Chairman Nolan leaves no one bored

JOHN EISENBERG

July 17, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Was it a big night? A special night? Are you kidding?

There was a 40-foot-high color portrait of the other team's starting pitcher hanging on the front facade of the ballpark. Bigger than the giant American flag hanging alongside.

Greetings from Chairman Nolan.

"The Rangers put it up last year," someone said, "and liked it so much they never took it down."

Down in the Orioles clubhouse, three hours before the first pitch, Leo Gomez stood by an old air-conditioner rattling in the summer heat and pointed to his name on the lineup card. A special night? Are you kidding?

"This will be my third game against him," Gomez said. "Once last year, once this year. Two strikeouts, one fly ball. I remember every pitch. Every situation. Every swing. You don't forget anything when you bat against Nolan Ryan."

Most ballplayers would have you believe that they don't blink at anything, that nothing separates the long, gray line of 162 games. But then someone tells them Nolan Ryan is pitching tonight.

Throwing to a catcher who -- get this -- is younger than Ryan's oldest son.

And they blink.

"When I faced him the first time five years ago," Mark McLemore said, "I was terrified. I came up [to the majors] with a bunch of veterans who remembered when he was really throwing serious cheese. Not that he still doesn't. Anyway, they scared me to death. But it's funny. I got a hit that night. Third at-bat. A single."

They always remember. When. Where. How. What they ate for dinner.

And you had to ask if this was a special night? Are you kidding?

"I still remember everything," said Elrod Hendricks, standing by the batting cage, "and it was almost 20 years ago. I remember the night I came in as a pinch hitter on a full count. Earl Williams got tossed out arguing a call. I'm warming up real slow, figuring I'm going to make Nolan so mad that I know he'll throw me a fastball. And he's standing there staring me down, like always. And damn if he doesn't throw me a curve and I miss by a foot.

"And the beautiful thing is that he's still staring hitters down. Gets mad if you swing too hard. He takes offense at that. And he's still staring umpires down, too. Intimidating them. He's the only pitcher who doesn't get warned for throwing at people. It's a funny thing. I'm not even playing anymore and he's still scary."

That wasn't so earlier this season, when Ryan, 45, failed to win in his first 11 starts. The whispers were that maybe, finally, it was time. Then he won his last three starts before the All-Star break, striking out 13 Yankees and eight Indians. And it was no longer "time."

What did the Orioles' scouting report say? "Who needs a scouting report?" manager Johnny Oates said. "I saw him on TV against the Yankees. He was blowing that gas right by them. Anything new there?"

He took the mound last night on a warm, cloudy night with thunderstorms ringing in the distance. The stands were nearly full. A special night, always. Greetings from Chairman Nolan.

But then his wires were crossed. He walked two batters and bounced two pitches in front of the plate in the first, and gave up two deep drives in the second. A double play and a running catch in the outfield got him out without a run.

Jeff Tackett led off the third with his first at-bat ever against Ryan -- and a strikeout he would always remember. But before the inning was over, Ryan had walked three more batters and given up two runs, and pitching coach Tom House had visited the mound.

Then Ryan just cut the Orioles off after that. Period. That was it. A special night? Are you kidding?

"What happened," Brady Anderson said after the Rangers' 5-2 win, "was that he just got stronger as the game went on. He didn't really have great control of his curve, so he just started throwing harder and harder."

The Orioles went down in order in the fourth and fifth, four pop-ups, two ground balls, and Sam Horn and Chito Martinez struck out to start the sixth, becoming strikeouts No. 5,600 and 5,601 of Ryan's career. He came out after seven, having allowed two hits.

"How many balls did we hit hard off him the whole night?" Oates asked afterward. "One? two?"

Well, don't forget Gomez's line drive in the second that got caught. And Devereaux's single in the third.

"OK," Oates said. "Four balls hit hard in seven innings."

Oh, and don't forget Horn's sacrifice fly.

"Great," Oates said, "what are we up to now? Five?"

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