COMMENTARY : Nolan, Bert Last of 300-Game Breed? : Winning pitchers: Ryan is one away and Byleven is shy 21. Consensus is they are only ones with a chance to join 19 who have made it before.


These are the big numbers in baseball, the really big ones that define its history, heroes and Hall of Fame.

There's 500 home runs. Babe Ruth became the first of 14 players to hit that many and someday Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Darryl Strawberry and Darryl Strawberry Jr. might, too.

There's 3,000 hits, and the 15 batters to get there. George Brett and Robin Yount are up soon, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn are on deck and Anthony Keith Gwynn II could be in the future.

There's 300 victories, and the 19 pitchers to win so many. Nolan Ryan will be next, possibly tonight, and Bert Blyleven needs just 21 more.

But after Ryan and Blyleven, who else? In this era, what pitcher will be able to find the formula that equals 20 victories for 15 years?

"Once they do it, that's all you're ever going to have," Phil Niekro said. "You're not going to see any more."

Of the 19 major leaguers to win 300 games, 12 did it exclusively in this century. Of that dozen, five of them--Niekro, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton--got No. 300 in the 1980s.

What a sudden end it would be if Ryan and Blyleven became the last of the big winners. But not surprising.

"The game has changed so much, especially for pitchers," Niekro said. "There are no more 300-inning pitchers. There aren't so many 20-game winners. It's just different now."

In every way, it adds up to under 300 wins. Here's why:

- It used to be, back when complete games were commonplace, that starting pitchers got all of the decisions. Now, in an age of specialization, middle relievers and stoppers get their share. Ryan, for example, between 1972 and '77, made 223 starts and got a win or loss in 205 (92%), while pitching 125 complete games. In the past five years, he got decisions in 115 of 164 starts (70%) with just 15 complete games.

- It used to be that pitchers never got injured, or at least--for better or worse--never said they were hurt. Now, the disabled list is dotted with pitchers.

Ryan was on the disabled list a total of three times until 1983. Since then, he's been out of action seven times.

It used to be routine for kids to turn pro straight out of high school and reach the big leagues as teen-agers. Now, more players go to college and don't make the majors until their mid-20s.

Ryan had just finished his senior year at Alvin High School when he signed with the New York Mets in 1965. He made his big league debut the next year at age 19.

"The money also makes a difference," Niekro said. "You don't have to stick around for a lot of years, hoping to make a million dollars. You can make that right away these days, and you don't need to hang around, punishing your body."

That's how Early Wynn did it. He was cut by the Chicago White Sox after the 1962 season with 299 victories and got No. 300 with Cleveland in 1963. He reached the milestone in his seventh try, struggling for five innings for his last major league victory.

"I hated that it happened that way," Wynn said. "But the even number of 300 is different. There are a lot of pitchers between 200 and 300. If you get 300, you're assured of the Hall of Fame."

Wynn was eventually elected to Cooperstown in his third try. Ferguson Jenkins, with 284 victories, has missed for two years and who knows whether Tommy John's 288 wins will be enough?

Forget Cy Young's 511 victories, baseball's only truly unbreakable record. Maybe it might be time to adjust the old standard of 300 victories to, say, 250 or so.

Jerry Reuss (220), in the minors at age 41; Rick Reuschel (213), on the disabled list at age 41, and Frank Tanana (203) at 37 are the only active pitchers with over 200 victories besides Ryan, 43, and Blyleven, 39.

So does anyone have a shot at 300?

Dwight Gooden is 25 and already has won 110 games; only Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson had won more at such an early age. Ryan had won 48 by then and Blyleven was at 95, while Niekro did not get his first victory until he turned 26.

"When I won my 100th game last season, it was something special. But a few weeks later, I got hurt and didn't start another game," Gooden said. "To win that many games, you have to pitch a long time, be with some good teams and stay healthy."

Among other established pitchers, Jack Morris has 191 victories at age 35, Bob Welch has 164 at 33, Fernando Valenzuela has 136 at 29 and Frank Viola has 130 at 30.

Among recent big winners, Roger Clemens, who turns 28 next month, has won 107, Bret Saberhagen has won 97 at age 26 and three-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart has won 101 at 33.

Then there's Steve Avery. He was drafted by Atlanta in 1988 at age 18, zoomed through the minors at 19 and reached the majors this season at 20 as one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in many years.

So far, he's won one major league game. The possibility of 300 seems, well, impossible.

"Right now, I'm only thinking about No. 2," Avery said.

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