Is it Methuselah with a baseball in his hand or is it Father Time, otherwise known as Nolan Ryan, who continues to defy the aging process? At 45 and counting, Ryan is much like an antique violin -- the older it gets, the sweeter the music -- and rival hitters keep dancing to his tune.
Yesterday's game between the Texas Rangers and Orioles matched The Kid On The Way Up (Mike Mussina) against The Venerable One, the noble elder statesman, Mr. Ryan. It wasn't much of a contest.
Not that Mussina embarrassed himself -- he never does -- but Ryan was once again the complete master. He put together seven strong, typical Ryan innings before taking leave and turning it over to relief help while on his way to a 6-2 victory, which was to be duly recorded as the 319th win in a career that already has worn out a thesaurus of adjectives.
Now into his 26th major-league campaign, which means he has been around longer than Absorbine Jr., five more strikeouts were piled atop his all-time majestic list, giving him a lifetime total of 5,611 and qualifying as the 24th year he has reached the 100-K mark.
Mussina, who has the poise of Ryan, though only 23, wasn't exactly a lamb. But he threw two home-run shots to Juan Gonzalez that were the loudest blasts heard in these parts since Francis Scott Key, the country song writer, wrote an anthem for America, subsequently adopted by baseball, detailing an eyewitness version of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry.
The length of Gonzalez's drives were extraordinary. His first in the fourth inning was high and deep into the left-field seats. Then, in the eighth, he showed Mickey Mantle-type power by reaching the sod farm beyond the center-field fence. Rick Vaughn, the Orioles' publicity director, in charge of providing measurements, reported the ball traveled 450 feet.
Meanwhile, the Orioles were having their problems with Ryan. Brady Anderson, the aggressive left fielder, ran into the wall face-first to deprive ox-strong Brian Downing of extra bases. Had it not been for the padding, Anderson would have forcefully stamped his facial likeness in the concrete. The cushion prevented him from being a Pete Reiser-like casualty case, which is a yesteryear reference to that old Brooklyn Dodger who had a penchant for running into fences and temporarily losing his senses.
The Orioles' Cal Ripken, attempting to do whatever he can to extricate himself from the clutches of a horrendous slump, showed up with what appeared to be black stockings. No white sanitary socks showed through. From afar, it gave the appearance of a man wearing miner's boots. But, alas, it didn't help Ripken, who searches for all kinds of ways to get untracked.
Perhaps, when he goes into Yankee Stadium, he might do well to consider taking his pants high above his calves. That's the way Lou Gehrig, the man Ripken is chasing for the durability record, used to wear his uniform. So why not revert to the old style? It won't cost anything and may offer more freedom with his legs when he's moving into the ball.
Dean Palmer, the Rangers third baseman, hit two balls yesterday that occasioned surprise. One was a high loft to right field, which brought Joe Orsulak on the run -- only to drop the ball for a rare error after he tried a conventional catch.
Then the same Palmer, subsequently, slapped a screaming ground ball that found Leo Gomez's glove at third base. It was easier for Gomez to go with the momentum so he spun around, gathered himself and threw out the Rangers runner. Yes, the Orioles giveth and taketh away, as Palmer found out so graphically.
Glenn Davis got two hits, Orsulak two and Ripken one through nine innings. That was the Orioles' total. Five. For Davis, it was "duck or no dinner" in the fourth inning when Ryan pitched him tight. But Davis lined a single to left, which proved there was no significant intimidation by the way he straightened out the pitch.
About Ryan, his manager, Toby Harrah, said he didn't see too much difference in the pitcher who beat the Orioles and the same one he used to play against. "We always felt when we faced him as a young pitcher that you had to reach him early because he has a way of getting stronger as the game moves along," Harrah explained.
And Gonzalez, who had touched up Mussina, was especially complimentary. "Great pitcher. Great stuff. Great future." End of testimonial. But it was an interesting confrontation, Ryan, the veteran with a cannon for an arm, and Mussina, who has a varied assortment to go along with an above-average fastball.
It wasn't a matchup to rival Dean vs. Hubbell, Johnson opposing Wood, Grove going against Gomez, Koufax testing Gibson or even Palmer dueling with Hunter. Yet Ryan and Mussina made for a mid-summer encounter that offered a contrast of special significance.