For years, Dwight Evans has told younger teammates what it was like to face Nolan Ryan when he first came to the American League. Ryan was with the California Angels then, in the early 1970s, routinely registering more than 100 mph on the radar gun.
"They'd say, 'He couldn't have thrown any faster than he does now,' " Evans said last night. "There were times when you popped it up and were happy to get a piece of the ball."
For years, Ernie Whitt has tried to do that. In 10 at-bats against Ryan, Whitt has been imperfectly perfect with 10 strikeouts. "I couldn't tell you what it's like to hit against Nolan," said Whitt. "He's been tougher on me than anyone I've faced in my career."
But as tough as Ryan has been during his slow-starting career -- 24 years, 303 victories, six no-hitters and 5,326 strikeouts -- the Baltimore Orioles and Memorial Stadium have been more difficult for Ryan.
Until a 15-3 victory Sunday in Arlington, Texas, Ryan had lost nine straight decisions to the Orioles dating to 1976. And going into today's scheduled start, Ryan hasn't won in Baltimore since May 18, 1975, a stretch of eight starts and seven losses. Both streaks were interrupted by nine years in the National League.
"I don't have an explanation of why some clubs give you more trouble than others and why you have trouble in certain ballparks," said Ryan, whose 6-16 career record against the Orioles is by far the worst he has against any American League team.
L In his early years, Ryan can remember former Orioles manager
Earl Weaver "loading the lineup with little left-handed contact hitters and running a lot." And more recently, it wasn't the manager or the team that was as problematical for Ryan as was the pitcher's mound.
During one series two years ago, former Rangers pitcher Jamie Moyer blamed the steep mound for a shoulder injury that forced him to miss half the 1989 season. Pitching the next day, Ryan said that he had more stiffness than after any other game that year.
"But I can't blame my lack of success on the mound at Memorial Stadium," Ryan said. "The mound wasn't hitting those line drives."
Texas manager Bobby Valentine juggled the rotation so that Ryan avoided pitching at Memorial Stadium last season. Valentine said that the recent victory over the Orioles was bigger for Ryan than the 44-year-old right-hander might let on.
LTC "It's always in the back of your mind," Valentine said. "One of the great things about Nolan is that he does have such tremendous pride. To have a stumbling block in that kind of mental framework, I'm sure he wanted to get over it."
Ryan ended up striking out nine over seven innings. Five were on called third strikes, and most of the strikeouts cames on a nasty curve rather than his 95-mph fastball.
"I don't know what it would have been like to hit against him in the old days, but I can't believe he's lost anything," Horn said. "He keeps you off-balance because he has a great command of his pitches."
Evans said, "He doesn't throw as hard as he used to, but he still throws harder than everyone else."
What has made Ryan more intimidating than he was with the New York Mets and Angels is the development of his curve and changeup to complement the fastball.
Fourteen years after facing Ryan for the first time -- "He struck out 19 that day, and I was No. 19," he recalled -- Whitt is still trying.
"Every time I go up there, I'm battling," Whitt said. "He seems to get every pitch over the plate. I haven't given up."
So does Ryan.
Beating the Orioles is one.
Winning at Memorial Stadium is another. It's not exactly his field of dreams.