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Nolan on My Mind : Hero Worship Should End in Childhood, but Lure of Baseball's Peter Pan Lingers


I'm glad Nolan Ryan is retiring this year after 27 seasons because, frankly, I need to get on with my life.

Childhood heroes are not supposed to stalk us into our mid-30s but, alas, there is Ryan, the ageless wonder, who insists on holding hostage the last link to my adolescence. By all rights, we should have cut this cord at least 10 years ago when Ryan was throwing 95 and pushing 36.

But no, he had to keep on pitching, and pitching, and pitching, and there was nothing I could do but go along for the ride.

Embarrassing, really, that a man with a 30-year mortgage and bunions should set his life to a five-day rotation during baseball season; that he would know without research that Ryan has the 18th lowest earned-run average in history; that he would remember May 9, 1979, as the day Ryan's 7-year-old son, Reid, was nearly killed after being struck by an automobile.

I pledge no such allegiance to any other player and profess I would not even follow baseball closely if not for the fact a 46-year-old freak of science, whom I have been tracking since I was 13 and spackled in Clearasil, is still pitching.

OK, I worshiped Jerry West as a kid, too, but at least he moved onto the pantheon at a respectable age.

Once you latch on to the Ryan Express, there is no turning back. I took a blood oath at the School of Ryantology long before it was fashionable, long before he became a folk hero and--God knows--long before he became a cinch to make the Hall of Fame.

I am not altogether proud to say that I negotiated his name onto the birth certificate of our first born, Daniel Ryan, or that I even considered the name Alvin (Ryan's hometown in Texas) for our second boy.

But such is the illness. If there were a Betty Ford Center for Ryan addicts, I'd be raking leaves on weekends, bribing the guards for box score updates.

Being a Ryan fan isn't what it's cracked up to be, or what it used to be. Now, you have to stand in line.

When Ryan pitched for the Angels for eight seasons in the '70s, we had him to ourselves.

About the time the Angels fell off the pace in the AL West each season, usually June 1, a teen-ager could blow out of his screen door in North Orange County at 7:05, tear south on the Orange Freeway, never hit the brakes, buy a box seat at 7:25 and catch the last verse of the national anthem.

Back then at the Big A, three was a crowd.

Ryan was the greatest thing we'd ever seen, a hard-luck, one-man marvel on a team of has-beens and sore-arms.

The record will show he was sent to us from the New York Mets on Dec. 10, 1971, along with three others in exchange for shortstop Jim Fregosi.

To us, he was heaven-sent.

We would have paid just to hear the sound of his fastball popping a catcher's mitt.

We knew he was wild. We knew he was different. We knew our lives would never be the same.

There were more logical idols to consider.

To the east, one could bow to the immaculate Jim Palmer, Mr. Pitcher-Perfect, who never allowed a hair be out of place or, to my memory, a base on balls.

Ryan fans would grow to despise Mr. Fruit of the Looms, not only for depriving Ryan of the Cy Young Award in 1973 (I have considered a doctoral thesis on this subject) or making inflammatory comments about our man afterward--"All Ryan does is go for strikeouts"--but for pitching most of his career for a pennant contender.

As Palmer was racking up Cy Youngs faster than Ryan was losing ninth-inning no-hitters, we wondered if it mattered that Gentleman Jim was serving up grounders to infielders Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger while Ryan's fortunes were tied to "Dirty Al" Gallagher at third and Orlando Ramirez at short.

Palmer never won 20 games for a last-place team; Ryan did.

And I will admit to hoisting a small toast when Ryan passed Palmer--Oh, it must have been years ago--on the all-time victory list.

Being a Ryan fan is agony and ecstasy. There are the 319 victories and the seven no-hitters to savor, all the strikeouts, but also 287 losses.

Every loss has been a punch to the stomach because, as Ryanholics will attest, he could have easily won 100 of those games had he pitched for better teams.

I will sign an affidavit in any court testifying that I have personally witnessed 50 games he flat-out should have won. Only Walter Johnson has lost more 1-0 games than Ryan.

When Ryan-baiters try to get my goat about the losses, I feign indifference. "You have to be great to lose that many games," I'll say.

Cy Young lost 315 times.

Listen up, Ryan bashers. Baseball is a team sport. If Ryan were a tennis player and had a .500 record, that's another story.

But baseball is an inexact science, a sport in which a pitcher only has limited control over the outcome.

This would explain how the great Bob Feller could have 100 more victories than losses in his career with an ERA of 3.25, while Ryan is called a .500 pitcher with a lower career ERA, 3.17. I argue that ERA is the only true measurement of a starting pitcher, and Ryan stacks up with the best.

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