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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : A Change of Pace Has Ryan Express On Track to 300

April 09, 1990|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After nine seasons with the Houston Astros, working in the air-conditioned splendor of the Astrodome, Nolan Ryan moved to the Texas Rangers in 1989 and the outdoor sauna that is Arlington Stadium in summer.

"I was real concerned about that," Ryan said at the Rangers training camp in Port Charlotte, Fla., on the eve of the 1990 season. "When I would come into Arlington with the Angels, we always felt it was the last step before hell.

"With Houston, we ran into that kind of heat only when we played a day game in the midwest or east. It really took a toll, so I was quite concerned how I would hold up (in Arlington)."

The readings on the speed gun--more than those on the thermometer--provided a measure as to how Ryan held up. He dealt with the heat by continuing to deliver it.

At 42, in his 22nd major league season, he authored one of his most amazing chapters. It featured a major-league leading 301 strikeouts, including the 5,000th of his career, and a 16-10 record for 32 starts. Ryan pitched two one-hitters and carried five no-hitters into the eighth inning, including two that were broken up with one out in the ninth.

At an age when most pitchers deal in finesse or trickery--legal and otherwise--Ryan remains the ultimate fastball pitcher, throwing consistently at 93 to 95 m.p.h., a modest dropoff from the 98 to 100 of his youth.

As a source of heat, no pitcher has ever produced more over a longer period, and Ryan cites three factors: Good mechanics, uncompromising work ethic and development of a curve in the '70s and a changeup in the '80s.

"There's a timing mechanism to good hitting, and I don't care how hard you throw, there's a certain percentage of hitters on every team who are selective enough to be able to wait for the one pitch they can handle, or they get ahead in the count and sit on the fastball," Ryan said.

"You have to be able to put the thought in their head that you might be throwing another pitch. You have to be able to change speeds, particularly when you're behind in the count and the hitter has the luxury of looking for the fastball.

"I still throw the fastball 65% to 70% of the time. It's still my bread-and-butter pitch and the pitch that makes my other pitches more effective, but the other pitches have that same effect on the fastball.

"You have to develop a differential in speed, which a lot of young pitchers don't have when they first come up."

Ryan has a speed differential of about 10 m.p.h. between fastball and curve, and about 12 m.p.h. between fastball and changeup.

"One thing that's contributed to my success and longevity," he said, "is that my control and location is much better than when I was young and didn't always know where the ball was going. Even if my fastball isn't as good, I can spot it now and get away with a lesser pitch."

Ryan has often said that the key to that remarkable fastball, nicknamed the Ryan Express, rests more with his legs than his arm.

Relatively short when compared to the rest of his 6-foot-2, 210-pound body, the legs provide a stable and powerful base for his compact delivery, making it easier to maintain mechanics that are free of flaws.

Ryan credits the mechanics, combined with a work ethic inherited from his father, for his enduring success despite three separate elbow ailments, including bone chip surgery in 1975.

"I was gifted with the type body that allows me to throw a baseball without putting much stress on it, and I was taught by my father that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right," Ryan said.

"The two (mechanics and work ethic) go hand in hand."

Ryan stepped off a plane at the end of the owners' 32-day spring training lockout, put on a uniform and threw 25 minutes of batting practice.

He threw four times a week at the high school he attended in Alvin, Tex., even before the lockout began, stepped up the pace when the negotiations lingered in March and has thrown every other day during the abbreviated spring, preparing for his opening-night start against the Toronto Blue Jays.

In addition to the regular use of his arm, Ryan does much of the maintenance on his three Texas cattle ranches and works regularly with weights--three times a week in his home weight room during the winter, plus 25 to 30 minutes of running a day.

The regimen helped him to make an easy transition to a new organization last year, shake off the fierce heat and produce one of his most successful and satisfying seasons in the wake of a half-hearted attempt by the doubting Astros to retain his services.

He needs only 11 victories to reach 300.

"If I don't win 11 games it will mean I had a bad year or something happened and I'll be disappointed no matter which it is," Ryan said.

"It's a plateau that only a small group has attained and I would take satisfaction in that, as well as it being a measure of longevity and effectiveness. And in my case, unlike many guys who have had to adjust to remain effective, I'm pretty much the same style pitcher."

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