"Think about it," says Giants pitching coach Norm Sherry. "This guy came up in 1966 throwing incredible gas, as hard as you'd ever want to see. Here it is 20 years later, and he's still throwing it."
Ryan says it's all a matter of mechanics. He throws with his legs and his hips. He has stayed in shape. He's the right size—6'2", 208 pounds. "Most of the great fastball pitchers have been about the same size, not too tall, not too short," he says. And the arm is still sound because he has never thrown a slider, just a nifty curve. "It's a theory of mine," he says, "that the slider puts more stress on the arm than the curve." Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski, who pitched with Ryan in 1973, says, "He was unbelievable then, and he's still unbelievable. His secret? God gave him one hell of an arm."
God certainly did. But this year the arm's hurting. Since Ryan's second return from the disabled list, Lanier has limited the number of his pitches in a game to "around a hundred." Ryan suffers his sore arm in silence. "The casual observer would never know Nolan is hurting," says Astros third baseman Phil Garner. "He never complains, never makes excuses. Everywhere else you hear about people with sore arms, sore backs, sore knees. The clubhouses are full of them. But you'll never hear any of that from Nolan Ryan."
"I haven't pitched without being in pain this year," Ryan admits. "The injury developed in spring training. At first it was just the usual aches and pains, then we thought it might be tendinitis. Now we know it's much more. It's either a partial tear or a complete tear of that ligament [medial collateral]. But it improves with rest. The way things are going, it should heal. I realize now I'm just going to have to throw through it [the pain]. I try not to favor it while I'm pitching. Afterward, there's quite a bit of discomfort. I can't lift things around the ranch. But my attitude is that the less attention I bring to it, the better off I'll be. People don't want to hear about your problems."
Ryan is sipping his morning coffee in the kitchen of the farmhouse that he and Ruth rebuilt on 82 acres just outside of Alvin. "Every little kid seems to fantasize about growing up to play in the big leagues," he says, brushing back strands of receding hair. "Me, I always wanted to be a rancher." And that's exactly what he has become. He keeps heifers on the Alvin property and commercial cattle on 3,000 acres he leases 25 miles west of town, near Rosharon. But his real ranch, his working property, is 150 miles west, about 50 miles outside of San Antonio. On his 2,000 acres there he has 250 head of registered Beefmaster cattle, a breed part Brahman, part Hereford, part shorthorn that originated in Texas some 50 years ago. Ryan is no gentleman rancher. In the off-season he's on horseback, riding herd, "getting kicked, stomped and hooked." He hasn't ridden much during baseball season since he got thrown a few years ago. "I couldn't move afterward," he recalls. "Sat in the whirlpool for two days trying to recover. I didn't miss a turn, though. I don't think the Astros were aware of the hazards of my other occupation, and I wasn't anxious for them to find out. But that incident made me see the light. Now I realize how little time we have in this game. During the season, I'll leave the getting kicked and thrown and having your fingers mashed to the cowboys."
Ryan never saw himself as a big league superstar when he was growing up in Alvin. "In Little League I was successful but not superior to other kids," he says. "In fact, I didn't have a superior arm until I was a sophomore in high school. The only indication I had that there was something there was that I could always throw farther than the other kids—not harder, just farther. Of course, growing up around here I was throwing something or other all the time. My mother was constantly on me about breaking windows. As kids we'd go down to Mustang Bayou and throw rocks at the water moccasins. We had all that time in the summer to fish and just fool around down there. We didn't have that much to entertain us.
"All I thought about in high school was basketball. I was 6'2" but I was the center because I was a good jumper. We were 27 and 4 two years in a row. I know I could've played small-college basketball, and that's what I wanted to do. It's funny the turns your life will take. I remember that one of the colleges—I think it was San Jacinto—held basketball try-outs in our area just as baseball season was starting. I was scheduled to pitch on the day of the tryout. I wanted to go, and I would have if I hadn't been pitching. A friend of mine, Darrel Hunt, did go. In fact he ended up going to that school, but they ruled him ineligible for high school baseball that season because of it. Think about it. If I'd gone to that tryout, I don't know what would've happened. Maybe the Mets never would've seen me."
Jim Watson was Ryan's baseball coach at Alvin High. Watson is now the principal at Pearland High School, about 10 miles north of Alvin. He's a burly man—a University of Texas lineman in the mid-1950s—but he's a little heavier now and a lot softer than he was when he was putting the Alvin High Yellowjackets through their paces a generation ago. He pulls from an office bookshelf a copy of the 1965 Alvin yearbook and turns quickly to the sports pages. "Look at that skinny kid," he says, indicating No. 33 on the basketball team. "Nolan never did weigh more than 150 pounds in high school. But his dad was a big man, so I knew he'd fill out. But even as a skinny little kid he could throw that ball through a wall. He was quiet, a good student, probably the most unpretentious young man I've ever seen.
"Nolan was very raw as a high school pitcher. He didn't have a curveball. But that fastball! I swear that ball jumped about eight inches when it reached the plate. And yes, he was wild. He didn't have any idea where the ball was going, but he didn't have to exactly thread the needle back then. Those kids were so scared, they'd swing at anything just to get out of there. He'd average 15, 16 strikeouts in those seven-inning games."
When Ryan was a sophomore a New York Mets scout named Red Murff, working south Texas, stopped to catch a high school tournament Alvin High was playing near Houston. He had just seen Turk Farrell of the then Houston Colt 45's and Jim Maloney of the Reds pitch against each other in the old Colts Stadium. Farrell and Maloney were two of the hardest throwers in the National League back in the early '60s, but Murff hadn't seen anything until he saw Alvin play that night. "I saw two great arms that day," Murff recalled later. "Then I saw this skinny kid throwing better." Murff hurried over after the high school game to buttonhole the Alvin coach. "Who the hell is that kid?" he asked Watson. Murff was a fixture at Alvin games from that moment on.