SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY OFFER: Now you can own an original first issue of Sports Illustrated!
Down home in Alvin, Texas, Nolan Ryan is an old-fashioned cowboy
By Leigh Montville
The last 45 minutes of Texas twilight have arrived. The day has been gray anyway, cool, and now the colors begin to fade even further as the unseen sun dips toward the trees at the edge of the pasture. The birds know that night is coming. Hear them squawk? The horses have to be fed. They stand in a group, (five of them, behind a brown three-board fence. Waiting. A car passes on the road in the distance. Another. Men coming home from work. Women bringing their children from late practices and meetings at the high school.
"Curveball," Nolan Ryan says.
He stands in the middle of the pasture. This is farmland. The horses have galloped across it and tractors and trucks have been driven across it, and the grass is all knobby and clumpy, certainly unmowed, and yet... He is at the base of a little grass-covered mound. Mound? His neighbor Harry Spilman, chewing a touch of tobacco, is crouched behind a patch of white that shows through the grass. A patch of white? Nolan tucks his left leg into his chest and accelerates off his right leg and throws the baseball. Harry does not have to move his mitt. in.
"Good one," Harry says.
There is a rusted chain-link fence, 12 feet high, a few feet behind Harry. Fence? There is the 12-foot-high fence and the patch of white in front of Harry and the mound in back of Nolan and... yes, sure. The mind and the eye simultaneously bring out the recessed image of a diamond, as if they were solving a puzzle in the Sunday comics. "I built it for my son when he was in Little League," Nolan says. "Little Leaguers never have a place to practice. I built it and they used it for a couple of years. Then I let it all go back. Watch where you walk." He fingers the baseball in his hand.
"Straight," he says.
Nolan's three dogs are fanned out in what could be loosely called an outfield alignment. That is Buster in left and Suzy in center and fat old Bea in right. The fourth dog, tied in the back of the pickup in the driveway, the dog that is barking, is Harry's dog Sarge. Sarge simply can't control himself. Let him loose and he becomes too excited. He chases the ball wherever it goes. He tries to grab it straight out of Nolan's or Harry's hand. Sarge has had a million second chances. Had one just today. Can't control himself. Back in the truck.
"There was something on that pitch," Harry says a second after the ball arrives. "It was traveling."
The first time Nolan Ryan was in this field, let's see, he was with the Girl Scouts. Camping with the Girl Scouts. His mother, Martha, was a troop leader, and she wasn't going to let her youngest child, seven years old, stay home while she was taking those girls for a night of outdoor adventure at Mr. Evans's ranch. This was back in 1954, when the bayou over there wasn't straight, before the widening was done and the lake was formed at the other end and the tract development came. Let's see. There were more trees then. The road out there wasn't even a road. There was another road. Yes. Another road. Smaller. A back road. A further-back road.
"Changeup," Nolan says.
He still is here. How many years later? The land now is his, acquired 13 years ago in a straight trade, a new house that Nolan owned for Mr. Evans's old house and the land. This is a Tuesday, late in February. The game of pitch and catch has been taking place almost every night for a month. Same time. Same place. Training camp is eight days away, and the fastballs are becoming faster and the curveballs are becoming curvier. A stranger, out on the road, might look and squint and see only a couple of middle-aged guys in the middle of nowhere trying to find a few Absorbine, Jr. memories, but there really aren't many strangers out there on the road. These are familiar people. A horn honks. Another. There's old Nolan, tossing with Harry. Getting ready.
"Looked good," Harry says.
"I don't know," Nolan says. "That one might have got hit."
The shades of gray darken, and Nolan is working just a little harder tonight. He has to miss the workout tomorrow. Has to go to the White House. To see the President. Up there in Washington. He will be back in Alvin, Texas, back here, Thursday. "I don't know how he does it," says Kim Spilman, Nolan's secretary and Harry's wife. "The letters, the invitations, the demands. The businesses. There always is someone who wants him to be a grand marshal in a parade, to talk at Career Day. Something. The White House. How do you stay normal with all of these people pulling at you all of the time? And yet he does it. God, he does. He's everything a person would want to be. He talks with my kids and he's just so nice. They'll ask me, 'Is he supposed to be famous or something?' That's just how he is."
