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Why a documentary about Nolan Ryan is also a love letter to Texas – and Ruth Ryan

Nolan Ryan looks at plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
David Ward, "Facing Nolan"
Nolan Ryan looks at plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

When you picture baseball legend Nolan Ryan, do you see him wearing a Houston Astros uniform or a Texas Rangers uniform? Does he have blood running down his chin or maybe he has a guy in a headlock? Or is he selling Advil? Nolan Ryan has had many faces. And if you were standing at bat, his face generally wasn’t one you wanted to see.

Facing Nolan” is the title of a new documentary about Ryan’s life and career. It’s having a one-night theatrical release, playing on May 24.

Bradley Jackson directed the film. He spent his childhood in Houston and told Texas Standard he grew up with the mythology of Nolan Ryan, both from stories from his dad and from watching Ryan on television in the 80s and 90s. Jackson said that in his film about Ryan, he set out to make a love letter to Texas.

“I’ll always consider myself a Texan,” Jackson said. “And getting to make a movie about, in my mind, one of the truest Texans that ever was has been the honor of my life… Texans are proud defenders of their own. And, you know, no better example of that Nolan Ryan defending the mound.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Nolan Ryan’s wife Ruth plays a prominent role in this film. Is that something you set out to do originally?

Bradley Jackson: Yeah, I don’t think I set out originally to do that. And I think that’s because I didn’t know Ruth Ryan at the time. His son, Reid Ryan, about halfway through the movie said it best. We were talking after a production day and he said, ‘I think this is a love story wrapped in baseball.’

Because when you realize, one, how close Nolan Ryan came to not being Nolan Ryan that we know of. You know, he was about to quit baseball about five years into his career. And then you understand why he didn’t was because he had a partner in his wife who pushed him, who said, ‘you have a gift. And if you quit right now, you’re depriving the world of your gift.’ So to me, when I learned that fact, it changed the movie that I wanted to make.

Ryan has more than 50 Major League Baseball records under his belt. Why did he almost quit? Did you sense that he had a certain degree of self-doubt?

I think so. But I also think that you got to understand that nobody was expecting anything of Nolan Ryan. It’s not like kids today where, you know, if you’re throwing 90-plus miles an hour today and somebody sees you, they’ll give you a $100,000 contract on the spot. Doesn’t matter if you can throw the ball over the plate. Nolan was from a tiny town nobody heard of. He never had a pitching coach, and he just could throw hard. And I just think people, you know, baseball, the economics and the scouting of baseball was so different back then…

Nobody expected Nolan Ryan to play beyond a couple of years. Nobody expected him to do much of anything because that’s not the way baseball was treated back then. And he didn’t even have a real pitching coach, a real pitching coach until he went to the California Angels, which is even crazier…

And finally he got a proper coach who actually watched him and observed him and fixed him. And then once they fixed him, it was game over. That’s when he started throwing, you know, he threw for no-hitters in about four years, which is just insane.

Your documentary features George Brett, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Bobby Valentine, and former President George W. Bush? How did you go about getting these folks – and a former president to talk to you?

That was as simple as the Ryan family making a couple of phone calls. We had the support of the family. And when you say the name Nolan Ryan, a lot of people say, ‘okay, where do I show up?’ Because people want to talk about him. Because, you know, it is one of those like tall tales that, you know, if a screenwriter sat down to write Nolan Ryan’s story without him actually being in existence, I don’t think you would believe it.

I mean, someone coming out to face Nolan Ryan with a table leg? Could you share that story?

During Nolan’s second no-hitter, the final batter was a player by the name of Norm Cash, who is known as being pretty funny and mysterious. And he came out and instead of a bat, he had sawed off the leg of a table. And everybody in the stands and the umpires started laughing because Norm is implying that ‘I can’t hit him. There’s no way. So I might as well get a get a giant table leg to increase my chances.’

And I was like, ‘oh, man, I hope we have that footage.’ And when I finally saw the footage, I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, we have this.’ Because it’s hilarious. It’s funny. It provides levity. And it’s just one of those like, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe this actually happened.

You mentioned that you had the help of Nolan Ryan’s family. When it came to telling parts of his story that were maybe less flattering, did you find that that was difficult?

No, not necessarily. I mean, I think I think Nolan would be the first to tell you that he had a real competitive streak. And, you know, especially near the end of his Astros career, he was a bit difficult to be around. We have one of his former teammates, Alan Ashby, talking about how he was difficult to be in the clubhouse with because he was operating at such a high level as a pitcher and his teammates were not you know, were not helping him out.

And that’s the thing that’s difficult about baseball, especially when you’re a pitcher, is when you’re a pitcher, you’re only on defense. Nolan’s not about to go, you know, get up at bat and hit three home runs. In fact, I think he only hit two home runs in his 27 [year] career, which we get into a little bit, which is pretty funny.

When you close your eyes and I say the name Nolan Ryan. Is he in an Astros uniform or a Rangers one?

That’s a tough question because I am an Astros fan from Houston. But I have to say, he went into the Hall of Fame as a Ranger. I would say my first memories of him playing as a kid are with the Rangers because I you know, he went to the Rangers in ‘89. And the milestones that he achieved as a Ranger are just so stunning. That’s where he hit 5,000 strikeouts. That’s where he achieved no-hitter number six and number seven. That’s where he took the ground ball off the lip from Bo Jackson in his lip. You know, that iconic image of him on the mound covered in blood. That’s where he did the Robin Ventura moment and that’s where he went into the Hall of Fame as a Ranger. So I wish I could say it was an Astro. I definitely associate him with the Astros. But when I close my eyes, it’s in the Ranger uniform.

Do you have a sense that Nolan Ryan isn’t, even among his contemporary peers, fully appreciated and talked about as much as perhaps his story would suggest he should be?

I agree with that in a sense that I definitely think, you know, baseball has heavily veered towards the analytics generation, for better or for worse. You know, you could argue that it makes certain aspects of the game more interesting and more competitive. But I will tell you this, Nolan Ryan does not buy into the analytics generation, especially when it comes to pitchers. And that’s why his records will never be broken, because the way baseball is played right now, there’s no chance for guys to go a full nine innings. You know, Clayton Kershaw was throwing a perfect game and they pulled him at the end of seven innings. I mean, can you imagine doing that with Nolan Ryan? It’s unfathomable.

So I think, you know, that’s something we wanted to get into in the film, too, is like, yes, he led the league in strikeouts with 5,714, but he also led the league with walks. He has the most wild pitches ever. He is just one of those enigmas.

There’s a great baseball writer by the name of Joe Posnanski, who we interviewed for the film. And he summed it up very well when he said, ‘it’s hard to put Nolan’s place in history because you can’t compare him to anybody.’ So this writer created a list of the 100 greatest baseball players of all time, and he put Nolan smack dab in the middle at number 50. And he said he did that intentionally because he’s like, ‘You could make the argument that not writing is number one, but you could make the argument that he’s number 100 on the list. No way to tell. So we put him right in the middle at 50.’ And I think that’s an interesting spot to put him in.

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.