The sun was still high above Disneyland's Space Mountain last Friday, tracking steadily across the sky toward Sleeping Beauty's Castle, when Nolan Ryan, about to face the New York Yankees, took a surgeon's scalpel from his locker in Anaheim Stadium and began to whittle away at the fingers on his right hand. In the cool of the California Angels' clubhouse, Ryan went about his work slowly, drawing the blade painstakingly down each of the fingers as if he were peeling grapes. With each stroke the knife shaved away a layer of the pitcher's skin, removing his fingerprints, as if Ryan were a thief determined to leave no clues behind. Having prepared himself this way, Ryan knew that a baseball clutched in his right hand would feel as smooth as a bullet. And bullets are what the Yankees would see.
Outside in the sunlight, the Yanks fretted over the prospect of facing Ryan's fastball in the twilight that would envelop the stadium at the 5:15 p.m. outset of the game. Thurman Munson, the Yankees' stumpy catcher, was taking batting practice. "Everybody's so sensitive," he said, with a rare flash of humor, "you'd think Nolan Ryan was pitching." When Munson had finished taking his swings, he stepped out of the cage and walked over to Angel Pitcher Jim Barr, who was standing nearby. "You can tell Nolan that it won't matter what the light's like at five o'clock," he said. "I can't hit him at eight o'clock, either." With that, Munson walked away and was not heard from again the rest of the evening.
Nor were scarcely any of the other Yankees, except as requisite foils for Ryan's performance. What happened in Anaheim last Friday evening is that Nolan Ryan, age 32, with four no-hitters in his accomplished 12-year career and with more strikeouts per inning than any other pitcher in the history of the game (see box, page 16), proved he is still baseball's most exciting pitcher—and quite possibly the best. With a national television audience looking on, Ryan pitched his seventh one-hitter—so the record will say—that lone hit coming with one out in the ninth inning.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the game is that it was not really vintage Ryan the nation was watching. He was tired, having thrown a six-hit shutout against the Red Sox four evenings before, so in the early innings he was not as overpowering as he often is. When Ryan is right, he might have as many as six strikeouts after three innings, his fastball moving at speeds that have been clocked as high as 100.9 mph. But against the Yankees he started unspectacularly. He struck out Graig Nettles in the first inning, but Bobby Murcer hit the ball to the outfield for an out and Munson walked. When he tried to steal he was thrown out.
In the second there was a hint that Ryan wasn't all that tired. He struck out tough-hitting Lou Piniella on three pitches, something that won't happen to Piniella three times a season. "That's the thing Nolan does," says Angel Pitching Coach Larry Sherry. "He embarrasses hitters, and they hate that."
Bucky Dent looked at a third strike in the third inning, and Murcer went down swinging, waving at the ball with only one hand on the bat. In the next inning, Munson's pregame pronouncement was borne out as he blinked at a third strike, giving Ryan five strikeouts after four innings. More important, he had given up no runs and no hits.
Meanwhile the Angels had, as it developed, assured themselves of victory with two runs off Luis Tiant in the bottom of the third, Willie Mays Aikens and Brian Downing singling home the runs. California would add a run in the sixth and three in the eighth, but that was merely for show. Two was enough.
In the seventh inning Ryan struck out Nettles and Piniella again, his sixth and seventh strikeouts of the game. The other Yankee outs were soft ground balls or flies—no one was hitting the ball hard. And now Ryan himself was getting interested. "It's not at all unusual for me to go four or five innings without giving up a hit," he said matter-of-factly after the game. "But after six or so I begin to bear down."
"If you let him get a head of steam by the seventh inning," said Sherry, "you can't hit him. You can't even see him." In fact, he has won 105 of 110 games in which he had led at the end of the seventh inning.
In nearby Paso Robles, Sandy Koufax was not watching the game when a reporter phoned to tell him Ryan had a shot at a fifth no-hitter. Only Ryan and Koufax have pitched four. "That's great," Koufax said. "It's not just my record, it's his record, too."