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It was unseasonably cold in Detroit and so, evidently, was Nolan Ryan, strikeout artist of the California Angels. The Tigers got three runs early, and with Mickey Lolich pitching for them that will usually do. But then something seemed to go out of the Tigers. As California Manager Bobby Winkles said, " Frank Robinson noticed it and started stirring things up on our bench. 'If they don't want this game,' he hollered, 'let's go out and get it for ourselves. It's too cold to sit around here and lose.' By the sixth inning we had the game tied and in the seventh I went to the mound to talk to Ryan. 'Nolie,' I said, 'are you getting a little tired? You've thrown 120 pitches.' He said, 'If you'd put a two in front of that 20 I'd believe you.' "
When the game between the Angels and Tigers was over last Wednesday the 26-year-old Ryan had worked 12 innings and thrown 205 pitches. "I couldn't find my fastball until the eighth inning," he said. "My rhythm was messed up. It sometimes happens at this time of the year." Ah, but Ryan had picked up his fourth victory as well as his fourth complete game in six starts while increasing his strikeout total—highest in baseball—to 66. On Sunday he added five more strikeouts but was wild and maybe tired as the Angels lost 5-0 to Baltimore.
"I really don't try to strike people out," Ryan says disconcertingly. "I am not going after any strikeout records. If they come, they come." Well, they are coming at a rate that should propel Ryan to a place alongside the only two pitchers since 1900 to strike out 300 hitters in consecutive seasons, Rube Waddell and Sandy Koufax. Three times this season Ryan has struck out more than 10 batters in a game. That makes 34 such performances in a very brief career. Until last year Ryan had never had the opportunity to pitch more than 152 innings a season. When he did get the chance he struck out 329 hitters in 284 innings—an average of 10.42 strikeouts for every nine innings of work. In their best seasons Koufax averaged 10.23 and Waddell 8.20. Bob Feller, another pretty fair fireballer, averaged 9.35.
Ryan is pitching for the Angels because the New York Mets traded him for Third Baseman Jim Fregosi during the winter of 1971, a deal that now looks like the grandest heist since Detroit exchanged Denny McLain for Washington's baseball team. "I liked the Mets," says Ryan, "but they always seemed to be in a pennant race, and I never got to work as much as I needed to just to learn how to pitch."
Admittedly, in his Mets days there seemed to be no controllin' Nolan. Today he is capable of fulfilling all the batting-cage metaphors: throwing a strawberry through a locomotive, a marshmallow into Fort Knox, etc. A wild Ryan in New York, however, might walk the opposition's entire roster as well as a passing poodle or two.
On first seeing him, Rube Walker, the Mets' pitching coach, said, "His fastball has a heap of hurry on it." Others were not so kind. It was suggested that his arm needed a body transplant. In 73 starts for the Mets he finished only 13 games. And when he was not having problems with blisters on his pitching hand, he was off on military duty.
The Mets had originally come by him as the 295th choice in the 1965 draft. They dispatched him to Marion, Virginia in the Appalachian League, where that year he struck out 115 batters in 78 innings. A year later, at the age of 19, Ryan fanned 313 in 205 innings and was 17-2 for Greenville of the Western Carolina League.
He advanced to the Mets in 1968. They were developing pennant potential; Ryan, blisters. Still, such is the hunger for a thrower of strawberries through locomotives that Ryan was a semi-celebrity, and New Yorkers expected him to be Christy Mathewson, Allie Reynolds, Don Newcombe, Joe Page and Tom Seaver all at once. In 1969 Ryan was brilliant for New York in both the playoffs and World Series, but two winters later the Mets quit on him and made the trade for Fregosi—a .194 batsman when last we looked.
The trade was engineered by Harry Dalton, who in November 1971 had left Baltimore to become general manager of the Angels. What Dalton inherited was an inept and largely faceless team; in fact, he had been hired because Owners Bob Reynolds and Gene Autry were up on their high horses over front-office bungling. To get him, the Angels had to give Dalton a great deal of money. They also incurred the ire of Oriole Owner Jerry Hoffberger, having talked to Dalton without asking Hoffberger's permission. (Because of the furor over Dalton's departure from Baltimore—and the three top scouts who eventually went with him—Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has ordered the Angels not to hire anyone else from the Orioles until 1974.)
For Autry and Reynolds, Dalton had in writing "not quite 100 questions and concerns." One of the questions was whether he would have the free hand he wanted in player trades. He got it—and began eyeing Fregosi, the best player the Angel organization ever dressed. Many felt that Jim would become the team's player-manager. Dalton had other ideas. He went after a pitcher with Fregosi as bait. The pitcher Dalton ostensibly wanted was Gary Gentry of the Mets, because Dalton's Baltimore scouts had been high on Gentry and the first management man that Dalton as G.M. hired was Coach Bobby Winkles, who had handled Gentry at Arizona State. When the Mets would not yield Gentry, Dalton asked for Ryan. Some suspect he was the pitcher Dalton wanted all along.