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At 42, Ryan Still Has Right to Bear Arm

The time is the year 2040. The place, a ballpark somewhere in Texas. The game is about to start.

Walking slowly out of a dugout is this stately white-haired old gentleman. He is bent over slightly. The skin is wrinkled, he wears a hearing aid, but his step is youthful with a spring in it.

He carefully removes his bifocals as he takes the mound. He squints in to the plate, blinking to make out the catcher’s signal. But then he nods, winds up--and sends a ball careening to the batter that is a white blur. The umpire throws his hand up. Strike!

The batter is frozen, disbelieving. He gulps, stares, steps out of the box.

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“What was that and who was that?” he demands.

The catcher smiles sweetly and says: “That, son, is Mr. Nolan Ryan and that was his fastball. He’s lost about 2 1/2 miles an hour off it from his heyday. It’s clear down in the low 90’s today. But, shucks, so is Nolan.”

When Nolan Ryan stops pitching--if he ever does--his arm should hang in the Smithsonian. Right alongside Lindbergh’s airplane and Lee’s sword and other great artifacts of our nation’s history.

For Nolan Ryan to be striking out major league batters with his fastball--and he struck out 228 last year, most in the league--borders on the supernatural.

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The adage in sports is, “The legs go first.” But baseball old-timers will tell you the fastball goes first. In fact, the chorus of muscles and ligaments that have to work in unison to produce a major league fastball lasts, in some pitchers, only about seven innings a game.

Ryan’s fastball is a freak. It gets stronger--and faster--as the game goes on. And as his life goes on. Two years ago, in an experiment to coddle his arm, the management of the Houston Astros put a 100-pitch limit on Ryan’s stints. It was disastrous. Nolan had the best ERA in the league, 2.76, but only an 8-16 won-lost record.

Ryan is a John Paul Jones pitcher. When you think he has had enough, he has just begun to throw. He didn’t have a single complete game that year, but he struck out 270 in the innings they left him in there.

Satchel Paige titled his autobiography, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.” And Satch gave it a good shot. He was pitching in the big leagues at 47. He was still pitching somewhere at 57. But in his dotage, Satch was getting batters out with guile and cunning. Ryan is still throwing the ace. It not only baffles the batters, it baffles medical science.

His arm should be a dish rag by now. It shouldn’t have any pulse in it. He should be slinging the ball up there looking for ground-outs, pop-ups. Instead, he’s looking for K’s.

He’s the nearest thing to a living legend in the game today. He leads the world in strikeouts, no-hitters, bases on balls. He has turned more batters’ legs to jelly than any speedballer in the game. He has, without question, thrown more strikes than any pitcher who ever lived. He might have thrown more pitches. Nolan rarely got anybody out before the count went to 3-and-2.

The great Walter Johnson was commonly conceded to be not only the greatest right-handed pitcher of all time but the fastest and most durable. But Johnson was one year retired when he reached Ryan’s present age, 42. Johnson struck out 300 batters twice in his career. Nolan has done it five times. Johnson threw one no-hitter. Ryan has thrown five.

Someone once said that the measure of golfer Jack Nicklaus was not the number of tournaments he won, 71, but the number of times he finished second, 58, or third, 36. Ryan has had the five no-hitters, but he also has had nine one-hitters, 19 two-hitters, 27 three-hitters and 26 four-hitters.

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Watching him pitch is like watching a Joe Louis fight. You will remember how Joe shuffled across the ring and, as soon as he would throw a punch, the most surprised look would cross his opponent’s face. He didn’t think a man could hit that hard.

The same thing happens in Ryan’s games. I wandered down to Port Charlotte in Florida the other day to take in an exhibition game between the Texas Rangers, Ryan’s new team, and the Detroit Tigers. As Gary Pettis, the Detroit leadoff hitter, stepped in, I grinned.

“Watch this,” I warned.

Sure enough, as the pitch went by, Pettis looked like a guy who’d just heard a noise in the attic. He tapped feebly to short later.

Afterward, in the locker room, a few of us surrounded Ryan.

“The fastball gone, Nolie?” we asked him wickedly, since he had only struck out three in four innings.”

“I’ve lost about two miles an hour over the years,” he admitted.

“You mean since you topped 100 m.p.h. in that aerospace test?” someone wanted to know.

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“I threw it over 100 m.p.h. seven times that night,” Ryan said, grinning. “I may be some slower.”

Nolan Ryan needs only 225 strikeouts to hit 5,000. He needs 27 victories to reach 300.

“I have a realistic chance to make the strikeouts,” he said. “The 27 wins are not a reasonable expectation this year.”

From the middle of 1921 on, whenever Babe Ruth hit a home run, he set a record. Ryan broke Walter Johnson’s record in 1983. Every time he strikes someone out, he sets a record.

At 42, pitchers are supposed to get hitters out, if at all, with control and misdirection. Ballplayers call it junk.

Nolan Ryan picked up a changeup from the venerable Cincinnati pitcher, Joe Nuxhall, a few years ago. Batters swear his changeup is like another pitcher’s fastball.

As to his fastball, there is the old joke about the batter who said to the umpire as Walter Johnson’s fastball went by, “It sounded low to me.”

It doesn’t apply to Ryan. Reggie Jackson once explained: “Ryan’s pitch goes through at the speed of sound. By the time you hear it, it’s gone.”

Reggie also likened going to bat against Ryan to “drinking coffee with a fork.”

Jack Nicklaus once said he derived his power from his legs, his upper thighs and backside. Ryan, who runs through waist-high swimming pool water to keep his leg strength up, admits that he does, too. He has been nagged by calf muscle pulls this spring, which have slowed his conditioning.

But there is nothing wrong with the arm. It is an American heirloom, a work of art. Ryan should go to the Hall of Fame. The arm should go to the Louvre.


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