'Boy, your fast one is a fast one! But I just got through telling you not to cut loose. The other fellas ain't ready for it and neither are you. I don't want nobody killed this time of year.'
"So Kane said: 'I didn't cut loose. I can send them through there twice as fast as that. I'm scared to yet, because I ain't sure of my control. I'll show you something in a couple more days.' "
The fastball pitcher, the strikeout king, the kid who can throw the high hard one, the dark one, the hummer, heat, smoke, is, with the home run hitter, the glamour boy of the game, the stuff of baseball legend. Consider the mythic status of Walter Johnson, who threw so hard he never bothered to learn to throw a good curve-ball and still won 416 games and led the American League in strikeouts 12 times. As Lardner once wrote of Johnson, "He's got a gun concealed about his person. They can't tell me he throws them balls with his arm." Or consider Lefty Grove, of whom columnist Bugs Baer once wrote, "He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf." Or Bob (Rapid Robert) Feller. Or Van Lingle Mungo. Or Dizzy Dean. Or Dazzy Vance. Or Sandy Koufax, who had that terrifying heater but couldn't find the plate early in his career until, as his manager, Walter Alston, once marveled, "When he finally made it, he didn't just get adequate control, he went from wildness to perfection."
Wildness. What a fearful word. And it goes hand in glove with speed. Fast and wild. Most of the great fastball pitchers were wild at some time in their careers. It is the wildness, or the fear of it, that gives the fireballer that extra edge. With a fastball pitcher in front of him even the most dauntless hitter has a sense of dread.
Fastballers are always other-dimensional, outsized. Rube Waddell (the single-season strikeout king from 1904 until Koufax superseded him in 1965), Vance, Sudden Sam McDowell and Ryne Duren were prodigious roisterers. Smokey Joe Wood, Dean, Ewell Blackwell, Herb Score, Koufax and J.R. Richard were all tragically flawed by injury or illness that took their soaring careers from them too soon. Even today, the true giants of the mound are the Hurry Kanes: Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens ascending, Tom Seaver, Goose Gossage and Steve Carlton descending.
But all of these legends, living and dead, are as so many balloon-tossers when compared with Nolan Ryan, "The Ryan Express." When Clemens fanned 20 Seattle Mariners in a game on April 29, he surpassed the single-game strikeout record of 19 then held jointly by Ryan, Seaver and Carlton. Clemens thus became the owner of the only significant strikeout record Ryan does not hold. And 19 K's in a game wasn't all that big a deal for Ryan, anyway; he has done it four times. He has struck out at least 10 hitters in a game 161 times to date. He had 23 such games in 1973, when he set the single-season record of 383 strikeouts. The season record is all the more impressive because it was accomplished the first year the American League went to the designated hitter. "If they'd had pitchers batting that year," says Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog, "he'd probably have struck out 440." In five different seasons Ryan struck out 300 or more hitters, surpassing Koufax, who had three such seasons. He had three consecutive 300-strikeout seasons, one more than Koufax, J.R. Richard and Waddell. He broke Johnson's career record of 3,508 K's on April 27, 1983, by fanning Brad Mills of the Expos. He became the first to reach 4,000 when he fanned Danny Heep of the Mets on three pitches on July 11, 1985. And he holds the ongoing career record of 4,259 (in 20 seasons), a standard unlikely to be surpassed in this century, if ever. Ryan's average of 9.35 whiffs per nine innings is the best ever, exceeding Koufax's 9.27.
For good measure, he has thrown a record five no-hitters, one more than Koufax. The first two came exactly two months apart in 1973, and he had one each in 1974 and '75. The last one came against the Dodgers on Sept. 26, 1981, with his mother, Martha, watching in Houston. He was then 34. He also, of course, holds the career record for walks, now at 2,264.
Various mechanical contrivances have been employed over the years to time fastballs. By piecing together photo frames, some experts concluded that Johnson got the ball up to 100 miles an hour. Feller was timed by the Army, using something called lumiline chronography, in 1946 at 98.6 mph, the fastest pitch officially recorded to that date. Electronics technicians from Rockwell International, operating sophisticated radar equipment, caught Ryan at 100.9 mph on Aug. 20, 1974, during a game against the Tigers in which he threw seven pitches at more than 100. And on Sept. 7, using even more advanced gadgetry, they timed one of his pitches at 100.8. That pitch was thrown, following about 150 others, to the White Sox leadoff hitter in the ninth inning, proof, as beleaguered major league hitters had long suspected, that the Ryan Express runs faster the later it gets. Ryan was notorious at that time for the number of pitches he threw in a game. "When I was at California [in '75 as a coach]," says Herzog, "he averaged 157 pitches a game. He threw 229 in one 15-inning game. Then he came back three days later and pitched a three-hit shutout."
All well and good, but this was more than a decade ago. Fireballers are famous for flaming out early. But Ryan—ah, Ryan—is still throwing the old smoke at age 39. In fact, he's still throwing as hard or harder than anyone in the game, including the young flamethrowers, Gooden and Clemens. As late as 1984, Ryan was clocked at 99 mph. Last year, he was still up to 97 and 98. He was caught at 97 on July 22 of this year—a week before he went on the disabled list for the second time this season with a sore elbow—in a game against Montreal in which he struck out 14 in nine-plus innings. In winning the 250th game of his career, on Aug. 27, he got the old hummer up to 95. "He's consistently at 93, 94," says his manager, Hal Lanier, "and he's over 90 every time he goes out there." This season he is again averaging better than a strikeout per inning. Despite an ineffective spell at the start of the year and the two stints on the DL, Ryan is 10-8 with a 3.59 ERA. Since the All-Star break, he has an ERA of 2.63, giving up just 34 hits and striking out 82 in 68? innings.
This fantastic ability still to "bring it" after all these years absolutely baffles the baseball savants. Larry Dierker, an Astros broadcaster and once a Houston fireballer himself, says, "The way he's throwing, if you didn't know how old he was, and you thought he was just coming out of high school, you'd draft him Number 1 in the nation on stuff alone. And here's a guy who has thrown more than 4,000 innings." "How many pitchers have thrown that hard for that long?" asks Houston pitching coach Les Moss. "The answer is none." According to Reds third baseman Buddy Bell, who has batted against him in both leagues, "Nolie hasn't lost much velocity. You can see the ball a little better, but not much."