STILL BLAZING : AT AGE 42, RYAN HASN’T SLOWED UP ALL THAT MUCH
As farewell tours go, this one lacks something, or everything, starting with an announcement that anyone might be going away.
There are no ceremonies or speeches. Think of the merchandise that may never be proffered, the rocking chairs, the plaques, the Rolls-Royce!
And yet . . .
If the farewells to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar featured a shadowy imitation of the player he once was, this tour has the real deal: Nolan Ryan, 42 and no less larger than life, breathing fire and throwing flame, his old mythical self to the end. Tiger, tiger, still burning bright.
Fans flock to see him. After a rainout in New York moves him back to the opener of the series in Kansas City, the Royals report a walk-up sale of 6,000. Ryan’s Texas Rangers average an extra 5,700 when he pitches.
Everyone knows, this can’t go on.
The man is 42, after all, and no one can throw that hard forever, can he?
He does. Gather your children and tell them to watch closely. We never saw his like before, nor are we apt to again.
Radar guns still catch his pitches at 97 m.p.h. He leads the major leagues in strikeouts, having led them at 40 and the National League at 41. This season, he has struck out 10 or more in five of eight starts, and taken a shot at his sixth no-hitter into the ninth inning at Toronto.
“The guy can deal,” says the Royals’ Kevin Seitzer, who was an 11-year-old in Lincoln, Ill., when Ryan threw his first no-hitter in 1973 . . . against the Royals.
“He and Vida Blue were the big names when I was a kid. The guy threw 100 m.p.h.
“My expectations were tremendously high, because all I heard was how hard he throws, the curveball, the great changeup. I was pretty geared up for it, I’ll put it that way. My only goal that night was to not let him strike me out and he didn’t get me.
“He throws as hard as anyone I’ve ever faced. It’s just that, when you’re facing a Nolan Ryan vs. an Eric Plunk or Roger Clemens--they all throw gas, but when you’re facing someone like Nolan, I don’t know what it is, but you get a little extra adrenaline.
“He’s a freak of nature, as far as I’m concerned. Nobody that old should throw the ball that hard, that’s all there is to it.”
Seitzer can consider himself lucky, if that’s the word, for the experience. Ryan almost packed it in last winter, when the Houston Astros asked him to take a 20% pay cut in the sure knowledge that their family-conscious star, born, raised and still living in nearby Alvin, Tex., was too tied down to move.
Ryan gathered his wife Ruth and three kids and asked them if he should retire, adding that if old Dad wanted to continue, he’d probably have to go somewhere else and they’d be apart again, for a while.
They told him to keep playing.
“Guess they weren’t too keen on the idea of having me around every day,” Ryan says, grinning.
Now he has a one-year contract for $1.8 million plus a $200,000 bonus. The Rangers have an option for an extra season, if he wants to stay, and they want him back.
“My attitude is, I still enjoy being in shape,” Ryan says. “I still enjoy competing. I’m not tied to any number. I’m not concerned with trying to win 300, or strike out 5,000. I think I’ve probably surpassed my expectations by 10 years. I never thought I’d be playing at this age.
“When I got to Houston (in 1980), I only asked for a three-year contract because I felt like that was a reasonable amount of time. I really felt like I’d get out of the game then. I just figured, when I couldn’t be a power pitcher any more, I’d get out of the game.”
That day never came.
He spent nine seasons in Houston, from ages 32-41, with the Astros measuring every pitch with a radar gun, which can register 2-3 m.p.h. slower than the more commonly used JUGS gun.
In those nine years, the velocity of an average Ryan fastball dropped 1/2 m.p.h. , from 92.8 to 92.3.
Heaven only knows how far off that day might be, if Ryan really cares to test it.
In the beginning, he was a local legend. At the end--well, maybe near the end--he’s a national one. All that has changed is the constituency.
Take, for example, the tournament game Alvin High played against Deer Park in 1965.
