In his illustrious 27-year career, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan hit 158 batters.
“He did not have a reputation as a headhunter,” said retired MLB umpire Larry Young. “But he definitely had a reputation of working inside.”
The overwhelming number of hit-batter situations were fairly routine. That was not so with the last batter he hit in his career, Chicago White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura.
It was game three of a four-game series between the White Sox and the Texas Rangers, Aug. 4, 1993, in Arlington, Texas. Working the contest were Dale Ford, plate; Young, first base; the late Chuck Meriwether, second; and crew chief Rich Garcia, third.
The two teams had met eight times earlier in the season, with the White Sox winning six, including a three-game sweep in Chicago in June.
MLB currently has a “heads up” procedure which requires a crew chief to notify the league office whenever a situation occurs that has the potential for future trouble between two teams. MLB then contacts the appropriate crew the next time the two teams meet. However, Young, who is now an MLB umpire supervisor, pointed out, “Apparently, there had been some tensions between the two teams, but we did not have that program in 1993, so we had no way of knowing if there were issues between the teams.”
Garcia agreed. “Back then, the league hardly got involved with umpires,” he said. “However, we did hear a rumor that the White Sox made a pact that if Ryan hit someone during the series, that batter would charge the mound. I was aware of that, but didn’t think much of it.”
The White Sox got off to a fast start, scoring two runs in the first inning, including one on an RBI single by Ventura. In the second inning, Rangers’ leadoff hitter Juan Gonzales was plunked by Alex Fernandez. No harm, no foul as he was erased on the front end of a double play.
With one out in the third, Ventura was up again. This time, Ryan, who never hesitated working the inside of the plate, hit Ventura with the first pitch. Ventura took three steps toward first base, then made a hard left and reached Ryan in just under three seconds.
And it was on.
Garcia smiled when he recalled, “I always wondered if Ventura started toward first base, then remembered the pact.”
Unfortunately for Ventura, he ran right into a headlock and Ryan began raining punches to the top of Ventura’s head. It was only the second time in Ryan’s career that someone charged the mound on him. The first time was when Ryan was playing with the Houston Astros and San Diego Padre Dave Winfield came out to express his displeasure of being hit.
“It was just self-preservation,” Ryan was quoted as saying after the game. “I didn’t expect that to happen. I was just trying to pitch him inside. I am not a big believer in fights but we’ll do what it takes to win.”
Ventura didn’t quite see it that way. “If you don’t think he did it on purpose, you don’t know the game,” he said.
In seconds, both dugouts emptied, which resulted in mostly pushing and shoving. Rangers’ coach Mickey Hatcher seemed to get the worst of it with a cut above his right eye.
“First of all, a batter charging the mound is an automatic ejection,” Young said. “And when both teams get into it, we are told to just get back and take numbers.”
Ventura’s exit was obvious and was administered by Ford. “Robin was not someone who was known to get into a lot of fights, either as a player or later in his six-year stint as manager of the White Sox,” Young recalled. “He had a good disposition and rarely had problems with umpires.” Garcia felt the same. “The last guy I would pick to charge the mound would be Ventura,” he said.
Also ejected was White Sox Manager Gene Lamont. It seemed that things had quieted down when Lamont had some choice words for Ryan, and that reignited the scrum. Lamont was also highly animated in his conversation with Garcia, claiming Ryan should have been ejected for throwing at Ventura.
“No way that was going to happen,” Young related. “We discussed it as a crew and we all concluded that Ryan was not deliberately throwing at Ventura.”
There were some questions about why Ryan was not ejected for fighting. “The crew wasn’t even considering that,” Young said. “Ryan never left the mound and we are not going to eject someone for standing there and defending himself.”
From Garcia’s viewpoint, that was definitely the right thing. “We are not going to have people charge the mound and get the pitcher thrown out of the game,” he said. “That’s just not fair. We try to be as fair as we can, although it may not always look that way.”
According to Garcia, Lamont was ejected for saying something he should not have said. That was as far as Garcia would go in explaining Lamont’s departure.
“It might have looked like Lamont was calm, but take my word for it, he was not,” Garcia remembered.
Some people might have thought that because of Ryan’s onfield intimidating manner, umpires would be reluctant to eject him for throwing at a hitter. That is not true in the case of Garcia. Ryan had one ejection in his entire 27-year career. That was Aug. 6, 1992. Garcia ejected him for throwing at Willie Wilson of Oakland.
There was an amusing incident involving Young and Lamont. They had been friends for years. During the melee, Lamont started hanging on Young. “Gene, let me go, stop hanging on me,” Young begged the White Sox skipper. “I can’t,” came the reply, “I just threw my knee out and I can’t stand up.”
Young was asked how this hit-batter situation compared with others in his career.
“The unique thing about this,” Young replied, “was that Ryan got Ventura into that headlock and started pounding his head.” There was no evident harm to Ventura, who escaped from the pileup at the mound, stood back and watched his teammates go at it with the Rangers.
Texas and Ryan wound up winning the game, 5-2. The White Sox went on to win the AL West by eight games over the Rangers, but lost the AL Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays, four games to two.
So, it was the 46-year-old Nolan Ryan against the 26-year-old Robin Ventura. And the winner? Nolan Ryan.
By a head.
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