"It's probably my fault Nolan was drafted so low [14th round, 295th player selected]," says Watson. "I knew how to put a team together, but I didn't know anything about teaching pitching. And I was real macho then, or at least I thought I was. I wouldn't even let players rub the sore spots where balls would hit them. Even now, with that sore elbow of his, Nolan tells me, 'Coach, I don't rub it.' Anyway, I got mad at our boys after two straight 1 to oh losses, so I had the whole team out running the next day—and I mean running hard. Well, later that day Murff comes up to me and says, 'Jim, Bing Devine [then head of Mets scouting] is coming to town to see Nolan pitch.' He's all excited, but I tell him, 'Red, Nolan just pitched yesterday, and I ran him today until he puked green.' But Red said, 'You gotta pitch him. This is the only time Devine will be down here.' What was I gonna do? I told Nolan he was pitching. When Nolan left in the third inning, the other team was ahead. 7 to oh. Nolan tells me today I cost him $50,000. He's always on me about that. As it is, the Mets signed him for $20,000, and I guess you can say he's sure made up for it since."
Ryan, the aspiring rancher, the homebody, wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of signing a big league contract. "I didn't have much desire to be off in some rookie league," he says, "and I thought I'd blown my chance in that game Devine saw, anyway. But Murff had done his homework on me, and the Mets made their offer. My dad said I should take it, so I did. I always had a lot of respect for my dad."
As raw and fundamentally unsound as he was then, Ryan was in the majors within two years. He was promoted to the big club late in that '66 season. A forearm injury and a service obligation limited him to only 11 innings in the minors in '67, but the next year, fully recovered, he was a Met full-time, joining a remarkable staff of young pitchers that included Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
Ryan was the odd man out. As a member of a top-priority Army reserve unit, he was obliged to attend regular meetings in Pasadena, Texas, which prevented him from becoming part of the starting rotation. "I would go 10 to 12 days between starts," he recalls, "and with my inexperience and the type of pitcher I was, I never did get consistent." He had married Ruth in '67, the year of her graduation, and though she had relatives on Staten Island, the young Texas couple never fully adjusted to life in the fast lane. " New York," says Ryan in masterful understatement, "created inconveniences for us." But in 1969, the year of the "Miracle Mets," Ryan pitched seven innings in the pennant-clinching win over Atlanta in the National League playoffs, and he saved Game 3 of the Mets' five-game triumph in the World Series against Baltimore. That, at least, created a temporary euphoria. "Mother and Dad came to stay with us in New York for the Series. Things were happening so fast. We were suddenly the toast of the town, ticker-tape parades, the whole thing. You almost got to the point where you were taking all this for granted. But my dad died the next year, and here it is 1986 and I'm still waiting to get back in another Series." He will get another chance in a few weeks—if the Astros can get past the Mets.
Back then the Mets, feeling the pressure of success, grew impatient with their part-time soldier and wild man of the mound. Ryan was frustrated, bitter. He compared himself unfavorably to Seaver, a young pitcher only slightly older than he, but who was, relatively speaking, "a polished gem." Ryan, the unpolished country boy, felt like a bumpkin alongside the smoothy from California the people were calling Tom Terrific. He saw himself as a Hurry Kane:
"He had a brown paper suitcase held together by bandages. Some of them had slipped and the raw wounds was exposed. But if the whole thing had fell to pieces, he could have packed the contents in two of his vest pockets without bulging them much...."
"The different life-style, my inexperience, the pressure on the Mets to repeat as champions created an atmosphere I just couldn't be effective in," says Ryan. One night during the 1971 season he suggested to then G.M. Bob Scheffing that it might not be a bad idea to trade him. Scheffing obliged that winter, dealing the unhappy young pitcher in a four-player package to California for Jim Fregosi.
The trade was a bonanza for Ryan and the Angels. Ryan at last was out from under his military obligation, so he would finally get his chance to pitch with some regularity. But he came away from spring training in 1972 convinced that again he had "blown it." He had had a "horrendous spring," and the season opened with a players' strike. Discouraged now beyond endurance, Ryan wanted to quit baseball and go home to Alvin. "I wasn't even in the starting rotation at the end of spring training. Ruth and I didn't have any money. I wanted out. If Ruth had been supportive of that decision, I would have quit on the spot, but she convinced me to stay on. As it turned out, she had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did."
Her confidence was not misplaced. Ryan won 19 games for the fifth-place Angels in '72 and led the league with 329 strikeouts. He broke Koufax's major league strikeout record for a season and won 21 games the next year. On a struggling, building team that couldn't climb higher than fourth in the standings, he won 62 games during his first three years in California and struck out a mind-boggling 1,079 hitters. The fireball legend was building. So, regrettably, were a pair of counterlegends—that he was nothing more than a .500 pitcher and that he threw hard, all right, but couldn't find the plate. Indeed, Ryan has led the league in walks eight times in his career, and, to date, his winning percentage is .526. But since '69 he has played on only two division winners and no league champions. Those early Angel teams could neither field nor hit, so Ryan felt compelled to go for strikeouts and shutouts. He was wild, walking an average of five or more batters per nine innings. But he has cut that back to less than four in recent seasons. And he will tell you he gets as many strikeouts now with his curve as with the heater. His change-up has improved every year.
Nothing aggravates Ryan more than the suggestion that he still hasn't learned anything about pitching. "Some inexperienced writer will pull out the press guide," he says, "and see all those walks and then say I'm still a wild man. People like that have no idea where I've come from in this game and what has gone into my career. For a long time now I've been a student of pitching mechanics. I can tell you who's going to have a sore arm just by observing his motion. If I hadn't made the transition and become a pitcher, not a thrower, I'd have fallen by the wayside. The books are full of people like that. You know, 'Boy, he sure had a great arm, but.... Too bad about him.' "