In 27th and final season, baseball's strikeout king isn't looking back

RYAN'S TOUR DE FORCE

August 20, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

As he makes his farewell tour through the American League, Nolan Ryan hears two questions repeated at every stop. His answers do not vary.

"One thing I haven't done is reflect back on my career," he says when asked if any of his legendary accomplishments stand out above the others. "I try to occupy myself with getting ready to pitch."

To Ryan, his career has been a singular experience. The seven no-hitters, 12 one-hitters and 5,705 strikeouts are records that may never be broken, but they are only part of the package.

"At some point in my life, I'll probably look back and reflect," said Ryan, 46. "But I haven't done that yet."

Judging by the results, most recently a 4-1 win over the Cleveland Indians Sunday, Ryan could postpone his days of reflection for at least another year. But that thought apparently hasn't crossed his mind, either. He emphasizes that while answering the other standard question: Has he had any second thoughts about retiring at the end of this season?

"No, not at all," said Ryan, pausing only for an instant. "And if there are -- you forget about them the next morning."

Those mornings have convinced Ryan it's time to get out. "My body is quitting on me," he said.

"You always know that it's going to happen sometime -- that you reach a point where, physically, you just can't do it anymore."

In this, his 27th major-league season, Ryan has been on the disabled list twice, with knee and hip injuries. It has been a struggle, yet he has emerged as a key figure as his Texas Rangers make a run at postseason play.

The Express has a few more stops to make, and one will be at Camden Yards tomorrow night. Ryan will make his last appearance in Baltimore when the Rangers meet the Orioles in the second game of a four-game series. It will be the 770th start of his career (only Cy Young, with 818, has more).

He needs one more win to break a tie with Don Sutton (324) for 11th place on baseball's all-time win list -- and to become the winningest right-hander of modern times. Steve Carlton's total of 329 wins, ninth on the all-time list, is also within reach.

Ryan's goals these days may seem ambitious, but they actually are much simpler than they were when he broke in with the Mets in 1966. Then, he threw the ball as hard as he could and blew away as many hitters as possible.

He still can do that, as his 90-plus-mph fastball demonstrates, but strikeouts now are just a byproduct of pitching.

"My goal is to give our team a quality start every time out," he said. "I want to keep my spot [in the rotation] from putting pressure on the bullpen. Hopefully, in each start I can get us to [closer] Tom Henke."

Ryan said he also would like to experience something he once took for granted -- another World Series. He has been there once, when the Mets beat the Orioles in 1969. Four other times, with the Angels in 1979 and the Houston Astros in 1980, 1981 and 1986, he has been in the playoffs.

"I was so young [22] when I was in the World Series that I just assumed I would be in that position again," said Ryan. "But it hasn't happened. It would be neat to get there again.

"We have been through a lot. Considering everything that's happened, I feel good about our club."

Although he forever will be remembered for his powerful style, Ryan said he gets more satisfaction out of how he pitches now. "The other day [Sunday in Cleveland] was the first day I felt good all year," he said. "I had a good changeup, good location with my fastball and, although the curveball wasn't real good, I got some big outs with it."

Ryan's "new look" actually has been in vogue for half of his career, said Rangers pitching coach Claude Osteen. It just hasn't been noticed because of his extraordinary accomplishments.

"When most people see Nolan, they look at the hype -- the no-hitters, 100 mph, the strikeouts," said Osteen. "But Nolan's been a pitcher for a long time now, since his days with Houston. He's a pitcher with power."

There was a time -- long ago -- when Ryan wondered if he would last long enough to make such an adjustment. "I didn't know what to expect," he said of his early years.

"I had only been out of Texas twice in my life before I signed [with the Mets in 1965]. I had no clue. I remember making the team out of spring training in 1968, and at that time you had to have four years to qualify for the pension.

"That was my goal, to last four years -- and I didn't know if I'd be around that long. I was basically concerned with trying to get some security."

Former Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson enjoyed telling the story about the day he got his lifetime pass to major-league ballparks.

"I think you get that after eight years," Jackson recalled, "and Nolan had the locker next to me. When he saw it, he said to me, 'I hope I'm around long enough to get one of those.' "

Ryan now has been around long enough to qualify three times over. Yet as he continues to look ahead -- to his remaining starts, and eventually retirement -- there is a degree of apprehension.

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