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Dennis Eckersley, the Oakland A'S ace reliever, says there's nothing worse for a pitcher than a "walk-off," that lonely stroll from the mound after giving up the winning run. As walk-offs go, the saddest came on Sept. 22 in Seattle. It didn't end a game, but it ended a career—the longest and perhaps most remarkable career in baseball history.
It wasn't supposed to end this way for Nolan Ryan. He was supposed to strike out his final hitter with either his 95-mph fastball or his paralyzing curveball and then modestly tip his hat to an adoring crowd. Instead, his 27-year career ended six batters—and no outs—into the first inning of a late-season game against the Mariners when a tendon snapped in his right elbow. He left the mound with a 5-0 deficit, largely courtesy of a grand slam by Dann Howitt—which happened to be the 10th grand slam allowed by Ryan during his career, giving him yet another major league record. "When he walked off the mound, I realized, That's it, Nolie's done," said Ranger infielder Jeff Huson. "No more of his no-hitters. No more of his strut or his grunt—all that makes Nolan what Nolan is."
Above all, Ryan is a legend, revered by teammates, opponents and fans alike. "He's Ruthian," says Tom House, his pitching coach from 1989 to '92. "A tier above superstars today." A confectioner named a candy bar after Reggie Jackson; people name their children after Ryan. Former infielder Rance Mulliniks was once asked what the world would be like if everyone were like Ryan. "Everyone would love each other," he said. "And no one would get a hit."
Ryan's career records include seven no-hitters, 12 one-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts. Babe Ruth's home run record has been broken, and even Lou Gehrig's iron-man streak is being challenged, but Ryan's strikeout mark is untouchable. Ryan, 46, had more strikeouts after turning 35 than Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Jim Palmer each had in their careers. He punched out 1,175 different players. Former outfielder Oscar Gamble once described a successful day against Ryan as "Oh for 4 and not getting hit in the head."
While he may not have been the greatest pitcher of all time—he was only 32 wins over .500 for his career—Ryan was the hardest-throwing. From the start of his major league career (on Sept. 11, 1966) until last week, he threw as hard as any man alive, which is comparable to being the world's fastest human for almost three decades. "Others will throw harder," says House, "but no one will throw harder for longer." And Ryan always carried that alluring aura that comes with being the fastest of the fast. Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens says he loved to go to Houston's Astrodome as a teenager just to listen to Ryan warming up.
Ryan won 324 games, the result of a rare blend of providential genetics and perfect mechanics—as well as a maniacal work ethic. After his seventh no-hitter, in 1991, Ryan rode the exercise bike for 45 minutes as family and friends waited to celebrate. "He'd say, 'Pitching is easy; preparing to pitch is hard,' " says House. "He epitomizes what an athlete can do when he applies himself. He paid whatever price it took to compete."
The elbow was tender on Sept. 12, but it was Nolan Ryan Day at Arlington Stadium, so he pitched—he couldn't let the home fans down. The elbow was more tender a week later in Anaheim, but he had pitched eight years for the Angels—he couldn't let those fans down, either. "Nolan knew [the injury] was going to happen eventually," House says. "His front ribs hurt. He shortened the front side on his delivery, and that put pressure on his elbow. But he had to be Nolan Ryan."
But he hadn't been Nolan Ryan for most of the season. He missed 115 days with injuries to his knee, hip and rib cage. "The whole year has been a nightmare," he said after the game in a Ranger clubhouse that Huson described as "the quietest I've ever seen." Ryan was crushed: His career was suddenly over, and he had done little to help Texas in its attempt to win the American League West. "I've never seen Nolan so solemn," said Huson.
It was a solemn occasion for everyone who had had the pleasure of watching the man compete. "When he walked off," House said, "it was the end of something we will never, ever see again."