Texas loses Ryan, but not hope Rangers finally have depth to cover for ace

April 16, 1993|By Randy Galloway | Randy Galloway,Dallas Morning News

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The "if" word has failed the Rangers once again. As in "if Nolan Ryan stays healthy. . ."

At age 46, and after his most pain-free spring training in years, we now know "if" was still asking too much, as it had been at age 45 and 44. The right arm remains a miracle of genetics, but time and physical stress continue to take a toll elsewhere.

Which brings us to yesterday morning, when Nolan Ryan awoke after a rough night at the ballpark against the Orioles and discovered he was unable to walk due to a locked right knee.

By mid-afternoon, a surgeon had repaired the damage at a Fort Worth hospital, but Nolan's name had been added to that one list he had hoped to avoid in this his 27th and final major-league season -- the disabled list. The knee was "scoped," meaning minor damage because of torn cartilage, but Ryan will miss from three to six weeks.

Injuries shut down Nolan twice last year, he was also on the DL twice the year before, and once in 1990. There is an obvious pattern here, but any time his body fails Ryan, it still creates local shock waves and usually leaves the Rangers with a huge hole in the starting rotation. Only that last part has possibly changed.

With Kevin Brown now the established ace, with newcomers Charlie Leibrandt and Craig Lefferts capable of churning out innings, with Kenny Rogers hinting he has turned a career corner as a starter, with a fifth starter not needed for nearly two weeks due to off days on the schedule, and with the bullpen possibly better and deeper than at any time in memory, the Rangers finally seem equipped to handle a Ryan departure.

Actually, the hardest questions for GM Tom Grieve and manager Kevin Kennedy were going to involve the hard-core second-guessing that began yesterday. Ryan had been on the mound the night before in what Grieve would describe as "absolutely the worst weather conditions ever at Arlington Stadium."

With the first-pitch temperature at 48, and falling, and with a cold wind and swirling drizzle, this was a night unfit for all living creatures, much less 46-year-old pitching legends.

Standing in the press box 30 minutes before game time, Grieve already was concerned. "If only Big Tex wasn't going," he said, shaking his head. But what if it had been Brown? Or really, any other pitcher? And the Orioles were sending out young Ben McDonald, a prized pitching prospect.

By the second inning, Ryan already was limping after racing to cover first base and hitting the side of the bag with his foot. But he pitched four innings and deserved much better than having six runs, three earned, scored against him.

When surgery was necessary, Kennedy was being verbally whiplashed by some for sending out Ryan in that weather, and Grieve had to answer why he allowed the game to be played in the first place.

But Ryan saved both a ton of personal headaches by explaining he had experienced pain in the right knee on Monday while working out, and then again Wednesday while warming up. The cartilage damage apparently had been done before Nolan stepped on the soggy field.

Grieve, however, still second-guessed himself. Under baseball rules, the home team has the option of calling off a game until the first pitch, then it's in the hands of the umpires. With ESPN waiting to televise the game nationally, Grieve was receiving constant weather forecasts. Unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds were expected, but the rain was supposed to end.

Once the game started, and the wet conditions continued, the umpires were attempting to be fair to the Rangers, who were behind. And the awful weather was basically the same from the first pitch to the last.

Kennedy, on the other hand, did exactly what he had to do. Ryan is a member of the team. How does a manager tell 24 other players they will be sent out in foul weather, but Ryan is an exception?

Better yet, just try explaining that to Ryan. His screams of protest would have been heard all the way to Cooperstown. Even at his age, Ryan still must bite his tongue to keep from complaining about Kennedy's closely monitoring his pitch count. Bringing him in from the rainy cold and pitching someone else would have embarrassed Ryan.

Claude Osteen, the pitching coach, was with Ryan as he did his pre-game bullpen work. "The only thing I noticed different was Nolan doing some knee stretching," said Osteen. "But he didn't complain about anything, and except for command, he had good stuff when he warmed up."

For Ryan, this was a setback and a disappointment. But before surgery he was vowing to be back in three weeks. Meanwhile, the season moves on, and the Rangers pitching must continue (( to move forward.

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