There have always been individuals who struck terror by their very presence and threat--Geronimo coming over the hill with his Chiracahua Apaches on horseback, Napoleon massing his artillery around a city, Stuka pilots, U-boat captains zeroing in on a helpless target.
The little world of sport is no different. Hogan pulling out a 1-iron on the 18th tee in the last round of an Open, Dempsey in a crouch, pulling back the left, Tilden getting ready to serve at match point, Ruth with a 3-and-2 count and the bases loaded, Nagurski with the football on the 1-yard line.
But I don't think any of them has struck more stark terror in the world of sport than Lynn Nolan Ryan on a mound and needing a strikeout in the late inning of a tight game and a batter up there wishing he were anywhere else.
The lore of baseball is fecund with the stories of the great flame-throwers of baseball.
They tell of Bob Feller and the time, before lights, when Lefty Gomez came to bat against him late on a dark day and a game the players wanted called, and Gomez was carrying a lantern, and the umpire protested, "Come on, Lefty, you know damn well you can see Feller," and Lefty answered, "Yeah, I just want to make damn sure Feller can see me!"
They tell of the great Walter Johnson and the rookie who had to face his blazer and took two strikes he couldn't even hear and then walked back to the dugout.
"You've got another strike coming!" called the umpire. "Give it to somebody else," instructed the rookie. "I'm not leaving my head in the way of something I can't even see!"
Those are the stories of baseball and someday Nolan Ryan may star in more of them than anybody. He may well be the fastest of any of them. The numbers say so.
There is one thing for sure--he is the greatest pitcher never to win the Cy Young Award. Pete Vuckovich has won a Cy Young Award. So have Randy Jones, John Denny, and Steve Stone. But not Nolie Ryan. Think about it.
In 1973, he pitched two no-hitters, won 21 games, threw 326 innings and had a earned-run average of 2.87 and struck out more batters (383) than anyone had in history. But Jim Palmer won the Cy Young.
The next year, he pitched his third no-hitter, won 22 games, struck out 367 and had an ERA of 2.89. And Jim Hunter won the Cy Young. Figure that one out and bring in the answer Monday.
Nolan Ryan is an American artifact. He is one of those whose legend will grow. The facts are stupendous enough, but the myth will outgrow the man.
He is the only man in major league history to, certifiably, throw the ball more than 100 m.p.h. He also did that in 1974, the year he didn't win the Cy Young.
He is the only man in major league history to throw five no-hitters. He is the only man in major league history to strike out 4,500 batters.
He is also the only man in major league history to walk 2,300 batsmen--and there may be the rub.
The rap against Nolan Ryan has always been that, for every step forward he took, he took one backward.
He led the league in strikeouts seven times, but he led in walks eight times. He seemed to have similar difficulty keeping his wins ahead of his losses.
When he opted for free agency and Houston in 1979, after a 16-14 season, his California Angels general manager observed sarcastically: "Now all I have to do is get two 8-7 pitchers."
People who viewed him in that light were missing the point of Nolan Ryan. You measure effectiveness by innings-pitched versus runs-allowed.
Even on his wildest nights, Nolie Ryan rarely left a game that was out of hand. Ryan left games in reach. His teams were able to pull a lot of them out even though he wasn't around to be given the credit. His record of 260 wins to 240 losses do not tell the whole story of Nolan Ryan.
It is always well to remember that the man who won the most games in big league history, Cy Young, himself, also lost the most. Also that the second-most prolific winner in the modern history, Walter Johnson himself, also was the second-most prolific loser.
Nolan Ryan will--or should--go into the Hall of Fame unanimously on the first ballot. But not only for his 4,298 innings-pitched (only 32 pitchers amassed more), his no-hitters (5), his 9 one-hitters, 18 two-hitters and 26 three-hitters, but because he may be the most durable fastball pitcher ever.
A great heavyweight champion at 40 is pathetic to watch. He sees the opening but can't get the punch there in time. A great tennis champion can't get to the net any more. A great quarterback has to throw sidearm.
Even great pitchers have to rely on guile and off-speed. The great Walter Johnson was delivering junk at 40. Few speed pitchers can hang around that long.
Nolan Ryan can. He's 40, but he's no Dempsey pawing the air and looking for Tunney, he's no Tilden relying on drop shots, no Unitas dumping the ball off to halfbacks, no Johnson sticking to the slow curve.