SWEETWATER--The retiree from Alvin, Texas, turns off I-20 and maneuvers the gray Ford pickup down the gravel road toward the private hunting club.
His door opens to reveal a shopping bag, a cowboy hat, and Styrofoam coffee cups with cold, wet grounds still in the bottom. There are guns and jackets and all the change under the seats that says an outdoorsy Texas businessman and his family are in and out of this vehicle a lot. Nolan Ryan pulls one long boot-cut leg after the other out and onto the red dirt and joins the other guys waiting for brisket.
Ryan and his Wranglers fit into the scenery out here at the Red Bluff shooting club.
Ryan is not a regular guy in line at the movies. In fact, he doesn't even go to the movies because he feels it is too disruptive to all the other people who have to put up with the fuss his presence brings.
But out here, the pointers don't care about anything but his smell. The fence row, the rocks, and the sleeping rattlers do not care. Nor does the train conductor who waves when he passes on a ridge above the field where Nolan and three other hunters are just stick figures in the distance.
Perhaps that is why this is the rare public event--where Nolan seems quite at ease: the 1995 Justin Boot Celebrity Quail Hunt with Nolan Ryan. At all the others, he has to be ushered to and away from the head table when all the fans are seated. Here, the only head table is the spot in the tent where a lady named Dottie hands out freebie shotgun shells with a smile. This is also for a cause he likes: supporting the baseball program at Abilene Christian University. Up until Nolan became involved in the fund raising, at the request of an old teammate, former California Angels pitcher Bill Gilbreth, there had not been baseball at ACU since the mid-'70s. The school had plowed up the old ball field to erect a Biblical studies center--and Gilbreth was spending his post-baseball years working as an accountant. Now Gilbreth's the coach of a thriving program.
The number of hunters, doctors, and businessmen, who have paid more than $1,000 each to hunt with Ryan and a dozen other sports celebrities--including Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins and former Rangers pitching coach Claude Osteen--remains small enough to keep things intimate and calm. Though many will snag an autograph during the weekend, mostly they're there to hunt and laugh and drink iced tea with their feet propped on caliche ottomans. The talk is ballplayer-fraternity talk, more pleasurably sophomoric than profound.
Before we head off, Jim Kern introduces me to three people as "the Rangers ball girl while I was in the bullpen." It is a story he seems to enjoy telling as much as he likes killing birds.
"We taught her how to dip snuff and open a beer bottle with her teeth," he advises an eligible young businessman. By the time the day is done, even the preacher at Sweetwater's First Baptist Church has been informed that as long as I have my incisors, I will never need a bottle opener in the wild.
Kern, once a fine relief pitcher, always known as "Emu," runs Emu Outfitters in Arlington, his guide and hunting service, which is ramrodding on this gathering.
This is the beginning of a fine weekend.
In front of the trailer which is the only remotely permanent building on the place, they keep the rattlesnakes in a glass pen. They love rattlesnakes in Sweetwater, and every little while, one of the locals will pull one out of the pen and show anyone interested just how it is a guy fools with a rattlesnake. During the first demonstration, everyone is wildly amused when the handler slings the snake around to keep it on this hook and snake pee splatters across Nolan's face.
Unlike most ballplayers, Nolan is strictly a "hell" and "damn" kind of guy--with scant few of those. Remarkably, he refrains from either expression as he laughs and wipes the pungent urine off his face.
The sun is still squinting the next morning as we pile out of three pickups and a golf cart. A camera crew of three will follow the small group for about a half hour getting film to promote next year's hunt.
David, our dog guy, starts telling Nolan, the two doctors, and Nolan's son Reid about shooting a certain way, but it is not clear what he means. "So what you're trying to say," observes the elder Ryan, "is not to shoot your dogs coming up on a rise?''
Everybody laughs, and the dog guys dispatch the pointers. The doctors have big jobs in Lubbock. Reid is a baseball pitcher in the Rangers' minor league system. The shape of the group ebbs and flows like a cocktail party, sometimes three walking and talking together, then all, then two splintering way off.
The dogs suddenly point. "He's got that nose up in the air like it's a ways off," says Nolan.
Pheasants fly up out of the grass. They are promptly shot. The birds drop like pop flies.
The borrowed dogs take Nolan and the physician to the two dead pheasants. The color on their throats spells trouble.
"Can we shoot those females?" asks Nolan.
Killing female pheasants on public land is illegal. "They said we could shoot anything out here," says one of the doctors, as he and Nolan stand over one of the birds, as though staring at it long enough will change its gender or the fact that it has recently passed away.
"We're gonna be on film killin' hens," notes Nolan. Donnie the dog guy, who did not hit anything, says he's sure the game warden will enjoy hearing about it.
Turns out, it is OK to kill hens on private property.
The group walks. The grass crunches. The air smells like hay and crude oil and livestock.
The orthopedic specialist and Nolan are talking about the great cruise he just took. "You know, you and your wife should take a cruise," he counsels Nolan.
"Aw, I can't do things like that."
The doctor assures Ryan that being on a ship isn't what he might think--not like being held captive or anything.
"My whole life is held captive," says Nolan. "I can't do things like that."
At meals during the weekend, no one talks about the strike or how much they wish they still had a fastball. It is much more fun to make fun of everyone's playing ability.
Emu says he has a retriever named "Slider." Someone says this is nice, since he never had a pitch by that name.
On Saturday, there is a dinner (fried chicken and tea on paper plates) at the Nolan County Coliseum, next to a pig show; ACU baseball boys and some community leaders are in attendance. A few kids sneak in from the pork event next door and are unable to speak as the main attraction signs their notebook paper with a scrunched up "N" and a fat "R." He's always liked "Ryan" better than "Nolan."
Back out at the hunt, Reid Ryan gets himself a beautiful some-kinda-Chinese pheasant, which is still alive after the shot.
Everyone pets the bird, except Nolan and the orthopedist, who are way over by a fence row, deep in conversation. They could be talking about MRIs--of which Nolan knows plenty. Or they could be talking about arrowheads, which became a focal point of discussion earlier.
Suddenly a large group of birds flies out of the grass and 12-gauges pop. Some drop; other head over by the fence where Nolan is.
"Dad, daaad, they're coming your way," hollers Reid. Nolan waves them off. That must be a good conversation out by that fence.
"Dad. Daaaaad," Reid hollers. Getting no answer, he screams "Noleeeeey."
They give Donnie the Chinese pheasant because his wife wants one mounted. "So how do you kill him, since you can't wring his neck if you're gonna stuff him?" asks an unknowledgeable member of the group.
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"I'll squeeze him," says the doctor.
Oh, dear God.
"I don't think you'll want to see this," says the M.D., holding the bird. Everyone keeps talking, standing there, and blood starts spurting from the creature's mouth. In minutes, the bird's head rolls around like a ball bearing.
Back at camp, Reid goes rattler hunting with some guys while Nolan and former Padres ace Randy Johnson and Emu compete in a celebrity shoot-off.
Emu hits every clay pigeon they send up.
"You can shoot like that when you don't have to work for a living," comes a voice from the gallery.
Nolan, known as a good shot, wasn't hitting much of anything at first.
"I can see why you had so many no-hitters," yells Emu.
Nobody's sacred out here. And that's the way they like it.