PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Nolan Ryan and his wife, Ruth, were enjoying a post-game dinner in Arlington, Texas, last year. At least they were trying to enjoy the meal when a man approached to interrupt.
Would you sign my cast? he asked Ryan. Sure, said Ryan. He laid aside his fork.
Whereupon the fellow lifted his leg and plopped a cast-bound foot atop the table. It landed next to the Ryan's food.
"I thought to myself, 'Man, you need to wash your toes,' " Ryan recalled.
Home or away, in season or off, such is the life of ultra-star Ryan. He cannot escape the madding crowd. People will go to absurd lengths to see that he doesn't.
Here at the Texas Rangers' spring-training base, when the team is at home, they begin lining up at 7:30 a.m. for autographs. Upon arrival Thursday afternoon, I counted 92 people standing so and learned that the number is normally double. Chilly 53-degree temperature accounted for the low turnout.
Ryan obliges his fans for 20 minutes almost daily. On this occasion, because of the weather, he did not. No matter. They will queue again for the next home game. They know where to be and how to behave.
Stay in line. Remain orderly. Present only one item for autograph. Don't return to the line.
"About 60 percent of them are pleasant and appreciative. The other 40 percent," said Ryan in a flat tone, "are collectors and sellers."
That morning he had already signed 20 dozen baseballs for in-house use. They were rewards for the Rangers' group sales program. Those who sold the most tickets will receive a ball with Ryan's s signature.
The mania for Ryan memorabilia is everywhere. Even within the Rangers locker room.
"As many players as fans ask him to sign," said Rangers radio voice Mark Holtz. "I've seen Charlie Hough, when he was here, ask him to sign eight or 10 baseballs."
A miniature version of the same request took place the other day. John Barfield approached Ryan's stall with an open program and pen in hand. Ryan nodded toward a spot on the page to be sure he signed in the right place.
"Yes sir," said Barfield, 27, in deference to the 45-year-old patriarch.
Visiting teams to Arlington Stadium further test Ryan's time and patience. Their volume became so heavy that a sign is now posted. It says that once during the series, usually the second day, Ryan signs. Get your stuff ready then and send it to him.
Nor is home in Alvin, Texas, a refuge. Ruth Ryan has been stopped in mid-stride of exercise runs by strangers. They ask her to trot their stuff back to the house for her husband to autograph.
The Ryan children aren't immune, either. They have returned from school with items for their father. Teachers sent them.
The Ryans no longer allow people to drop things at their house as if it were a Goodwill collection site. Ryan found bats, balls, gloves and whatever on his front porch. In his pickup truck. Or jammed in the mailbox.
"It might be anything from a magazine to a dozen baseball cards," he said. "We had hundreds of items. And no clue whose they were. Then people called and asked if their stuff was ready."
Ryan may be the best at trying to please as often as possible. An average of 350 to 400 pieces of fan mail is returned to sender with a signed publicity picture. He pays receptionist Jeannie Wangner to meet this obligation he feels to the public.
He signs for everyone -- team, teammates, opposing players, charity causes, fund-raisers and fans. And he still can't please all the people all of the time.
A woman wrote to complain of Ryan last season. Her family drove to Texas from Colorado Springs, Colo., to obtain a Ryan autograph. Not only did they fail, but Ryan was running on the field and wouldn't even look up so her son could take a picture of him. What were the Rangers going do about it?
"I don't mind signing, although at times it's an inconvenience," Ryan says. "The thing that irritates me most is that it's a no-win situation.
"If I sign 300 autographs and I'm leaving and there's three people left, they'll say, 'But I've been waiting six hours.' What do you say to that? You can't say that signing autographs isn't the reason I'm here.
"I try to be accommodating. But sometimes," he said, with a sigh of resignation, "you feel like you're chasing your own tail."