The White House is the latest thing. The White House. The war in the Persian Gulf is at its hottest stretch. The coalition airplanes are pounding Baghdad with their bombs. The ground war will start in four more days. The White House is on television 17 times every day. The President is seen going from meeting to press conference to late-night strategy session. In the midst of all this, the Queen and Prince Consort of Denmark are invited for dinner. Nolan and his wife, Ruth, also are invited for dinner. They are also invited to stay overnight. At the White House. When will it all stop? The drumbeat of celebrity always has been in the background -- good pitcher, fastest fastball going, All-Star -- but in the past two years, since Nolan went to the Texas Rangers, it has become louder and louder. The 5,000th strikeout was a jump in 1989. A record. The sixth no-hitter, spun in Oakland in June of last year against the then-world-champion Athletics, was another jump. Another record. The 300th win, in July, was a capper. How noisy can noisy be for an essentially quiet person practicing a physical craft? The line has shot off the graph paper. The White House. "Nolan was here when the call came," Kim says in the office Nolan has rented in the Merchants Bank in Alvin to handle the increased demands on his life. "It's funny how that works. As soon as he gets here, the phone starts ringing off the hook. It's like people have antennae or something to tell them he's here. I took the call, and the message was something like, 'Please stay on the line for the President of the United States.' I was so excited I ran into the bank to tell everyone that Nolan was being invited to the White House."
There is the crazy thought that maybe Bush is going to call this 44-year-old man into the Oval Office and ask him to take a quick trip to the Middle East. Let Saddam Hussein find an emissary to send from Iraq, a solid citizen, someone who represents all the best qualities of Iraqi culture. Let him talk to Nolan, the American representative, to straighten out all of this feuding and fighting. There is the crazy thought that this would not be so crazy. Who would be better? "I don't know how it is in the rest of the country," Jim Stinson, Nolan's longtime friend and business partner, says, "but in Texas he is bigger than John Wayne right now. And you will wear out a truck finding someone who's nicer than Nolan Ryan." John Wayne? "I talk with ad agencies about him," Matt Merola, Nolan's longtime agent from New York, says. "They will say, 'Well, can he talk?' I will tell them if they're looking for Sir Laurence Olivier, they'd better go to Central Casting. But if they're looking for someone who is honest, who is sincere, who can talk about things in his way -- Jimmy Stewart. If they are looking for Jimmy Stewart, they want Nolan. He is someone who is really real."
Jimmy Stewart? In the tie-a-yellow-ribbon Americanism of the '90s, Nolan somehow has become the perfect oak tree. The fact that he still can compete with the young and wild-eyed millionaires of his game and still can make them look silly is only the beginning. He is Citizen Ryan, a total package. Tired of the fatheads who spend their first paychecks on sports cars that run on airplane fuel? Seen too much of the substance abusers and the late-night carousers and the uncoachable prima donnas? Here is a family man. Here is a businessman. Here is a cowboy. Here is Nolan Ryan, cut from a good bolt of denim cloth and served with a glass of milk and no apologies. "Do you know what he has?" says Terry Koch-Bostic of the Slater-Hanft-Marti n advertising agency in New York, which signed Ryan as the spokesman for Bic razors in 1990. "He has the real stuff of real heroes, the kind of heroes that maybe we've been missing for the last three decades. That's the kind of guy he is. When we were making our deal, his first consideration was his family. He said that money was not important, that he couldn't be traveling around in the off-season. He wanted to be home. I told that to Mr. [Bruno] Bich and he said, 'Well, yes, that's exactly the kind of guy we want. A person whose family comes first. Absolutely.'"
After 23 years, the man still is married to his high school sweetheart, and Ruth remembers when a big date simply was watching him take target practice with his .22 pistol. They still live in the same town and their kids attend the same schools they attended. A big night still is a trip to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. A big Saturday night still is dancing the two-step with friends at Eddie's Country Ballroom. Pretty good two-step, too. A workday is a workday. Vacations still are mostly for other people, although there were three days at the end of last year in Las Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo. There is no real "off" in the off-season. Nolan is a rancher. Nolan owns three ranches. The biggest, China Grove, in Rosharon, near Alvin, has 550 mama cows and 33 bulls and as many as 1,100 head, total, at the end of calving season, which is just about now. Relaxation is riding a horse and penning the calves and doing a cattle-rancher's hard work. "He's a hands-on owner, for sure," Larry McKim, the ranch manager, says. "When he comes here, he gets right into it. He helps us castrate the steers, dehorn 'em, everything. Nothing fazes him. I'll see him reach into the chute with that million-dollar right arm and I'll say to myself, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' But he'll never buckle. He'll go right in there."
