Nolan Ryan steps off an elevator, turns into the hotel lobby and spots teammate Denny Walling. It is midafternoon, 4 1/2 hours before game time, but for Ryan and Walling, who have almost four decades of major-league service between them, it's time to go to the ballpark for that night's game between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays.
"Want to share a cab?" Walling asks.
Ryan nods that he's ready to go, but motions toward the street where a dozen or so autograph hounds began the daily Ryan Watch at midmorning. "I don't know if you want to wait on me," he said.
Walling says he will. He walks outside the hotel, waves for a taxi and watches as fans hand Ryan one baseball card after another. Ryan signs them all, never breaking stride, never looking up.
Such is life with baseball's most famous player and compelling performer.
In Detroit, a bus driver, seeing a crush of fans outside the front of the team hotel, pulled the bus around to the service entrance so Ryan and his teammates could enter through the kitchen.
A year ago in Kansas City, Mo., the Rangers stepped off a charter flight at 3 a.m. to find fans waiting for Ryan. While teammates boarded the bus at the end of an 18-hour day, Ryan stood on a sidewalk signing autographs. When the last player was on the bus, Ryan announced, "Sorry, I gotta go, they're waiting on me."
That incident came a few weeks after Ryan's sixth no-hitter, about the time Texas pitcher Charlie Hough would spy the nightly sea of fans and announce: "Sorry, folks, Elvis has left the building."
That was about the time Ryan was getting so many calls in his hotel room that the Rangers began registering him under an assumed name.
But if Ryan is amazing for throwing seven no-hitters, striking out 5,367 and throwing 96 mph fastballs at the age of 44, the Rangers say they've seen an even more amazing Nolan Ryan off the field.
This is the Nolan Ryan who loves his wife and family, who's a fanatic about conditioning and nutrition and who has a well of patience for a demanding public.
"He's incredible," said Rangers coach Dave Oliver, who has become Ryan's closest friend on the team. "Even those of us who know him well are still amazed at times. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it for three years. I know it's frustrating for him at times not to have a private moment."
But Ryan copes. He does almost every interview, answers every question -- questions he has answered hundreds of times before.
Clearly, though, he pays a price. Teammates say that in the last year, as his fame and the enormity of his feats have grown, Ryan has stayed to himself more and more.
No wonder that when the season ends, Ryan heads for a place where he's least likely to be bothered -- the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas.
"It's one of the few places where people won't bother him," Oliver said. "He wears his jeans and boots and has a cowboy hat pulled low over his forehead. It's a place people don't expect to see him, and they kind of leave him alone. His celebrations aren't what other people would call real exciting."
When Ryan threw his record seventh no-hitter, he had a beer and a sip of champagne, then climbed onto a Lifecycle for 30 minutes, got four hours of sleep and returned to Arlington Stadium for his regular 3 1/2-hour routine of weight lifting and exercises.
When the Rangers had a night off in Toronto on Monday, Ryan spent it with Rangers pitching coach Tom House eating Chinese food. He winds down from most home games with a salad or sandwich at a restaurant near Arlington Stadium.
He no longer can have a postgame beer more than a couple of times a season "because it's too hard to get up and get your work in in the morning," he said. "Right now, my life revolves around my workout routine."
Indeed, Ryan's life, especially his life on the road, is mostly about work. In fact, other than the times when he's on the mound, those may be the times he enjoys most.
He and House, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, have written five books and done four videotapes on pitching mechanics, pitch selection and exercise physiology, among other topics.
House says Ryan is amazing on two levels. One is work ethic.
"He prepares three hours for every one hour every other player I've been around spends on it," he said. "He works three and a half to four hours a day on conditioning. He proves that people who are 45 can do what they could do at 25. The difference is that when you're older you have to work so much harder and put so much more into it. He's willing to do that because he loves going out there and pitching so much.
"A lot of guys work out. Nolan isn't exceptional in that. What is exceptional is how thorough he is, and how he never, ever makes an exception. ... A lot of people might have taken a day off after throwing their seventh no-hitter. Not Nolan.
"He also has a lot of empirical knowledge. When it comes to movements or exercises, he's intuitive about what's good and bad. I've come to my knowledge through research, observation and study. Nolan got there by knowing and by trying things."
For instance, last week in Toronto -- two days before Ryan was to start against the Blue Jays -- he awoke at 8 a.m., had a bowl of cereal and fruit, then went to the SkyDome with House at 10 a.m. He left more than four hours later, having lifted weights for his legs and upper body and done dozens of small, intricate exercises for his rotator cuff and smaller muscle groups. He did a stretching routine, threw from a mound, then rode a Lifecycle.
Much has been made about Ryan's ability to throw hard at age 44. But those around him say it's even more than that. Ryan may throw hard, but he also hurts. "His back hurts, his Achilles' tendon hurts and his fingers hurt," House said. "He fights the aging process, but it is a fight."
(On the day he threw no-hitter No. 7, he told House, "I'm so sore, I've been popping Advils all day.")
House appreciates Ryan on another level. House authored a book called "The Jock's Itch" two years ago, in which he examined what he called the "terminal adolescence syndrome" in athletes. He makes a case that many athletes never grow up because everything is handed to them. They come to believe life is special because of who they are, which leaves them unprepared for what lies ahead after sports.
"A lot of athletes confuse their role and their status," House said. "The lines become blurred. They're a baseball player or they're nothing. That's why you see so many athletes having trouble adjusting to life after the game. ... But with all Nolan's talent, he has never lost sight of the importance of being a good father, husband and teammate."
He attempts a clinical definition of why Ryan has been a good husband to Ruth Ryan and a doting father to sons Reid and Reese and daughter Wendy, but stops.
"Hey, in Texas he's the definitive good ol' boy," House said.
He gestures toward the Texas clubhouse and says, "He's probably in there right now telling stories or talking about cattle, food or baseball. He likes being around people and has never tried to be anything but one of the guys."
The Rangers, who've tried to regulate Ryan's interviews, say many of the recent requests are not baseball-related. Banking publications want to talk to Ryan the banker. Agro-business magazines want a word with Ryan the rancher.
Fitness magazines want the Ryan workout schedule and the Ryan nutrition secrets (high in carbohydrates and protein, low in fats, including his beloved Texas beef -- "Everything in moderation," Ryan said.)
On retirement: "I think about it a lot. I don't anticipate that my desire to play will diminish. It depends upon how long I can physically maintain my ability to perform at this level. I just don't know. When I came to the Rangers, I would have guessed I'd pitch one more year. I've been saying for 10 or 12 years that every contract was my last.
"When I do retire, I'll probably stay active in baseball to some degree. I don't see driving into the ranch, shutting the gate and having it over with. I can't see my life changing that much except I won't have to go to a ballpark every day."