Drama is conflict. So how do you make an exciting documentary about an unconflicted man?
That’s the challenge facing Bradley Jackson, the director of Facing Nolan, a non-fiction film about baseball’s living legend, Nolan Ryan. It’s not just that this is an authorized, and therefore presumably censored, autobiography. It’s that, what is there to censor?
Ryan grew up in small-town Texas and married his high-school sweetheart. He stayed married, was signed by the Mets while still a teenager, and went on to play a record-breaking 27 years in the majors. When he retired, in 1993, it was after having broken quite a few records himself,.
But scandal, gossip, controversy? The stuff of spicy headlines?
That’s not a bad thing, and if you want a clean-cut hero, Facing Nolan is here to provide one. Ryan managed to play in four separate decades of major-league ball, and was still setting pitching records in his 40s. Records free of the taint of performance-enhancing drugs, and a career that doesn’t include tabloid stories of coke in the locker room, drunken brawls in nightclubs, or mistresses selling stories to the tabloids.
This is, obviously, a squeaky-clean bio of a squeaky-clean hero, and, yes, sometimes it lays it on a little thick. The good-ol-boy narration – think the intro to The Beverly Hillbillies, delivered by the Sam Elliott character from The Big Lebowski – is so dad-gum syrupy you could pour it on a plate of waffles.
So how to keep an audience’s interest? Well the movie has a Cooperstown full of interview subjects, ranging from George Brett to Dave Winfield. And great quotes from everyone from Ryan himself to his one-time boss, Texas Rangers’ owner George W. Bush.
Ryan on aging? In his first game with the Mets, in 1966, “I had some of these guys‘ baseball cards.” When he joined the Rangers, at age 41, “I was older than the manager… I was older than some of my teammates’ parents.”
Bush on Ryan’s intimidating habit of throwing inside, and often hitting the batters? “I asked him, ‘Did you hit that guy on purpose?’” Bush remembers. “He said, ‘George, sometimes you just gotta take control of the situation.’”
And yet the real star of this movie is Ryan’s wife, Ruth. They started dating when they were still in grammar school. By the time he was signed to the Mets – at 18 – the 16-year-old tennis star, a top athlete in her own right, put her dreams on hold. Over the years, she would talk him out of quitting – at one point, he thought he would just put in four years, which qualified him for a small MLB pension – and encourage him to do his best.
Which, it seems, is all Ryan knew how to do.
His records are incredible. Seven no-hitters (his nearest competitor, Sandy Koufax, had four). Five thousand, seven hundred and fourteen strike-outs (the closest anyone has come is Randy Johnson, with 4875). They are the sort of history-book entries that no one is ever likely to erase.
Here’s another Nolan Ryan record: He’s the greatest pitcher to never win the Cy Young Award.
And here’s one more: He may be the biggest baseball star to have retired happily, with his health and reputation intact and no regrets.