“The first kid up, I hit him in the head and broke his helmet,” Ryan says, grinning again. “Second kid, I hit him in the biceps and broke his arm. The third kid went out and begged the coach not to hit.”
The amazing thing about this story?
It’s essentially true.
There are disagreements about how many Deer Park batters Ryan hit and where he hit them, but several people present agree on one thing: The third batter did beg his coach not to make him hit. In this life, the tall tales mostly happened.
Ryan didn’t start throwing truly hard until late in his career as an Alvin High Yellowjacket. He was 6-foot-2 and 150 pounds when the end of puberty brought some physiological miracle of flexibility and coordination that launched him on this road that seems to have no end.
“He really didn’t like baseball,” says Jim Watson, his coach at Alvin and now the principal at Pearland High in Pearland, Tex.
“His preference was for basketball. But he began getting some publicity for beating some of the bigger teams around the Houston area. . . . We didn’t get much publicity, but what there was, it called him a ‘phenom.’ That was the word they used.”
Ironically, because of his wildness, there has been a tendency to regard Ryan as some kind of idle wastrel. Actually, he is the most diligent of workers, and was, even then.
“The interesting thing about Nolan was his work ethic,” says Bob Jacobs, then Alvin’s catcher, now associate professor in environmental health science at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
“He would be out running the fences in the outfield, while the rest of us would be being typical high school kids. Nolan worked very hard at his baseball.”
Says Watson, laughing: “He would, but I made him. I made him, because I’d been told that legs were important. I ran him until his tongue was hangin’ out. He hated me for it, but he did it.
“I was a pretty tough taskmaster because I was really a football coach. I gave him a bunch of special drills, to be honest with you, and he always did ‘em. He never complained. I didn’t let him swim. The other kids, we’d be off on a trip somewhere, they’d be swimmin’ and he couldn’t go.
“He wanted no special favors. I remember, I let him go in early one day. The next day he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I don’t mind staying out there with all the guys.’ I knew what he was talking about. He didn’t want to be thought of as a prima donna.
“He was really a shy youngster. He didn’t want to be different. I’m sure he appreciated having his name in the paper and stuff like that, but he knew his responsibility, first and foremost. He knew exactly what his role was: If he didn’t go, we couldn’t win. We just had a little, old bunch of weak kids.
“I knew he was a very special high school player, but I had nothing to compare him to. The only thing I had was after the ‘Stros got (Larry) Dierker, who was the hard thrower and everything. I’d watch Nolan pitch in the afternoon and drive to the dome that night, and he could throw harder than Dierker.
“So I knew he was very special, but as far as going to the big leagues, no. Alvin had had one or two kids that had signed contracts and never made it past double A at the most. We just figured it’d be a little fling and then he’ll come home. Were we wrong!”
Oh yes, there’s another version of the Deer Park game.
“What sticks out in my mind is that Nolan hit the second fellow,” Bob Jacobs says. “The third guy was coming up and he did ask the coach not to hit. He said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ What I recall, the boy finally was talked into hitting. And then Nolan hit him.”
Ryan was selected by the New York Mets in the eighth round of the 1965 free-agent draft and made the big leagues in three seasons.
On the plus side, he was part of the staff of prodigies: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, all hard throwers, themselves. Ryan pitched, in relief, in the World Series in his sophomore season.
On the minus side, he was a long way from home.
“He was just a young kid from Texas,” Seaver said from his Connecticut home. “He was a young, naive, small-town kid from Texas, but he had a good mind and a good head.
“We were pretty close when we were on the Mets together. We shared a lot of things professionally and socially as well. Our wives became friendly. It was just a matter of maturity, as far as Nolan was concerned. He was very uncomfortable playing here in New York.
“More than anything else, he was afraid for his wife. They were both very young and he was concerned about her safety in New York City, and I don’t blame him. It was difficult for him to deal with that. He got traded to California, where there was a more comfortable environment.