"Nolan is as good a cattleman as there is in the state of Texas," Stinson, a partner in China Grove, says. "He's stride for stride with all of 'em. If he'd never picked up a baseball, he'd still be a great success as a cattleman. He's been doing it all his life. I remember his mother telling me once how he saved up enough money when he was a kid to buy four calves. He lived in town, so he had to raise 'em in the garage. Fed 'em all from a baby bottle."
The banking business is another long-term affair. Nolan made news last year when he purchased the Danbury State Bank, about 10 miles from Alvin, but he had been on the board of directors of an Alvin bank for 10 years. Again, he was not just a name on the letterhead. He worked. He sat in on loan meetings. He formulated bank policy. He preached moderation. He still is one of those guys who travel the extra mile for gas at $1.06 per gallon if the local station is charging $1.10. The word is frugal. He did not rush into a deal that translated into "dumb baseball player buys failing bank." He waited and learned, and moved at the proper time. "I'd use another word for him, 'tight,'" Sonny Corley, president of the Danbury bank, says. "But that's all right, because I'm tight, too. I think he got a great deal here, because under the bank's charter he can expand anywhere in the state of Texas. Nolan knows what he's doing. He's been in the banking business for a while, and he has a great ability to look at a situation and analyze it. He has what I'd call country smarts. Nolan has great country smarts."
His final off-season occupation is being Nolan Ryan This has become the most demanding job of them all. Until the past two years, his endorsements mostly were local and regional -- Whataburger and Bizmart office supplies -- but now he shaves for Bic and takes Advil for headaches and wears Wrangler jeans over his Justin boots when he goes out for a western-wear night. He could sign baseballs forever for charity, especially across the "sweet spot" in the front of the ball, which immediately increases its value. He does not do the autograph shows, signing for money. He does not do speeches for money, but he does talk for certain charities he considers important. The requests are so numerous now that mail arrives at his office in tubs from the Alvin post ! office. He and Ruth used to handle the mail at home. The tubs began to take control. He has added the office and secretary in the past two years. "Can you imagine that they did all this at home?" Kim says as Ruth arrives at the office with another tub. "The letters he gets. The requests -- he could speak every night of the year if he wanted. Somewhere."
His strength is that he does not go somewhere every night. He usually goes home. The increase in Nolan's celebrity has come at a good time, because his oldest son, Reid, 19, is a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, and his other children, Reese, 15, and Wendy, 14, are in high school, and his days are free. But he wants to be home for dinner. That is his base. He creates his own orbit around the base, and the orbit rarely leaves Texas in the off- season. He will travel to Arlington Stadium for a day, knock off a series of commitments there and come home. He will go to Abilene or Austin and come home. He works and then he comes home. "He's just such an unassuming, fine guy," Stinson says. "I called him the day after he pitched the no-hitter last year. We talked for half an hour. He never mentioned the no-hitter. Finally, I had to mention it. He said, 'Yeah, I had it going pretty good.' That's it."
"We had to follow him around a bit during the season to complete the [Bic] commercial," Koch-Bostic at the ad agency says. "We finally did it in Los Angeles. He was coming off the disabled list with a bad back. I was thinking about his bad back. The next game, his second start, he's in Oakland, throwing the no-hitter. Reese is rubbing his back in the Ranger dugout between innings."
"The thing I like about him is not so much what he does but the way he does it," McKim says at the ranch. "The only thing fast about him is his fastball. He's so calm, so good-natured, so easy. He's the best rancher I've ever worked for. The other ones were pretty hyper, pretty nervous, always concerned with money. Nolan, he's a people person, not a money person.'' The money matters, but it doesn't matter that much. Merola, the agent, tells clients they can have ''the sizzle or the steak."
