Alyson Footer

Nolan, Tito match wits at Texas dinner

Rangers, Indians set for two-game stop at Alamodome

Nolan, Tito match wits at Texas dinner

SAN ANTONIO -- Nolan Ryan is nearly 13 years older than Terry Francona, but when your Major League pitching career lasts 27 seasons, you're going to face a lot of hitters who are, more or less, a generation behind you.

Ryan faced Francona -- a lot. In fact, Francona had more at-bats against Ryan than any other pitcher during his 10-year Major League career.

Francona, of course, had a career that was -- putting it mildly -- significantly less spectacular than that of Ryan, who was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1999. But, Francona remembers most of his at-bats against Ryan, and he knows why he has so many of them.

Ryan, ever the gentleman, theorized that Francona, a left-handed contact hitter, was put in the lineup "to cut down on strikeout hitters when I was pitching."

Francona, perhaps more realistically, put it like this: "That's a nice way of saying a lot of the right-handed hitters didn't want to play."

Francona and Ryan traded barbs and stories during Thursday's "Kings of the Diamond" dinner, the annual kickoff to an action-packed weekend of baseball in San Antonio. The Rangers and Indians will play a two-game series this weekend at the Alamodome as part of Big League Weekend, an annual Spring Training tradition that has drawn marquee teams to this Texas city for the past five years.

Francona may have been underwhelming as a player, but as a manager, he's the toast of the town. And he, along with Ryan, drew a large, appreciative crowd for Thursday's dinner.

For more than a decade, Francona has been one of baseball's most successful managers, posting a winning record every year he's managed since 2004, his first season with the Red Sox. Following a four-year stint with the Phillies from 1997-2000, Francona posted an eight-year record of 744-552 with Boston from 2004-11 and a 352-294 mark over four years with his current team, the reigning American League champion Indians.

Three of Francona's teams have won AL pennants, and two -- the 2004 and '07 Red Sox -- won the World Series. He was named AL Manager of the Year in 2013 and '16, and finished in the top five seven times.

But on Thursday, Francona was more than happy to step away from the manager spotlight and reminisce about his many memorable career at-bats against Ryan, whose 5,714 strikeouts humbled plenty of young players, including Francona.

Francona actually had some success against Ryan. The Tribe manager recalled one day in 1987 when, as a member of the Reds, he got a couple of knocks off Ryan in a game in Cincinnati.

The next day, Francona ran into Ryan in the weight room that both teams shared.

"I wasn't going to say one word," Francona recalled.

But Ryan walked by and said, "Nice game, young man."

"My eyes lit up," Francona said.

Then, Ryan followed up with something more curious.

"He said, 'You know, it might be bow-tie time,'" Francona recalled. "Parts of my body just slammed shut."

Francona ran out of the clubhouse and found his Reds teammate, Buddy Bell.

"I said, 'Buddy, does bow tie mean what I think it means?'" Bell answered, "Man, you're in trouble."

Bow tie, in baseball terms, is a chin-high fastball that a pitcher throws when he's trying to send a not-so-subtle message to the hitter. Ryan learned the term, and the method, from Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. Ryan liked the idea so much, he worked it into his well-known, often intimidating, repertoire.

"I said, 'You know, Satch, I think you just might be right,'" Ryan laughed.

The dinner, emceed by former San Antonio Express-News writer Richard Oliver, supported two local charities: HeartGift San Antonio and Miracle League of San Antonio.

The stories were good-natured and entertaining, but Ryan was also effusive with his appreciation for Francona, for making the trek from Arizona to Texas and bringing the reigning AL champions with him.

"I'm thrilled to have him here," Ryan said. "Our timing couldn't have been any better, with him being in the World Series and the way that Series was. Lots of people followed that Series. We're so happy he's here."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.