(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
Nolan Ryan was warming up in the bullpen at Arlington Stadium and feeling every bit like the 44-year-old professional pitcher that he was—which is to say, terrible. His back was stiff. His whole body ached. He couldn't get a feel for his curveball. It was hot. He was old. Pitching coach Tom House didn't like what he saw.
"I was concerned, but I really didn't get nervous until he walked off the mound of his bullpen session warming up," House says now. Ryan trudged into the Texas Rangers' clubhouse. It was May 1, 1991, and he was scheduled to start against the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that ended up winning 91 games and the American League East.
During the National Anthem, Ryan was nowhere to be seen.
"I told [Rangers manager] Bobby [Valentine] I wasn't sure whether he would even be able to pitch that day," House says.
"He warmed up really poorly," Valentine says. "Every curveball he threw he threw about 45 feet."
It was later revealed that Ryan had bloodied his right middle finger while warming up, the result of skin and scar tissue breaking. All in all, it was hardly an auspicious beginning for what would end up as Ryan's seventh—and certainly most improbable—Major League Baseball no-hitter.
After racking up a quarter century in the majors and more than 5,000 innings on his pitching odometer, Ryan's body was defying time; his arm was defying physics. But he was still mortal. Toronto was talented—the Blue Jays would go on to win the World Series in 1992 and 1993—and made up of ballplayers young enough to be Ryan's kids. "I think he thought he was near the end," Valentine says.
The manager took inventory of his fall-back options, calculating who could get loose to make an emergency start or come in for long relief on short notice.
Today, baseball fans might wonder why Ryan was taking the mound at all. He was pitching in the fourth decade of his career on short rest after tossing 131 pitches four days earlier against Cleveland. Valentine says the Rangers monitored pitch counts, but weren't beholden to them. He grasped that a 130-pitch start for Ryan, an old-school workhorse, wasn't the same as it was for other pitchers.
Besides, Ryan wanted to go on short rest since it was the last night of the Rangers' home stand. He preferred to avoid pitching on extended rest, since the Rangers had an off-day before starting a series in Detroit, and he wanted to be on the mound for Arlington Appreciation Night.
Valentine knew Ryan well. He had been the Angels' starting center fielder 18 years earlier in Kansas City, when a fireballing 26-year-old Ryan no-hit the Royals for his first no-hitter. Valentine had also been the Rangers' manager in 1990, when a 43-year-old Ryan pitched his sixth no-no against the defending world champion Oakland A's.
So Valentine understood: This was not a normal 44-year-old man. Ryan fought through the pain and soreness and took the mound.
He struck out Toronto leadoff man Devon White. He induced a weak grounder out of Roberto Alomar. After walking Kelly Gruber, he got Joe Carter to pop out meekly to second. Just like that, he had flipped the switch. "Just get me one," House remembers Ryan telling his teammates as he came back into the Texas dugout. "It's pretty much all I'm gonna need today."
Over the phone, you can picture Valentine smiling. "It was miraculous," he says. "To say the least."
"It was a really good lineup," Valentine says of the Blue Jays. That may be an understatement. Toronto featured future Hall of Famer Alomar, soon-to-be World Series hero Joe Carter, soon-to-be AL batting champ John Olerud and two-time All-Star Kelly Gruber, who was coming off a career year of 31 home runs and 118 runs batted in. The Jays were on their way to the first of three straight AL East titles. None of them could touch Ryan that night.
"It wasn't about the competition," says Valentine. "It was about the dominance of his pitches."
Ryan struck out the side in the second inning. He disposed of the Jays on nine pitches in the third. By the top of the sixth, the crowd was bubbling.
"When Nolan pitched, you were always on the edge of your seat," says former Rangers beat writer Jim Reeves, who covered sports for more than 40 years at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was at the park that night. "You never knew what could happen, even at 44 years old."
In the top of the sixth, Toronto came close to breaking up the no-hit bid. With one out, light-hitting shortstop Manuel Lee lofted the first pitch he saw into shallow centerfield. Texas outfielder Gary Pettis, a five-time Gold Glove Award winner, charged in and made a running catch on the rapidly falling pop up.
"[Pettis] did play shallow," says Valentine. "Gary was one of the best going at the time. I don't know if a lousy centerfielder would have gotten it. He really got a good jump."
Ryan struck out two batters in the seventh and two more in the eighth, bringing his total to 15. As Ryan took the mound with a 3-0 lead in the top of the ninth, the applause from the Texas faithful was deafening and fans chanted his name. Ryan worried about the speed of Lee and White, but both grounded out easily to second. Alomar was up next.
Fate had connected Ryan and Alomar long before Roberto stepped to the plate in the top of the ninth. Alomar's father, Sandy, had been the starting second baseman for the Angels during Ryan's first two no-hitters. Ryan had known Roberto since he was three years old. Alomar swung through a first-pitch fastball, then fouled one off to go down in the count 0-and-2. Ryan missed low, 1-2. Alomar fouled off another fastball. A big curveball missed outside to even the count.
Ryan tossed two balls back to the home plate umpire, requesting just the right one
"The people of Arlington wanted so bad to see a no-hitter," Valentine says. "He wound up getting his 5,000th strikeout in Arlington which was a remarkable night, but he got his 300th win on the road and he got his sixth no-hitter on the road. So these great fans of Texas baseball really wanted to have that experience and he didn't let them down."
Alomar fisted off another fastball. He hung in. And then the Ryan Express blew him away.
Alomar swung through the 2-2 fastball on the outside corner and collapsed onto one knee. Catcher Mike Stanley emphatically punched the air. Ryan pushed his right hand toward the ground and scowled, a brief flash of competitive menace, before breaking into a huge smile.
It was one of his most dominant performances, one of only two no-hitters in which a runner failed to reach second base. Of all his no-nos, it was the outing with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (16:2) and it was one of eight career games in which he struck out 15 or more while walking two or less.
"I was worried all day because I didn't feel right," Ryan told reporters after the game. "I woke up in the morning and I was sluggish. My back was stiff, and it felt that way right on through to warming up. But when I started warming up, I just blocked everything out. That's like the business with my age. I just block it out."
The no-hitter was a startling repudiation of age and mileage, a middle finger for anyone wondering what the old man was still doing out there. It came as a shock, but only if you didn't know anything about Nolan Ryan.
"Nolan personified what the game of baseball is all about," Valentine says. "That game personified it because he started it thinking his career was over and ended it on the shoulders of his teammates. That game was not about stuff. It was about inner stuff."