The Film Buffa: Why ‘Facing Nolan’ is one of 2022’s best documentaries

Nolan Ryan owns 51 Major League records. Along with the most no-hitters (seven!) and most career strikeouts (5,714), he also owns the records for most one-hitters, two-hitters, and three-hitters thrown in history. He’s the kind of arm that makes mere Cy Young awards futile, because he dominated the game more than any shiny trophy could ever portray.

Ryan’s life and career are covered extensively in Bradley Jackson’s documentary, “Facing Nolan.” The movie is sharply edited and stuffed with gems from the Nolan Express highlight reel. A pure and proud Texan, Ryan pitched like a sports gunslinger, kicking his left knee up to his chest and then extending into a power delivery. It’s this reckless, free style abandon that made it seem like he was on top of the batters before they had a chance to make contact.

It led to the bevy of strikeouts and a ton of walks, a career-most record that Ryan also holds. But what may have held him out of the shiny plaques and awards that the league handed out in November, made him a folk hero to other pitchers who also experienced their own bouts with wildness. According to Randy Johnson, who sits under Ryan’s career strikeout mark by over a 1,000 punch-outs, Ryan is the most dominating pitcher of all time.

Jackson infuses rock and roll music with the storytelling here, punctuating big moments in Ryan’s career, such as his first few no-hitters. He pitched at the end of an era for starters, a time period where whoever took the ball in the first inning could be expected to hold it for the entire game. For comparison, Clayton Kershaw has 25 complete games in his 15-year career. Ryan accumulated 222 complete games in his 22-season career.

He was unreal, as larger-than-life as a pitcher can possibly get in the Major Leagues. Ryan hated seeing bullpens get to work, didn’t like shaking his manager’s hand until the 27th out had been collected, and made the best hitters of all time look feeble. Pete Rose recalls Ryan throwing a lot of “bastard pitches,” ones that were impossible to hit but batters had to respect anyway.

Documentaries can be informative and fun, and “Facing Nolan” falls comfortably into that category. While I knew Ryan was revered and carried records, I didn’t think he owned 51 of them, something that baffled Rose at a recent event honoring the two. When the guy with the most hits of all time is impressed and perplexed even by a pitcher’s accomplishments, bowing your head isn’t out of the question.

But the best part about “Facing Nolan” was finding out how strong the bond was between Ryan and his longtime wife, Ruth. Baseball marriages aren’t easy; a 162 game schedule, playoffs, spring training, offseason training, etc. Ruth not only stood by her man and supported him, she was at games and took his lack of Cy Young awards more seriously than her husband. Ruth’s devotion to Nolan, and their happiness together, is a hidden gem in this sports documentary.

Mike MacRae, an actor, does a fine job with the narration, sounding like a young Sam Elliott as he teases the final out of Ryan’s seventh no-hitter: “You didn’t think we were going to not show you the final out, did you?”

Is “Facing Nolan” one of the best documentaries of the year? I’d put it in my top 5 if voting happened tomorrow. Ruling out a doc due to the subject matter revolving around sports would be lame. It’s the same angst an action movie fan can show when the Oscars do nothing to honor their craft. Ryan’s story should be told and celebrated for decades. He’s as old school as it gets, but I have a feeling young baseball fans, even ones who never got to see him pitch live on television, will get a kick out of this. ]

I mean, the guy threw a baseball clocked at 108 miles-per-hour. Anything going that fast should have a flight attendant on it. “Facing Nolan” informs, entertains, and generates nostalgia for a time where pitchers did all the heavy lifting, even facing hitters with “enhancements,” something that rarely gets discussed. He did it all, owns all the records, and this documentary helped me understand his personal life almost as much as his professional one.

“Facing Nolan” is currently available to stream on Netflix for free.

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