was the first time he missed significant time
due to injury.

It started in Minnesota on April 15. He won the 7–3 game, but his
arm felt stiff and there was nothing special about his performance. The
next morning he woke up to find his right elbow so swollen he couldn’t
straighten his arm. He immediately went the ballpark, where it took 20
minutes of throwing at half-speed to loosen up the arm enough for him
to extend it away from his body.

Two starts later against Texas, he gave up seven hits and four earned
runs before leaving the game after pitching to one batter in the seventh

When he told Dr. Joseph Triggs, the Angels team physician, about
his arm, Triggs thought maybe Ryan had torn his triceps tendon. Instead,
X-rays showed what looked like a bone chip in the elbow. Believing it was
related to an older injury, Triggs recommended rest.

So Ryan rested. The pain did not.

“The first 30 minutes of warming up, I would really have to suck it
up to get to where I could really stand it,” he recalls. “Once it got loose,
I could pitch with it. But the velocity never was there. I was losing sleep
over it, and it got to the point where I dreaded coming to the ballpark.”
Even so, Ryan won eight of his first nine starts, and at the end of May
he was 8–3, with 87 Ks.

“I kept winning because my control was good,” says Ryan. “I was mixing
my pitches and I was getting a lot of runs. But the longer I pitched,
the worse it got.”

As the pain continued, so too did Ryan’s reluctance to address it.
Scheduled to start on Sunday, June 1, the season-long pain in his elbow
could no longer be ignored. This morning it was so bad he couldn’t lift his
arm to brush his teeth, and combing his hair required him to bend down.
He tried hiding the truth from Ruth, but that was always futile, and
her own pained expression mirrored his.

If opposing hitters learned that Ryan was hurt, they’d dig in during
every at-bat and eliminate his intimidation factor. If Angles management
found out, they’d likely demand a thorough examination and perhaps

In the past, he had always played through elbow pain until it eventually
subsided. But now he couldn’t even put on his shirt or tie his shoes
by himself. If it was this bad now, what could he expect in six hours when
he took the mound against Baltimore?

The Orioles had some serious bats. Somehow he’d have to get through
the first few innings and hope adrenalin kicked in.

“See you at the game,” he told Ruth through gritted teeth.
At the ballpark, Nolan put on his game face. Passing the batboy in the
towel room, he said, “How you doing, Robby?” as if nothing was wrong.
After leaving passes for Ruth and sister Mary Lou, Ryan went to his
locker and got into his uniform. Picking up a stray rubber ball, he went
up to starting catcher Ellie Rodriguez and started lightly bouncing it off
his forehead. “I’ll be throwing these today,” Ryan joked, “so be ready.”
Rodriguez had just come off the DL and was surprised to get the
start. He had a cold and headache, and joined Ryan in the trainer’s room
and downed a couple aspirins.

After filing down his blister, Nolan had the trainer apply eye
black beneath his eyes. The afternoon sun would be bright. The black
shade not only diminished glare but also give him an intimidating look.
That was exactly what Bobby Grich was thinking too, over in the
Baltimore clubhouse, as the Orioles second baseman applied his eye
black. All the shadow in the world wouldn’t slow down Ryan’s fastball,
but looking a little tougher couldn’t hurt.

Ryan’s bullpen session was shaky. It took him a long time to get loose,
and when he finally did his fastball wasn’t popping.

So instead he finessed the Orioles. By the fifth inning he had only four
strikeouts, proof he was relying on his off-speed pitches and great location.
And he hadn’t allowed a hit.

In the stands, Ruth who was pregnant, was beginning to feel the
stomach-fluttering “no-hit” sensation, and was grateful that Reid and
Mary Lou were with her.

The guys in the visitors’ dugout were dealing with their own angst.
“It was one of those days where, as the game wore on, you felt like
you didn’t have a chance,” recalls Orioles right fielder Ken Singleton. “By
the sixth, we were behind 1–0, but the way Nolan was throwing it seemed
like 10–0. We were sitting on the bench, and I can recall Grich screaming
to the mound, ‘Hey, Nolan! Give us a chance!’ But all Nolan did was kind
of look over with that smile and shake his head.”

Determined to break up Ryan’s no-hitter, Birds skipper Earl Weaver
sent Tommy Davis to bat for Don Baylor to start the seventh inning.
Playing for the Dodgers in the 1960s, Davis was one of the game’s
top hitters, winning batting titles in 1962 and ’63. He might have added
a third but for the broken ankle he suffered busting up a double play in
1965. He had slowed down in the years since, but the 36-year-old former
All-Star could still hit, and as he approached the on-deck circle Ryan
thought, This is just the kind of guy who could wreck it. Need to be careful here.
Davis hit his second pitch hard toward the middle. Getting a great
jump on the ball, Jerry Remy made a spectacular backhanded stab,
turned, and fired a perfect strike to Bruce Bochte at first. 
It was close, but umpire Hank Soar shot out a thumb, 
bringing the immediate wrath of Davis and Weaver.

