As usual, Baltimore rough on Ryan

JOHN EISENBERG

August 22, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The first ovation swelled from the seats at 6:44 p.m., some 20 minutes shy of the first pitch, with the stands fast filling and the warehouse still covered in a warm bath of late-afternoon sunlight.

Nolan Ryan emerged from the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards and began the slow, long walk across the outfield to the bullpen. Many in the crowd stood and cheered, then stood and cheered a little longer. Ryan waved, waved again, then started warming up with a set of 120-foot bullets across the grass to a bullpen catcher. The one and only.

A second ovation swelled shortly before the start of the game, as Ryan returned from the bullpen, a solitary bow-legged figure coming across the grass. Again, the grand old man offered a wave, and this time tipped his cap.

A third ovation, the loudest and longest, occurred as Ryan stood on the mound before the bottom of the first inning, the high anticipation palpable on a clear night at the snazziest ballpark in America. Nolan Ryan's farewell performance in Bawlmer, hon. It figured to be something else.

It wasn't.

Not unless your definition of something else is four walks and 45 pitches in the first inning.

A grand slam yielded to Mike Pagliarulo.

Career strikeout No. 5,706 -- yes, just one.

Then, finally, a hasty conference on the mound before the start of the fourth, the Rangers' manager and trainer and the umpires watching Ryan grimace, hold his left side, throw one final warm-up pitch and wordlessly head for the dugout: a pulled muscle in his rib cage.

The big-screen scoreboard promptly flashed the city's farewell tidings -- "Congratulations on Your Hall of Fame Career" -- and the crowd stood and cheered for two minutes, hopeful that Ryan would return for one last tip of the cap.

He didn't, but don't take it personally, Baltimore. It was just that Ryan had had enough of you.

His final night here was symbolic of his entire career here. He is headed for Cooperstown, but not because of anything he did in Bawlmer, hon.

His record at Memorial Stadium was 4-10, including a 1-7 finish. At Camden Yards he was 1-0, lucky not to lose last night. That's a 5-10 career record here, and, well, that's not too hot.

Ryan's first start here, as a member of the Angels in 1972, went as follows: two innings, one hit, four runs, five walks. Twenty-one years, three months and 24 days later, his last start in Baltimore was almost identical: three innings, one hit, four runs, four walks.

Talk about symmetry. And in between that beginning and end, he threw in a succession of clunkers: 5-0, 7-1, 9-1, 8-3, 6-1, 10-2.

"I'm glad they built the new ballpark here, but it came a little too late for me," Ryan said Friday. "I never did have much luck at Memorial Stadium."

Or anywhere against the Orioles, for that matter. His 17 losses are his third most against any team, behind the Dodgers and A's. And his 4.10 ERA against the Orioles is his highest against any opponent.

This year, the Orioles turned into his black cat. In April he pitched four innings against them in a light rain, aggravated a knee injury and wound up missing three weeks. Now, another injury, his third of the season. (The second, a strained hip muscle, kept him out 10 weeks.)

In his previous outing, he pitched two-hit ball for seven innings and beat the Indians, 4-1, with some 60,000 Clevelanders there for a fond farewell. A reporter asked him why he was retiring when he was still capable of such effective pitching.

Ryan smiled. "My body keeps telling me it's time to quit," he said.

Last night, it told him again.

Not because he was unable to throw strikes in the first inning, went to 2-2 on Pagliarulo and watched his next pitch land in the right-field flag court.

Because he reached sharply for a smash off Harold Baines' bat in the third and felt a twinge on his first warm-up pitch in the fourth. His body talking. His body saying, "Enough, Nolan. Enough already."

Yes, his body still allows him to throw 95 mph fastballs now and then, and pitch effectively, even brilliantly, for weeks at a time. But at 46, it simply can no longer stand the rigors of a major-league season. No matter how many hours of exercise Ryan pours into it.

L The time finally has come. Ryan knows it. Everyone knows it.

His ride has been one of the greatest in baseball history, Baltimore notwithstanding. "He's going out like he came in, as a power pitcher," Orioles coach Davey Lopes said, "and that's awesome."

But it's time.

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