Ryan's Career Is Memorable to All but Him

Pete Rose can tell you the shape, size, direction and trajectory of every hit he ever made.

He can tell you what he hit it off, whom he hit it off, what the score was at the time, what the count was and whether the wind was blowing in or out.

More importantly, he can tell you where it put him on the ladder to greatness or in relation to Ty Cobb and whether it made him the all-time switch-hitter in the major leagues or just the first guy with a one-syllable name to get 3,173 one-base hits. Pete is an encyclopedia on Pete Rose.

Nolan Ryan, on the other hand, sets a record for pitchers every time he takes the mound--but he hasn't the foggiest idea what it is.

Ryan sat in a locker room here the other day and, in response to a question as to whether 5,000 strikeouts were even a possibility, got a sheepish look on his face. "Er, how many do I have now?" he asked embarrassedly.

"Wait a minute!" someone protested. "You've struck out more batters than any pitcher who ever lived, more than Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Steve Carlton or Sandy Koufax and you don't have any idea what it is? Gimme a break!"

"I'm not for sure exactly what it is--4,000 or so," Ryan apologized, hanging his head. "I'm not a record-book fanatic. I'm not big for setting goals."

Interjected a clubhouse eavesdropper: "He can tell you right down to the horn how many cows he's got on his ranch, but batters all look alike to him."

Lynn Nolan Ryan is no eccentric. He's probably the least such in the major leagues. No one ever called him Diz or Flake or likened him to Elmer the Great. He just throws a baseball faster and with more unpredictable movement than anyone who ever played the game of baseball, and leaves the tabulation to others.

On his good days, his fastball is not only unhittable, it's inaudible. It breaks the sound barrier.

They used to tell the story of the batter who objected to a called strike on a pitch by Walter Johnson by protesting, "It sounded low." In Ryan's case, the batter argues it hasn't even been thrown yet because he hasn't heard it. It just gives off a faint glow as it passes the thermal barrier.

Fastballs are supposed to do two things: dull with time and deteriorate in the late innings. So are fastball pitchers. The guys with the electronic six-shooters swear that neither has happened to Nolan Ryan. His fastball, which was once clocked at 100.8 m.p.h., may have dropped off to 99 or even 97. His curve may be a mere 90 or so, and his changeup has dropped down into the 88s.

But Ryan is 39 years old, an age when most once-overpowering pitchers begin to experiment with fork balls, palm balls and sleight-of-hand pitches that come up to the plate like a guy going to the electric chair.

Ryan doesn't need them. "I just work on my basic three pitches--fastball, curve and changeup," he said. "It takes me 30 days down here in spring training to bring my velocity up. But my mechanics are good and I know it will be there."

Nolan Ryan will go into the Hall of Fame on the first bounce, but for purists his career has been one long, galling frustration. For a man with the stuff he has not to have won 300 games is an insult to their sense of history and continuity.

Ryan doesn't pitch against his contemporaries. Ryan contends with ghosts of seasons past. When you ask Nolan Ryan his most satisfying achievement, he doesn't even allude to his active competition, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and others. Ryan goes by the book. He tells you that it was breaking Sandy Koufax's one-season strikeout record--by one whiff--in 1973.

"I did it in fewer innings and I did it in a league that had the DH (designated hitter)," he says. "What does that mean? That means I never struck out a pitcher. I would expect Koufax struck out--what?--maybe 60 pitchers?"

Still, Ryan's 241-218 record sits uneasily with the ablest historians of our day, the decimal crew from the press boxes of the nation. One of the phantoms he is pursuing, Walter Johnson, won 416 games in his 21-year career.

But, if Johnson won more than Ryan, he also lost more--279.

Was Ryan victimized by a mediocre surrounding cast? To some extent. The early-day Mets, the Angels of the early '70s and the Houston Astros were not exactly Murderers' Row. But Walter Johnson pitched on a team that finished last or next-to-last seven times in his career and never won a pennant till he was 37.

Every time he fans a batter, Nolan Ryan puts the strikeout record up where not even Dwight Gooden may reach it. But every time he doesn't, he usually puts up another record no one may ever equal--walks. Ryan has passed 2,186 hitters. Walter Johnson walked 1,405.

Is Ryan too fast for his own good? Does his ball move through molecules of air too swiftly to stay on a course as narrow as a National League umpire's strike zone? Is control not possible at baseball's version of Mach 1? Is it impossible to fine-tune something that teeters on the edge of human capability? After all, even near-20-foot pole vaulters come up with a no-height on alternate nights.

Ryan doesn't know the answer. A bird flies, a fish swims, a lion hunts and Nolan Ryan throws a 98-m.p.h. fastball. He doesn't call 'em, clock 'em or even count 'em. His arm should go directly to the Smithsonian. It is a national treasure, like Lindbergh's plane, or Gene Kelly's legs, or Dolly Parton's eyes.

Don't ask Ryan to explain it. He's not paying that much attention. He knows he threw five no-hitters, more than anyone who ever pitched, because friends gave him the game balls for his den. But he has no idea how many one-hitters he's thrown, 9, or two-hitters, 18, or three-hitters, 26.

He may be the first guy to make the Hall of Fame in his lifetime and not notice.

A journalist of the future may call him up to ask: "Nolan Ryan? Can you tell me what year did you make the Hall of Fame?" and there will be an embarrassed pause on the other end of the line, then, "What year? Er, I didn't know I did. Wait a minute, let me look through these plaques here. Hey, honey, look through those letters will you. See if there's one postmarked Cooperstown."

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