Inside Nolan Ryan's Legendary Fight With Robin Ventura

Even the most buttoned-up sports fans would have to admit — maybe only behind closed doors — that there are few things as exciting as watching athletes go at it. Sure, it's not what most would consider good sportsmanship or classy or even a suitable example for our nation's children, but the excitement of watching emotions boil over in the heat of competition is thrilling. When two hockey players drop the gloves and square up to do battle, the entire arena hops to its feet to cheer them on. In baseball, bench-clearing brawls make the news. Not just Sportscenter either — even standard newscasts — where they cover wars.

Baseball has its fair share of memorable bouts, and they're not just limited to player-on-player fisticuffs. There was the bizarre and kind of sad Pedro Martinez/Don Zimmer incident during the 2003 ALCS (via The New York Post). There was the time Kansas City Royals legend George Brett charged out of the dugout seemingly intent on throwing hands with umpire Tim McClelland when Brett's go-ahead homerun was taken away after he was found to be too much pine tar on his bat, per the National Baseball Hall of Fame. However, few baseball fights are as memorable as the August 4, 1993 tilt between Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and all-star infielder Robin Ventura.

The athletes could not have been in more different parts of their careers

Ryan and Ventura were on opposite ends of their careers in 1993. Nolan Ryan was nearing the conclusion of a career that ensured his enshrinement in Cooperstown was a matter of when — not if. In 1983, Ryan became the first pitcher to eclipse the Washington Senators right-hander Walter Johnson's strikeout record — an astounding 3,508 Ks — set in 1927. According to Britannica, Ryan retired well beyond that mark with 5,714 strikeouts, a record that still stands today. In 1993, the 46-year-old Ryan was in his final Major League season and taking the hill for the Texas Rangers

Nolan Ryan signed his first professional contract with the New York Mets in 1965. Robin Ventura was not born until 1967. Ventura was drafted 10th overall; by the Chicago White Sox in 1988, and he made his debut with the team the following year. In 1993, Ventura was having a slightly down year from a stellar 1992 campaign that saw him making his first of two career All-Star Game appearances (via Baseball Reference).

Nolan Ryan was highly regarded as one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, and according to NBC Sports, Ventura's reputation at this time was fantastic as well. He was considered a positive example for young ballplayers to look to if they wanted to know how to work hard and play the game right. His squeaky-clean persona made it all the more shocking when he decided to make the roughly 60-foot dash to trade shots with one of the game's elder statesmen.

There was bad blood between the White Sox and Rangers at the time

If your assumption is that with two unlikely combatants in Robin Ventura and Nolan Ryan that there had to have been external forces at play that drove them to a fight, then you're correct. In fact, according to Fan Nation, the iconic moment was the culmination of years worth of animosity between the two clubs.

Things came to a head during the teams' August 4, 1993 meeting in Arlington, Texas. On that day, the White Sox were perched atop the American League West standings with the Kansas City Royals narrowly ahead of the Rangers, per Baseball Reference. With about two months left in the season, it looked like a three-team dogfight for the postseason was emerging. The playoff race was heating up and it manifested itself on the diamond.

With the White Sox ahead 2-0 in the bottom of the second inning, Rangers left fielder Juan Gonzales stepped into the batter's box. Gonzalez was batting fourth in the Rangers lineup — the clean-up hitter — and the slugger battled White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez to a 2-2 count. On the next pitch, the White Sox right-hander hit Gonzalez. Gonzalez took the free base, but the sense was the Rangers would be out for retribution when they took the field at the bottom of the inning, and Ryan — who according to NBC Sports, wasn't shy about retaliating in situations like this — seemed likely to be the man to do it.

Ventura and Ryan face-off

According to NBC Sports, before the game had even started — perhaps in a stroke of clairvoyance — Ventura told his White Sox teammates that if he were to get belted with a pitch, he wouldn't hesitate to charge the mound. Well, with the Rangers taking the field at the bottom of the second and Ventura leading off that inning it appeared that was on course to happen. The feeling was that if Ryan wanted to retaliate for the White Sox hitting Gonzalez, Ventura was the best target. He had been responsible for opening the scoring the inning before, plus as the first hitter, Ryan faced that half-inning he could fire a return salvo quickie. He didn't waste any time.

Ventura dug into the left-handed batter's box and took his open stance with the bat resting on his left shoulder. Ryan began his wind up with his arms stretching above his head before taking his trademark, ultra-high leg kick to gather as much power as possible (via Facebook). The 46-year-old righty fired a ball so inside that it pelted Robin Ventura square the back of his upper-right arm. Ventura took a moment to step out of the box and seemingly gather his thoughts until he snapped. In a blind rage, he dropped his bat, threw off his helmet, and dashed toward Ryan. What happened next became the stuff of baseball legend.

The Fight

The crowd started to roar as Ventura sprinted up to Ryan. Instead of cocking his arm back for a punch, Ventura instead lunged forward and grabbed Ryan around his waist in what looked like an attempt to tackle the pitcher (via Facebook). However, this put Ventura in a vulnerable position that allowed Ryan to put him in a big brother-like headlock, before unloading a flurry of rabbit punches straight to the top of his head. 

Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez joined the fray and tried to pry Ventura away from Ryan who continued to batter him with punches. Then the benches emptied with numerous White Sox and Rangers trying to break up the tussle, while some of their teammates started throwing punches too. Ventura and Ryan wound up at the bottom of a pile of humanity before a seemingly shell-shocked Ventura was dragged free. Ryan emerged with several of his jersey buttons undone, rolling his shoulders after a hard day's work.

According to FanNation, Ventura was the only player Ryan hit all season. The brawl resulted in Ventura and White Sox manager Gene Lamont being ejected, however, Ryan was allowed to stay in the game. In fact, over his lengthy career, Ryan was only ejected once and it happened the previous season. Coincidentally, the umpire who ejected him in 1992, Richie Garcia, was working the White Sox-Rangers game that day too and ruled that Ryan was justified in defending himself from the charging Ventura.

The legacy of the Ryan-Ventura fight

The fight between the two men became iconic, and it's a common fixture in highlight packages to this day. Ryan retired at the end of the season, but Ventura went on to play until 2004, earning two career All-Star appearances and six Gold Gloves, per Baseball Reference.

According to NBC Sports, future Major Leaguer Paul Konerko was in the stands that day and had even gotten the chance to meet Robin Ventura before the game. Konerko said that Ventura's against-type decision to charge at the legendary — and famously tough — Ryan didn't tarnish his perception of him, it improved it. "That made me think nothing less of him, only more because anybody who's going to charge Nolan Ryan, you gotta have..." Konerko said before taking a second to think. "You gotta have some guts, let's just put it that way."

The moment somehow managed to raise Ryan's already lofty profile. Konerko recalled that every inning the Hall of Fame Pitcher appeared in after that was met with ceaseless "Nolan, Nolan!" chants from the Texas Rangers faithful.

In one final strange coincidence, Robin Ventura went on to become the manager of the Chicago White Sox in 2012. His first game was in Arlington against the Texas Rangers, whose team president at the time was none other than Nolan Ryan.