The debates about the greatest pitcher of all time inevitably bring up names including Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. The latter two appear in “Facing Nolan” to talk about Nolan Ryan, the man who idolized Koufax–and then shattered all of his records.
Ryan, now 75 and still sporting that understated grin, sits for writer-director Bradley Jackson’s enthralling new documentary, a nostalgic trip through one of the great baseball careers of the last 50 years. We learn about Ryan’s humble beginnings in tiny Alvin, Texas (even now, as a seasoned gentleman, the pitching great still speaks with that distinctive Lone Star drawl) and his early courtship of Ruth Holdorff, to whom he remains married. Ryan wasn’t even certain he wanted to try the pro baseball life, and indeed his early years weren’t the stuff of legend that would follow him later. Ruth was always there, cheering him on, and perhaps even more competitive than her husband.
But then Ryan invariably found his rhythm, becoming a one-man bulldozer of hitters chasing his 108-mile-per-hour fastball. It was said he was superhuman, and soon he earned the sobriquet “Big Tex.” He absolutely obliterated records set by Koufax and others, and retired having pitched an ungodly seven no-hitters–his last at the geriatric (for baseball anyway) age of 44.
Jackson’s film is indeed a love letter to his subject, as evidenced from the get-go with the awed narration. But Jackson isn’t simply marking Nolan’s many achievements; he wants to explain how this incredibly talented athlete was so important to not only his game but to his state as well. No less than the former owner of the Texas Rangers, one George W. Bush, talks about what a boon Nolan was for hopeful fans who came to watch him take the mound in Arlington (however you might feel about Bush, his passion for the game, and his affection for Ryan and his family, come off as patently genuine.)
Pete Rose–yet another name from baseball whose name has since fallen out of favor–the man with the most hits ever in baseball, can’t help but smile relating how often Ryan struck him out. Fellow pitchers Clemens and Johnson pay their due in new interviews, as does Ryan’s onetime manager Bobby Valentine.
We’re also treated to some of Ryan’s most infamous moments, including a punching fit he got into with Robin Ventura, which got Ventura ejected from the game but somehow not Nolan. Ventura, to little surprise, declined to be interviewed.
But in addition to all of his records, his incredible arm and his seeming unstoppability well into his forties, “Facing Nolan” is concerned most with the man behind the record books. Of prime importance to Ryan, then and now, is his wife Ruth and his ever-expanding family. Playing for the Astros and then the Rangers kept him close to home, a luxury many players do not enjoy. And no matter how many records he smashed–his nearly 6,000 strikeouts remain untouched–Ryan stayed humble. It is that humility, as much as his ability, that has burnished his legend.
“Facing Nolan” is a fascinating documentary, both for the baseball fan (which I am) and those who are interested in an all-American story of overcoming the odds but never forgetting where you came from.
In select theaters now; available for streaming on-demand starting July 24th