My most significant encounter with Nolan was a chance meeting in the Kingdome, before the gates opened for a game with Rangers on Aug. 8, 1992. Nolan had just finished a bullpen session and was running laps as part of his between starts workout. Our paths crossed as Nolan was walking back to the clubhouse and we just started talking. There was no big point, no big issue, but that conversation started a series of events that eventually helped turn my career around.
At that point in my career, I was going through a lot of the same soul-searching that Nolan had faced two decades earlier. I had dominating stuff, but was so inconsistent with my command that my manager, coaches and teammates wondered if I would ever reach my potential.
I had been a second-round draft choice by the Expos in 1985 and battled control problems most of my career with them. Eventually they got tired of my inconsistent performances and traded me in May of 1989 to the Mariners for Mark Langston. The trade gave me a chance to be a starter with Seattle, but the change of scenery didn’t help. My struggles continued.
Two days before my meeting with Nolan, I had made a start in Milwaukee with less than stellar results. My line score was five innings, eight runs, six walks and six strikeouts. My big league record at the time was 44 wins and 46 loses with a 4.10 ERA and a WHIP of 1.46. I had seriously begun to wonder what I needed to do to live up to my potential.
We started talking and I told Nolan that I wasn’t comfortable with my delivery. He spoke and I listened. He started by saying that because I’m so tall (6’-10’), my arms and legs are much longer than the average sized pitcher it’s harder for me to keep them under control. He said that trying to be consistent with extremities that long, and controlling my body were the biggest challenges that I had to face as a developing pitcher. He said that I was driving my body toward third base instead of going directly to home plate.
I also had to throw more strikes. He said that no matter how hard I threw, I would be only as consistent as my mechanics allowed me to be. He had me land on my forefoot instead of my heel and my mechanics quickly improved. He stressed that I had to develop consistency with my arm angle and mechanics before I could be successful.
Nolan talked about mound presence and being aggressive. He talked about going at hitters. I had always worked hard between starts and he told me that I needed to let the hitters know that. I needed to make sure that they knew I was in charge and they had their work cut out for them when I was on the mound.
Point made. I won my next three starts; two complete games and a 7-inning effort. I allowed only three runs on 11 hits, struck out 34 and walked 13 in 25 innings. Nolan and I faced each other in Arlington in late September. He went 7, I went 8 and we lost 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th. I struck out 18 that night, but the thing that I remember most was looking into the Rangers’ dugout in the bottom of the 7th and 8th and seeing Nolan still sitting there watching me. I knew that his routine was to go in after pitching and ride the bike, but he changed it to watch me. That showed me that he really cared about me as both a player and friend. We talked again before I left Arlington and he invited me to spend a week with him in Texas in the off-season and work on some of the things we discussed in Seattle.
I took him up on his offer and spent a week with him on and off the diamond at Nolan Ryan Field in Alvin, Texas. We worked on mechanics and talked about how to make adjustments on the fly when you don’t have good stuff and how to be more aggressive and it worked. I got better and better. I learned to be more consistent with my mechanics, make in-game adjustments when my delivery was off, take control of the game, be more aggressive and control my emotions. Nolan’s helped me turn into a pitcher instead of a guy that just goes out and throws hard. From the day that we first talked in Seattle until the end of my career, I won 259 games and lost 120, earned 5 Cy Young Awards and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Nolan also helped me learn how to be a better teammate and mentor. I’m enjoying baseball more than ever because I’m in a position to “pass it on” and help some of the younger players, like Nolan helped me.
The information above was based on multiple conversations with Randy during and after his tenure with the Astros and over three decades of friendship with Nolan.
Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.