No longer, to rely on a worn baseball colloquialsm, can Nolan Ryan throw a strawberry through a battleship. He has slowed down to delivering grapefruits -- straight as a string and oh, so sweet.
Every 10 years, he loses a foot off his fastball. He has become a right-handed Eddie Lopat. His “out” pitch is the curve, which is a sad commentary for a renowned power pitcher. Instead of dealing heat, he’s forced to spin it.
Looking every bit like the 42-year-old he is and closing in on Social Security, Ryan is a mere shadow of his once-awesome self. The Baltimore Orioles, who always treat Ryan like a long-lost cousin, turned Memorial Stadium into the Kennedy Space Center North Monday night.
Three long home runs, and all of them pulled, too, by Mickey Tettleton, Larry Sheets and Cal Ripken Jr. sailed out of the stadium as the Orioles romped to a 6-1 win over Texas.
The Orioles couldn’t wait to hit off Ryan. They were so over-anxious, 10 of them struck out. It was the 187th time in his career Ryan has recorded that many in a game, which means it’s old hat.
Although Ryan is the world champion strikeout leader, with 4,864, there’s no accurate way, except in the mind’s eye of history, to proclaim him the fastest thrower of all-time. Maybe it was Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Steve Dalkowski or Harry Makowsky, otherwise known as Duke Markell. Ryan throws change-ups in comparison.
The Orioles would win the pennant on an annual basis if they could face Ryan every day. They have beaten him 14 times and lost only five games that he’s started against them.
It’s appropriate to fully disclose what happened when Ryan last opposed the Orioles in Baltimore. That was in the American League playoff of 1979, during a period when he was in the employ of the California Angels.
On that occasion, this reporter, realizing how enjoyable the Orioles always found the delightful servings of Ryan, pointed out that calling him the “Express” was a misnomer. It would be more accurate to refer to Ryan as the “Local,” meaning his former fastball made a lot of stops and starts before it finally reached home plate.
When the story was printed, a Los Angeles sportswriter reacted by going partially insane. How could this be true? So he went running after Earl Weaver, the Orioles’ manager, for confirmation or a denial.
Weaver, however, said that because this was the American game, played in America, and the prerogative of every American was the inalienable right of free speech, he didn’t believe he could bring about a public censuring.
The poor sportswriter was terribly frustrated and even more so after the Orioles knocked Ryan out of the box after seven innings. What happened next?
Well, in an attempt at adolescent retribution, typical of athletic mentality, packages began to arrive at the newspaper office. It was all a surprise, even more so because we hadn’t ordered any of the merchandise and were supposed to pay for it.
An investigation ensued. The companies involved determined the orders had been made from the type of magazines distributed on airlines. They had writing samples and fingerprints.
Did we want to press charges against the individual involved because it was a violation of federal law to use the mails to harass? At first, we thought about sending two tons of sheep manure or six crated lynx from an animal farm but decided not to reply in kind.
So much for background. The Orioles have always realized they were going after a soft touch when Ryan was advertised. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they had sent for Stu Miller, who couldn’t blacken your eye with his best fastball, to pitch batting practice so they could slow down their swings in anticipation of Ryan.
Even Billy Ripken, the last hitter in the lineup, pulled Ryan Monday night, so this should have delivered a message that he’s not getting the ball up there with his long-ago velocity. Ryan is hardly a blur of his former self. Fortunately, he didn’t get any infielders hurt.