“Jerry’s play was the big one,” Ryan later recalled. “When he made
it, I said to myself, ‘This might be our day.’”

Following a walk to Grich, Lee May hit a potential double-play ball
that shortstop Billy Smith bobbled for an error. With the tying run on
second, Ryan got Brooks Robinson on a grounder to third and then
Elrod Hendricks on a pop up to end the inning. Ryan left the field to a
standing ovation.

On the bench he called over the batboy with a request: “Robby, can
you get the X balls?”

In the mid-1970s, American League baseballs were produced in Haiti,
and the balls weren’t uniform. Some were smaller with higher seams,
others bigger with flatter seams. Ryan liked the smaller ones, and had
stashed a dozen or so of them away for “special occasions.”
The batboy charged up the runway, grabbed the box with the X on
it, and brought it back to the bench. From that point on, every foul ball
would be replaced by an X ball. By the time Ryan returned to the mound
in the eighth, umpire Hank Morgenweck’s pockets were full of them.
Going into the final inning the Halos were still ahead 1–0 and Ruth’s
stomach was in knots. That morning Nolan could hardly shave his face.
Now he was just three outs away from his fourth no-hitter.

Glancing at the lineup card posted above the water cooler, Ryan saw
the names Al Bumbry, Tommy Davis, and Bobby Grich. It was the meat
of the Orioles batting order, and he knew each hitter had seen him three
times already and was smart enough to be timing his pitches.
Ryan worked the speedy Bumbry with a curve before he hit a fly to
Morris Nettles in left. Pitching carefully to Davis, Ryan wasted a couple
breaking balls and then got him on a routine grounder to Remy.
Walking to the plate, Bobby Grich recollects, “The crowd was beside
itself and I wanted to get a hit. I was really grinding and trying to focus
but at that moment there was so much karma pulling against you. It’s a
very strange situation to be in, and I remember trying hard to get myself
focused the other way.”

Ryan threw two fastballs that Grich fouled straight back. Grich was
obviously timing him, so with the count at 2-2, Ryan flashed his teeth at
Rodriguez, signaling the changeup.

“I’m thinking he’s gonna throw me a heater,” Grich recalls, “and I’m
going to rope him up the middle. As he began his windup, I started to
stride, and I can’t believe it. It’s a change-up…I don’t think he had thrown
a handful the whole afternoon. I’m timing myself for a fastball but when I
saw it was a change I held up and watched it go near the outside corner. It
was an incredible pitch, and as the place went nuts all I could think was,
Oh, my god, I’m part of history!”

As soon as Morgenweck signaled strike three, Ruth left her seat
and bolted down the aisle for the rail. As his teammates mobbed her
husband, the batboys brought the auxiliary staircase over so she could
get onto the field.

“I got excited and just jumped out on the field and began hugging
him,” Ruth recalls. “I had never done that before, but I couldn’t wait to
see him.”

It was her first no-hitter in person, after all.

“It was one of those deals when I warmed up just hoping I could
get through the game,” Ryan told a mob of reporters in the locker room.
“The last thing that went through my mind while I warmed up was
a game like that. All my pitches were effective today. For my second no hitter
I threw 80 percent fastballs. Today I threw 60 percent fastballs and
40 percent curveballs and changeups. I was giving the hitters more pitches
to hit, which is the way I am trying to pitch now.”

Asked about tying Koufax’s record of four no-hitters, Ryan said
“He’s been very supportive of me. That’s just the type of person he is. He
respects people’s abilities and their work ethic. But I think all records are
subject to being broken, and I think if they are going to be broken, you
would like it to be broken by somebody that has the same value system
as you.”

A photographer asked the batboy for four baseballs and a marker. After
putting a big zero on each ball, the photographer handed them to Ryan.
The next morning, pictures of Ryan, his face smeared with eye black
and holding up the four balls, were featured in newsstands across the
country. Later that day a telegram was added to the growing stack on Ryan’s
chair. It conveyed congratulations from Sandy Koufax, now living on
California’s central coast. A couple days later, Koufax expressed his sentiments
publicly to the Los Angeles Times.

“I have no sadness at all,” he said. “There was no doubt [Ryan] was
going to do it. The only question now is how many more he’s going to
pitch. It might be 10 or 12 with the kind of stuff he has.”
Five days later, 29,513 fans at the Big A held their collective breath
as Ryan no-hit the Milwaukee Brewers for seven innings. With two outs in
the sixth, 41-year-old Henry Aaron, baseball’s all-time home run king,
poked a hanging curve over second base for a clean single.

Afterward, Ryan (who pitched a two-hitter) joked to reporters that
Aaron finally had a real career highlight to brag about. “He can say that he
was the one who broke up Nolan Ryan’s try for back-to-back no-hitters,”
he said.

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