In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: intimidation.
Before he became the gritty player known as “Scrap Iron,” Phil Garner was a young infielder with the Oakland Athletics. He and his team generally enjoyed the fact that they faced the California Angels 18 times a season, a division rivalry that, for Oakland usually played like an annual homecoming game. The A’s won the American League West in three of Garner’s four seasons with the club, 1973-76, no small part of which involved manhandling their neighbors to the south, against whom they went 47-25 over that span.
If baseball has life lessons to offer, one is that not everything is as easy as it seems. Oakland might have grown fat against the Angels—they beat nobody more during Garner’s tenure with the club—but 18 games a year against the Angels meant sharing a ballpark with Nolan Ryan for the equivalent of nearly three straight weeks.
Ryan, described in a magazine article at the time as “able to throw a silver dollar through Fort Knox, or a marshmallow through a locomotive,” was at the peak of his powers, racking up his only 20-win campaigns and achieving three of his four highest single-season strikeout totals during Garner’s tenure with the A’s. Ryan was young, wild (his 679 walks over that span led baseball) and a mean son of a bitch.
The A’s opened the 1976 season in Anaheim, and in their second game faced Ryan, who wasted no time displaying his dominance as he set Oakland down without a hit through four innings. A’s batters could not keep up with his fastball.
In the fifth, though, the right-hander walked Sal Bando and Billy Williams. With one out, Garner came to the plate, Ryan’s no-hitter still on the books. The second baseman didn’t present much of a threat, occupying the ninth hole in the Oakland batting order, and was coming off a season in which he’d hit just .246. Garner appeared entirely overmatched as Ryan blew two fastballs by him for strikes.
But then the pitcher did something odd—he threw a curveball. Garner reached out and drove it off the center field wall for a two-run double and a lead the A’s wouldn’t relinquish. Garner was thrilled to have hit someone who, to that point, had literally been unhittable. He should have been content with that.
He wasn’t. “Actually,” he said, “I was feeling pretty cocky about facing him going into our next game.”
Ryan would shortly use the most ferocious stuff in baseball to explain to Garner the fallacy of that attitude. They next met exactly one month later, at which point the pitcher was blowing through the American League, rolling up a 1.39 ERA while striking out 39 men in 33 innings over his next four starts after facing the A’s. He would stare down 10 future Hall of Famers that season, and held them to a collective .266 average with a combined 24 strikeouts. With that double, Garner had unknowingly tugged on Superman’s cape.
The infielder flailed in his first two at-bats of the rematch, striking out twice on a total of six pitches, all fastballs, the deciding pitch for each at-bat riding low and away. Garner felt silly.
He may also have felt confused, which is the only explanation for what he did next: In his third trip to the plate, Garner tried to take the outside corner away from Nolan Ryan. He may as well have tried to take away Charlton Heston’s guns.
“I leaned out over the plate to just peck the ball,” he said, looking back. “In a flash, in that thousandth of a second, I saw his fastball, thrown as hard as he could throw it, coming right behind my ear. My whole life passed before me. I tried to dig a hole beneath the batter’s box, because I was scared to death.”
That was all the edge Ryan needed. The pitcher got two quick strikes, and, said Garner, “as he was winding up to throw his next pitch, I was already walking to the dugout. It was strike three for me, and I was just happy to be out of there.”