Sitting in a quiet corner of the bustling Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, Gary Nolan wonders aloud if his 10-year career as a major league pitcher wasn't itself a mirage. "There were some good seasons, an All-Star Game and four World Series," says Nolan, who in 1967 was baseball's brightest phenom as a teenage righthander with the Cincinnati Reds. "But then it was over like it never even happened. My career ended 15 years ago, and if I was playing today, I still wouldn't be the oldest player in the game."
He is 44 now, a year younger than Nolan Ryan. But while Ryan is still on the hill for the Texas Rangers, Nolan has been on the floor of the casino industry for the last 15 years. After being released by the California Angels in 1978, Nolan, his wife and four children moved to Vegas, where Nolan took a job dealing blackjack at the Golden Nugget Hotel. He then was a dealer and a floor-man at the MGM Grand Hotel for 10 years before moving in '89 to the Mirage, where he is an executive casino host.
Nolan has smoothly shifted from pitcher to pitchman. He strides around the hotel in the same self-assured way he stalked the mound early in his career. There is still the exuberant, slightly brash tone in his voice that he had as a baby-faced 18-year-old, when he rightly predicted that he would make the bigs. It's an effective voice for chatting up guests and schmoozing coworkers. "Still love playing in front of a big crowd," he says.
Indeed, less than two weeks after turning 19, he whiffed Willie Mays four times in one game. As a Red rookie, Nolan was 14-8 with 206 strikeouts, and in his first six seasons he went 76-47. Seemingly the toughest challenge for Nolan then was living up to the hype about his talent. Said Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson in 1970, "Right now Gary is the closest pitcher to Tom Seaver in the league."
But while he was slinging 95-mph fastballs with precocious accuracy, nobody told him his arm was turning to marsh mallow. By his 25th birthday Nolan had blown out his shoulder; by 29, with 110 career wins, he was washed up. Nolan tried a comeback with the San Diego Padres in 1980, but his arm lasted only one inning in spring training.
Nolan then parlayed his contacts from the game to get into gaming. He will still pitch in old-timers' showcases, though his name no longer rivals those of such onetime peers as Ryan and Seaver. "You want to be remembered," Nolan says. "But, hey, I have a hard enough time remembering my own career."