Special to ESPN.com
Forty-four year old Nolan Ryan didn't even feel as if he could make it to Arlington Stadium for his start that evening against the Toronto Blue Jays. He didn't even want to attempt it. "I'm really feeling my age today," he told his wife that morning.
But being the blue-collar, lunch-pail-carrying, 9-to-5 player he was, Ryan pulled on his boots and jeans and headed off to the ballpark. He didn't want to disappoint the fans who had paid to see him pitch on Arlington Appreciation Night on this crisp spring evening, against baseball's best-hitting team.
May 1, 1991. With his body an absolute wreck, Ryan goes through extra pregame stretching. During the scouting meeting to go over Toronto's hitters, he wears a heating pack on his back. But nothing helps. Ryan doubts if he'll be able to last five innings.
While warming up in the bullpen, Ryan turns to Rangers pitching coach Tom House, who is also 44, and drawls, "I don't know how you feel at 44, but I feel old today. My back hurts. My ankle hurts. I've been pounding Advil all day, and it isn't helping." He pauses. "You'd better watch me good out there tonight. I didn't think I'd be out there very long."
As if his physical problems aren't enough, Ryan also threw 131 pitches in his previous start. But when Ryan walks to the mound and begins throwing, he suddenly starts feeling good. Better than good. Great. Better than great, actually. Totally dominant, overwhelmingly strong.
"Everything kicked in for me there in the first inning," Ryan says today, "and it just got better and better as the game went on."
He begins the game by striking out Devon White, then runs into a little trouble by going to two full counts and walking one of the hitters, Kelly Gruber. But Ryan escapes the jam by getting Joe Carter on a pop-up. In the second inning, Ryan displays signs of overwhelming dominance, striking out John Olerud, Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill, all three looking at nasty curves.
Given a 2-0 lead on a home run by Ruben Sierra, Ryan now becomes stronger and hits 96 mph on the radar gun on a pitch to Carter in the fourth.
"He struck out all three guys in the second on curves, but didn't throw me one curve for a strike," Carter would say after the game. "Instead, he threw me the changeup to strike me out. There was nothing I could say except 'That's awesome.'"
Even though the Jays have a lineup stacked with such all-stars as Roberto Alomar, Carter and Olerud, the starters have a combined .132 lifetime average (9-for-66) against Ryan, who is now buzzing through Toronto's order with ease. He was, according to House, "in a zone where normal people don't go." Carter says simply, "We were clueless."
Everyone in the stadium can feel history in the air. They can smell it as Ryan racks up his 10th and 11th strikeouts. In the sixth, Manny Lee loops a blooper to center field that looks as if it's going to drop in for Toronto's first hit. Rangers catcher Mike Stanley is certain the ball is going to drop, ending the no-hitter. He hangs his head, slams his glove on his thigh and mumbles a few expletives.
But Rangers center fielder Gary Pettis, already playing shallow, races in and catches the ball at his shoe tops. Only Lee is sure that Pettis is going to catch it. "It was off the end of the bat and Pettis got a good jump," he told the media afterwards. Ryan would later wink and say, "Good to have a Gold Glover out there on that play."
The game moves into the seventh, and another zero is posted on the stadium scoreboard and more K's posted along the outfield facade, indicating Ryan's strikeouts. The aging eighth wonder of the world has total command of all three of his pitches, throwing 96-mph fastballs, 86-mph changeups and 84-mph curves. He strikes out at least one batter in every inning, and through seven he has 13 K's.
Whiten drills the hardest shot of the evening in the eighth, smoking a liner to right. But Sierra makes an easy catch. Ryan then fans Hill and Greg Myers for his 14th and 15th strikeouts, marking the 26th time he has struck out 15 or more batters in a game. The question now is whether Ryan can lock down the no-hitter. He has, after all, tossed 12 one-hitters in his illustrious career, losing five no-hitters in the ninth inning alone. One of Ryan's lost no-hit bids in the ninth came two years earlier, on April 23, 1989, against the Blue Jays, when Nelson Liriano slashed a one-out triple. Ryan did, however, toss a no-hitter the previous season, in Oakland, becoming the oldest pitcher, at the age of 43, to accomplish the feat.
The game heads into the ninth with Texas up, 3-0. The crowd of 33,439 rises, and in a full-throated frenzy they yell, "No-lan! No-lan!" Ryan retires Lee on a grounder to second baseman Julio Franco for the first out. He then gets White to do the same. The only hitter separating Ryan from his seventh no-hitter is the 23-year-old Alomar. When Ryan pitched his first two no-hitters with the Angels in 1973, his second baseman was Sandy Alomar, Roberto's father.
With the crowd on its feet roaring, Ryan gets two strikes on Alomar and then he rears back and fires his 122nd pitch ... a hissing 93-mph fastball ... Alomar swing and misses. Game over. No-hitter No. 7, this one with an astonishing 16 K's.
The Rangers explode from their positions on the field and in the dugout and rush toward the mound in celebration. Ryan, typically, doesn't show nearly as much emotion. When Alomar swings through the final fastball, Ryan swaggers off the mound, like a gunslinger, grinning at his latest inferior victim.
The crowd chants, "No-lan! No-lan!" as Ryan is hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates and carried off the field, like royalty, as they did the previous season in Oakland when Ryan no-hit the A's and struck out 14.
The victory is Ryan's 305th, tying him with Eddie Plank for 17th on the all-time list. The shutout is his 60th. Ryan calls this no-hitter the most overpowering performance of his brilliant career. The Jays hit only eight balls in fair territory all night, only four out of the infield.
Never before had Ryan been so overpowering, and so under control, in a no-hit performance. Of his 122 pitches, 83 were strikes. The only comparison Ryan can make is his second no-hitter: a 17-strikeout performance against Detroit on July 15, 1973. But on this evening in Arlington, "I had the best command of all three pitches," he tells the media afterwards. "This is my most overpowering night."
"I never say I have no-hit stuff," he would say after the game. "I know all it takes is one pitch. I took each inning as it came along. When I went into the ninth, I just felt like I was going to go right at them and be real aggressive and try not to make a mistake."
Meanwhile, the fans refuse to leave the stadium. They continue applauding, cheering and yelling, "No-lan!" In the clubhouse, the Rangers have their own private celebration. Manager Bobby Valentine breaks out a bottle of champagne that had been on a shelf in his office for five years. Valentine had vowed not to open the champagne until the Rangers reach the World Series. But this night, he would say, is too special of an occasion not to open the champagne. Even Ryan, with his good ol', aw-shucks, ain't-nothin' persona, takes a swig.
"This is the one I wanted the most because it was in front of the fans on Arlington Appreciation night," Ryan would say. "The fans have been so supportive of me and it was really great to pitch one in front of them. ... I had hoped I'd get in this position to do it at home for these fans."