Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#277 - Gary Nolan

This photo looks like it was taken the moment Mr. Nolan here realized his second start of the '73 season would be his last one for the next two years, which would indeed be the case. Gary, a one-time rookie phenom would end up having a nasty bone spur removed from his right elbow by Dr. Frank Jobe who would go on to famously repair Tommy John's rotator cuff. The operation would be followed by an arduous year-long recovery that would ultimately be pretty rewarding for our friend here. But right now he is showing the non-plussed look of someone whose career might be in the toilet.

Gary Nolan came out of a rural California high school as the Reds' first draft choice of '66, signing for a pretty big bonus he negotiated himself. That year he went 7-3 with a 1.82 ERA in A ball with 163 strikeouts and only 30 walks in 104 innings. In '67 he got promoted all the way up and continued his magic, having a Dr. K-like rookie year with over 200 strikeouts in a season that began when he was 18, and coming in third in NL ROY voting to two other pitchers. An aggressive thrower, his only out pitch at that point was his fastball. Early in spring training in '68 he hurt his shoulder, rehabbed for a few innings in A ball and didn't make it back to the Reds until late May. After that, though, he was again good enough to lead the team in ERA. Then in '69 he popped a muscle in his right arm and missed almost three months of the season; during that time, however, he did pick up a changeup which would be huge down the road. In '70 he was finally fully healthy and he had his winningest season, getting his first post-season action, and coming in sixth in the NL Cy race. The next year most of his numbers except his record were better as the team's fortunes did an about face. Then in '72, now more of a ground ball pitcher, he had perhaps his best statistical year. He made his first All-Star team, winning 13 before the break, but shoulder and arm pain limited him to only a few games thereafter until the playoffs. Then came the nasty two-year break. By then many observers thought Gary was only truly injured in his mind and he developed a very Jay Cutler-like reputation. The only good upshot from the operation was that when Dr. Jobe took out the spearing bone chip he remarked in a conference that he couldn't imagine how anyone could pitch through that much obvious pain. Gary was vindicated but it wasn't lost on him that it took almost two seasons away from baseball to make that happen.

Nolan returned in '75, just in time to join the Reds on their two-year romp through the NL and two Series championships. He went 15-9 each season and both years led the Major Leagues in fewest walks per nine innings. In '76 he finally won his first Series game in the closer against the Yankees. It was a nice run but it ended fast. In '77 the shoulder went south again and after a 4-1 start in Cincinnati he was sent to the Angels for a minor leaguer, Craig Hendrickson. But after a few starts there in which he went 0-3 with an ERA approaching 9.00 he was released. Done before he turned 30, Gary finished with a record of 110-70, 14 shutouts, and a 3.08 ERA. In the post-season he went a combined 2-2 with a 3.34 ERA in eleven starts.

After he played Nolan took up residence in Vegas, moving up the ladder from dealer to floor operator to pit boss. He had a pretty long rift with the Reds, feeling they never appreciated the pain under which he had to operate while pitching for them. That was healed after he visited their hall of fame and saw his plaque hanging there. He has since relocated back to his California home, Oroville, where among other things, he helps coach high school baseball.

This card has some pretty good star bullets. The first one is open for discussion since more recent journalism puts his bonus number closer to $40,000. In '72 that record got him fifth place in the NL Cy race. His three out pitches were his fastball, changeup, and a curve he developed his sophomore year.

I can't count Nolan's brief time in California, so let's look elsewhere:

1. Nolan and Vada Pinson '67 to '68 Reds;
2. Pinson played for Bobby Winkles on the '73 Angels.

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