Astros marked a nine-year stop for ‘The Ryan Express’
Two 8-7 pitchers. That’s what California Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi said he needed to replace Nolan Ryan, who led the American League in strikeouts for the fourth year in a row in 1979 but did so with a 16-14 record.
Bavasi’s math was correct, and his Angels did get a pair of mediocre mound performances the next year. But letting Ryan walk away didn’t help the Angels, who went from playing in the AL Championship Series to 31 games out of first place.
Instead, it brought home one of Houston’s own, a future Hall of Famer who was synonymous with the strikeout and whose mound presence was among the most intimidating in baseball history. And it helped make the Astros a playoff team for the first time.
“I was always wanting to be an Astro and play in Houston, so when I got the opportunity, it was really special,” said Ryan, 69. “I was able to live at home.”
Ryan was born in Refugio in 1947, and his family moved to Alvin, roughly 32 miles south of downtown Houston, six weeks later. He was a Little League All-Star, and the year he turned 15, Houston became a major league city when the expansion Colt .45s joined the National League. That gave Ryan a front-row seat to the best in the sport, including Los Angeles Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax, a Hall of Fame lefthander whose records Ryan one day would surpass.
As a high school junior, Ryan struck out 21 batters in a nine-inning game against La Porte. The next year, he carried Alvin to the Class 3A state championship game.
By then, he had caught the eye of the New York Mets, who selected Ryan in the 12th round of baseball’s first amateur draft in 1965. Mets scout Red Murff said the 6-2, 170-pound righthander had the best arm he’d ever seen.
After three years in the minors and a brief 1966 stint with New York, Ryan reached the majors for good when the Mets recalled him in 1968 for what became an up-and-down four years. His walk numbers were high, leading to his spitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen. But Ryan did help the Amazin’ Mets capture the 1969 World Series, earning a save with 21/3 shutout innings in Game 3 against the Baltimore Orioles.
Before the 1972 season, he was one of four players the Mets dealt to the Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi, a six-time All-Star who was never the same in New York. In Anaheim, meanwhile, Nolan Ryan the legend was born.
Ryan led the AL with 329 strikeouts in 1972. In 1973, he struck out 383 batters, breaking Koufax’s record for a season by one. That same year, the Detroit Tigers’ Norm Cash carried a table leg to the plate to face Ryan, supposing it couldn’t be any less effective than a bat. After the umpire made him grab a bat, Cash made the final out of Ryan’s second no-hitter of the season.
In 1974, Ryan’s fastball was clocked at a then-record 100.9 mph. By the end of his eight seasons with the Angels, he had won seven AL strikeout titles, topped 20 victories twice, and thrown four no-hitters.
Astros general manager Tal Smith had tried to trade for Ryan after the 1978 season, but a deal fell through. Smith got a second chance after Ryan became a free agent a year later, and the Astros gave him baseball’s first million-dollar salary, signing him to a four-year, $4.5 million contract.
“It was an opportunity to add one of the best pitchers in the game and a very recognizable name with a great following in the Houston area,” Smith said.
“The Ryan Express” joined an Astros team that had won a franchise-best 89 games in 1979 but finished second in the NL West to the Cincinnati Reds after blowing a 101/2-game lead. The 1980 Astros won a one-game playoff with the Dodgers to capture the West and reach the postseason for the first time, then fell to the Philadelphia Phillies in a scintillating NL Championship Series that went the maximum five games.
In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Ryan led the NL with a career-best 1.69 ERA, and the Astros won the second-half West championship to make their second straight playoff appearance, losing to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series in five games. The highlight of Ryan’s year came at the Astrodome on Sept. 26, when he broke another of Koufax’s records by throwing his fifth no-hitter, a 5-0 victory over the Dodgers.
The Astros returned to the NLCS in 1986 with a team regarded as one of the best in franchise history. They took the Mets to six games but again fell shy of the World Series.
“For us as players, it was a very exciting time in our careers,” Ryan said. “When you meet fans that were really into those games, it was exciting time for them, too. You feel good about that.”
Among the four teams for which Ryan played in the big leagues, his longest tenure (nine years) came with the Astros. His numbers in Houston didn’t match those with the Angels, but he did make two All-Star teams and three times was a top-five finisher in the Cy Young Award voting. In 1987, at age 40, Ryan led the NL with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts despite an 8-16 record resulting from poor run support.
But as good as being home was, the end was familiar. Astros owner John McMullen saw a diminishing pitcher when Ryan went 12-11 in 1988 and wanted him to take a pay cut. So Ryan sold his services to the Texas Rangers, for whom he won two more strikeout titles and threw his sixth and seventh no-hitters, the latter at 44 years old.
For Astros fans, the wound went even deeper when in 1999 he entered the Baseball of Fame with a Rangers cap on his Cooperstown plaque.
In 2008, after serving in an advisory role for the Astros, Ryan was named Rangers team president, and he became CEO two years later, playing a role in World Series appearances for Texas in 2010 and 2011.
But Houston was never far away. Ryan’s son, Reid, is Astros president of baseball operations, and Ryan rejoined the franchise as an executive adviser in 2014.
In a 27-year major league career, Ryan posted 324 victories (tied for 14th all-time), including 106 with the Astros.
But his 5,714 strikeouts - 839 more than second-place Randy Johnson - and seven no-hitters are what make him stand out among baseball’s immortals. (Ryan also threw 12 one-hitters, including five in which a no-hitter was broken up in the ninth inning.)
Outside of Jackie Robinson, whose No. 42 was retired by all major league baseball teams in 1997, Ryan is the only player to have his number - 34 for the Astros and Rangers and 30 for the Angels - retired by three teams.
“He’s arguably the most recognizable and most popular athlete to have played here,” Smith said. “People will make a case for (Hakeem) Olajuwon, Earl Campbell, and you could go on and on and on. But from a baseball standpoint … people are going to talk about (Craig) Biggio, (Jeff) Bagwell and (Lance) Berkman, (but) if there was a poll or a survey for the most prominent, the most identifiable Houston Astro of all time, I suspect it would have been Nolan Ryan.”