Nolan is the steak, and steak is popular. He was asked to run for Texas Agriculture Commissioner last year, thought about it because he was opposed to what he considered the incumbent's anticattleman policies, but finally decided he didn't have the time. The candidate he endorsed, Rick Perry, beat the incumbent, Jim $ Hightower, in a surprise. The Texas Senate just passed a bill to have a stretch of Highway 288 near Alvin renamed the Nolan Ryan Expressway. There are plans in Alvin to build a Nolan Ryan Museum. Every day there seem to be offers from somewhere to do something involving Nolan. Every day Nolan gives them a look. He takes his time. Always. "The big thing with Nolan is that he's hard to pin down," Kim says. "He doesn't like to schedule things in advance because he never knows what's going to come up. Especially with the kids. If Reese or Wendy has a game or something, he'd like to go. If you do pin him down, though, he'll be where he's supposed to be. You can count on it."
The invitation to the White House was typical. Kim came back into the office, still excited at the news. Nolan said he couldn't go. He had looked at his schedule and found he had promised to speak to a cattlemen's civic group in Cotulla to raise scholarships. That was that. Kim told him he was crazy. He said he had turned down trips to the White House in the past. There always seemed to be something. "Look," Kim said, "if you called the people in Cotulla and said you were invited to the White House, I'm sure they'd understand. They could just schedule you for another night."
"You do it," Nolan said.
The people in Cotulla understood. Duty called for Citizen Ryan. John Wayne, maybe Jimmy Stewart, had to be at the White House. He would appear in Cotulla the next week if he wasn't in the Middle East.
Nolan and Harry talk while they throw the ball back and forth in the pasture. Harry is not exactly the average next-door recruit, some accountant who bought himself a baseball glove just to help the famous pitcher get ready. Not at all. Harry played, too, 12 years of scuffling on the fringes of four different teams in the major leagues and six in the minors. He is 37 years old now, and he retired with bad knees at the end of last season, which he spent with the Houston Astros' Triple A team in Tucson. He will be working this year as a roving hitting coach in the Cleveland Indians' minor league system. "So Roger Clemens is getting five million dollars," Nolan says, shaking his head. "If Roger's worth five million, what's Wade Boggs going to be worth?" Straight fastball. Splat! "What about Jim Deshaies?" Harry says. "He's making two million- something. He won seven games last year. Seven games and he's making two million. Isn't that something?" Curveball. Splat! "I know one thing," Nolan says. "I'd like to be about 25 years old now and have about 5,000 innings ahead of me." Changeup. Perfect.
Harry remembers the first time he saw pitch, in 1980. Harry was playing with the Cincinnati Reds, and Nolan, after eight years with the California Angels, had just arrived back in the National League with the Astros. It was an occasion, seeing the great fireballer for the first time. Harry had a great seat on the bench. He really wanted to see the first confrontation between Nolan and Johnny Bench. Everyone did. Bench dug in at the plate. Nolan stared from the mound. All the players moved to the far edges of their seats. Nolan threw a slow, lazy curveball that bounced about a foot and a half in front of the plate. Bench swung so hard that the temperature must have dropped 5 degrees in the ballpark. A curveball! Beautiful. Harry soon moved along to the Astros himself, and that was where he became friends with Nolan. Harry is from Dawson, Ga., so he is another small-town Southern guy who talks with the accent. He has the same likes and values as Nolan. He likes to hunt. He likes to fish. He likes horses and riding and, of course, talking baseball.
When it came time to decide where he would live in the off-season and the rest of his life, Harry picked Alvin, even though he had moved to the San Francisco Giants. Nolan worked out a deal for the land and house next door. What could be better? In the other years, when they were both playing, Nolan would throw batting practice to Harry down at the high school. Batting practice from Nolan Ryan. What could be better? Kim works for Nolan. Harry works with Nolan. Harry is one of 10 current or former teammates who have named a son after Nolan. Everybody is friends. In the big leagues, Harry faced Nolan twice. The first time, Harry hit a homer, a grand feat considering Harry had only 18 homers lifetime. The second time, Nolan struck out Harry on a high, 3-2 fastball. Then, again, there is an argument about this. "When Nolan got his 5,000th strikeout, USA Today ran a list of all the guys he'd struck out in his career," Harry says. "I looked for my name. It wasn't there. I remembered the strikeout and Nolan remembered it, but since my name wasn't there, I say it never happened. Nolan even checked with the Rangers public relations department. They said there must have been a mistake, because I pinch-hit. I say it never happened."
