Ryan has recognized and preserves his gift

John Steadman

May 03, 1991|By John Steadman

Those grains of sand in the hourglass are frozen. Nolan Ryan, you see, defies the passing of time. He holds off the tick of the clock, and there's never a need to turn the calendar. He is a pitching antique, a marvel of the age.

At 44, most baseball players have reluctantly accepted enforced retirement, brought on by the harsh reality that there's no market for their deteriorating services. Ryan is the exception. He pitched his seventh no-hitter Wednesday night against Toronto to establish again, with irrefutable evidence, that he is an absolute marvel -- a physical phenomenon of astonishing proportion.

For a reaction to what rare quality Ryan has that no other man has previously demonstrated in more than a century-and-a-half of throwing a baseball from 60 feet, 6 inches, let's solicit the professional opinion of William Neill III, chief physical therapist at the Kernan Hospital. Neill is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a man who has been administering to the physical needs and repair of athletes for 40 years.

What inner quality separates Ryan from all the rest? "It can't be put into words," said Neill. "What he has is a great gift from God that Nolan has honored and never abused. You have to be lucky to have been given it and also to be able to recognize you have it. To be able to sustain what he does for so long at such a high rate of proficiency puts him in a category few athletes have ever achieved.

"You might think there's some deep innermost secret but the truth of the matter is athletes are made, not born," Neill said. "With Nolan, it's a stroke of luck in genetics. It's an abnormality to do what he does. I always told Jim Palmer each arm is rationed a certain number of pitches. When they are used up, that's it. There's no place to go where you can put in an order for more."

In his practice, Neill has worked with athletes of all ages, male and female, hall of famers and nondescripts, including baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and tennis players, as well as golfers, jockeys, figure skaters, skeet shooters and mountain climbers. He realizes throwing a baseball -- as the late Dr. George Bennett, famed orthopedic surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, always maintained -- "is an unnatural movement."

"The shoulder wasn't constructed to accept the enormous pressure baseball players put on it," Neill said. "But Ryan's shoulder has held together. Man is the only creature to ever throw a ball at a premeditated target, so the throw in its basic sense is unnatural. A shoulder loses its resiliency from the normal wear and tear it is subjected to in baseball. I don't want to sound redundant but what Nolan has is a gift, and he is to be respected for sustaining that important gift with proper diet and workouts."

Flexibility begins to regress when a man or woman reaches 40, said Neill. But Ryan is not simply playing a young man's game. He silenced the Toronto Blue Jays, the best hitting team in the American League, with sheer power in recording his latest jewel of a no-hitter. The average speed of his fastball reached 93 mph, which also happened to be the speed of his final pitch.

This from a man who has been throwing a baseball professionally for 27 years, including the minors and the majors. It means growing older hasn't eroded his ability to throw hard. A "junkball" pitcher -- one with a freak delivery, such as Hoyt Wilhelm or Emil "Dutch" Leonard with the knuckleball -- can conceivably get out batters far past the normal stay of longevity.

But here's Ryan continuing to reach back for the strength to fire a fastball past the opposition. Now he has authored seven career no-hitters, three more than anyone else in history.

"Pitching is a complete body involvement -- feet, ankles, legs, back, shoulders, neck, head, arm, forearm, wrist and hand," said Neill. "His shoulder joints obviously have been beautifully maintained. It would be a fantastic study to examine why his tissue is so superlative. I can't answer why. I go back to it all being a blessing from God."

Most baseball players his age have put the game long behind them, via the arbitrary dictates of nature. They're looking ahead to collecting pensions, putting in a garden, establishing a grooved golf swing and wondering how the fish are biting. Not Nolan Ryan. He sends batters, some less than half his age, back to the dugout screaming for mercy.

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