by Robert Goldman
A Complete History of the Angels,
told through memories of the players who lived it
Nolan Ryan knew the moment he dropped his arm where the ball was going. He tried to warn the batter, but once Doug Griffin froze it became a question of not whether it would hit him, but instead where and how hard. Then came the sickening thud - followed after the game, by the gut-wrenching phone call.
"My mommy can't talk right now," said the tiny voice on the other end of the line. "She's at the hospital with my daddy."
Nolan Ryan put down the receiver and shuddered. His heart began to pound. It hadn't been on purpose, he told himself for the umpteenth time. The situation called for a sacrifice bunt, but when Griffin squared away, he threw high to force him to pop it up. In doing so, he inadvertently dropped his arm and the ball sailed in with disastrous results. Ryan walked toward home plate and what he saw made him physically ill. Griffin's eyes were rolled back up in his head and he wasn't moving. Ryan thought he had killed him.
His thoughts now turned to his own son, who was the same age as Griffin's daughter. What would Reid think if the man who put his daddy in the hospital called him on the phone? The question he asked himself later that night was different, one he had already asked thousands of times, going back to his Little League days. Could he ever truly harness his God-given talent and discipline his wild arm?
It hadn't happened with the Mets. But with the Angels, under the diligent eye of pitching coach Tom Morgan, he discovered that he had the potential to throw his fastball accurately, and with confidence.. Then he mastered the curve and changeup, and together with his fastball they wreaked havoc on opposing hitters. But then came that day he accidentally hit Doug Griffin's head.
As a power pitcher, throwing inside was a part of his game. Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax all used the inside of the plate. The difference was they knew where their pitch was headed.. Pitchers' graveyards are filled with power pitchers who didn't. Guys like minor league phenom Steve Dalkowski, Sam Mc Dowell, and Ryne Duren, to name a few. They were pitchers who threw hard but never managed any control, nor mastered themselves. Ryan thought he had proven over the last two years that he could do better. Now, he had second thoughts.
By nature he was kind and nurturing. Aggression was something he had learned. By becoming physically aggressive, he grew mentally aggressive. That was his secret, his mechanism, his game face. But that game face was just a part of Ryan, not his whole. And when he looked in the mirror that night, the real Nolan Ryan found himself looking into the face of a man who nearly killed another player, a little girl's father, someone's loving husband.
Ryan was having a doozey of a mid-career crisis. He knew his very survival as a big league pitcher was at stake. He had trained and disciplined himself to not give in, to be aggressive and use the inside of the plate. He had committed to that road, and he wasn't one to retrace his steps. But the beaning gave him great pause, and for a while Ryan stopped throwing inside.
Griffin was out for 50 games but eventually recovered. On August 12 of that year he was starting second baseman when the Red Sox visited Anaheim Stadium. That day's starter for the Angels: Nolan Ryan. In the second inning, Griffin struck out. But in the fifth he sought his revenge, when he singled to center and later scored. But Ryan had already turned the corner by that point. Knowing that he could not pitch effectively with a defensive mindset, he recommitted himself to pitching inside. And with great results: On that day Ryan struck out 19 batters and pitched a complete game as the Angels won 4-2. It was his second 19-strikeout performance of the season, with both coming against the Red Sox. The pair of dominating outings tied the Major League record for most strikeouts in a game.
The Griffin incident was a terrible setback, but it also gave a stark clarity to Ryan's thinking. He would never again give pause before pitching aggressively. The Griffin incident also reminded players around the league of something they already knew but tried not to dwell on: Ryan's command, or occasional lack thereof was cause for serious concern.