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O.C. Fans Say Goodby to a Legend : Baseball: The Angels win but, just like the old days, Nolan Ryan is the main attraction at his Anaheim Stadium finale.

September 18, 1993|MATT LAIT and MARK PLATTE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ANAHEIM — A standing ovation when he walked to the bullpen. Another when he took the mound. And when Nolan Ryan threw his first pitch against the California Angels Friday night, Anaheim Stadium was ablaze with flashbulbs that repeated at his every toss.

Though he wore the uniform of the Texas Rangers, Ryan was the evening's sole attraction, drawing a sellout crowd of 60,326, in his final pitching performance at the stadium where he played for eight seasons. The Angels won, 2-1.

Ryan pitched seven strong innings, giving up only four hits, and did not suffer the loss. He took the mound to start the eighth but soon was pulled from the game with the score tied 1-1. As he walked to the dugout, the crowd treated him to another standing ovation and he tipped his cap. With the crowd still applauding, Ryan stepped from the dugout twice more and was given rousing ovations each time.

"I was glad I got an opportunity to pitch out here one more time in Anaheim Stadium, because this certainly is a special place in my heart and it's been a big part of my career," Ryan said after the game. "The fans have been tremendously supportive over the years," said the holder of numerous records who is retiring after his 26th season. "I was just disappointed that we didn't win the game, but I certainly appreciate the fans."

It was a game in which the crowd found it easy to switch allegiance for the night. When Ryan struck out leadoff batter Luis Polonia to register the Angels' first out, the stands erupted.

For as long as he could remember, Don Seefeldt has been a "die-hard" Angels fan. But Friday, he was rooting against his favorite team with a passion.

"I'm a bigger Nolan Ryan fan," said the 31-year-old Riverside man who paid $100 for an $11 ticket to see the legend's last game in Anaheim. "This was the chance of a lifetime. The game's not going to be the same without him."

Outside the stadium well before game time, Ryan commemorative T-shirts and hats were scooped up quickly. Fans had lined up hours before the gates opened, and once inside, those lucky to get close to the Rangers bullpen trained video cameras on him or hung over the dugout waving programs for autographs.

"This is the man I was named after," said Ryan Jeffcoat, 13, from Poway. "The day I was born, he was pitching for the Angels against the Rangers."

Though it didn't seem to matter to most whether he won or lost, many were secretly hoping to witness Ryan's eighth no-hitter, which has distinguished the 46-year-old from thousands of pitchers who came before and after him.

The possibility was gone with two outs in the second inning, when Rene Gonzales singled to left field, but the blemish against Ryan drew loud groans from the crowd, not cheers for the Angels.

To many fans, Ryan's magic has never been his ability to win or lose games or even how many strikeouts he registered. Mostly, it was just the class and charm that showed in a sport of sky-high salaries and player indifference.

"I just like the way he handles himself, conducts business and is a great competitor," said Herb Mallow, 61, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. "He's different with a different kind of attitude, the kind of attitude that dates back to my era."

Mallow bought his tickets five months ago but didn't take any chances.

"We bought tickets for the whole series because we didn't know when he would pitch," Mallow said. 'We've been planning this for a long time."

So great a fan is Mallow that he watches Ryan every chance he gets.

"Every time he pitches, you've got to tune in, because you never know when it's going to happen," he said of the no-hit king. "I'm sorry to see him go, but time catches up to all of us."

Ryan's final season, hampered by a series of annoying injuries, has been a huge hit in every stadium where he's pitched this year, guaranteeing sellouts each game.

But the final Anaheim appearance was different because of his 291 games in an Angel uniform, 138 of them victories and 121 of them losses. And of course, the four no-hitters and 2,416 strikeouts.

Before game time Friday, the crowd was deep around the memorial for Ryan at the Angels Hall of Fame inside the stadium lobby, where his baseball glove and jersey are still displayed. Throughout the ballpark, fathers and sons wore matching Ryan baseball uniform shirts with his name and number on back, most certainly for the last time.

"For me, this is real depressing," said Ron Isaacs, 30, who brought his 8-year-old son, Ryan. "I just had to take my son here to see one of baseball's great legends leave the game."

* RELATED STORIES: C1

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