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“Facing Nolan” Catches the Nostalgia for a Simpler Era of Baseball (SXSW ‘22 Review)

Image courtesy of The Ranch Productions

I feel like a discussion of this film requires me to give you a little bit of context on the sort of baseball fan I am. When my son was born a month early, we both wore Yankees shirts as he left the NICU. For 6 – hopefully 7 – months every year baseball is my constant companion. Each night, occasionally to my wife’s chagrin, the routine of baseball’s season becomes my routine as well. Even as my fandom has moved deeply into the analytical in my late 30s, I still haven’t lost the love for the simple magic of baseball myth. I grew up on the game and can vividly remember old man Nolan Ryan still hurling gas for the Texas Rangers in my youth. His baseball cards were a key target of my collecting. I remember The Ryan Express for his extremes: the man with the most strikeouts ever as if by destiny must also have the most walks ever.

The last year or so in baseball has really done some damage to the emotional component of my fandom. The recent lockout saw billionaires hurt the game I love to squeeze slightly more profitable terms from the players. A contentious Hall of Fame ballot saw Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens denied admission to Cooperstown which – at least for now – feels like an erasure of the game upon which I grew up. Rob Manfred and the other leaders of Major League Baseball have made it hard for me to feel the same passion for the sport I have felt my whole life.

And so there was something blissful about the throwback charms of Facing Nolan. The documentary takes an occasional tongue-in-cheek approach to the conventional baseball superstar story. Nolan Ryan is legendary not just because of his vicious fastball and wipeout curve, but because of his entire feel. An ornery Texan who’d gleefully put a pitch in the next batter’s ribcage if an opponent dared to violate the unwritten rules of the game. In an era of increased player camaraderie, the “old school” approach is a simple joy.

Wisely, filmmaker Bradley Jackson assembles a winning mixture of legends and teammates to help tell the story of Nolan Ryan’s career. Baseball pariah he may be, Pete Rose can still spin a hell of a yarn. It’s nice to see Roger Clemens, Ryan’s spiritual successor in Texan pitching, appear to talk about one of his idols. Hall of Famers George Brett, Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Dave Winfield, Rod Carew, and Pudge Rodriguez all dip in to share personal anecdotes. Brett, in particular, gets big laughs with his self-effacing deference to Ryan’s mystique.

Much of the film’s narrative actually centers on Nolan’s wife, Ruth, and the way she served as a home base for Nolan throughout his career. It’s a smart, emotional tether that helps to humanize a ballplayer who is otherwise so much larger than life. I’m certainly not the only fan who thinks of Ryan pitching with a blood soaked jersey after a comebacker to the face or of a poor young Robin Ventura ensnared in a headlock by a then mid-40s hurler. (“Robin Ventura declined to be interviewed for this film” the movie tells us in a hilarious smash cut.) And while the myth is fun, I was interested to gain a bit of insight into the person.

All told, Facing Nolan was a pleasant throwback to the more mythological elements of the sport. Every little kid who falls in love with baseball does it through the sport’s legends: The Great Bambino slugging homers or Ted Williams’ beautiful swing or Pedro Martinez’s brilliant aggression. Nolan Ryan’s grit and agelessness, even more than his fastball, help define the story of the sport I so adore, and I loved spending time back in that world.

Facing Nolan premiered at SXSW ‘22.