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Best of West: Another Nolan Ryan no-hitter

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column from the Best of West Collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on May 3, 1991.

Since an interview with Nolan Ryan was out of the question Thursday, I did the next best thing available to a guy sitting in Port Arthur looking for an angle on Ryan’s latest pitching feat. I phoned my good friend Denne Freeman of the Associated Press in Dallas.

Freeman has been with AP for nearly 25 years. As its Texas sports editor, he’s covered virtually all the major sporting events that have transpired in the Southwest part of the United States. It was his story you read in Thursday’s Port Arthur News describing Ryan’s seventh no hitter.

Basically, I was looking for an impression of what it was like to be a part of the electricity at Arlington Stadium with No. 34 adding another chapter to the legend. When Freeman told me up front it was the first no hitter he’d witnessed in person, I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

“Absolutely unbelievable,” began a guy who generally doesn’t get too excited unless he or his partner has knocked in a birdie putt. “I can think of only three other events that were as thrilling to cover,” he added, listing the 1969 Texas-Arkansas football game, the Dallas Cowboys first Super Bowl win and Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout last year.

Freeman said he sensed as early as the second inning, after Ryan punched out three straight hitters on curve balls for called strikes, that a no-hitter was possible. He became convinced it was going to happen after Rangers centerfielder Gary Pettis snagged Manny Lee’s short fly ball in the sixth.

“When that ball didn’t fall, I told the guy next to me this was the night,” Freeman said. “It was just so apparent that he was totally overpowering. I’ve  seen him throw a couple of one hitters, but I’ve never  seen him as dominant as he was against Toronto.”

Freeman’s favorite quote about Ryan’s performance came from Rangers general manager Tom Grieve. “It was like he was pitching against a Little League team,” said Grieve. “They didn’t have a chance.”

Indeed they didn’t. Of Toronto’s 27 outs, 16 came on strikes. The Blue Jays, who went into the game as the best hitting team in baseball, managed to put one of Ryan’s pitches into fair territory only eight times. Not a single ball was hit hard.

Freeman doesn’t staff all Rangers home games. There are often conflicts with other teams, like the Mavericks, or Dallas Cowboy training camp. Or other events, like being dispatched to Augusta for the Masters. He does, however, put a high priority on being at Arlington Stadium when Ryan pitches.

How high a priority?

“Last year I flew back from Cowboys training camp every time Nolan pitched,” Freeman said. “He knows how to pitch no hitters. Any time he’s pitching, you know it’s a possibility.

“I’d been disappointed that both his no-hitters with the Rangers had come on the road. If he threw one in Arlington, I was going to be there.”

Like virtually everyone else in the media who has had the pleasure of dealing with Ryan, Freeman considers him a dream to work with. He said one of his lasting impressions on Wednesday’s gem was how Ryan seemed almost embarrassed to talk about his accomplishments in the post-game press conference.

“As you know, he handles things with such class,” Freeman said. “I’ve never heard a snide remark, or seen any expression of ill will toward him by another writer. The attitude of the Toronto writers Wednesday night was like, “By gosh it’s great to be here and witness history.”

Another point that stuck with Freeman was the loyalty Ryan has toward fans of the Texas Rangers. He asked to be moved up a day in the rotation because Wednesday’s game was the last of a home stand, and there was an open date Thursday.

It meant working on the fourth day, after having thrown 131 pitches Saturday night against Cleveland.

“It was like he knew something,” Freeman said. “I’m not saying he knew he was going to pitch a no-hitter, but I do believe he felt he was still capable of throwing one. And he wanted very badly for it to come in Arlington. He kept saying after the game how much the fans here deserved to see the no-hitter.”

Ryan, by throwing his seventh no-hitter, merely extended his own record. The seventh one, though, added an imposing perspective  to a mind-blowing accomplishment.

With seven no-hitters, Ryan now owns as many as the next two most prolific no-hit pitchers combined. That would be Sandy Koufax with four and Bob Feller with three.

Believe it or not, there are still no-hit plateaus Ryan hasn’t achieved. Johnny VanderMeer, for instance, authored back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. Nolan hasn’t done that. Yet. VanderMeer, Virgil Trucks (1952) and Ryan (1973) are the only pitchers to throw two no-hitters in a season.

Perhaps Ryan can become the fist pitcher to twice throw a pair of no-hitters in a season. Or, since it’s only May 3, maybe he can become the first to pitch three in a season. With this guy, you just can’t rule out what seems impossible.

“I agree 100 percent,” says Freeman.

Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@usa.net.