Secret of Ryan's success is hardly revolutionary

JOHN EISENBERG

April 21, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Nolan Ryan is riding an exercise bicycle in the middle of th Texas Rangers' clubhouse. The game just ended, and he is sitting there working up a sweat. He just pitched the 304th victory of his career, his 208th game with at least 10 strikeouts. He left with a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning. He is 44 years old.

I am watching him ride, legs going round and round and round. His teammates are enjoying the win, watching television, eating barbecue. Ryan is riding the bicycle. I am on a mission. I am seeking his secret. There is an explanation for the phenomenon that is Nolan Ryan. I know there is.

His locker is near the end of a row, filled with uniforms, warm-ups, clothes, a glove, a few pairs of running shoes. There is a football on top, a couple of hand weights, a toilet kit with a toothbrush sticking out. A little bottle with some liquid in it. Something wrapped in foil.

I am standing in front of the locker, seeking the secret. The reason Ryan still throws 93 mph fastballs at 44. The reasons he continues pushing his myriad records up and up with every game he pitches. Now he has 5,336 strikeouts in 5,012 innings. There is a secret. I know there is.

"What is that thing wrapped in foil?" I ask suspiciously.

A man who works for the Rangers smiles kindly. "I believe," he says, "that that is a salad."

A salad. That is not the secret. I eat salads. I do not throw 93 mph fastballs.

"What is that little bottle of liquid?" I ask.

The man who works for the Rangers is still smiling. "If I'm not mistaken," he says, "that is Nolan's cologne."

I was hoping to uncover a secret device or balm that enabled Ryan's arm to defy science. Something that made it superhuman. Fred MacMurray was always discovering that kind of stuff in Disney movies and kicking 75-yard field goals to beat State. Ryan's story is kind of a Disney movie, no?

Or I was hoping maybe to catch a glimpse of Ryan unscrewing his mechanical pitching arm and hiding it in a leather case, like a violin, and then screwing his regular arm back on. That would explain the miracle of such fastballing mastery at 44.

But I am striking out. No pun intended. I only see a salad wrapped in foil. A little bottle of cologne. Running shoes. Ryan sweating on the bicycle, legs going round and round and round. I see no great secret. Nothing that explains all those thousands of innings and strikeouts.

I am lucky, though. There is a man who wants to help. His name is Tom House and he is the Rangers' pitching coach, one of baseball's original minds. He and Ryan have written a book about pitching. He tells me that seeking a secret is fruitless. He gives his explanation for the phenomenon.

"The first thing is genetics," he says. "Nolan's mom and dad presented him with pretty good tools to start with. I'm talking about his arm. The tissue between the ligaments, the ratio of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles, the nerves -- it's all probably among the elite of the elite."

I feel compelled to warn Mr. House that the only science courses I took in college were "Chemistry for Poets" and "Alchemy and Botany in the Third World." He understands.

"Let me try to make this simple," he says. "Nolan has a special arm. But in order for him to pitch at 44 like he did at 24, he must train incredibly hard. Such a thing can be done, obviously, but he is one of the few people in the world willing to take on the necessary training."

I chip in: What I know about Ryan is that he was into weight-training 20 years ago, before anyone else.

"And now he puts in probably three hours of practice for every one that other pitchers put in," House says. "Weights, stretching, running, abdominal work, aerobic work -- his physical base is simply second to none."

But I am seeking the secret, and being in shape is not the secret of pitching well. If it were, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a Cy Young winner. Denny McLain once won 30 games with a body resembling a pumpkin on steroids.

"There's also the mental component, though," House says. "Nolan's motivational mind-set is the best I've ever seen. He has an enormous will. He also has this amazing intuitive sense about pitching. We've done all this film and computer analysis, and he arrived at the same conclusions on his own."

Ah. And I am beginning to feel better. The pieces of the puzzle are coming together. A special arm. A peerless worker. An enormous will. Ryan also has learned to pitch, not just throw. He has a curve that bends, a changeup that fools. He isn't just a fastball. The Orioles were baffled yesterday.

I tell Mr. House that I think I get it, and I do. There is no device or balm, no mechanical arm. The secret to the marvel that is Nolan Ryan is right there in front of me in the clubhouse. It is Ryan on that exercise bicycle after pitching a win, pushing himself, legs going round and round and round.

"He usually does more than you tell him," House says. "Never less."

Round and round and round.

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