"It happened," Nolan says. "Not if my name isn't on the list," Harry says. (It is now. The '91 Rangers media guide lists Harry as one of Nolan's victims.) Curveball. Splat!
The workout began in the driveway. Nolan stretched and then started throwing a football with Harry, long and straight spirals. This is part of the conditioning process encouraged by Rangers pitching coach Tom House. Nolan had told House two years ago, his first day as a Ranger, that he hoped House wouldn't be upset if he didn't throw the football with everyone else. House said a sure-bet Hall of Famer could do what he wanted. One week passed and then two weeks and then Nolan suddenly was throwing the football. He did what he does with everything. He studied the concept. He decided for himself. He threw the football. No big deal. He liked the mechanics. He liked the way the motion loosened his arm and shoulder. Logic. He threw the football. "We're finding it's harder than it looks," Nolan says. "Maybe we remember ourselves being better than we were," Harry says. "I thought I could throw that thing in high school."
Nolan played two years of football in junior high and one year in high school. He was an end. His biggest memory is of an eighth-grade scrimmage down at Danbury, where he now owns the bank. The farm boys at Danbury were so poor they didn't even have shoes. Didn't have shoes! The Danbury coach said it wouldn't be fair if his team didn't have shoes and the other team did, so the Alvin coach had his players take off their shoes. No matter. Who couldn't beat a team that was so poor the players didn't have shoes? Danbury killed Alvin, 42-0. Nolan quit football after the next year. Stinson begged Nolan to stay because he thought Nolan would help the team. Help the team? Stinson says now that "Jim Thorpe couldn't have helped that team." Stinson and Nolan laugh about that. "I liked basketball," Nolan says. "I could play a little. I could dunk."
After throwing the football, Nolan and Harry threw a baseball in the driveway for a while. Easy tosses. After that, Nolan put on his blue Rangers cleats to throw out in the pasture. Hard tosses. The workout began a little before five o'clock, and now the time is a little after six. The light is almost gone. The dogs have lost interest, running into the woods in what would be dead centerfield. Nolan says, "They're probably looking for yesterday's game ball." A pitcher's grim joke. Think about it. Nolan says this is the kind of light he wouldn't mind having for all baseball games all of the time. Think about it. He asks Harry if there is enough light for one more pitch. Harry says that there is. "Straight," Nolan says. Splat!
"The funniest thing, to me, is when we drive by the Bizmart billboards," Ruth Ryan says. "There's one on the Gulf Freeway and there's one on the freeway in Austin and one in Arlington. They're huge. You look up and there's Nolan. Thirty feet high. I look up, every time, and I say, 'This isn't real.' The kids always start to make fun of him."
There wasn't any grand plan for him to play this long. There wasn't any grand plan for him to become this famous. There wasn't even any grand plan for him to lead a life that would be held up as a model for family men everywhere. Everything sort of evolved. Happened. Nolan figured he would pitch for four years or five and then his arm would go dead and he would come home and maybe begin school and become a veterinarian. Or maybe not. Ruth remembers wondering 15 years ago, when he was with the Angels and was having arm surgery, if he ever would throw a baseball again. One pitch somehow was followed by another pitch and then another. One family crisis led to the next crisis. There was a balancing act that somehow led across a high wire to here. Twenty-six years of professional baseball. Twenty- six years of living. Twenty-six years?
"I was watching a television show the other night," Nolan says. "Carol Burnett was hosting a special about The Ed Sullivan Show. I remembered I was on The Ed Sullivan Show. With the Mets, when we won it in 1969. We all came on together and sang some song."
He has survived, he figures, on a combination of luck and work and those country smarts. He studied what he did, studied from the beginning. He remembers the first time he ever sat in a big-league clubhouse, just a kid, up for a moment in 1966. The Mets were still an expansion team, filled with older rejects from established teams. He remembers the old-timers just coasting, taking the paycheck, gliding out the door as effortlessly as possible. He remembers thinking to himself that he would never do that. He never has. "I figured things out for myself," he says. "I always wanted to keep in shape, especially after I turned 30. I always had my workouts. I started lifting weights in 1972. Nobody was doing that back then. They told you not to lift weights. I thought it would help me. The older I got, the more I worked out...to the point now that I work out more than anyone on our team. I have to do it. To compete with kids who are half your age, you have to do a whole lot more than they do."
