During his 27-year Hall of Fame career, Nolan Ryan recorded 324 wins, seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts. A new biography by Rob Goldman, Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher, includes never-before-told anecdotes and personal recollections. Here is an excerpt.
Of all of Nolan Ryan's achievements, few garnered more attention than the 20-second skirmish between Ryan and veteran third baseman Robin Ventura in 1993. The fight has come to symbolize his Texas toughness, and it made Ryan a symbol of middle-age defiance.
Much has been made about the "Ventura Fight" but most don't realize its roots started three years earlier in Florida.
In the 1990s, Chicago's Craig Grebeck was one of baseball's smallest everyday players. Just 5'7", he compensated for his lack of stature with the attitude of Goliath.
During a spring training game against the Rangers in 1990, Grebeck hit a home run on the first pitch and pumped his fists triumphantly as he jogged around the bases. Sitting on the Rangers bench, Ryan stared at the Lilliputian and made a mental note.
A few months later the Rangers were at Comiskey Park. Ryan was on the mound, and Grebeck hit a home run off him. As he had in Florida, Grebeck whooped it up rounding the bases. When Ryan got back to the bench, he asked pitching coach Tom House, "Who is that boy?"
House told him Grebeck's name.
"How old is he?" asked Ryan next. “He looks like he's about 12."
"He's pretty young," said House.
"Well, I'm gonna put some age on the little squirt. He's swinging like he isn't afraid of me."
"Sure enough," recalls House, "next time up [in the teams' next meeting], plunk! Nolan hits him right in the friggin' back. Grebeck was 0-for the rest of the year off him."
Thus began three seasons of constant strife between the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox.
"It didn't help," says House, "that Chicago hitting coach Walt Hriniak taught his hitters to cover the outside third of the plate. He even had his hitters dive toward the plate in order to cover the outside corner.
"That was encroaching on Ryan's turf. His fastball spent so much time on the outside half it could have taken up residence there. ‘Half the plate's yours, half is mine,' was Ryan's thinking. ‘you don't know what half I want. But if you're going to take away half of the plate that I want, you're gonna pay.'
"He hit a bunch of White Sox. They had a philosophy that didn't quite fit in with Nolan's philosophy, and we had three or four fights with them, because Nolan would pitch into hitters that were diving."
Robin Ventura disagrees. It wasn't batting stances that caused the friction, he says, but a good old-fashioned bean-ball war.
"Hriniak didn't have anything to do with it," Ventura claims. "At the time in baseball the zone was low and away, and that was where pitchers were getting you out. We weren't the only team doing it. It was the kind of pitch that was getting called, so you just had to be able to go out and get it."
In any case, altercations between the two teams accelerated:
- August 17, 1990: Ryan hit Grebeck again in his first at-bat on the first pitch. Three innings later the Sox retaliated by hitting Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele.
- September 6, 1991: Ryan hit Ventura in the back at Arlington.
- August 2, 1993: Two days before the Ventura fight, Roger Pavlik of the Rangers hit Ron Karkovice. Chicago retaliated by hitting Dean Palmer twice and Mario Diaz once.
"We had a lot of going back and forth that season," says Ventura. "Guys were getting hit regularly, and it was just one of those things where something was going to eventually happen."
The night before the fight, on August 3, the White Sox manhandled the Rangers 11–6. Ryan was slated to start the following day against Alex Fernandez.
In the first inning, Ventura tagged Ryan for an RBI single. In the Rangers' half of the second, Fernandez hit Rangers leadoff batter Juan Gonzalez on a 2-2 pitch. When Ventura came up again in the third frame, Ryan's first pitch plunked him on the back.
"If you look at the replays, the ball wasn't really that far inside," says House. "It was just barely off the plate and it went off Ventura's back. Robin was starting toward first base when he abruptly turns and charges the mound instead. And the closer he got to Nolan, the bigger he looked. If you watch it in stop action, you can see Ryan's eyes were like a deer's in a headlight.
"So everybody was surprised by what Nolan did next: Bam! Bam! Bam! Three punches right on Ventura's noggin!"
Rangers catcher Pudge Rodriguez had undergone facial surgery for a fractured cheekbone 40 hours earlier and was wearing a big bandage. As the man closest to the action, he had an excellent perspective.
"Nolan Ryan didn't try to hit him," says Rodriguez. "He just tried to pitch in like everybody else, and it just got away. It was a very intense game. Robin Ventura had hit Ryan hard in the first inning, and [Ryan] was trying to keep him off the plate.
"Ventura charged to the mound but he didn't do a good job, and Nolan Ryan grabbed him and hit him pretty good. I was trying to hold [Ventura] off, but they were two big guys. I tried to cover myself because I have a scar on my face, and so I just grabbed [Ventura] from the back but that didn't do much."
