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Before the game, [New York Mets] Manager Gil Hodges was asked what he expected from Ryan.
"I just want him to give me six or seven good innings," Hodges replied.
Four thousand eight hundred ninety-six and two thirds innings after that game, which brought him his first major league win, a shutout for the Mets, Nolan Ryan has become larger than life, larger than Texas, larger, at last, than football in Texas. The legend of Big Tex—even the nickname is two times large—has swollen with his statistics, has outsped the incendiary fastball that preceded it. Sometime after his sixth no-hitter, on June 11, and before his 300th win last week, Nolan Ryan became Babe Ruth.
"You know how the media can make more of someone than is really there," says Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House. "Nolan is one of the few superstars who is everything he appears to be and more."
"I think it starts with his big numbers, which themselves seem exaggerated or bigger than real," says Rangers manager Bobby Valentine.
The it is Ryan's elevation to the highest rank of American celebrityhood. Just this season, for instance, legions of forty-somethings have begun filing up to him in hotel lobbies, where Ryan now registers under pseudonyms. "They just tell me they're pullin' for me and that they appreciate what's happenin' in my career because we're in the same age group," says baseball's most unfailingly polite player. "It's kind of like a fraternity."
Ryan is 43 and 11-5. Like the budget deficit, though, he should have been a national fixation long before the numbers got so gaudy. "I'm sure people find this hard to believe," Ryan says in what passes for introspection, "but I'm really not number-oriented."
Baseball is. But between Ryan's first win at 21, in front of 29,710 empty seats in the Astrodome, and his 300th, for which one fan flew to Milwaukee from the Dominican Republic, we should have seized on the humbler numbers of Nolan Ryan.
Ten, for example. Ten of his current or former teammates have named a son Ryan in his honor.
Or zero. "Nobody," says Brad Arnsberg, the reliever who saved No. 300, "has anything bad to say about him."