Nice young people with such simple tastes might not be expected to adapt to the hubbub of the Big Apple, and, indeed, the Ryans could scarcely wait to flee New York. Although he pitched badly—wildly, actually—as a Met, Ryan was still a minor celebrity in his Queens neighborhood, a status which made him uncomfortable: "Kids coming to your door all the time, people bothering you in restaurants." Although now he is legitimately famous, he is living more the life he wants, which is as a homebody. "Reid," he says of his son, "is just like any other kid in the neighborhood. Nobody thinks of him as anyone special."
This disinterest in being special separates Ryan from many of his flashier brothers in the fastball fraternity. Koufax ultimately rejected celebrity, but only after his career ended. Feller was a country boy who nevertheless developed a keen taste for lucre. Vance and Mungo were roisterers. Sam McDowell was not exactly serene. Dizzy Dean reveled in self-glorification and Lefty Grove's irascibility set him apart from the run of mankind. Only self-effacing Walter Johnson seems comparable. Although he died the month before Ryan was born, Johnson may have a spiritual heir in the modern-day strikeout king.
Ryan wears his hair short and neatly trimmed and is a tidy, unflashy dresser, unlike the many peacocks in modern sports. He is an uncommonly handsome young man with near-perfect features and a long, lean physique. With his good looks, lanky build and Texas drawl, he would seem a natural for Western roles in Hollywood, just up the road from Anaheim. But Ryan is content merely to pitch fastballs, invest his $125,000 annual salary in Texas property and wait patiently for the future.
"We're enjoying California," he says, "but we always go back home to Alvin. I like working around cattle, but I'm not much of a cowboy and, with the economic conditions, I don't suppose it's feasible to be a rancher. Right now I'm just into baseball 100%."
He is acutely aware, however, that his lustrous career could end tomorrow. "On a team of 25 guys you'd be amazed how many have arm trouble," he says. "But a sore arm doesn't jeopardize the career of anyone but a pitcher. With us, once you've hurt your arm, that's it." Such wonderful fastballers of the past as Smokey Joe Wood and Ewell (The Whip) Blackwell enjoyed only one superlative season before arm trouble finished them. Ryan has so far been spared such bad luck, although a pulled leg muscle during spring training this year eventually led to elbow difficulties when he altered his pitching motion to compensate for the injury. He was forced to leave one game early and he missed a start, but the arm is as good as ever now, which is as good as any arm ever has been. Still, Ryan recoils at the mention of the cruel blows dealt such fireballers as Dean and the Cleveland Indians' Herb Score. Both were struck by batted balls, and if Ryan has a weakness as a pitcher it is that he does not see the ball well coming off the bat.
Dean's career was ruined in the 1937 All-Star Game when his toe was broken by a ball hit by Earl Averill. When he attempted to come back from the injury too soon, he hurt his arm favoring the leg—much as Ryan, to a lesser extent, hurt his arm this spring.
Score's injury was even sadder. He had won 16 games as a rookie in 1955 and 20 in 1956, leading the American League in strikeouts both years. At first he had only the fastball, but it was considered by some the equal of Feller's in his prime.
In 1956 he had begun to gain control of his curveball, an accomplishment that seemed to assure him years of stardom. "I wish I had his future instead of my past," said the aging Hal Newhouser. It was a wish best left unfulfilled, for on May 7, 1957 the Yankees' Gil McDougald caught hold of a Score fastball and sent it screaming back. The ball struck Score in the right eye. He fell to the mound, blood seeping from his nose, mouth and eyes. His nose was fractured and his eye was so badly injured it was feared he would lose sight in it. Score was a month shy of his 24th birthday, and though he recovered from his injuries and attempted several comebacks, his career was effectively finished.
Last month Score sat in the press box in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium watching Ryan work out. He is an Indians broadcaster now, an affable man who, at 42, still looks as if he could throw the high hard one. Score feels the fastballer's kinship with Ryan, any there-but-for-the-grace-of-God regrets swallowed by his admiration for the young pitcher.
"He's spectacular," Score said. "With someone like Ryan there is always the possibility of a no-hitter or a strikeout record. He is the kind of pitcher who draws fans. It's exciting to watch him. What people don't realize is that he has a great curve. All the really good fastball pitchers did—Koufax, Feller, even Sam McDowell. When I came up, Feller was at the end of his career, but he could still snap that curve. It had such a great spin on it that you could hear the ball hissing through the air. Ryan has that kind of curve. He throws it hard."