A Nice Guy Who Lasted, Finishes
Nolan Ryan steps down after 26 years as a workhorse with thoroughbred style
ANAHEIM, CALIF. — IN terms of numbers (some would call them stats), the last hurrah for super-pitcher Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers this year was as bland as baby food. Frequent trips to the disabled list (he says that's why he's quitting) limited his starts, curtailed his number of innings pitched, and downgraded his strikeouts to season-total figures he used to achieve by Memorial Day.
Yet the 46-year-old right-hander left the big leagues after 26 years the same way he came in - as a power pitcher. He will be remembered as a workhorse with the style of a thoroughbred. The New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros, and Rangers all employed him.
The Mets, impatient with a young pitcher under .500 struggling with his control, gave up on him too soon.
Ryan has 324 lifetime victories, which ties him for 12th on baseball's all-time list. He leads the world in no-hitters (seven) and in strikeouts (5,714). In five years (the legal waiting period for retired players), the entrance to baseball's Hall of Fame will open as easily to Nolan as the automatic doors of a supermarket to a shopper.
Ryan will be in good company then: George Brett, who played with the Kansas City Royals for all of his 20-year career and is a three-time American League batting champion, announced last month that he would join the Royals' front office at season's end.
Catcher Carlton Fisk, who was released midseason by the Chicago White Sox at age 45, could join Ryan and Brett if no one signs him as a free agent. Fisk owns the record for most games caught in the major leagues (2,226).
``Nolan Ryan is one of the most remarkable athletes I have ever seen,'' says Texas pitching coach Claude Osteen, a World Series winner with the 1965 Dodgers. ``Most fastball pitchers have flamed out by the time they reach their early 30s. Even pitchers like Tom Seaver and Robin Roberts were relying on their breaking ball and changing speeds to get by after a few years.
``But every time we've put the radar gun on Ryan this year, his fastball has been in the mid-to-upper 90s [miles per hour]. Kids growing up with the thought of becoming pitchers ought to study his mechanics, because they're perfect. Yet you can't really explain Nolan, because there has never been anyone like him.''
In fact, even Nolan Ryan can't explain Nolan Ryan.
``Except that maybe I was blessed with a more durable arm than most pitchers, I don't have a secret,'' Ryan told the Monitor during a recent road series against the California Angels. ``But I've always taken care of myself on a year-round basis.... I've never thrown the slider because it's a theory of mine that the slider puts more stress on your arm than the curveball and can shorten your career.
``Along the way, I've been willing to make some adjustments in the way I pitch, because to remain in this game, you have to,'' continued the man who gave $100 bonuses to every teammate who played in one of his no-hitters. ``Around 1981, or maybe it was '82, it seemed like I was giving up more hits than I should, and that I needed to do something about it.
``So I worked hard to improve my change-up [pitch] because the change-up is how a pitcher like me sets up the hitter for his fastball. About that same time, I also added a sinkerball. I threw it almost like my fastball, so for a while most opposing hitters didn't even know I had it.''
Ryan, despite his reputation as one of baseball's most popular players, with fans everywhere, has always been an intimidator on the mound. Hitters who don't move off the plate the first time Nolan throws inside have learned to expect a brushback pitch with his next throw. In fact, installing a sense of uneasiness in the hitter is part of Nolan's plan.
Still remembered is an interview that Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, now back with the Yankees in a front-office capacity, gave about Ryan while Jackson was still a young hitter with the Oakland A's.
``Every hitter likes fastballs, just like everybody likes ice cream,'' Jackson said. ``But you don't like it when somebody is stuffing it into you by the gallon. And that's how you feel when Ryan is overpowering you with 100 mile-an-hour fastballs. You just hope he'll have enough control problems so that you get to walk at least once. Sometimes a good night against Nolan Ryan is 0 for 3, particularly if they aren't all strikeouts!''
Asked if pitching had ever become routine Ryan replies: ``Baseball and pitching has always been a serious thing with me. I've never taken winning for granted. I know you have to work at this game even in the off-season, and I've been willing to do that. I always wanted the ball, regardless of the team in the other dugout. I always wanted to go out there every three or four days and pitch. I think when a pitcher doesn't feel that way, he ought to quit.''
Away from the big-city ballpark, Ryan has always been country - cowboy boots, 10-gallon hat, and a twang in his speech. He's from Alvin, Texas (population 20,000), family-oriented (married with three children).
In the off-season, he operates a 2,000-acre spread with at least 250 head of registered Beefmaster cattle.
If any unanimous opinions existed in baseball today, at the top of the list would be the notion that Ryan is the best pitcher never to have won a Cy Young Award, presented to the top hurler each season in both major leagues.