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At first glance the punches would appear to be Ventura's sentence for the sin of sacrilege. "Going after Nolan," said Cleveland Indian manager Mike Hargrove, "is like going after the Lincoln Memorial." And there was a good deal of George Foremanesque cheering for the old guy, especially after he shut down the White Sox offense in the ensuing four innings. "Ryan's six-punch KO of Ventura was a thing of beauty," wrote Neil Hohlfeld in the Houston Chronicle. "A middle-aged legend met a 26-year-old upstart head-on and provided all middle-aged men with yet another reason to love Nolan."
But some in the American League were cheering for Ventura, who said not only that he would do it again but also that the six punches amounted to "noogies" and nothing more. "Nolan Ryan is no angel," said California manager Buck Rodgers. "He's a hard-nosed, knock-you-on-your-ass type of pitcher. That was no brushback pitch to Ventura. Legend has nothing to do with it. Whether it's Cy Young or Anthony Young, it's pride, and you've got to do something."
White Sox ace Jack McDowell was even more outspoken about Ryan. "The whole world stops when that guy pitches, like he's a god or something," said McDowell. "He's been throwing at batters forever, and people are gutless to do anything about it. You can bet if it had been me out there, I would have been run."
Ryan vs. Ventura has been the main event in a season with a busy undercard. What's going on? There are any number of factors at work and any number of people to blame. Try these people on for fall guys: Marvin Miller, the late Charley Lau, Dr. Spock, Charles Barkley, Linda Cohn, Peter Ueberroth. We'll explain:
Hitters don't hit the way they used to. "Nowadays," says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller, "you've got so many hitters standing over the plate, diving for that outside pitch. It's that Charley Lau school of hitting. A few years ago we'd go over a scouting report, and we'd have two guys on the other team who went the other way. Now there are maybe two guys on the other team who pull the ball. When you have that many hitters leaning over the plate, there are bound to be more hit batsmen. Heck, I see strikes hitting batters now."
Pitchers don't pitch the way they used to. Many pitchers coming up through the college ranks don't throw inside because they gave up too many bloop singles on inside pitches to aluminum bats. Consequently those pitchers have given up a few inches of inside territory, and hitters are digging in.
Umpires don't umpire the way they used to. "The strike zone is shrinking," says Texas pitching coach Claude Osteen. "Pitchers rarely get the inside strike, so the hitters are leaning over the plate. When the pitcher tries to reclaim his territory, accidents happen."
They make too much money. Thanks to the riches brought to them by Marvin Miller and free agency, the players have too much at stake to stand by and let somebody hit them. "With the higher salaries," says Smith, "guys hate to see their careers being damaged."
They watch too much TV. Every fight nowadays is replayed on ESPN's Sports-Center, with Linda Cohn, Keith Olbermann el al., and on Baseball Tonight. "There probably hasn't been a bench-clearing episode that hasn't been replayed countless times," says former Royal pitcher and current Royal broadcaster Paul Splittorff. "That breeds other incidents. If you're a hitter and you've seen 10 or 12 guys going after pitchers, you start to think, Am I required to go out there?"
They are too sensitive. "Batters are too sensitive about inside pitches today," says Giant first baseman Will Clark. "Throwing inside is part of the game."