In Winter of His Years, He Still Has Heater
In the mythology of baseball, Two-Headed Hogan is a pitcher with a special gift. He has the capability, all at once, to study the sign while checking a runner at second.
Nolan Ryan can’t do that, a blemish on an otherwise astonishing existence in which, at 43, he is still throwing one-hitters and striking out 16.
At what age Satchel Paige came into the majors was never clearly established, mainly because the birthdate of Satchel never was clearly established.
In its records, baseball lists the year he was born as 1906. Others, claiming they played ball with Satch and did time with him in reform school, trace his birth variously, one to as far back as 1900.
All that’s known for sure is that Paige didn’t appear in the majors until 1948 when, give or take, he was the age of Ryan today, but short of Ryan’s pitching treasures.
Others in the big leagues have dabbled in pitching in their 40s, but, like Paige in his declining seasons, pulled the string mostly with finesse.
But Ryan is blowing pitches past hitters, flabbergasting viewers who watch the frequency with which guys facing him are striking out.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Don Zimmer, manager of the Chicago Cubs, was testifying the other night. “What Ryan is doing may be one of the greatest achievements in baseball history.”
The cream years of Satchel Paige came during a time of white man’s baseball in this land. Satch roamed what used to be called the Negro leagues, eventually going into business for himself with winter barnstorming tours he created.
For these odysseys, he enlisted such artists as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio. It was DiMaggio who announced one day that Paige was the best pitcher he ever faced.
If the professional reputation of Satch grew, his legend as a personality did, too. He isolated his arm as an independent entity, referring to it as “he.”
“He ain’t feelin’ so well today,” he would say. “Might have took a chill during the night.”
But by the end of World War II, or roughly the time Satch had advanced to his 40s, his stuff had lost its earlier intensity.
“He ain’t breathin’ very well today,” he once told us, pointing to the arm.
Throwing mostly fastballs, he was asked, “How can you get away with only one pitch?”
He answered quietly, “They know what’s comin’, but they don’t know where.”
So by the time this unique hero made his arrival in the majors in ’48, one was looking at a different Satchel Paige, amplifying the point made here about Nolan Ryan, doing things never before known by pitchers his age.
It was the lingering theory of Branch Rickey that it is better to get rid of a player a year too soon than a year too late. Embracing this philosophy, teams employing Ryan were to experience sadness.
First, the New York Mets got rid of him, mainly because they deduced he had bad aim, uncorrectable.
In the beginning, the Dodgers fostered this brilliant notion about Sandy Koufax, too. In our presence one night, behind the screen, Koufax complained to General Manager Buzzie Bavasi that he wasn’t getting enough opportunity to pitch.
Buzzie screamed at him, “How the hell can I pitch you when you can’t get the side out?”
Sandy, like Nolan, was known in the industry as wild-high.
Palmed off on the Angels, Ryan had extraordinary success between the ages of 25 and 32, at which point it occurred to management that here was a man who may be entering his winter years.
They let him escape to Houston, which employed him until age 41. But the Astros wouldn’t wait to get rid of a performer a year too late.
They let Nolan drift to Texas and he won 16 games for the Rangers last season.
And, exploding from the gate this year, he is establishing that we are looking at a Hall of Fame guy on the first vote.
Nolan has the arm, unmistakably, but he has a vital quality that goes with it. It is called stability. He is magnificently stable, calm, modest, wholly without eccentricities in connection with preparation.
Since it is his feeling that one who pitches draws strength from one’s legs, these are appendages he conditions fastidiously.
Satchel Paige never paid a lot of attention to legs, possibly not sure the arm liked them. Paige never had the advantages in baseball of Ryan, but somewhere, you picture the arm shrugging and telling Satch that’s life.