Rangers shortstop Jeff Huson watched it unfold from the bench.
"All I could think about when it was happening was, What's Robin thinking?" Huson recalls. "You don't charge the highest authority -- that's just the way it is. I was shocked when he went out there. I remember Nolan saying that early in his career Dave Winfield had charged the mound and he didn't do anything about it, and later he vowed that if anybody ever charged the mound again he was going to take the offensive."
To this day, Ventura maintains it was no big deal and that his reaction was pure instinct.
"Everybody on both teams knew [Ryan] was hitting guys, and the mentality on our club was when he hits us, we're gonna hit one of them. So whoever got hit, I'm sure he would have went. He had hit Grebeck on purpose and he had hit me on purpose. It was going to happen no matter what. It just happened that Ryan was well known. Had it been anyone else, it would have all been forgotten.
"Nobody said 'you had to go, charge the mound,' and we didn't talk about it beforehand. There was so much friction going on between us that eventually whoever got hit was probably going to charge anyway."
Ryan's recollection of the incident echoes House's.
"There was a buildup between the Rangers and the White Sox, and what Tom said was accurate about them diving into the ball," he said. "But Grebeck, their little center fielder, had had a lot of success off me and he was diving into the fastball, so I hit him one time. Not with the intent of hitting him -- I was trying to get him off the plate and back him off, and I hit him.
"Earlier in the year I had a fight with Chicago over them hitting one of our guys, but certainly there hadn't been any issues between Robin Ventura and myself. In that particular game, his first time up I left a fastball out over the plate and Ventura hit a line drive to left field, so I felt like I had to get him off the plate. Next time I came in on him and hit him right behind the shoulder blade, but it wasn't on purpose."
Regarding the rumored bounty supposedly put on him by the Sox, Ryan says, "I heard there was some kind of a vendetta, but do I know that for a fact or not? I don't know that for certain. As far as I know, Robin just reacted."
When Ventura charged toward the mound, he slowed down just enough to run into a Ryan headlock. Nolan got in four quick right hands on the top of Ventura's head. His fifth and final punch got Ventura square in the face.
Both benches emptied, and the main combatants disappeared under the surge of humanity. Ventura eventually emerged unscathed, but Ryan remained trapped beneath the pile and was nearly unconscious when help came from an unexpected quarter.
"All I remember is that I couldn't breathe," says Ryan. "I thought I was going to black out and die, when all of a sudden I see two big arms tossing bodies off of me. It was [Chicago's] Bo Jackson. He had come to my rescue, and I’m awful glad he did, because I was about to pass out. I called him that night and thanked him."
As two of the game’s biggest stars, Jackson and Ryan were natural rivals. Their friendly feud began in 1989, when Bo was with the Royals. "I had 3-2 on him," recalls Ryan. "I knew if I threw him a curve he'd probably chase it, but instead I threw him a fastball up to see if I could get it by him. As soon as it left my hand I knew I was in trouble, 'cause I knew it was gonna be down. When he hit it, I had to turn to see where it went because I knew he really got it. It turns out he hit it two-thirds up the way in straight-away center field in old Arlington Stadium."
"I was watching Bo as he went around," adds House, "and boy, it was impressive. Two superstars in the moment, and as Bo is jogging around first base, Nolan makes eye contact and Bo makes a gesture like, I gotcha! and Nolan gives him a look like, What the hell is he talking about? "Well, the next time Bo's up, first pitch is a curveball, and Bo was like spaghetti-legged. Nolan struck him out six more times after that. I think he faced Bo 20 times, and struck him out 12 times."
The day after Jackson’s tape-measure home run, when Ryan came out for stretching at 4:30, nobody was on the field.
"I'm thinking, I may have the time wrong, when all of a sudden I hear way off in the distance, ‘Hey, Nolan!’" he recalled. "I look out and the whole team is sitting in the bleachers where the ball landed, and they’re waving at me. They were making sure I wasn't going to forget it."
In a 1990 home game against Kansas City, Jackson led off the second inning with a one-hopper back to the mound that caught Ryan square in the mouth.
"Nolan was more embarrassed than hurt," recalls trainer Bill Ziegler. "He was bleeding like a stuck pig. So in between innings the Rangers team doctor, Dr. Mycoskie, stitched him up. He pitched the rest of the game with black stitches coming out of his lip and blood all over the place."
Kansas City’s George Brett later said, "Nolan’s scary under normal conditions, but facing him when he was all bloody was another level of intimidation altogether."
The Jackson-Ryan rivalry was rooted in mutual respect, so it wasn’t so surprising that Bo came to his rescue on August 4.
