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The Ryan Express - Nolan Ryan, a Great American Baseball Pitcher
Born on January 31, 1947 Lynn Nolan Ryan Junior was perhaps the greatest pitcher the world of Baseball has ever known. As a youth of only 19, he became a Major League Baseball pitcher and the world was never to be the same. Blessed with a God given talent to throw blazing fastballs that often exceeded 100 miles per hours, he fought to become something other than merely a thrower of heat and to become a pitcher. Over time, he added a wicked curve ball designed to buckle the knees of the most stout of heart,and a change up thrown at the high 80's, which is the speed of a large group of pitcher's fastball. It simply wasn't fair for someone to be so blessed. But he was, and his records are numerous and impressive.
Major League Best 27 year career, spanning the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's.
Major League Best 5,714 strikeouts. His nearest competitor, Randy Johnson, is over 800 strikeouts behind him. To put that into perspective, Roger, the Rocket Clemons, another fireballer who played 25 seasons, comes in third with 4,672 strikeouts, over 1,000 behind Ryan. Felix Hernandez, known as King Felix, has played 7 seasons and currently has 1,472 strikeouts. That is averaging 200+ strikeouts per year. For Felix to catch Ryan, he will have to average 200 strikeouts per year for another 21 years. He's good, but I don't think he'sthat good.
However, as I said, Ryan struggled with his power and sometimes paid for it. His 2,795 walks leads his next closest competitor by 962 batters. He walked in excess of 50% more batters than any other pitcher in history. A dubious honor indeed.
He also had a record 7 no hitters, 3 more than anyone else. He had 12 one hitters, and 18 two hitters; yet he never once won a Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the league. One has to wonder how.
Well, it could have had something to do with the teams he played for. The New York Mets had both he and Tom Seaver in their lineup, yet early on they chose to keep him in their bullpen due to his wildness. He pitched well for the 1969 Miracle Mets, and reached the World Series for the only time in his career. However, they fell to the Baltimore Orioles that year. Never again would he taste that sweetness of World Series play as a player. In late 1971 he was traded to the California Angels.
He pitched for the Angels through 1979, which were perennially a losing squad, yet he posted winning records most years. He set records for strikeouts, with his highest total coming in at 383 in a single season. This record still stands today, and I feel no pitcher will ever come close to this again.
After the 1979 season, he signed what was at the time the largest contract ever given to a player. He became Baseball's, and all major sport's first Million Dollar Man. However, his team was anything but a million dollar team. While they did make the playoffs with Ryan as a pitcher, they failed to advance to the World Series both times. To give you an idea of just how bad they were, and just how good he was, in 1987 Ryan at age 40 led the league in ERA (Earned Run Average) at 2.76 and strikeouts with 270, yet won only 8 games due to his team's poor run scoring ability.
In 1989 he moved to the Texas Rangers to continue his career. At age 42 that year he won 16 games and struck out an amazing 301 batters. Two years later, he reached the milestone of 5,000 strikeouts by fanning Ricky Henderson. Ricky summed it up well by stating that "If he ain't struck you out, then you ain't nobody." How true, Ricky. How true.
In August of 1993, he hit Robin Ventura with a pitch. Ventura took exception, threw down his bat and helmet and charged the mound. Ryan waited patiently for him, and grasped the almost 20 year younger Ventura around the head with his left arm, while pummeling Ventura six times in the head with his right. Afterward, teammates of Ryan were heard to say that Ryan was the most fit and strongest man on their team, and Ventura was not too bright to try to take him on. To Ryan, I imagined it was just like bull dogging a steer back home on his ranch.
At age 44 he finished with another ERA under 3, at 2.91 and struck out 203 to finish 3rd in that category.
His career finished on September 22, 1993 when he released a pitch and tore a ligament in his throwing arm. He stayed in the game and attempted to pitch through the pain. His next, and final, pitch was clocked at 98 miles per hour. 98 mph at age 46, an age when most players are coaches at best or remembering the old days at worst, he threw a pitch harder and faster than 95% of the pitchers that have ever played the game.
One of the aspects of his career that stood out to me was his dedication to the game itself, and his desire to be in the best shape possible. After games in which he had pitched, he was known to ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes. On days when he was not pitching, he would lift weights and ride for 2 hours every day. He was a master at making his body into the weapon it had become.
Total wins over the years stand at 324, losses at 292. His lifetime ERA is 3.19 which is better than Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Randy Johnson, Luis Tiant, and even Orel Hershiser. His 324 wins tops his great teammate Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson (again!), Jim Palmer, and even the venerable Bob Gibson. As good as he was, how much better could he have been had he been able to tame that monster and reduce his walks? Or if he had played for annual contenders such as the St Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, or even the Orioles or Dodgers? Would an additional 3 wins a year been with reach? Could he have totaled 400 or more wins in his time? I would have to say, without a doubt, yes.
Ryan was and remains my favorite player, although I am a died in the wool St Louis fan. His strength of character, his will to play the game on his terms, his will to win stands the test of time of what it takes to be head and shoulders above the majority of players and rank as one of the greatest of all time. The voting public saw things this way as well, as in 1999, in his first year of eligibility, he lacked only 6 votes of being the first man elected to the Hall of Fame with a perfect score of 100% of the votes. Only Tom Seaver had more votes when he was elected.
As great as he was, I still wonder about how much more could he have been with just a little run support from a team. Another run per game might have netted him 50 or 60 more wins, and placed him into the rare air of Warren Spahn, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Christy Mathewson. Stretch it just a bit farther, and you are in Walter Johnson area, as only the third man to eclipse 400 wins in a career. I for one do not feel it was out of the question; only out of his hands due to his teammates. But baseball is a team sport, and one is only as good as his supporting staff. Too bad Ryan had less than stellar support for the majority of his career.
I remember a game in which he threw for the Astros and they had the speed, or radar gun on him all night. I seem to remember him hitting 102 or 104 that night, and it was late in the game. The ball just popped when it hit the catcher's mitt.
In 2011, with Ryan as the owner of the Texas Rangers, I had a real dilemma. My St Louis Cardinals were going for "11 in '11", striving to become only the second team in history to garner 11 world championships. But they were going up against the Rangers, and my favorite all time player. I finally settled back and just enjoyed what many feel was the greatest World Series of all time. Either way, I would be happy. If Nolan and the Rangers won, then he would get a World Series Championship; if the Cardinals won, them my team would get their championship. Either way, I was a winner. (Card's won!)