Greatness of Ryan rings hollow with only one Series

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 12, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,The Sports Encyclopedia of Baseball

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- If you start thinking about a pitcher with 5,511 strikeouts, 314 wins and seven no-hitters, you'd certainly expect him to own more than one World Series ring.

Incredibly, that's the extent of Nolan Ryan's postseason jewelry collection -- one ring in 25 seasons, one ring from 1969. He denies it, but maybe that's one reason he's still pitching at age 45.

One ring. It doesn't seem fair. Ryan is going to the Hall of Fame, but he can't get to October. For heaven's sake, he could have played in the Series more often by spending his entire career under the Curse of the Bambino in Boston.

One ring. Practically an antique. Ryan was a second-year pitcher in '69, a reliever for the New York Mets. He shut out the Orioles for 2 1/3 innings to earn the save in Game 3. The Mets won the Series. Mike Mussina was less than a year old.

One ring. And time is running out. One of these years Ryan will retire. At the moment, his Texas Rangers feature perhaps baseball's most potent lineup, but also former Oriole Jeff Robinson as a possible fifth starter. Next case.

Ryan said he keeps playing for other reasons -- "I enjoy competing, I enjoy being in shape, I enjoy the life style." There's no doubting his sincerity, but a return to the Series no doubt would be the crowning moment of his glorious career.

"I'd like to do that," he conceded yesterday after a routine three-hour workout. "But I never think about it that way. That's a thing you don't have any control over. The odds of you doing it aren't very good."

Obviously he's correct, but if the baseball gods can permit Lonnie Smith to reach the Series with four different clubs, then surely they can do something to accommodate the Express.

Not long ago, Ryan was dismissed as a .500 pitcher. The fact is, his .530 lifetime winning percentage is higher than the .507 percentage of his teams. OK, Ryan hasn't played for as many losers as Ernie Banks. But it's not a bad comparison.

He barely even remembers '69. He's not one for jewelry, so he doesn't wear the ring. October? That's a month he usually spends working charity events and managing his cattle. He watches the postseason on television, but only if it fits his schedule.

Since '69, his autumn routine has been interrupted only four times. He pitched in league championship series for California in '79 and Houston in '80 and '86. He also appeared in a divisional playoff for Houston in the strike season of '81.

Ryan being Ryan, his brief postseason history includes its share of memorable moments. He struck out the first four Orioles he faced in Game 1 of the '79 LCS. His 46 career strikeouts in the LCS tie him with Jim Palmer for the all-time lead.

The Angels lost to the Orioles three games to one in '79, but Ryan's three playoff series with the Astros rank among the most exciting in recent memory. Typical of his career, he was on the wrong end each time.

In '80 he took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning of the decisive fifth game against Philadelphia at the Astrodome. The Phillies chased him with a five-run inning. The Astros tied it in the bottom half. The Phillies won it in the 10th.

In '81, the Astros lost the best-of-five divisional series to Los Angeles after winning the first two games. And in '86, under a best-of-seven format, they fell to the Mets in six, losing the final two games in 12 and 16 innings. Ryan dueled Dwight Gooden in Game 5, allowing one run in nine innings.

"With the Angels in '79, we didn't match up real well with the Orioles -- they had just so much pitching," Ryan said. "The '80 series [with Houston] we probably should have won. But in '86, I thought the Mets had a better balanced ballclub."

He doesn't revel in his triumphs. He doesn't dwell on his defeats. "I have no regrets," he said. "I don't look back on anything. I don't reminisce at all. The way I view it, my career is an ongoing deal. I have to concern myself with what I have to do around here."

Who can argue? At the age of 44, Ryan last season ranked third in the AL with 203 strikeouts and fifth with a 2.91 ERA. He held opponents to a major-league low .173 batting average, and his 12-6 record matched his career-high for games over .500.

His critics grow quieter every season, for it's now impossible to disparage the extraordinary breadth of his career. Nolan Ryan might shrug, but here's rooting for the Texas Rangers to make the World Series.

He deserves more than one ring.

Ryan through the years

YEAR ... ... TEAM ... ... RYAN ... ... CLUB FINISH

1968 ... ... New York(N) ... 6-9 .. .. 73-89 9th

1969 ... ... New York(N) ... 6-3 .. .. 100-62 1st

1970 ... ... New York(N) ... 7-11 .. .. 83-79 3rd

1971 ... ... New York(N) ... 10-14 ... .. 83-79 3rd

1972 ... ... California .. .. 19-16 .. .. 75-80 5th

1973 ... ... California .. .. 21-16 .. .. 79-83 4th

1974 ... ... California .. .. 22-16 .. .. 68-94 6th

1975 ... ... California .. .. 14-12 .. .. 72-89 6th

1976 ... ... California .. .. 17-18 .. .. 76-86 4th

1977 ... ... California .. .. 19-16 .. .. 74-88 5th

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