Remarkably enough, in some games Ryan's curveball is his best pitch, and on those occasions he will not hesitate to throw it in three-ball situations. No hitter with a keenly developed sense of self-preservation can afford to watch for the Ryan curve. He must be ever alert for the dread Ryan fastball, and since the Ryan curve has been timed at nearly 85 mph, it often looks to the hitter like the Ryan fastball aimed at his head. The prudent hitter will then back off. Thwaak. "Strike three, you're out."
There are a number of fastball practitioners in the majors now, the most renowned being Seaver, Vida Blue, Steve Carlton and Jim Palmer, but none is in Ryan's league. And no one can say what it is that causes him to throw so much harder than anyone else. "Velocity" is the antiseptic word ballplayers now employ to describe speed, but it seems woefully inadequate in conveying the special essence of a Ryan hummer.
Sheer physical strength is not the source of his speed, although at 6'2" and 198 pounds, Ryan has a good pitcher's build. Feller was slightly smaller, Koufax the same size and Johnson a bit larger. But muscles do not give a man arm speed. "If they did," says Oriole Manager Weaver, "I'd have everybody working out with weights. No, it's not that. No one knows what it is. It's like asking what makes a man run fast."
Ryan describes his delivery as "compact," the leg tucked into the chest, the kick only moderately high. He does not throw directly overhand, but, as he puts it, "At about 11 on the face of a clock." Unlike many fastball pitchers, Ryan does not hold the ball out on his fingertips. Instead, he "chokes" it back into his hand, the fingers across the seams. Feller was another across-the-seams fastball pitcher, the theory being that the ball will rise more rapidly with this rotation. This hopping motion is essential, for no matter how hard a ball is thrown, if it does not "move" it remains an inviting target.
When he was with the Mets, Ryan's delivery was inconsistent, varying from game to game, inning to inning. He credits former California Pitching Coach Tom Morgan with correcting this deficiency. Consistency has bred confidence so that now Ryan appears as an imperious figure on the mound, strutting impatiently about his realm, waiting for the hitter to summon up the courage to confront him. Actually he is scarcely conscious of the hitter's existence. "I know he's there, but I don't notice him at all," he says. "I am throwing to my catcher. He is the only one I really see up there. If I paid attention to the hitter, it would ruin my concentration."
Ryan has thick, powerful legs and supple wrists, both of which are invaluable to a fastballer. The thrust off the mound and the snap of the wrist are the prime sources of speed, Ryan believes. Not every fastball pitcher has supple wrists, but most curveballers do. " Tom Seaver does not have loose wrists," Ryan says. "Because of this he does not have a real good curve ball. What he does have is an excellent slider."
There is another factor: rhythm. A good pitcher feels rhythm as surely as a dancer does. When it is all there, nothing seems beyond him. There is sheer exaltation in movement. Ryan refuses to romanticize this sensation, but Feller, a more emotional sort, does not hesitate.
"I had a game against Philadelphia in 1947," he recalls, "when it was all there. They went down as fast as they got up. I struck out 11 of the first 12 hitters and I threw only one curveball. The ball felt like a bullet in my hand. I was moving so smoothly and the ball was just hopping in there. I know I could have struck out 20 that day. I could just feel it. Then after the fourth inning I slipped off the mound and hurt my leg. It was all over just like that."
Every fastballer has been fiercely proud of his gifts, even the humble Johnson. During one close game he had given up hits to the first two batters in the ninth. Teammate George McBride had the temerity at that moment to trot out to the mound and advise the great man to "bear down." Piqued by such impertinence, Johnson promptly fanned the final three hitters on nine pitches.
"McBride," he is reputed to have said afterward, "that will teach you to mind your own darn business."