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If Nolan Ryan Is Available, Angels Should Pray for His Return

I know you’re not going to believe this, but the answer to Angel pitching problems allows more walks than a nursing home attendant. He’s older than Bob Boone. He’s older than 20 of the 26 major league stadiums. He’ll cost at least $1 million a year and even then there’s no guarantee. Last year, he lost twice as many games as he won.

Get this: Nine years ago, the Angels told him to take a hike. So he did--all the way back to his native Texas. Since then, he’s struck out a lot of little doggies.

He’s losing his hair, but not his heater. His fastball still causes batters to meekly ask umpires after a called third strike, “Didn’t that last one sound a little low?”

His first name is Lynn, but you didn’t hear it here. His friends call him Nolan. Opposing batters call him $!&%!. I like to refer to him as, The Solution.

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That’s right, Lynn Nolan Ryan, baseball’s finest antique, is available. Or could be, if the Houston Astros botch things up this off-season. We can only hope.

Ryan wants a minimum of $1 million a year (his present salary), to return to Houston in 1989. He should get that just for wearing those silly rainbow uniforms. The Astros are expected to counter with an offer of a pay cut. This will make Ryan steam more than a Danish sauna. His pride and sensibilities compromised, Ryan will contemplate retirement.

The Astros, led by chairman of the board John McMullen--not exactly a Ryan favorite--then have a chance to secure a place in Dunderhead heaven. They can pay Ryan his money and avoid a public relations disaster, or they can allow the Dec. 20 deadline--the last day a team can tender a contract offer to a player eligible for free agency--to pass. If that happens, Angel owner Gene Autry should get on the first bus to Ryan’s ranch in Alvin, Tex., and begin writing the check. Be sure to leave lots of room for zeroes and commas, too.

It’s not often you get a chance to atone for past sins, especially those involving someone with reservations to Cooperstown. But here it is, the possibility of redemption, of righting the biggest Angel wrong in Anaheim since John D’Acquisto.

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You want lists? Just ask Angel team officials to name the club’s three worst management goofs. In order:

1) Failing to re-sign Nolan Ryan after the 1979 season.

2) Failing to re-sign Nolan Ryan after the 1979 season.

3) Failing to re-sign Nolan Ryan after the 1979 season.

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No other gaffe is close. Letting Don Baylor go? Pleeeease. The Tom Brunansky-for-Doug Corbett debacle? Big whoop.

Nope, Ryan’s departure broke hearts, to say nothing of the Angels’ pennant chances in 1982 or even as recently as 1986 and Angel division chances in 1984 and 1985.

Blame then-general manager Buzzie Bavasi, who glibly announced afterward that the Angels only had to find two 8-7 pitchers to replace Ryan, 16-14 in 1979. Nine years later, Ryan remains the team’s all-time leader in victories.

Guess who remembers?

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“I think it was one of the big mistakes that we made, yes,” said Autry, shortly before a recent Angel game. “If I had it to do over, I think I’d talk with Buzzie about it first. But that’s all hindsight.”

Now how about some foresight? How about hiring a 41-year-old living legend whose fastball still leaves contrails, whose curveball bends like a mountain road. And credentials? Ryan has won 273 games, struck out more batters than anyone else, almost cornered the market on shutouts and no-hitters.

Earlier this year, the Angels rewarded starter Mike Witt with his very own $2.8-million contract. His record last season: 16-14, same as the one that sent Ryan to Houston way back when.

Ryan is worth the effort, all right. We’re not talking about a Steve Carlton here, who did everything except rattle a tin cup as he made a last gasp to remain in the majors. This is Ryan, who’s getting older and better at the same time. In his last 6 starts, he has given up 6 earned runs, allowed 7 walks (impossible!) and struck out 53 batters. In his past two starts, he hasn’t walked anyone.

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If I’m the Angels, I’m dropping anonymous notes in the mail to McMullen that make mention of Ryan’s near-.500 career record of 273-253. I’m reminding him about Ryan’s visits to the disabled list. I’m pointing out Ryan’s age and those salary demands.

What I don’t mention in those same notes is that Ryan is worth every penny. He would become Orange County’s box-office sensation again. After all, how many times do you get to watch history in the making? Should Ryan remain in baseball, he has a legitimate chance at 300 victories, 5,000 strikeouts and the distinction of pitching in four decades. And what with Angel attendance dropping from about 2.7 million in 1987 to an expected 2.3 million this season, the turnstiles could use a Ryan.

As for that so-so won-loss record, consider his 1987 season as a microcosm of his career: He had the lowest earned-run average in the National League, the highest strikeout total and yet finished 8-16. In those 16 losses, the Astros scored a total of 13 runs while he was pitching. That’s not bad luck, that’s no luck.

Ryan belongs with the Angels. Think of what effect he might have on an Angel pitching staff in need of an authority figure. No longer would Witt have to be the straw that stirred the drink. He could an olive or one of those paper umbrellas. Willie Fraser could seek refuge in the Angel bullpen, where he belongs right now. All of the sudden, your starting rotation would be Ryan, Witt, Kirk McCaskill, Chuck Finley and Dan Petry. Not bad.

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Money shouldn’t be a problem now that the contracts of George Hendrick ($800,000--for what?), Donnie Moore ($1 million) and Butch Wynegar ($700,000) are scheduled to come to a merciful end in a few weeks. And Autry respects Ryan, always has.

“I don’t know what the situation is with him,” Autry said. “If he makes a change or anything like that, well, I’m sure any club would be interested in Nolan Ryan.”

But would the Angels?

“I guess I’ll put it this way: If he is a free agent, we’d naturally have to listen,” Autry said.

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If Ryan is a free agent, the Angels better do more than listen. They better hand him a pen and say, “Sign here.”


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