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Mike Downey

Almost Unhittable After All These Years

October 14, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

NEW YORK — Norm Cash knew.

He knew what Nolan Ryan could do.

He would have howled at hearing Ryan's present pitching partner, Mike Scott, described as unhittable.

Norm Cash knew unhittable when he saw it.

He saw it July 15, 1973, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Nolan Ryan was out there on the mound, throwing his second no-hitter of the season for the Angels. He was on his way to 17 strikeouts, and Cash was destined to be No. 17.

Cash figured if he was going to go down swinging, he might as well do it with style.

So, he lugged a piano leg to the plate instead of a bat.

"I wasn't gonna hit him with a regular bat," Cash said later.

Nolan Ryan remembers Norm Cash, who died Sunday in a Lake Michigan boating accident.

"He was a real happy-go-lucky guy," Ryan said Monday. "He took his spirit on the field with him. Norm's attitude that day was: 'It's just another game,' and he wasn't gonna get a hit anyway."

Did Ryan laugh when he saw what Cash was carrying?

"No," he said, brusquely.

No-Hit Nolan took his work seriously then, same as now. He waited impatiently for Cash to go back to the Detroit dugout for a regular bat, then made him the game's final out.

At 39, Ryan is still in there pitching. Because Monday's National League playoff game in Flushing went down the drain, Ryan has been scheduled to pitch Game 5 today at Shea Stadium for the Houston Astros, a team that never gets rained out at home.

Upon reflection, Cash's death reminded Ryan of another age to which he belonged. "I think I've been fortunate to play in two eras," Ryan said. "There are still a few guys left from that other era--(Don) Sutton, (Tom) Seaver, (Steve) Carlton, myself--and we represent how the game has changed.

"People are looking at our careers in terms of longevity, and that's good. I don't think of something that lasts 3-4 years as a career."

Today's players play a few years and consider themselves veterans, Ryan said. They already make big money, and few of them served long apprenticeships in the minors, proving that they deserved to make the majors.

"(The owners) don't have the abundance of minor league talent anymore, the guys who hit .350 for three straight years," Ryan said. "Now, they're begging for players."

Only the occasional leftover, the older guy on the field, reminds Ryan of where he has been.

"Reggie (Jackson), Sutton, Seaver, (Davey) Lopes . . . there are all kinds of us still looking to get into another World Series," Ryan said. "I'd like to face one of those guys."

He might. Lopes is his teammate, but the others remain in the running for the American League pennant. And Ryan, should the National League series go seven games, conceivably could start Saturday's World Series opener.

The only other time he was in a World Series, it was 1969 and his team was the Mets, who are his adversaries now. The Mets won that Series, and the final out of the final game was made by a Baltimore infielder, Davey Johnson, who is now the Met manager.

Ryan finds himself getting more and more wistful as time goes by. He knows retirement is near--perhaps very near. Although he has his cattle ranch, he still says: "When I get out (of baseball), I won't have anything to do."

A World Series might be just the way to fade away.

"This opportunity doesn't come up very often," Ryan said. "At least it hasn't in my career. It's taken six years since 1980 just to make the playoffs again. I realize this might be my last go-round. I'm enjoying it. It makes me appreciate things all the more."

What would he miss most?

"A couple of things. There's the camaraderie with the players that you won't have in other walks of life. And, of course, the financial rewards. I can't deny that."

Ryan is earning his pay these days. He is no longer the ace of the Astro staff--Scott is--but he is certainly the king. He is the No. 2 man in the rotation and, now that the rain has come, he is Manager Hal Lanier's choice to start Game 5 in place of rookie Jim Deshaies, who is happy to step aside for the king.

Ryan is nervous because rain remains in the forecast for the day, and he is not certain his tender elbow can stand a long delay, once he warms up before or during a game.

"If I sit around for 45 minutes or an hour, my elbow might get so stiff that I won't be able to throw," Ryan said.

Still, he is willing to try. He is Nolan Ryan, after all, a pitcher from another era, a pitcher for the ages. He is hittable these days. But not very.

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