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Blazing fastball, wicked curve
Already a star, Ryan gained legendary status with Texas
Posted: Tuesday January 05, 1999 10:16 PM
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) -- Before Nolan Ryan joined the Texas Rangers in 1989, he was known as one of the game's hardest throwers, a guy who could strike out 15 or toss a no-hitter every time he took the mound.
It was during his five years in Arlington, however, where his reputation -- and stats -- really soared.
There with the Rangers, he reached unheard of milestones such as 5,000 strikeouts and seven no-hitters, as well as winning his 300th games. And there, Ryan became revered as one of baseball's all-time greats.
Ryan officially joined that group Tuesday by being elected to the Hall of Fame on his first try along with fellow rookie candidates George Brett and Robin Yount.
"I never really viewed myself in that light," Ryan said from his hometown of Alvin, Texas. "It probably wasn't until the last three or four years of my career that I gave it much thought."
It's obvious which teams Brett and Yount will be identified with on their plaques because they played their entire careers in one city.
But Ryan said Tuesday he'd like to be remembered for what he did as a Ranger, so he'll have a "T" on his cap when he's inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 25.
"I think that brought my career and my presence in the game to another level," said Ryan, who seemingly defied nature by remaining a power pitcher at 46. "I feel like those were very special years."
Rangers president Tom Schieffer said Ryan's last five seasons set him apart.
"I think when Nolan came to Texas he was a superstar and when he left he was a legend," Schieffer said. "He came to epitomize everything that was good in baseball, all the values that are enduring and why the people hold the game with so much affection.
"You can't think of anybody you'd rather have in the Hall of Fame."
Ryan had the most strikeouts in a career (5,714) and in a season (383), the most no-hitters and the most seasons (27). He even holds the record for most records (53 held or shared).
He almost set another mark Tuesday, but came just short of Tom Seaver's record for being named on the highest percentage of ballots. Ryan was named on 491 of 497 for 98.79 percent, leaving him only one vote shy of eclipsing his former teammate's total.
Those who voted against Ryan likely held against him the things that kept him from being fully appreciated earlier in his career: the most walks (2,795), a career record (324-292) barely above .500, no Cy Young Awards and only one World Series appearance, made as a second-year reliever.
But Ryan was the most dominant pitcher of his era -- and that spanned several eras. He struck out everyone from A to Z -- from Hank Aaron to Paul Zuvella, actually -- and is the only pitcher to have fanned home-run heroes Roger Maris, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Attendance was higher at games he pitched because fans knew that Ryan on the mound could mean magic.
"When he was on, forget it," said eight-time NL batting champion Tony Gwynn. "You talk about guys being tough. When he was throwing the fastball, change and curve for strikes, it was a victory just getting the bat on the ball."
Reggie Jackson described trying to hit Ryan's 100 mph heater as being "like eating coffee with a fork." Jackson also said Ryan was the only pitcher he feared.
"Not because he could get me out, but because he could kill me," Jackson said.
Ryan broke into the majors with the Mets in 1966, a year out of high school. In fact, he left a minor league ballpark with a no-hitter in progress in the sixth inning when he got the call from the big leagues.
Ryan fanned the first batter he ever faced in the majors, Atlanta pitcher Pat Jarvis, and was on the Miracle Mets that won the 1969 World Series.
But the Mets tired of waiting for him to develop and sent him to California in December 1971 in a deal for Jim Fregosi.
Ryan won 19 and struck out 329 his first season as an Angel. The next year he threw his first no-hitter, won 21 and set the strikeout record. He had two more no-hitters in '74 and tied Sandy Koufax's record with a fourth in '75.
But after the Angels won their first division title in '79, general manager Buzzie Bavasi said Ryan was nothing more than a .500 pitcher and let him go as a free agent.
Igniting another burner
The Houston Astros snapped up the native of nearby Alvin and made him baseball's first million dollar man. In nine seasons, Ryan helped Houston win two division titles, threw his fifth no-hitter, broke Walter Johnson's strikeout record and became the first to fan 4,000.
Although Ryan led the NL in strikeouts in 1988, Astros owner John McMullen thought Ryan was too old and wanted to cut his salary. Ryan instead took a hike up Interstate 45 to Arlington and the Rangers.
"I really thought I'd retire in an Astros uniform," Ryan said Tuesday. "But I also thought I'd retire long before ."
He signed a one-year deal with Texas, but stayed for five. In that time, from age 42 to 46, Ryan made the baseball world realize he was a one-of-a-kind wonder who had to be seen to be believed.
"I think changing teams and changing leagues probably ignited another burner somewhere," said Tom Grieve, Texas' general manager during the Ryan years.
"Although he had nothing to prove, I think he wanted to prove that he could still be exactly what he turned out to be."
Ryan gave Texas something special every season: 301 strikeouts, including No. 5,000, in '89; sixth no-hitter, 300th victory and 11th strikeout title in '90; seventh no-hitter in '91; 23rd straight year of 100 strikeouts in '92 and still hitting 94 mph during his 27th season in '93.
"The thing you marvel at is that he never varied his style," Grieve said. "He didn't develop a knuckleball or go to being a curveball pitcher. He went to the end the way he pitched at the beginning. ...
"I've got my doubts anybody ever has or ever will have that velocity and that dominance when they're 46. It's a freak of nature. He was just a physical specimen who doesn't come around often and possibly never will."
These days, Ryan is under a personal services contract with the Rangers, but it doesn't take much of his time.Ranching and owning a bank do. So does his six-year term on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. He also recently bought a minor league team that his oldest son, Reid, will run.
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