Now, I never met this next man, but that’s part of what makes our culture so unique, all these hounds, fans, and scavengers alike. The Texas Ranger, the embodiment of the Major League gunslinger, and man with the most strikeouts, no hitters, and the world record fastest pitch was as hard to make contact with as his heater: The Ryan Express.
We call the best pitcher each year Cy Young, like he’s the reincarnation of Buddha, but that’s only because Cy was the man before Nolan Ryan. If we’re going to be realistic, there are maybe two handfuls of pitchers, if that many, who really deserve the distinction, and the rest become the latter half of Barry Zito’s career. If there was some sort of Dalai Lama of pitching, reincarnating generation to generation, then the lineage would probably look something like Cy Young, The Big Train, Feller, Gibson, Koufax, and Ryan.
When I was a little kid, like before I turned ten, sports card shops were fairly common, and in my neighborhood there was Craig’s Sports Designs. Every year from the year I was born until they went out of business, Dad bought a complete Topps box set. Once in a while, I’ll pull out the binders or boxes and look inside at the gems, like rookie cards of current and certain future Hall of Famers. Name a top player, who debuted between 1983 and 1993, I have his rookie card—guys like Gary Sheffield, Bo Jackson, Sandy Alomar, or John Smoltz to name a few. Somewhere in there, autographed memorabilia grew into a huge phenomenon; Dad and I were swept up in it, too.
We were still small potatoes in a big scene, and aside from the biggest collector show, the National, we were oblivious to the collector shows and signings that they featured. Craig was our go-to guy for all things memorabilia. Beckett price guides, binders and plastic card sheets, sorting boxes, ball cubes, and, most importantly, signing announcements and flyers. The collector boom was happening, right then, in the idyllic sunrise of my life, and the shop down the street was our in.
It was the sunrise on parenthood for my Dad, too. That day we met the Mick, it had been maybe ten years since the days my parents watched Nolan Ryan pitch, young kids dating at Angel Stadium. They’d witnessed no-hitters; they’d seen him mow down lineups, like a greens-keeper, manicuring everything around one lone spot in the distance. Now, it was Dad’s and my turn to share the magic of baseball.
“That’s a lot right now for the Joe D,” Dad said. “I’ll have to think about it, save some money.”
Craig nodded, put the Joe DiMaggio ball back up on the high shelf behind the glass counter with all the baseball and basketball cards in it.
“You know, Vicki loves Nolan,” Dad said, probably talked about them dating, too.
Craig nodded, listening, waiting for his turn in the story swap.
“So, how much for the Ryan ball?” Dad asked.
Nolan was still pitching then, hadn’t yet drawn Robin Ventura’s blood even, so his ball wasn’t worth what Joe D’s was yet. I’d only seen Nolan playing for Texas, usually from the upper deck, or on that iconic Nike poster framed and hanging on the living room wall. I did see him a final time, in 1994, when the Angels retired his number. We sat a few rows back from the third-base line that time, in the lower deck. Before we’d get around to that DiMaggio ball at Craig’s, Joe would pass on. Our dream of getting his autograph never will though, even if it’s buried under the hundreds of ink-stroked balls, cards, posters, pictures, and locker plates of other players.