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Nixon didn't hesitate. He looked at us and said, "Oh, don't worry about that. I've met the $##"#!! man before."
Any discussion of the fastball has to begin with Nolan Ryan, with Goose Gossage in relief. Ryan was the first man I ever saw who was capable of throwing an exploding fastball. Although we knew he was supposedly the fastest gun in the National League, I didn't hear him pitch until 1972, after the Mets traded him to the Angels. In a game in August I had the plate with him on the mound. I was immediately impressed, but not overwhelmed, not until the fourth inning. In that inning he went into his fluid wind-up, reared back and fired. Until the pitch reached home plate it looked like a very good, but normal, rising fastball. Then, suddenly, it exploded! A million specks of shiny white cover blinded me. I closed my eyes to protect myself. I waited for the roar of the crowd.
Nobody else noticed it.
I blinked, tried to shake the flash out of my eyes, and called it a strike.
Must have been my imagination, I thought, and put it out of my mind. But a few innings later, bam! The same thing happened. The baseball actually exploded. That's when I began to worry that there was something wrong with my eyesight. So when I was in New York City I made an appointment with a noted optometrist.
The doctor examined my eyes, then explained that Ryan's exploding fastball was simply an optical illusion. Normally, when a pitcher releases the ball, it appears to be the size of a golf ball, but as it comes toward the plate it grows into a regular-sized baseball. A number of times each game Ryan threw the ball with such velocity that my eyes simply couldn't make the adjustment fast enough, so it remained golf-ball size until it got to the plate, then popped, or exploded, into a full-sized baseball. That explained my problem. "So my eyes are O.K.?" I asked him.
"For an umpire," the doctor answered noncommittally.
The key to hitting is good eyes. Ted Williams went just a bit further. He claimed he could actually see the ball hit the bat. He said he could see if the bat hit one seam, two seams or missed the seams entirely. In spring training, in 1972, he offered to prove it to me. Admittedly, I was reluctant to go along with him. In his prime Williams had been one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, but at this time he was 54 years old. A hitter's reflexes usually start fading in his mid-30s, and in Williams' case that was two decades earlier. I didn't want to embarrass him by shattering one of his beliefs, but he insisted. With my head down, I followed him to a practice field. He covered the barrel of a bat with pine tar and stepped up to the plate. A hard-throwing rookie had been recruited to pitch to him. I took a deep breath, anticipating what was going to be a very sad moment.
The young pitcher threw a bullet and Williams hit a rocket to centerfield. "One seam," he shouted confidently over his shoulder.
"Sure, Ted," I agreed. I was just glad he was still able to hit the ball. Someone retrieved it and brought it over to me. One seam was covered with pine tar.