New Nolan Ryan documentary shines a spotlight on his larger-than-life career

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There is a moment that comes at the end of “Facing Nolan,” a highly engaging examination of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, where viewers are given a graphical look at the 51 career records Ryan still holds today. There are the Paul Bunyon-esque marks — most strikeouts (5,714) and most walks (2,795) — that will never be broken. But the records that had me spellbound were the number of one-hitters (12), two-hitters (18) and three-hitters (31). With today’s pitchers throwing complete games at roughly the same frequency as bipartisan legislation, it’s mindblowing that Ryan had 68 games (including seven no-hitters) where he gave up three hits or less.

If you have heard about any baseball documentary at the moment, it’s likely the seven-episode series on the life and times of Derek Jeter. It’s gotten heavy publicity (wait, ESPN promoting something that involves the Yankees?) and is airing on ESPN and ESPN+ through August. Nice summer fare. But if you want a baseball doc that’s a little more under the radar, it’s worth your time to seek out “Finding Nolan.

The pitcher is now 75, and if you are a younger baseball fan, Bradley Jackson’s documentary highlights just how larger-than-life Ryan was, especially in Texas.

“I grew up in Houston in the ’80s and ’90s, and if you grow up a sports fan in Texas at that time, then it’s mandatory to be a Nolan Ryan fan,” said Jackson. “His persona, his records and his mythological status are just larger than life.”

Jackson told Richard Justice of Texas Monthly that he came up with the idea of examining Ryan’s life after binging on ESPN’s “The Last Dance” — which chronicled Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls — in 2020. He did not believe he could do the film without Ryan and his family’s cooperation and wrote up for the family what he thought was a detailed creative treatment. He passed the pitch onto Nolan’s son, Reese, through a mutual connection of Russell Wayne Groves, who is Jackson’s producing partner. (That mutual connection was Bobby Witt Sr., the former MLB pitcher who played with Ryan in Texas and is the father of promising Royals rookie Bobby Witt Jr.) Upon reading the film treatment, Ruth Ryan, Nolan’s wife, and the couple’s sons, Reid and Reese, agreed to meet with Jackson and Groves at the Ryan’s homestead in Round Rock, Texas. (Justice reported that Nolan Ryan had so little interest that he skipped the initial talk.)

How did Jackson attempt to sell the Ryans on the film?

“The pitch was simple: Tell the story through the people who faced him and those he played with,” Jackson said. “Nolan isn’t known as a talker or as someone who likes to brag about his accomplishments. So the idea was to take the pressure off him and focus on how other people felt it was to stand in the batter’s box across from him. Another aspect of the pitch was that this is a love story wrapped in baseball. The major emotional throughline of this film is told through the eyes of Ruth Ryan and Nolan Ryan as a couple. The Texas connections obviously helped, but I genuinely didn’t think it would only be four months from having the idea to sitting down opposite Nolan himself for a six-hour interview. I live in L.A. now, and getting a film off the ground usually takes years if not longer, and it was just so refreshing to work with a no-nonsense guy like Nolan. Once he says he’ll do something, he does it.”

Jackson said he interviewed between 30 and 35 people for the film, including a ton of Hall of Famers (Craig Biggio, George Brett, Rod Carew, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Cal Ripken Jr., Pete Rose, Ivan Rodriguez and Dave Winfield are all featured) and many teammates from Ryan’s stops in Anaheim, Houston, New York and Texas over his 27-year career. (Robin Ventura, who famously found himself on the wrong end of Ryan’s fist in 1993, declined to be interviewed for the film.) Jackson recalled being escorted by Secret Service to interview former President George W. Bush, a friend of Ryan’s and the former owner of the Rangers. Jackson said the Hall of Fame players gave him 60- to 90-minute interviews, and there’s a lot of great stuff there. The filmmakers tried to get Sandy Koufax (Ryan’s pitching idol), but he politely declined.

The film is shot artfully, especially when it gives viewers a sense of how much Ryan, who raises cattle, loves being a rancher and the outdoors. It is very much a celebration of Ryan’s ethos and life.

If there’s one criticism of the film it’s that Ryan’s longevity crossed over so many eras of baseball that involved significant storylines (amphetamine use, drug use, the dawn of free agency, steroids) that it would be fascinating to get Ryan’s take on how he viewed them. The Ryans are executive producers on the project, but Jackson said the family did not have final cut on the film, nor were they shown the film until they had a first rough cut.

“One of the main things that Reid Ryan (Nolan’s oldest son) talked about was the fact that Nolan really did not have any scandals or true adversity moments in his life,” Jackson said. “He never cheated on his wife or had a gambling issue or suffered any severe injuries or setbacks. So how do you make this compelling over 100 minutes? Where’s the conflict? My initial pitch focused on turning him into a tall tale, and then once that’s established, to humanize him as a real person. At the end of the day, we never had any real disagreements with the Ryan family on the film other than the fact that Nolan usually didn’t want to wear a microphone. We had to get creative to try and convince him at times.”

Ruth Ryan in many ways is the most compelling person in the film. She was a gifted high school athlete herself and the one who kept Ryan from quitting when he struggled with the Mets early in his career. She allowed him to focus on baseball as she raised their children, and was his professional sounding board on pretty much everything.

“Early on in the process, I knew her input would be invaluable because she has known Nolan literally since he was 8 years old,” Jackson said. “But once I learned that she is actually a more competitive person than Nolan, I knew she would be a great presence in the film. For instance, she’s still bothered that he didn’t win a Cy Young Award. She also likes to claim that Nolan should have eight no-hitters since a one-hitter he threw back in the early ’70s was considered a one-hitter due to an infield error. There was a moment filming with her where we were on a beautiful overlook on his massive ranch in Texas and I asked her if she ever thought any of this was possible when she first started dating Nolan. She just smiled and said, ‘I never dreamed any of this was possible; I just wanted to be with him.’ To me, that’s the essence of Ruth Ryan — simple, powerful and beautiful.”

The film debuted at SXSW in Austin this February, 20 months after the idea was formed. Jackson said the filmmakers were able to raise money via private equity once the Ryan family was on board. Sports fans can rent or buy “Finding Nolan” on Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and various other on-demand services. It’s also playing at selected theaters. The website FacingNolan.com will have updates.

I was curious how Jackson felt about having a baseball documentary in the market at the same time as the uber-promotion by ESPN for the Jeter doc.

“I haven’t seen the Jeter doc yet, but being from Houston, I naturally have a lot of opinions about New York baseball,” he said. “I’ll leave them up to your imagination. But I’ll just say this: Derek Jeter is one of the greatest players who ever played, and I think peak Nolan Ryan strikes him out eight times out of 10.”


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