“Just the trade, itself, was probably a maturing factor. He thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to get with it.’ I remember, we talked about it. We had dinner a couple times and we would talk about his attitude and his approach and the ability that he had and the things he expected of himself. He agreed, but he couldn’t put it together for an extended period of time.”
Says Jim Watson: “I remember him back then telling me, boy, if he could make it one more year, he was packing it in, he’d had enough. You needed five years for a pension.
“I think he was disgusted with New York, more than anything else. And now, you can’t get him to hang ‘em up. I remind him of that conversation fairly often when I talk to him.”
After four seasons, the Mets traded Ryan to the Angels for the aging Jim Fregosi, to solve what was referred to as “their perennial third base problem.”
Ryan threw two no-hitters by July 15, went 19-16 and struck out 329 batters. Fregosi was gone by the end of the next season. He used to laugh about it when he was named the Angel manager and Ryan was his ace.
Thus did Nolan Ryan become Nolan Ryan, now also known as the Von Ryan Express, etc.
Just what that is has been the subject of some debate: A great pitcher? Certain Hall of Famer? A curiosity who’s more spectacular than effective?
Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles, his rival in the annual Cy Young balloting--Palmer won three, Ryan none--and a man not averse to claiming what he believed was his, once said of Ryan, “His thing is 383 strikeouts; mine is 215 victories.”
Someone less partisan than Palmer could wonder if Ryan wasn’t as much seduced by his power as he was its master.
That he was at least intrigued by it is a safe assumption. Ryan has told of two occasions, in those trackless wastes of losing Angel seasons, when he stepped off the mound and told the batter what was coming--nothing but fastballs--so they could see just which of them was better.
One was Reggie Jackson, the other Richie Allen. Ryan says he got them both out.
Seaver says that “it’s possible” that it all might have worked to Ryan’s detriment as a pitcher.
“I mean, I definitely think there was a fascination with the strikeouts,” Seaver says. “There’s no question about that.”
In Ryan’s eight Angel seasons, he won 20 games twice and 16 or more five times. He threw four no-hitters between 1973-76 and struck out 300 or more five times between 1973-78.
In 1979, he went 16-14 on the first Angel division winner--and was allowed to leave as a free agent when General Manager Buzzie Bavasi got into an emotional standoff with Ryan’s agent, Dick Moss.
Said Bavasi, on replacing Ryan: “All we need are two 8-7 pitchers.”
Later, with Ryan thriving in Houston and the Angels floundering, Moss asked: “Has Buzzie found his two 8-7 pitchers?”
WALTZ ACROSS TEXAS
Perfect speed, my son, is being there.
--Jonathon Livingston Seagull
The most amazing thing happened to Ryan in Houston. His control improved.
The man who walked as many as 204 and never fewer than 148 until his last Angel season, never walked more than 109 with the Astros. His earned-run average for the nine years was 3.13. In 1987, he became the oldest man ever to lead the National League with a 2.76 ERA.
And he still threw hard.
“I got him at Chicago one ballgame at 99 m.p.h.,” says Billy Joe Bowman, who operates the Astros’ radar gun.
“The reason I remember it so vividly, Lee Smith was throwing that day. Lee Smith also threw one 99. The ball was way out of the strike zone, but it was still 99.
“Nolan’s velocity would vary sometimes from ballgame to ballgame, but he’d always reach a stretch where he’d get to his maximum velocity, and then he’d just come right on. And here he comes!
“He’s an awesome individual, to be that old and throw that hard. I guess, of all the pitchers I’ve ever put the gun on, he’s probably the most consistent, except for the ones who throw the sinker and stay around 81-82.
“I don’t think anybody throws any harder than Nolan. Dwight Gooden will stay right with him.”
For how long? By age 35, your basic power pitcher--say Seaver, Steve Carlton or Bob Gibson--will be throwing fastballs in the high 80s or maybe the low 90s and getting people out on sliders and location.
Throw 97 at 42?
Forget it. Only Ryan ever did that.
