He looks like he is 43 years old. That is the best thing about Nolan Ryan. He does not have the designer hair of Donald Trump, who just turned 44, or the preserved fraternity-house good looks of 43-year-old Dan Quayle. No, Nolan Ryan takes off his Texas Rangers baseball cap, and his hair is thinner than it used to be, and those little cracks have begun to appear around his eyes. His is just another face from the 25th high school reunion.
"Nolan?" you would say, squinting through bifocals at his name tag during the festivities in the old school gym. "Is that you? Nolan Ryan?"
He could own that corner filling station, bought in '72 when the previous owner passed away. He could be with the state police, joined after coming back from 'Nam. He could be just about anything. There is a next-door normalcy about him. He has painted a picket fence, changed a spark plug, worried late at night about what time that son of his would be home with the family car. No preservatives have been added. He looks natural. Another guy.
"So what are you doing these days, Nolan? I remember you were thinking about selling insurance....
"Baseball? I didn't think you had the temperament to be a coach....
"You play? Baseball? For money?"
He is not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was still playing basketball at 42, a genetic marvel, often taller than anyone else on the floor. He is not even Gordie Howe, who was playing hockey at 52. Howe, old as he was, would remove his game jersey and reveal muscles that made you think of Popeye. No, Nolan Ryan's gifts are inside a normal package. That makes them seem even better.
In Oakland last week, when he became the oldest man in history to throw a no-hitter, the sixth no-hitter of his 23-year major league career, he was an inspiration to every middle-aged-and-over man who stares into a mirror in the morning and, well, just doesn't like the image he sees. Too old? Over the hill? Not if a 43-year-old guy with the same face could be powering his way through the lineup of the world champions of baseball. Uh-uh. The can may be dented and the label may have faded, but the contents are just as good as they ever were. Isn't that right, honey?
There have been other old, successful pitchers in this game—Phil Niekro at 48 and Tommy John at 46 both recently left the mound—but they mostly played a con man's game, pulling strings and presenting illusions.
Ryan threw 93 fastballs out of 132 pitches in Oakland. He struck out 14 batters. He was Don Ameche break-dancing in Cocoon. Take a look at this, boys. Think you can do any better? The radar gun timed his fastball at 94 mph in the ninth inning. Ninety-four miles per hour. He was pitching the same way he did in 1969, when he was a curious phenom from Alvin, Texas, who stuck his fingers in pickle juice to cure blisters.