I took a short break from cult documentaries to watch the Netflix documentary on major league pitcher Nolan Ryan, Facing Nolan. If you were a ballplayer around that time, as I was, it would have been impossible to not love Nolan Ryan. He was the ultimate strikeout pitcher – the defensive flip side of the home run hitter – who threw a million miles an hour and had the confidence of all great strikeout pitchers. My very favorite moments in baseball were when a fastball pitcher faced a fastball hitter and both were absolutely positive that they were better. The pitcher threw fastballs, the hitter swung as hard as he could at those fastballs, and that’s how we figured things out. I was a pitcher who threw hard enough, so Nolan Ryan was a hero of mine.
The documentary was great (if unremarkable on it’s own) and brought back truckloads of memories. Sports, like songs, are time machines, precisely transporting us to who we were when we first experienced them. I remembered my dad, my room, the posters on the wall, my Swatch phone, my Nintendo, my bad haircuts and pegged acid-washed jeans, like I was there again.
Titled Facing Nolan, it would be understandable if you guessed Nolan Ryan was the subject, but you would be wrong, like I was. The real hero was Ruth Ryan, Nolan’s wife. 15 year-old me looked up to Nolan, but 47 year-old me sees Ruth as being the one we could emulate. I only cared about Nolan because he had freakish athletic gifts and an unparalleled work ethic, I never thought about if he was faithful to his wife, honest, a good friend or dad. It doesn’t matter anymore to me if someone is famous because they led the league in strikeouts (well, it doesn’t matter much;). I know now that it matters much more if we are rich in character and love, measuring our lives by the people around us.
The myth of the self-made man is make-believe, a fallacy dreamed up in marketers and filmmakers minds to sell products. They know very well, as long as we try to fill ourselves with stuff (experiences, cars, money, sneakers, etc) as islands, we can never be satisfied, so we will continue to buy and buy, moving on to the Next Big Thing to quench our insatiable thirst for more.
Nolan could be a hall of famer (he is) and have all the records (he does), but what if he got that predictable call from the Hall of Fame in an empty room with no one to celebrate with or to call? We can build more and bigger buildings to hold all of our countless possessions and have nothing at all.
Nolan was my hero then, but for the wrong reasons. His house was a home and his life was full of people to love, and who loved him. That was the real significance of his life, and all of our lives. I just don’t want to wake up some day and find out that I wasted my days trying to hold things instead of hands.