Untouchable at 43
OAKLAND – At 43 years old, Cy Young was in his last full year in the big leagues, straddled by a large belly that impeded his movement off the mound. When Walter Johnson was the same age, he had been retired from pitching for four years. Bob Feller, with his last good season at the age of 35, quit a month after turning 38. Sandy Koufax and his arthritic elbow both pitched their last game at the age of 30.
Admittedly, the lifespan of an effective power pitcher is not a long one. Unless your name is Lynn Nolan Ryan. On June 11, 1990, he proved just that. 33,436 fans filed into the Oakland Coliseum on a mild evening to witness history, as the aging fireballer tossed the sixth no-hit, no-run ballgame of his storied career.
Perhaps it came as a surprise to most. At that point, Ryan’s 24th year in the majors had not been the kindest to him. He had just recently gotten off of a stay on disabled list due to a sore back that had been hampered him since an early May start. Upon his return – coincidentally also against the Athletics – he gave up five runs in just as many innings in a 5-4 loss. In his previous six starts, he had gone 0-3 with an 8.86 earned run average. In fact, he had not won since April 26.
Also, on the other side of the battery was John Russell, who had never caught Ryan before. Veterans Geno Petralli and Mike Stanley were both injured, so the assignment was handed to Russell, who had been given a Triple A contract by Texas in May. In fact, only six weeks prior to that June night, he had been helping coach a high school team in suburban Philadelphia.
Add to that the fact that the Rangers were facing Oakland again, who were in first place and seemed well on their way to a third straight World Series appearance, it seemed like the ingredients were very much an unlikely combination for a stellar effort.
However, the opposing Athletics failed to come even close to getting a strong, clean hit. They only twice provided anything that could even remotely be considered a big scare to the defense, with Willie Randolph flying out to the warning track in left to open the fourth inning, and then Rickey Henderson’s liner to center with one on in the sixth.
Ryan’s first two strikeouts of the night came in the opening inning alone, with him wracking up another twelve by the game’s conclusion. Each of the fourteen was of the swinging variety, showcasing how great the combination of his fastball and changeup was. The latter carried him early on, as his stiff back was preventing him from hitting 90 mph on his heaters. Though flinching and grimacing with pain throughout the entire contest, he managed to strike out the side in the fifth on 11 pitches, and according to the Athletics, eventually reached the mid-90s on his fastball in the final three innings.
Offensively for Texas, Julio Franco came through with a pair of two-run homers, and even John Russell contributed with a solo blast of his own, but Ryan was the star.
He started the ninth by striking out pinch-hitter Ken Phelps. A check-swing by Rickey Henderson led to a slow roller and a strong, off-balance throw by Jeff Huson to get the speedster at first. And finally, on a 2-0 pitch, Willie Randolph flew out to shallow right in foul territory. Ruben Sierra made the catch at 9:56 to end the game and begin the celebration. Ryan jubilantly pumped his right arm into the air as he was mobbed by his teammates, who would carry him off the field. Partisanship be damned, the Oakland crowd was with the Texan starting in the seventh inning or so, even chanting “Nolan!” over the course of the ninth. They showered him with a well-deserved standing ovation and raucous cheering when the final out was recorded.
In the clubhouse, Ryan told reporters that the accomplishment was a special one because it came so late in his career, and that it really meant something to have the team so emotionally involved. Even Oakland manager Tony La Russa said, “You had a feeling early this would be something special.
That idea could not have been further from what Nolan was thinking. Before the game he had claimed that his back felt ‘about the same,’ which in other words, was still hurting. Sure, he was rolling his hips and twisting his trunk between pitches to provide some relief, and strolled to the back of the mound to give his body more time to recover. And the next morning, he was to have his back examined in Los Angeles.
But on that Monday night, Nolan was untouchable.