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‘Facing Nolan’ Review: Portrait of Baseball Great Hits the Sweet Spot for Fans of the Game

In the cinematic equivalent of an authorized biography, Ryan emerges as an engaging nice guy you would never want to cross.

Facing Nolan
Courtesy of SXSW

Bradley Jackson’s “Facing Ryan” tells the story of an agreeable fellow from small-town Texas who married his high school sweetheart, followed his dream of playing major league baseball, pitched for four MLB teams over a 27-year career while operating a cattle ranch during off-season, set records for no-hitters and strikeouts that remain unbroken to this day, held high-profile executive positions with two of his former teams more than a decade after his retirement from the game, and currently resides on the ranch where he and his wife, the loving and supportive life partner he wed back in 1967, are frequently surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

If you were to present this scenario at a pitch meeting, you’d likely be shot down for failing to hype your narrative with suspenseful setbacks, intense conflict and a slew of obstacles for your protagonist to overcome. And if you somehow managed to get your film made anyway, critics would almost surely complain about the many and varied ways credibility was stretched to the breaking point while the hero accomplished one extraordinary feat after another.

But here’s the thing: “Facing Nolan” is a documentary, not a work of fiction. And its lack of manufactured drama is one of the most engaging things about it, especially if you are a baseball fan who has ever marveled at the miracle that was, and is, Nolan Ryan.

Indeed, even viewers without a love for the game could be engrossed and entertained by Jackson’s celebratory film. To be sure, a few some may complain, not without just cause, that sections play more like hagiography than biography, and question whether its subject could really be such an irreproachable Mr. Nice Guy. On the other hand, you wouldn’t expect to have skeletons uncloseted or dark secrets illuminated in what is essentially the cinematic equivalent of an authorized biography. (Nolan and his sons Reid and Reese Ryan are credited as executive producers.) But Jackson argues that beneath the seemingly easygoing and gregarious surface beats the heart of a fierce competitor.

A veteran sportswriter — one of the many on-camera interviewees who share screen time with Ryan himself — recalls the legendary pitcher casually admitting, “Once I cross that white line, I don’t even like myself.” Another observer describes Ryan as “the most intimidating pitcher in the history of the game,” a description echoed in assorted ways by Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Cal Ripken Jr. and other players who batted against him.

Conspicuously absent from the latter group: Robin Ventura, the Chicago White Sox third baseman who made the tactical error of charging the mound after Ryan stuck him with a pitch during an Aug. 4, 1993 game. Although he was 20 years Ventura’s senior, Ryan calmly neutralized the threat by trapping his would-be attacker in the sort of headlock he used on errant calves back at his ranch, then proceeded to punch him several times, thereby igniting a benches-clearing brawl. Footage of the incident (included here, of course) went viral way before viral was a thing, and Ryan — who was not ejected from the game for what umpires judged to be defensive moves — was widely hailed as a hero. And Ventura? A title card says it all: “Robin Ventura declined to be interviewed for this film.”

Every now and then, “Facing Nolan” offers by way of balance a revisionist take on certain elements of the “Ryan Express” mythos, noting that the oft-told story about Ryan developing his 100-mph fast ball at an early age while he was a paperboy delivering The Houston Post to folks around his childhood home in Alvin, Texas, is, well, bunk. (Ryan, a right-handed pitcher, explains that when driving, he had to toss the papers with his left hand.) And he most certainly was not an overnight sensation: During his minor league days, says another interviewee, “His control was like ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh in ‘Bull Durham.’” Ryan admits he was so frustrated by his lack of command during his salad days with the New York Mets that he considered quitting baseball in 1971 — only to be talked out of making that life-changing decision by his wife, Ruth, who impresses here as an invaluably level-headed and straight-talking woman who obviously deserves all the credit her husband gives her.

Narrator Mike MacRae pushes his folksy tone rather insistently throughout “Facing Nolan” — it’s probably not a good idea to engage in a drinking game that requires taking a shot each time he refers to “Ol’ Nollie” — but it’s a near-perfect fit for a tall tale that just happens to be true. Ryan acknowledges disappointments (despite his prodigious accomplishments, he never was voted a Cy Young Award), and vividly recalls the time notoriously tight-fisted Houston Astros owner John McMullen made what Ryan viewed as an insultingly low-ball offer to re-sign with the team. Yet he also admits that living well, and pitching phenomenally, can be the best revenge.

After leaving the Astros, Ryan signed as a free agent at age 42 with the Texas Rangers in 1989 (right around the time George W. Bush, another admiring interviewee, was part-owner and CEO), went on to pitch the sixth and seventh no-hitters of his career, and retired only after raising his strikeout number to 5,714. Just how amazing is that number? “I’m second to him in strikeouts,” says another legend, Randy Johnson, “and he’s got a thousand more strikeouts than me.”

If Nolan Ryan had never existed, “Facing Nolan” strongly suggests, no screenwriter would ever get away with making him up.

‘Facing Nolan’ Review: Portrait of Baseball Great Hits the Sweet Spot for Fans of the Game

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 12, 2022. Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: A The Ranch Prods. production. (World sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Producer: Russell Wayne Groves. Executive producers: David Check, Reid Ryan, Reese Ryan, Don Sanders, Ricky Stuart II, Nolan Ryan.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Bradley Jackson. Camera: Jacob Hamilton. Editor: Erik McMichael. Music: Joshua Myers.
  • With: Nolan Ryan, Ruth Ryan, George W. Bush, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Craig Biggio, George Brett, Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, John McClain, Barry Warner, Cal Ripken Jr., Reid Ryan, Rob Goldman, Randy Galloway.