It's not so much fear that Nolan Ryan--my personal candidate for the Cy Young Award--instills in the hearts and minds of big league hitters, because this is a courageous group of people. It's more like a very healthy respect. OK, sometimes it's fear.
"One time he scared me for my life," said Phil Garner, the Dodgers' utility infielder, "and I've never been afraid. (John) D'Aquisto hit me in the head, it didn't bother me. (John) Montefusco hit me in the head, it didn't bother me, and they both threw hard.
"The only time I've ever been scared was my first year with the A's (1975). Nolan struck me out my first two times up, on six straight fastballs, low and away. Next time up, he threw me two more fastballs, low and away, for strikes. I figured, 'I'll lean out over the plate on this one and poke it over the first baseman's head.'
"Nolan shot one right behind my ear. All I could see was the ball, big as a basketball, inches from my head. I went down, I was digging under the plate. The next pitch, I can't even tell you what or where it was, all I know is he struck me out again."
More than a decade later, Ryan still throws harder than anyone on the planet. Monday night at Dodger Stadium, Ryan struck out Garner twice and had nine strikeouts for the night.
Some pitchers throw harder for a couple innings, or for a couple seasons. But at 40, an age when other pitchers survive by resorting to knuckles, sandpaper or prayer, Ryan remains the king of zing.
Pitching in his 20th big league season, Ryan consistently throws in the high 90s. His changeup, according to Dodger speed-gun operator Mike Brito, clocks in at 87 or 88 m.p.h., faster than Fernando Valenzuela's fastball.
In the sixth inning Monday, with bases loaded and two out, Ryan wasted an 0-and-2 fastball to pinch-hitter Ken Landreaux, 96 m.p.h., then fanned Landreaux with an 84-m.p.h. changeup.
He ended up striking out nine in the 6 innings he worked Monday night.
Any day now, an opposing manager will demand that the umpires X-ray Ryan's right arm for cork.
"No one throws as fast as Ryan," Garner says. "(Dwight) Gooden throws the ball good, but it doesn't explode on you like Nolan's. His looks like it picks up speed as it comes to the plate."
Ryan can't explain any of this, or why there are so few truly hard throwers around these days.
"I remember when I went to Mets camp, there were five or six guys who threw in the low 90s," Ryan said. "Seaver, Koosman, Gentry. Now there are only five or six in the league. Now, if you go over 90 you're considered a hard thrower, even if you only do it two or three times a game."
The speed is a nice gimmick, but Ryan is now recognized as a great pitcher, and at 40 is having what might be the best season of his life.
His 1987 strikeouts-to-innings ratio, already the highest in major league history for his career, is higher than it's ever been. He leads the league in strikeouts, despite a 100-pitch curfew (now 125) imposed on him by Manager Hal Lanier. He has the league's second-lowest ERA.
His record is 8-14, which will take him out of the Cy Young running but shouldn't. Hasn't Ryan suffered enough for the Astros lack of punch?
Ryan, an honest man, said he would vote for himself.
"I think I've been as consistent a pitcher as anyone in the league," he said before going out and driving home his point against the Dodgers. "Won-lost record seems to be the deciding factor on how effective you are (in the minds of award voters), but I don't think anyone in the league has been more effective than I've been this year."
Voting Ryan the Cy this season would be no gift, no sentimental Lifetime Achievement Award. Just because he's the greatest strikeout pitcher in history, and one of baseball's nicest people, is no reason to vote him the award. If he continues to pitch as he has, he should win on merit.
He won't, of course, which is probably good for local fans. If Ryan won the Cy, the Astros would be forced to pick up Ryan's option next season, at $1 million. If they choose not to, as strong indications indicate, Ryan will likely take his services to another ballclub.
And which ballclub is most likely to pick up a high-priced old-timer? The Angels, maybe?
If they do get him, the Angels won't be buying a watered-down, washed-up version of the old Ryan. He promises there will be no going gently into that good night.
"I'll go out as a power pitcher," Ryan said.
Is it too much to ask that the amazing, blazing, hair-raising, hyper-phasing Nolan Ryan be voted a Cy Young Award once every 20 years?