Ruth Ryan was awfully glad he did.
"After Ventura rushed the mound, everyone in the park, including my kids, went wild," recalls Ruth, who was seated in the family section. "When Nolan didn't come out of the pile, I got concerned. With his bad back, sore ribs, and other ailments, he could easily have suffered a career-ending injury."
When Nolan finally did emerge, he was visibly winded and his jersey was unbuttoned. Otherwise, he seemed to be intact. But a few moments later there was more pushing and shoving and the fight resumed. This time, Ryan and Ventura remained on the fringes, but some other players really got into it. Rangers coach Mickey Hatcher had a bloody gash above his eye, and Chicago manager Gene Lamont was taking on all comers. Several White Sox players taunted Ryan and he considered rejoining the fray, but the umpires restrained him.
When it was finally over, Ryan remained in the game and Ventura and Lamont were ejected.
Of all people, Craig Grebeck, whose gesture somewhat precipitated the tension three years earlier, came off the bench to pinch-run for Ventura. Ryan promptly picked him off first.
In a show of stubborn focus, Ryan pitched four more innings. When he left at the end of the seventh, he had struck out five and given up three hits, with one earned run.
Texas won the game 5–2, but the score was really irrelevant.
"It was a split-second thing," Ryan told reporters after the game about his brawl with Ventura. "All you can do is react. you don't have time to figure out your options."
Lamont believed his player getting hit wasn't an accident, and admitted his getting tossed was an act of protest after Ryan was allowed to remain in the game.
"I think our guys felt Nolan hit guys on purpose and that was probably part of the reason Robin charged the mound, and they didn't like it," says Lamont. "I'm also positive there wasn't a vendetta. If there was one, it was without me knowing about it, and if that was the case our players would have been out there a lot quicker than they were."
Leaving the park, Ryan figured he'd heard the end of it, but at the postgame dinner at a nearby restaurant, Reid Ryan and his friends couldn't stop rehashing the action. Brother Reese had videotaped the game, and when the family returned home, he entertained all comers by replaying the brawl over and over.
When Reese asked his dad, who was in the kitchen sorting the mail, if he wanted to view the fight, he responded with a firm no.
He was in a distinct minority. Broadcast networks were showing the fight continuously, and the late-night talk shows picked it up. The next morning the melee was front-page news.
"Remember the Alamo!" George W. Bush proclaimed in the Dallas Daily News. "I saw Nolan square away like a bull and thought, This guy [Ventura] has lost his senses. It was a fantastic moment for the Rangers and elevated [Ryan’s] legend."
Chicago's Jack McDowell insisted Ryan was culpable and was pleased that Ventura charged him. "Ryan had been throwing at batters forever, and no one ever had the guts to do anything about it," the Sox pitcher complained. "Someone had to do it. [Ryan] pulled that stuff wherever he goes."
Fans across America were polarized. Ryan was their perpetual good guy in the white hat, and some didn't know what to make of their hero throwing punches in the middle of the infield.
Arguments raged at dinner tables across America about whether Ryan did the right thing. The Dallas Morning News said it was bad for baseball. Fight Gives Game a Big Black Eye, argued its headline.
When ESPN's Peter Gammons insisted that Ryan hit Ventura on purpose, the pitcher had heard enough.
"If Robin had stopped before he got to the mound, I wouldn't have attacked him," Ryan explained to ESPN. "But when he came out and grabbed me, I had to react to the situation."
Ryan thought the incident would eventually fade, but as time has passed interest in that dustup has never subsided. The Ventura fight has become a part of American folklore, an integral part of Ryan's legacy. Photographs of the fight are as common as postage stamps, clips of it are shown every season, and the clip has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube.
For almost two decades the two key combatants never crossed paths. Closure finally came in 2012, when Ventura was named manager of the White Sox. Early that season, Ryan and Ventura discreetly met in the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington tunnel. Ryan congratulated Robin on getting the manager's job; Ventura gave Ryan kudos for his recent successes in Texas.
"I have nothing but respect for Robin and wished him the best," said Ryan.
A man of his word, as team president Ryan issued a standing order that footage from the fight -- previously shown before Rangers games -- not be played on the scoreboard.
Ventura, who was suspended two games over the incident, harbors no grudges.
"I don't sit around thinking, Oh, my gosh, I should have done different, or whatever. I do get tired of talking about it, though. Mostly it’s press from Texas saying we want to talk to you about it."
Ventura has always been known for his class and affability, and is highly respected in baseball circles. Here's hoping people remember him for something other than being the guy who got in a brawl with Nolan Ryan.
-- Excerpted by permission from Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher by Rob Goldman. Copyright (c) 2014 by Rob Goldman. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.