Nolan Ryan‘s final game came against the Seattle Mariners on September 22, 1993, as a member of the Texas Rangers. Ryan was 46 years old and had just one more start left in his career. Or so he thought. Prior to the 1993 season, the decision was made that this would be his last season in the big leagues. After 1993, the all-time leader in strikeouts, and one of the most feared pitchers in the game was hanging up his cleats for good.
And as the season wound down, and the Rangers fell out of playoff contention, plans were made for his final start to come in his home state of Texas. But we all know what happens to the best-laid plans…
Ryan’s outing in Seattle was off to a rocky start, but that’s to be expected. Nolan Ryan’s career began shaky with the New York Mets, as a part of the back end of the rotation lead by Tom Seaver. His case for Cooperstown was never made in New York, and the numbers show it. A rocky start was what Ryan knew, but this game was different. Before you could blink, the fabled flamethrower had given up a Grand Slam in the first inning.
Dave Magadan stepped into the box.
At this point in time, Nolan Ryan had thrown around 80,000 pitches over his 27 seasons in the big leagues. And with the sunset on the horizon, there was a different energy in the Kingdome for Ryan’s final road start. Bob Sherman of the Seattle Times, noted that the scene had ” a special atmosphere as most of the 40,184 fans anticipated Ryan’s final road start.”
“He was given a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout before the game. Ryan was the last player out of the Ranger dugout in the bottom of the first, jogging to his position as the fans again stood and applauded during his warmup pitches. Flashbulbs popped with each Ryan pitch, especially when he faced Ken Griffey Jr. But it was clear this was not no-no-Nolan.”
Prior to the game, Ryan knew there was something wrong with his throwing elbow. “I pitched in Anaheim five days earlier, and my elbow was sore… Obviously, I didn’t know it at the time, but I probably injured my elbow. So when I warmed up in Seattle, my elbow was bothering me. And as I went out and tried to pitch in the game, I had nothing.”
No-No-Nolan was gone. In his place stood a 46-year-old man, just trying to find the strike zone over the last few innings of his career. And here he was with Magadan in the box, down four runs, and a clean slate to try and fight back.
Ryan fell behind 2-0 and knew he had to come back with a fastball. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Nolan Ryan threw a strike and felt a pop in his elbow. Nolan Ryan had torn the ulnar lateral ligament in his right elbow, his career was over.
But Nolan Ryan wasn’t done yet. Instead of immediately calling for a trainer, Ryan threw one more pitch.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt once said that “Nolan Ryan put everything into his fastball… He threw it as hard as he could throw it. No one else does that.” And here he was at the end of his fabled, untouchable career, taking the reins and firing one more fastball.
After missing inside to Magadan, bringing the count to 3-1, he then motions to the dugout for a trainer. At 46 years old, with more strikeouts than any player before him, Nolan Ryan left the mound for the final time. And while his final outing might not have gone the way he planned, he still got to end it on his terms. In the later innings of the game, Ryan took a curtain call, and the Seattle crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“You get into a situation like that where you recognize it for what it is,” Ryan said after the game. “They were saying how they appreciated my career, and coming out was the least I could do. There’s no way I’ll ever throw again. It’s just a hell of a way to end a career.”
After a career of peppering opposing hitters with fireballs, complete with an astounding collection of seven no-hitters, and a lock on becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Nolan Ryan didn’t let fate take the ball out of his hand. Instead, after realizing his career was at an end, Nolan Ryan still fired off one final pitch.
According to Fastball, Ryan’s last full-tilt fastball clocked in a 98 MPH.
After the game, the press found another pitcher and asked him for his thoughts on Ryan’s final outing.
“It felt strange to realize I’ll never get to see him pitch again,” Seattle ace Randy Johnson told the media after the game. It was also reported that Johnson went to the Rangers trainer’s room to personally thank Ryan himself. “He taught me, taught all of us really, what it means to battle, to give the gallant effort.”
Before Ryan’s final game, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a one-page tribute to him that included this Randy Johnson quote:
“Nolan Ryan is the Babe Ruth of pitching. I don’t think anyone will break his records. The strikeout and no-hitter records are etched in stone. He’s not necessarily a spokesman for the game but a lot of people look up to him as a legend. And that he is.”
Randy Johnson would go on to pitch for another 16 years. His career would finish with a one-inning appearance at age 46, just like Ryan. Johnson’s career strikeout total was 4,875, most all-time for left-handed pitcher and second-most ever behind Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 punchouts.
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. And when life throws you a curveball, find the strength to fire one more fastball back. It may be your last, but at least it’s on your terms. And if the man who took on a charging Robin Ventura at age 46 has shown us, there’s honor in going down fighting. Even if it means you finish in an unexpected way.
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