For mighty Ryan, the Hall is all but too small

In glorious company, he still stands alone

July 25, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The bronze likeness that will be unveiled at today's star-studded Hall of Fame induction ceremony cannot possibly do justice to all-time pitching great Nolan Ryan.

Ryan will be immortalized in a Texas Rangers cap, even though he spent just five of his record 27 major-league seasons with that franchise. He chose the final stop of his amazing four-team career because it was the site of his milestone 300th victory and 5,000th strikeout, but he made his only World Series appearance with the New York Mets, pitched four of his record seven no-hitters for the California Angels, broke the all-time strikeout record with the Houston Astros and reached the postseason with every one of those teams except the Rangers.

So many caps. Only one plaque.

They should have bronzed his right arm, instead, because there never will be another one like it.

Ryan will headline one of the most impressive classes to arrive in Cooperstown since the late 1930s, back when they were decking the soon-to- open Hall with the greatest stars of the first half century of baseball as a professional sport.

Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett and Milwaukee Brewers great Robin Yount also were elected in the annual vote of the ranking members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. First baseman Orlando Cepeda, Negro leagues star Smokey Joe Williams, umpire Nestor Chylak and turn-of-the-century manager Frank Selee were added by the Hall of Fame's veterans committee.

Brett and Yount are members of baseball's exclusive 3,000-hit fraternity, but Ryan clearly will be the star attraction today, even though he received only three more votes than Brett in the BBWAA election last December.

Ryan was named on 98.79 percent of the ballots cast, second only to former New York Mets teammate Tom Seaver, who received 98.84 percent of the vote in 1992.

"I think it makes you feel good that you're viewed in that light," Ryan said recently. "I think when I went to Cooperstown for orientation [in May], it really sunk in. When you walk into the Hall, and you look at the plaques and the displays there with all the great players like Ruth, Gehrig, Cy Young, Walter Johnson and those guys, and they show you where your plaque is going to hang, you realize that you're going to be thought of on that level."

His self-effacing manner notwithstanding, there is little question that Ryan ranks among the greatest of the pitching greats. In a number of categories, he's in a class by himself.

His 5,714 strikeouts are so far beyond the career total of any other major-league pitcher that they defy comparison. Steve Carlton is next with 4,136 -- the only other pitcher within 2,000 of Ryan's amazing total.

Only nine times in major-league history has a pitcher struck out more than 325 batters in a single season. Five of those performances belong to Ryan, along with the all-time single-season record of 383 (1973).

His seven no-hitters might be the most amazing record of all. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, who is considered by some to be the most talented pitcher who ever lived, previously held the record with four. Ryan pitched his seventh at age 44 and also recorded five ninth-inning near-misses.

Not bad for a kid from Alvin, Texas, who couldn't control his fastball.

The road from that small, rural town in south Texas to baseball immortality reached both coasts and eventually brought him back to his home state, but the signs have pointed toward Cooperstown since he pitched his first no-hitter and broke the single-season strikeout record in Anaheim in 1973.

"It will be interesting for the first time to be part of that," Ryan said. "Toward the end of my Astro career, people would introduce me as a future Hall of Famer, and I remember thinking I wish people wouldn't introduce me that way.

"The first time I really ever thought about it was while talking to Don Sutton, my teammate, in 1981. He had won 250 games, and said he had only 50 more to go. I asked why, and he said that there isn't a 300-game winner not in the Hall of Fame. That got me thinking about the criteria for the Hall."

It took Sutton several years of eligibility to gain admission, even though he is tied with Ryan with 324 career victories and has a much higher winning percentage.

The difference: Ryan may have been the most consistently overpowering pitcher of all time. The velocity of his fastball -- clocked at over 100 mph in his prime -- was enough to bring people to the ballpark, even when he was a .500 pitcher with the struggling Angels in the 1970s.

No one in history threw that hard for as long as Ryan did, and he did it for nine innings a game. Most of today's pitchers who are able to reach triple digits on the radar gun are short relievers who have to throw hard for just a few outs.

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