Kissimmee, Fla. — There really is a man with a $6 million-dollar arm, and he pitches for the National League's Houston Astros. Nolan Ryan, 41, is the exception to the rule that says all fireball pitchers usually flame out by the time they're 30. Last year Ryan led the majors in strikeouts (270) for the sixth time in his career. He also tied for the major league lead in earned-run average (2.76) with Toronto's Jimmy Key, and became the first pitcher in history not to win the Cy Young Award after leading his league in both strikeouts and ERA.
In fact, despite having pitched five career no-hitters, nine one-hitters, 18 two-hitters, and 26 three-hitters, and become the only man in history to have struck out more than 4,500 batters, Nolan has never has been a Cy Young winner.
Don't the people who vote on these things ever read Ryan's statistics? The problem may be that they do.
After 20 years in the big leagues, he has won only 19 more games than he's lost, though it should be noted that he has pitched most of the time for weak-hitting teams (the early New York Mets, the California Angels, and the Astros). He's also the only pitcher in history to walk more than 2,300 batters - a control problem that hurt him a lot early in his career, but which he has since largely overcome.
Always a workhorse, never a complainer, willing to pitch with only three days' rest if the occasion demands it, Ryan is about as self-effacing a major leaguer as you'll find.
He's country (Alvin, Texas, population 20,000); family (married with three children); and businesslike (during the off-season he operates a 2,000-acre spread with 250 head of registered Beefmaster cattle).
Mining Ryan for details as to how he has retained his speed and why he's lasted so long, what you get is: ``I've always managed to stay in shape. I've never thrown a slider, because it's a theory of mine that the slider puts more stress on the arm than the curve does. I've had sore arms but I've managed to pitch through them or overcome them.''
However, if you take your questions a bit farther - say, to someone like Astros' pitching coach Les Moss, you get a lot more information.
``Anybody who has ever seen Ryan pitch can tell that he was born with a super arm,'' Moss said. ``So he's out of the ordinary just to begin with. Then there are his throwing mechanics, which are perfect. Well, he did have some control problems early in his career, but he overcame them. With the kind of fastball and curveball he had, he never had to throw the slider, which I think is wise because the slider is tough on your arm.
``Beyond that, there isn't anybody in baseball, and I'm not just talking about pitchers, who works harder to stay in shape,'' Les continued. ``I mean this guy goes at it 12 months a year. I'm also going to tell you something else: About five years ago, Nolie improved his changeup, and two years ago he added a sinker which is good enough to be an out pitch.''
Asked why Ryan had only an 8-16 record with no complete games last season, despite his low ERA and high number of strikeouts, Moss replied:
``Sometimes a pitcher will have a year when his ball club doesn't score much for him. To me that's all that happened to Nolie in 1987. We didn't get him any runs. I'm going to have to give you these figures off the top of my head, but in 16 of his losses we averaged only a little over 1 runs a game. Nobody is going to win with that kind of production.
``Even the fact that Ryan didn't have a complete game is deceiving,'' Les continued, ``because last September he allowed only one run in nine innings against San Diego, but the game went extra innings. For awhile there, too, because he was having some arm trouble, we were limiting him to 110 pitches a game. This year, though, there won't be any such limit.''
Although Ryan enters this season with a 261-242 career record and a shot at the coveted 300 mark (a sure ticket to the Hall of Fame), he might not want to spend the extra years in baseball needed to get it.
Hard to believe? Maybe. But if you're already a millionaire, have an established business, have been traveling for 21 summers, and have a family that is growing up without you, the urge to retire may be too great. And with all those strikeouts and other records, Nolan is a cinch to wind up in Cooperstown sooner or later anyway.
How much just one Cy Young Award would mean to Ryan at this point is hard to say.
In 1973 with the Angels, Nolan won 21 games including two no-hitters; worked 326 innings; struck out 383 batters; and had an earned-run average of 2.87. But he somehow lost the trophy to 22-game-winner Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles.
If what was needed to impress the voters was more victories, Ryan got the message. He increased his wins to 22 the next year, and managed yet another no-hitter. But Catfish Hunter had a sensational 25-win season with the Oakland A's and received the honor.
The way Hollywood's Academy Awards people handle these discrepancies is to make occasional special presentations to great actors who have never won an Oscar. Even Charlie McCarthy got one.
Of course, Nolan Ryan would never lobby for something like that. But if all those strikeouts plus five career no-hitters aren't redeemable for some major award, I don't know what would be!