He stuck with three pitches. Fastball. Curve. Change. The fastball began to slow about 10 years ago, but not enough to make hitters comfortable. The curve improved. The changeup improved a lot. He stayed away from the slider, a pitch he always has thought is a killer of arms. In California, Angel coach Marv Grissom tried to get him to throw the slider. Nolan nodded, said he would try it out. He never really tried. Never wanted to take that chance. The Rangers pitching coach, House, is sort of a New Age baseball experimentalist. He uses computers, tests pitching theories. He finds again and again that Nolan figured out this business in his head before the computers did. Nolan, for instance, will mention that he thinks if his back is loose and his left leg is extended just a little higher, his fastball will be better. House will test the proposition on the computer. Whir and hum. Nolan is right again.
"I sometimes think he's the only one who understands me," House says. "He's my translator. He takes what I'm saying in scientific language and puts it into English for the rest of the guys. He'll say, 'This is what he's saying....' Everyone else will start nodding his head."
The idea of staying in Alvin never really came to debate. Why not stay? Isn't this where everyone we know always has lived? The idea of staying married never came to debate. Why not? Isn't that what you're supposed to do? The idea of raising a family was ingrained. Wasn't that what our parents did? Raise families? One year has led into another. Last year, Nolan and Ruth went to the 25th reunion of the Alvin High Class of '65. Everyone hung out at Dairyland on Friday night, the way they had in school. There was a dance at the country club on Saturday night, a picnic on Sunday. "He is the one who has kept everything together," Ruth says. "Him. It would be so easy for him to go off, to just say, 'You take care of the kids while I go do this business.' He never says that. He always tries to make us a part of everything. He is going to Abilene on business this weekend. He could just go. He doesn't want that. He wants us with him."
"I think you learn so much more from your parents than you ever thought possible," Nolan says. "It just comes through. I find it comes through again and again."
The lessons of long ago do not leave. How can he go to the gym early every morning of the year, to the free weights and torture machines inside a little room he built off his barn? How can he fight through the everyday soreness, refuse to stay in bed just once? How can he be strong when his body wants to turn soft? How can he do all that work in the morning and then be throwing at night? He remembers delivering newspapers with his father as a boy. His father had two jobs. Nolan would have to get up at one o'clock in the morning, roll the papers for an hour, then deliver them around the back roads of Alvin, 55 miles of traveling, until four. Then he would go back to bed for a few more hours of sleep before school. Every day. "You had the feeling that people were counting on you," he says. "If you didn't get up, they weren't going to get their papers. You just did it. You had a sense of responsibility. I guess I never lost it. There are a lot of mornings where I'd just like to keep my dead butt in bed. I just get up."
He says he is so old that he remembers when baseball wasn't the fast road to wealth that it has become. He says he made $7,000 in his first major league season. When the Mets won the World Series in '69, his share of the winnings tripled his basic salary. He bought his first house. For 10 years, playing baseball was an economic struggle. He remembers installing air conditioners in the off-season. Pumping gas. There weren't always ranches and banks and endorsements. "I talk about some of this stuff sometimes and kids in the clubhouse look at me as if I'm sort of a codger," he says. "And I guess I am. I look at these kids on our team -- we have a young team -- and I'm the same age as most of their fathers. I'm like one of the coaches. That's how old I am. The one thing, I think, that age has given me is a sense of history. I see a lot of the young guys and the money they make, and they don't know what went into getting that money. That sort of bothers me. It makes you think about a lot of things we just take for granted."
He remembers a time when there was no television in his house, when he would stand in the dark of Dezo Drive and look through neighbors' windows at this miraculous invention. He remembers his grandmother had outdoor plumbing. Man walking on the moon? He remembers long before that. A bus was taking him to play some game in eighth grade in Houston. The coach pointed out the window and said that a thing called NASA was going to be built in a vacant field they were passing. Cows were in the middle of the field. NASA. "You think sometimes about all the stuff that has happened," he says. "I was reading somewhere the other day that the Rural Electrification Act is 50 years old. Fifty years ago, people were just getting electricity. Thirty years after that, man was walking on the moon."
