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He’s Still Expressive : Ryan Is Same Pitcher He Was 17 Years Ago--if Not Better

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bobby Valentine, who played center field for the Angels that night, remembers chasing down a fly ball in right-center.

What inning, he’s not sure.

He remembers sprinting to the mound at the end, after right fielder Ken Berry made the catch that provided the last out.

And he remembers the celebration in the clubhouse afterward.

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Asked to provide details, though, Valentine’s memory fails.

“I think I got so caught up in the excitement that it’s blurred on me,” Valentine said of the first of Nolan Ryan’s six no-hitters, a 3-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals on May 15, 1973, at Kansas City.

But Valentine recalls vividly the young, overpowering Ryan.

Should Valentine’s memory lag, Ryan provides frequent reminders of his greatness, as he did again Monday night at Oakland, allowing the Athletics no hits in a 5-0 Texas Ranger victory and becoming, at 43, the oldest player to throw a major league no-hitter.

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According to Valentine, the Ranger manager, little about Ryan has changed in the 17 years between the right-hander’s first and latest no-hitters.

“He has more control now, a little less hair, a few more wrinkles,” Valentine said. “He’s not much different otherwise. His windup is almost precisely the same. He has a changeup now. He only had a fastball and curveball then, so his arsenal is a little different.

“But he still throws it very fast. He still walks down off the hill the same way when he misses. He still catches the ball back from the catcher the same way. He doesn’t quite cover first base as fast as he once did.

“He still works the long, laborious hours of training and conditioning. And he’s still the same guy from Alvin, Tex., (of whom) everybody used to say, ‘Gee, how could he be such a great guy?’

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“So, really, not that much has changed--remarkably so.”

Remarkable, indeed.

How has Ryan endured?

As Valentine noted with a laugh, it was said 20 years ago that Ryan threw the ball so hard that surely his arm would fall off.

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“I think the key is conditioning,” Ryan said during one of many interviews conducted Tuesday before and after the Rangers’ 6-5 win over the A’s. “I’ve been blessed with a good body and maybe the aging process hasn’t caught up with me as early as it has some other players.

“And, also, I think that concentrating my entire career on proper mechanics is paying dividends now.”

One of those dividends was throwing a no-hitter in front of the two youngest of his three kids, Nolan Reese Ryan, 14, and Wendy, 13.

They flew in from Texas Monday with their mother, Ruth.

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Reese, who stayed home with his grandmother when Ryan pitched his fifth no-hitter for the Houston Astros against the Dodgers in 1981, was in the dugout Monday night, at one point massaging his father’s back, which has been sore for six weeks and will be examined today in Los Angeles by Dr. Lewis Yocum.

“I think the doctor is concerned because (the pain) has been persistent and hasn’t really improved,” Ryan said. “I think he feels like if it was a muscle spasm, we would have seen improvement in it.”

His son, too, was concerned.

“He came over in the seventh and asked me how my back felt and started rubbing it,” Ryan said. “I think he was nervous and really didn’t know what to do with himself.”

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Valentine, who positioned himself at the opposite end of the bench, had purposely avoided making eye contact with Ryan because he did not want to see his pitcher grimace or acknowledge the pain in his back.

“I wanted only the good to happen,” Valentine said.

Late in the game, though, he stole a glance toward Ryan.

“Reese was on his side, looking up at him, patting him on the leg and rubbing his back,” Valentine said. “It was a Norman Rockwell scene.”

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At the end of the eighth inning, Reese told his father, “We only need three more,” and Ryan smiled back at him, Reese said.

Hadn’t Reese realized that by acknowledging the no-hitter in the dugout, with the game still in progress, he had breached baseball etiquette?

“I didn’t think it would matter,” he said, laughing.

And despite the pain in his back--Ryan came off the 15-day disabled list only last week and told reporters after the game Monday night that he had planned to pitch only seven innings--Ryan was strong at the end.

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Unlike 17 years ago, Valentine could only sit and watch.

“It was a lot more of a participatory role (in 1973),” Valentine said. “I was sweating and wanted the ball and couldn’t wait. It was breaking on every swing, yelling.

“Here, it was lot more controlled anxiety, kind of sitting there not being able to do anything, knowing it was 5-0 and I wasn’t going to manage anymore.”

After his first no-hitter, Ryan told reporters: “I never honestly felt I was the type of pitcher to pitch a no-hitter.”

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“Most said his stuff was unhittable,” Valentine said, “so you thought that someday he would throw a no-hitter.”

On certain nights, of course, Ryan is still unhittable.

“In the early ‘70s, his curveball was more devastating,” Valentine said, acknowledging changes in Ryan. “It was harder and it had a bigger break. When he started it out at a right-hander’s head, sometimes they would literally fall down and it would break over for a strike.

“He doesn’t have that curve anymore, and yet he has better control of his fastball. His fastball used to be up and out of the strike zone a lot. Now, it’s mostly in the strike zone, and off the plate to either side.”

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Ryan said that he has better command of his pitches, adding that, “as a pitcher, I’m much more knowledgeable.’

He spent most of Tuesday making such statements in his laconic drawl, stepping from one interview to the next. He postponed an appointment with Yocum, he said, to handle the media’s demands.

He took calls from President Bush and former boss Gene Autry.

“It’s hard to explain how you feel,” Ryan said at one point. “It’s been so hectic since (the game)--things really haven’t settled down--that it will be a few more days before it sinks in a little more.

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“One thing that makes it so meaningful is that it came at such a late stage in my career and so much time had elapsed between the fifth and sixth (no-hitters). Because of that, and all the near misses, I think this one means more to me than maybe the others did.”

Ryan kept the ball that was used to record the last out. He sent his cap to Cooperstown.

Reese was asked if he’d ever been to the Hall of Fame.

“No, sir,” he said. “I plan on going in about five years.”

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Maybe not.

His father might still be playing.


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