Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nolan Ryan: Once A Champion, Always A Champion

On October 16, 1969, the New York Mets won their first World Series championship. The majority of the players on the team were experiencing their first ever title, including a 22-year-old Texan named Nolan Ryan.

Ryan was a flamethrowing right-hander, who could strike a batter out as easily as he could strike a batter, period. Opposing hitters feared him because they never knew where the ball was going to end up after it left Ryan's hand. Despite his control problems on the mound, Ryan was very important to the Mets during their run to the World Series title. Although he only made two appearances in the postseason, both were in crucial spots.

With the Mets one win away from winning the first-ever National League Championship Series, Ryan came on in relief of starter Gary Gentry. Although Gentry had a tremendous rookie season, winning 13 games for the Miracle Mets, he did not fare as well in his initial postseason start. Pitching on his 23rd birthday, Gentry allowed a two-run homer to Henry Aaron in the first inning, had a reasonably effective second inning (walking one batter), before giving up a leadoff single to Tony Gonzalez in the third, followed by a double to Aaron.

That was the end of Gentry's postseason debut, as Nolan Ryan was called upon by manager Gil Hodges to get out of the inning before any more damage was done. Ryan was brilliant in relief of Gentry, stranding both inherited runners in the third inning. He went on to pitch the remaining seven innings, allowing only two runs (a two-run HR by Orlando Cepeda in the fifth inning that temporarily gave the Braves the lead) on three hits. Ryan walked two and struck out seven, and was on the mound when Tony Gonzalez grounded out to third baseman Wayne Garrett to give the Mets their first National League pennant.

Just like he did in the NLCS, Ryan only made one appearance in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. Again, it was in a crucial part of the series (Game 3 with the series tied at one game apiece) and in relief of Gary Gentry. This time, however, Ryan was called upon to protect a lead, as Gentry was mowing down the powerful Orioles' lineup. Through six innings, the rookie right-hander had allowed no runs on three hits, while walking two and striking out four. The Mets were carrying a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning at Shea Stadium and were feeling good about their chances to take a 2-1 lead in the series. But after retiring the first two batters in the seventh, Gentry developed a case of wildness. He walked Mark Belanger, pinch-hitter Dave May and Don Buford in succession to load the bases and bring up the dangerous Paul Blair as the potential tying run.

Blair had just completed a breakout season for the Orioles, notching career highs in doubles (32), home runs (26), runs scored (102), RBI (76) and stolen bases (20), while making his first All-Star team and winning the Gold Glove Award in center field. Now he came up to bat with the bases loaded, but he wasn't going to face the suddenly-wild Gary Gentry. Out came Gentry, in came Ryan.

In what was perhaps the turning point of the 1969 World Series, Ryan retired Blair on a lineout to right-center to end the threat and the inning. Ryan would go on to finish the game, although not without getting into a little trouble of his own in the ninth, when he loaded the bases on two walks and a single before striking out (you guessed it) Paul Blair to end the game and give the Mets a one-game advantage in the World Series.

Unfortunately, the Mets' need for an injury-plagued shortstop to play third base exceeded their need for a future Hall of Fame pitcher. The Mets traded Ryan to the California Angels for Jim Fregosi following the 1971 season, where Ryan's legendary career began in earnest. Ryan won 295 games and struck out 5,221 batters AFTER leaving the Mets in stints with the Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. Although his uniform number has been retired by the three teams he pitched for after he was traded for Fregosi, the only World Series ring on Ryan's finger has a big "New York Mets" on it.

 If everything's bigger in Texas, why does Nolan Ryan's ring say "New York"?

Fast forward to four decades later. The Mets are nowhere near World Series contention and the Texas Rangers are going back to the Fall Classic for the second consecutive season. The Rangers have always had strong hitters, but their recent focus on developing pitchers has finally pushed them over the top in the American League. Who's responsible for taking the Rangers in this pitching-first direction? None other than team president and principal owner Nolan Ryan.

Ryan became the president of the Texas Rangers in 2008 and bought a share of the franchise in 2010, becoming the principal owner earlier this year when his ownership partner, Chuck Greenberg, sold his stake of the team. When Ryan became part of the Rangers' front office in 2008, the Rangers were a sub-.500 team. Their 79-83 mark in 2008 was their eighth losing record in nine seasons. Since then, the Rangers' win total has gone up every season. Texas won 87 games in 2009, followed by a 90-win season in 2010 and a franchise-record 96 wins in 2011.

As the wins have piled up, opponents' run totals have gone down. After allowing 967 runs in 2008, Rangers' pitchers allowed 740 runs in 2009. They got even better in their pennant winning years, allowing 687 runs in 2010 and 677 runs in 2011. The 677 runs allowed this year was the fewest allowed by a Ranger team since 1983. All of this happened with Nolan Ryan in charge.

Nolan Ryan was a winner in New York. He was part of a team that put its focus on young pitching and it carried them to an unexpected championship. Ryan pitched in the majors until 1993, but was never part of another championship team. Now, as president and principal owner of the Texas Rangers, Ryan has a chance to win his second World Series title, 42 years after he won his first.

It's been quite some time since Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan anchored a young pitching staff as they forged their way to a World Championship. The names have now changed to C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando, but the message remains the same. Pitching wins championships. It gave a title to the San Francisco Giants last year (over Ryan's Rangers) and it helped Texas win their second consecutive American League pennant this year. The Rangers may or may not give him his second World Series ring this year, but it's clear that Nolan Ryan has established the Texas Rangers as a force in the American League.

Forty-two years ago today, Nolan Ryan celebrated his first title. Now he is four wins away from celebrating his second. Through two generations and two teams, Ryan has proven that he is a true champion. Not bad for a kid from a small Texas town.

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