Press him on it, get him past the Live at Five standups and the quick handshakes, and Nolan Ryan will admit, yes, there is some pain in this first day as a Texas Ranger.
There’s pain in knowing that his job is no longer 45 minutes from his ranch, and that a large chunk of his summer will be spent away from his two teen-age sons, 12-year-old daughter and wife of 21 years.
Press him, and he’ll admit, yes, he’s sorry it had to come to this. True, he had spent his first 12 big-league seasons with the New York Mets and California Angels, but if anyone was ever born to play for the Houston Astros it’s this proud son of Alvin, Texas. (Pop. 16,515).
“At this time of year, the realization hits you more,” he said. “It’s tough to read stories about the Astros and know it no longer affects me. They had been a large part of my life for nine years. It can be depressing.”
After nine seasons in Houston, where his 82-acre ranch was an easy drive from the player’s entrance of the Astrodome, he slipped into another new uniform for the first time this week.
He had permission to arrive late to wrap up loose ends with his cattle business and came armed with an easy Texas twang, a handshake for his new teammates and a tape of the six-hour mini-series “Lonesome Dove,” his way of licking the doldrums of a 25th spring training.
At an afternoon press conference, he said all the right things. Yes, he is sad to leave Houston, but, no, he won’t look back.
“It’s going to be an adjustment,” he said. “I won’t be as accessible to a lot of things as when I was with Houston. It’s different, but it’s interesting. There’s always anticipation, and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
If it was a bittersweet day for him, it was a joyous one for the Rangers, who’ve already circled the date of his signing (Dec. 7, 1988) as one of their most important ever.
When his one-year, $2-million contract was announced, phone calls to their ticket office jumped from 25 to 150 an hour.
“Nolan brings something special,” General Manager Tom Grieve said.
At 42, Ryan brings a 95 mph fastball and a crackling curveball. Each time he walks to the mound, there’s the anticipation that something magical will happen, that fans will see something they may never see again.
He has thrown a record five no-hitters and missed a sixth when Mike Schmidt homered after 8 1-3 innings last April 27. He has nine one-hitters and 19 two-hitters. His 4,775 strikeouts are unrivaled. He’s 27 victories shy of 300.
It’s not just his accomplishments, but that at 42 he appears to have lost almost nothing. National League hitters say the scuffball he added in 1986 has made him more unhittable some days.
He refused to be cornered into numerical goals, saying only that if he were healthy for 35 starts and 225 innings “everything else will be all right.”
His Houston career ended badly and with some bitterness. He earned $1.3 million last season, and the Astros offered a cut in base pay from $1 million to about $900,000.
That angered Ryan, who’d seen what the bidding for free agents Mike Moore and Bruce Hurst was. Still, the Astros figured to have him back, apparently because they didn’t believe there was another team interested.
Then, when California Angels owner Gene Autry got involved, the bidding got crazy, and the Rangers, desperate for both a drawing card and a pitcher, hung on.
Ryan walked away with a base salary of $1.6 million and a $200,000 signing bonus for 1989. The Rangers have a $1.4 million option for 1990, but can buy out of that year for $200,000. So while the total guaranteed money is $2 million, the odds are that he will earn the full $3.2 million.
The Rangers gave him a locker next to Bobby Witt, who at 24 has been compared to Ryan at a similar age. Like Ryan, Witt has a blazing fastball, and like Ryan he has spent his first three seasons trying to control it (Ryan is baseball’s all-time leader in both walks and strikeouts, and Witt has averaged 9.1 strikeouts and 7.3 walkouts per nine ninnings in his first three seasons).
“It’s a thrill just to meet him,” Witt said. “I’ve watched him for as long as I’ve been playing. I’d try to think along with him. I’d try to see why he was doing what he was doing.”
Rangers pitching coach Tom House called Ryan “a role model. They’ll watch the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he stands on the mound, how he gets hitters out.”
Ryan emphasized he “would not come in as a pitching coach. I don’t think that would be right. But as our friendships develop, it could lead to discussions and me having something to offer.”
He has never been much of a coach, unofficial or otherwise. Instead, what the Rangers hope is that their kids--such as Witt--will watch what he throws and how he prepares. Ryan’s three-hour weight, stretching and running exercises are almost as legendary as his fastball.
He said that, while there may be some Houston left in his heart, there will be none in his effort.
“I try to take the attitude that you look at the challenge ahead and don’t look back,” he said. “I won’t reflect on the past now. I’m here because I still like the competition. I enjoy working out and being in shape and I like the one-on-one competition with the hitter. At this point, I enjoy it more than ever because I don’t have that much longer to go. . . . I can’t think of any better place to finish up.”
When he signed a three-year contract with the Astros in 1979, he called it “my last contract.”
“When I broke in, power pitchers were gone by their mid- or early-30s,” he said. “I didn’t see any reason I’d be different. But I’m still here, and I won’t make any more predictions.”