Ryan has filled out but he is anything but muscular. He has large thighs, but unremarkable biceps, forearms, delts, traps, you name it. He doesn’t have one or two lifts he can do better than anyone.
“He was never really exceptional,” says Lewis Yocum, the Angel team physician. “Like, ‘Look at that forearm, it’s 10 times bigger than anyone else.’ I have a feeling, a lot of it, it’s like a good golf swing.”
These, then, must be the finest pitching mechanics God ever gave anyone.
“I think all the work he did helped, but it’s God-given,” says Bob Jacobs, his high school catcher. “It’s just his basic bone structure, the flexibility that he has.
“What I recall also was the flexibility he had in his wrist. He could really pop it. He was throwing hard long before he refined his talent, so it was there.”
In the mid-'70s, before pitching coaches were putting their charges through stretches, Ryan was already doing his own routine. He is limber enough to easily put his nose onto his knee in a hamstring stretch. That may be routine for 13-year-old girl gymnasts but certainly is not for 200-pound, middle-aged men.
So what if he lost a little off his fastball? He had so much more to lose.
Ryan remembers the night in 1975 when the Rockwell people came out to a game in Anaheim Stadium with their instruments. They shot a beam down in front of the plate--and caught him over 100 m.p.h. seven times. Their top speed of 101 went into the “Guinness Book of World Records” and still stands as the prevailing mark for thrown baseballs.
“My arm doesn’t feel like it did 15-18 years ago,” Ryan says. “It doesn’t have the elasticity and the strength in it.
“I mean, it doesn’t ache me and all that but--when I was with the Angels, I could throw every fourth day and throw 150 to 180 pitches and go back out there four days later. One year, I started 41 games and finished 26 of them. And pitched 333 innings. You know, those days are over, I realize that.”
As much as anything, Ryan will be remembered by the people who knew him as one of the game’s great gentlemen, as unpretentious now as he was as an Alvin Yellowjacket, and a man of great warmth.
The Angel he was closest to was Jimmie Reese, the 83-year-old coach, after whom Ryan named one of his sons. When the Angels tried to re-sign Ryan last winter, one of the things he says tugged at him was that “Gene (Autry) and Jimmie were there.”
Says Astro trainer Dave Labossiere: “There are a lot of people, you’ve got to admire their skills but as a person, you’re not going to admire them. Now this is a person for someone to admire.”
So here’s our hero, with a son, Reed, who’s 17 and a basketball star at Alvin High . . . as Nolan was. Reed is 6-2 and can dunk . . . as Nolan did.
Reed, a junior, has just gotten a recruiting letter from Stanford, and has been invited to several five-star camps.
Nolan, who still admits to preferring basketball, is excited. He is having the Ranger trainer devise a workout for Reed, who will come over to Dallas with Ruth and the other kids when school lets out.
“I’m in the age bracket of a lot of these kids’ parents, some of ‘em,” says Nolan, looking around the Ranger locker room. “I got a son 17, so a lot of them are like my son’s friends. I think they look at me as more of a coach.”
Not likely. Probably more as a piece of history they had the privilege of seeing unfold before them.
That day in Toronto, when Nelson Liriano broke up Ryan’s no-hitter in the ninth, Ryan let out a yell and snapped his head angrily.
It was remarkable, since it was a good deal more emotion than he showed when he actually pitched a no-hitter.
His first four came between 1973-76 in his super-dominating Angel days. He had all but given up on the idea of ever breaking his tie with Sandy Koufax by 1981, when he got No. 5 against the Dodgers. All he did that day, after Dusty Baker grounded to third for the last out, was duck his head, raise his right arm and wander around looking kind of embarrassed until his Astro teammates mobbed him.
“I did take it hard,” Ryan says of Liriano’s hit. “To get that close and lose it . . . I was really disappointed because I didn’t throw the ball where I wanted it. I realize if I get in the ninth--that opportunity may not arise again. I hope it does, but you know, there’s a good chance it won’t.”
Look while you may. He may never pass this way again.
No one like him is going to turn up soon, either.