He says he has no goals for how long he will pitch. The last few years have been a wonderful bonus. He will pitch this year and see what happens. His wife has a hunch that this will be his last year, but it is only a hunch. His friends think he will pitch as long as he is healthy and successful. House thinks, crazy as it sounds, that Nolan is pitching as well now as he ever did. House thinks Nolan will pitch as long as Nolan wants to pitch, as long as he wants to make the physical sacrifices to fight the aging process. After that, politics is always a possibility, but Nolan says he will not go looking in that direction. He simply will listen if someone talks. The ranching business always has been interesting. The banking business is turning out to be very interesting. He has plans for expansion. The Danbury bank has grown in less than a year from a $9 million bank to a $13 million bank. Maybe he'll do something in baseball. The baseball business certainly has been interesting.
"I remember going to Houston to watch the old .45s play at Colt Stadium," Nolan says. "I went with my dad, I guess. I remember saying, 'How about this? These guys get paid to play baseball.' I said, 'Look at this guy over here, he doesn't even get to play in the game and he still gets paid.' Then, that's what I did. Played baseball for money. It's funny. I go to the career days at high schools and I tell kids that playing baseball isn't a career. It really isn't. How many players ever make the major leagues, and how long do they stay if they make it? I think the average is something like five years. I tell kids they should plan to do something else, really, with their lives...and yet, here I am. I've been in it this long, and the last two years, I have to say, have been the highlight."
"His age has brought him all this attention," Ruth says, "and I really think he has earned it. I think people looked past him for a long time. I remember being really aggravated back in '73 when he didn't win the Cy Young award and I really thought he deserved it. I remember hearing some mean things that people would say. About him being just a .500 pitcher. He would always say that everyone is entitled to an opinion. I would get mad. So now I get a lot of satisfaction from the accolades he's getting. He deserves them all."
Harry and Nolan walk out of the pasture carrying their gloves. Harry unties Sarge at last from the back of the pickup, and Sarge barks and runs around like the strange dog he is. Reese, who is in the ninth grade, is home from a baseball scrimmage. He drove the old farm-only truck to the lake and back to check his six trout lines. They were empty. Crabs had eaten the bait. He is talking, talking, a teenager in a rush. That is Reese. He picks up the football and starts throwing it with Harry. "I'd be a great quarterback," Reese says. "I was the quarterback in seventh grade. You should have seen me. I was awesome. Just awesome. You should have seen me last year, eighth grade, when I was a Tower of Power free safety. Awesome."
"How'd practice go today?" Nolan asks. "I got hit in the shin."
"You got hit in the chin?" '
"The shin. It hurt."
"Did you pitch any?"
"Yes, sir. I pitched to five batters. One kid...I threw the ball behind him."
"Uh-huh," Harry says. "Like father, like son."
In the house, Ruth can be seen through the lighted kitchen window, moving around the cabinets. She went through the day in a buzz, picking up the tickets to Washington, packing the bags for the White House. She bought a new pleated shirt for Nolan to wear with his tuxedo, because the old one looked a little too shabby for dinner with the Queen and Prince of Denmark, not to mention President Bush. She picked up her new dress, a long gown bought in Houston, from her mother's house. Her mother had sewn the hem.
Nolan still has to feed the horses and Harry will help him, but there is a moment here, a pause. It is the pause at the end of the normal working day. It is the pause at the end of a workout, the job done, the sweat still fresh. It is the reward. Night is here, and there is a fine sense of fulfillment. This is life. This is breathing. This is it. Friends and family and dogs and home and land. Dinner soon to arrive.
Nolan leans on the fender of his wife's car, resting. He is wearing a cap from a feed company, a dark-blue windbreaker and a pair of blue gym-instructor sweatpants. He could be anybody. Just a middle-aged, middle-of-the-road anybody. He looks across his pasture with its subliminal baseball field, and someone points out the similarity of the scene to ones in the baseball movie Field of Dreams. See the woods? Isn't that where Shoeless Joe Jackson should emerge, ready to play baseball with the other immortals? What was the line? If you build it, he will come.
"I built it," Nolan says. "He never came. Maybe I should have put in lights."
Tomorrow, the White House.
Issue Date: April 15, 1991