The Ryan Express

Nolan reigned four decades on the mound

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game #75

A continuing, occasional series inspired by Joe Posnanski’s book, “The Baseball 100.”

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game

#75 Nolan Ryan

P, NY Mets-California Angels-Houston Astros-Texas Rangers

Who’s the greatest baseball player you’ve ever seen? Most my age will say Ken Griffey Jr., though a few might argue Barry Bonds. Earlier generations might name Willie Mays or Ted Williams.

Now: who’s the greatest pitcher you’ve seen? Does one name leap to mind?

Not for me. My brain reflexively starts parsing: right-handed or left-handed? Starter or reliever? Power or finesse? Victories or ERA?

For southpaws, Randy Johnson is the best I’ve witnessed, due in no small part to the fact he pitched for my hometown Mariners. But the best righty? And best overall pitcher? A much tougher call.

Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson and Catfish Hunter are hall-of-fame right-handers whom I saw mostly on TV before I reached puberty. Greg Maddux is a HOF righty, and the best pure pitcher of my generation, but he pitched in the National League and I’ve glimpsed just highlights and isolated games. Mariano Rivera was unhittable, but he was a reliever. Pedro Martinez was exquisite but had a relatively short career.

I saw Roger Clemens — like Ryan, a Texan — more frequently, and with a gun to my head I might be writing about him here instead of Nolan. But I do believe Clemens took steroids, and I read a tome about it once that left me with a sour impression of the pitcher as a person.

So all things considered, I’ll bestow the crown on Ryan.

For starters, the guy pitched forever. He began with the ’69 Miracle Mets and ended with the ’93 Rangers, spanning first grade to a decade past college. I was at his final start, when he popped his elbow in the first inning in the Kingdome and left the mound for good at age 46.

It was an inglorious exit for a man who hurled a staggering number of innings — 5,386 — and struck out a staggering number of batters: 5,714. He had a lifetime earned run average of 3.19, and opposing batters hit just .204 against him. He pitched seven no-hitters. Seven!

Yet astonishingly, Ryan never won a Cy Young Award. This was largely because he played on inept offensive teams.

He didn’t get the Cy Young in 1973, when he won 21 games, set a modern single-season strikeout record that still stands (383), and threw not one but two no-hitters.

Nor did he get it the following season, when “The Express” led the league with 367 K’s — the first pitcher ever to post three consecutive 300 strikeout seasons — and threw his third career no-hitter.

Nor in 1987, when Ryan became the first pitcher in baseball history to lead the league in strikeouts (270) and ERA (2.76) yet fail to win the Cy Young trophy (his won-loss record was 8–16).

The list goes on.

Ryan was a flamethrower ahead of his time. He unleashed high-90 mph missiles — setting a Guinness World Record of 100.9 mph in 1974 — three eras before speed clocks became de rigueur at Major League parks.

Ryan threw not only the most no-hitters in baseball history, he’s thrown the most one-hitters (12, tied with Bob Feller), two-hitters (18), and three-hitters (31). His record for strikeouts (5,714) and walks (2,795) are widely considered untouchable.

But it’s more than talent that made Ryan great.

A 10th-round draft pick from a small Texas high school, Nolan earned near-universal respect from teammates, fans, and media alike during his stints with the Mets, Angels, Astros, and Rangers. The list of former associates with sons named after him is a long one.

Ryan was an old-school throwback who believed pitchers had equal right to the inside corner of the plate and wasn’t afraid to establish that fact.

On Aug. 4, 1993 — just a few starts before retirement — Ryan cemented his legend when he plunked the Chicago White Sox’ Robin Ventura with a pitch in the back.

The 26-year-old Ventura charged the mound….but soon regretted it. Ryan grabbed the youngster in a headlock with his left arm, then pummeled Ventura’s face with his right fist until they were separated — a performance applauded by pitchers everywhere.

Until that final start, Ryan’s right arm seemed indestructible. No Tommy John surgery. No pitch-count limits. Just year after year of quality starts for putrid to mediocre clubs.

Between 1979 and ’93, the seasons documented on the back of this Greats card, Ryan started less than 21 games only once, in his final campaign.

Because he played so long, Nolan has LOTS of baseball cards: hundreds, if not thousands. They’re auctioned on eBay all the time. The vast majority, though, are from the junk wax era and receive no bids.

It’s a shame. Ryan would have thrived in this Saber metric age, where statistics reign supreme over wins and losses. But he also would have held his own in the Cy Young era, when starters routinely hurled complete games and made 40-plus starts per season and wins were all that mattered.

The way pitchers are used in today’s game makes it difficult to appreciate just how special, and durable, Nolan Ryan was. If he were a movie star he’d be Samuel Jackson, who never won Best Actor but earned a Lifetime Achievement Award for a legendary career spanning more than 150 films that grossed a record $30 billion.

So yes, Ryan was the greatest right-handed pitcher of my era. Just not of any particular year.

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Adam Worcester is a freelance writer who lives near Seattle

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