As a young man, Nolan Ryan had a habit he had to break. The consequences were career-changing.
“I came up from small-town Texas,” the Hall of Fame pitcher tells SUCCESS. “And all I knew was to throw as hard as I could for as long as I could. Early in my career in the big leagues, when I would get in trouble I would resort back to that mindset. Finally, after being unsuccessful with that approach—I learned that when I was just throwing hard I was throwing wild and walking guys and losing games—it finally dawned on me. If I didn’t make an adjustment or change, then I was going to be one of those players who was very gifted, but didn’t make a lot out of it. I had to learn to lean on my mind, not just my body.”
That combination took him to places no one else has ever been. Ryan, 76, was given the nickname “The Ryan Express” because of the speed of his pitches. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, his fastball was “officially clocked at 100.9 miles per hour by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1974.”
When he retired in 1993 at the ripe old age of 46, Ryan had recorded 5,714 strikeouts, the most in baseball history. He also set records for most strikeouts in a season (383 in 1973) and most no-hit games (seven) en route to 324 career victories.
Nolan Ryan’s best advice
Ryan learned a lesson in those early days of his career. It’s one he now offers to young pitchers and businesspeople alike when they ask him for tips on how he remained at the very top of the game for so many years.
“It is important to know that to get to the top and to be successful at the top requires two different skill sets,” says Ryan, who formerly served as president of the Texas Rangers. “A lot of people get here with the God-given ability, the gift that they received. But to stay here and have a lengthy career takes a commitment to make sacrifices that most won’t continually make. Talent may get you here, but it takes work, real work, to stay here, and it takes development of the mental side of your game to separate yourself on this level.”
Ryan says he also realized that if he couldn’t control his body, he couldn’t control his arm or the baseball. He also had to control the performance anxiety that made him throw harder instead of smarter.
Many young and talented players climb from obscurity to stardom seemingly overnight, then disappear almost as quickly, Ryan says. “There are lots of folks who make it but can’t stay there and it is because they don’t have the discipline required to keep them up there,” he continues.
Passion and discipline
That is just as true, he says, in business as it is in sports. Many of the lessons he’s learned about longevity can be as helpful to a salesman as to a starting pitcher.
“I know it sounds simple, but if you want to be good at something for a long period of time you have to love what you do,” Ryan says. “I mean really love it. And your family has to love it because just doing your job will become a part of your life.”
From his earliest days in the game, Ryan made it a practice to take his family along with him on the many road trips that make baseball so grueling. He says the time at the ballpark forged an incredible relationship with his children and allowed them to experience his love for the game. One of his two sons briefly pitched in the minor leagues before they both became involved in baseball at the executive level, and in the banking sector with their father.
“We spent the time we were on the road together as a family, going to different cities, doing different things, making that a great experience,” Ryan says. “And so they enjoyed that lifestyle, they enjoyed traveling and they learned to deal with all the challenges of that. Traveling, being away from home, staying in hotels, learning to deal with people. It was, in its own way, a great education and I think it obviously prepared them for adult life. And having my family be part of what I was doing made it a lot easier to do for a long time. I didn’t have the regrets some people do.”
Nolan Ryan’s legacy
There was no denying Ryan’s competitiveness, a quality he says also helped fuel his longevity.
“Without a doubt, I was blessed that the aging process didn’t affect me as early on as it affected other people who I think were every bit as competitive as I was, or had the desire to play as long as I did,” Ryan says. “But I have to admit that over the last five or six years of my career I really enjoyed the challenge of being able to compete against kids half my age, and being able to continue to perform on that level against people who weren’t in my age bracket. That in itself was a challenge and fueled my competitive spirit.”
Yet, throwing a baseball is only part of Ryan’s legacy. While proud of his accomplishments, Ryan has cared little about pomp and circumstance. He’s all about getting down to business and getting results. He was actively involved in building a consistent contender with the Texas Rangers, the team he played for when he set some of his greatest milestones. His jersey number remains one of only six to be retired by the Rangers.
In 2009, the Rangers finished second in the American League West, with a 87-75 record. Ryan expected more in 2010, saying the team was capable of winning 92 games and capturing the AL West title. He said it wasn’t a number that he pulled out of the sky, but one he viewed as reachable due to the organization’s talents.
“I think it is important to have high expectations of yourself and of those around you,” he says. “If you don’t expect to succeed, you won’t.”
A versatile businessman
One of Ryan’s greatest strengths is his versatility. He has co-written six books and, after retiring from baseball, he teamed up with the U.S. government to create The Nolan Ryan Fitness Guide. He has held ownership in a bank and a restaurant. Ryan served on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission for six years (1995-2001). His name was mentioned as a potential candidate for a statewide office in Texas, as he was reportedly considering a run for the position of agriculture commissioner. Other interests include cattle ranching and the beef business.
“Just like on the field, I still have a desire to compete in everything I do,” he says. “If you love to compete, your heart will be in whatever you do. That formula worked for me.”
This article was updated June 2023. Photo by Asphalt STANKOVICH/Shutterstock