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Farewell Nolan, an Appreciation : Baseball: For 27 years, fathers took their sons to see Ryan, and their sons took their sons. Heck, hundreds of fans, including some of Ryan's teammates, named their kids after him.

September 26, 1993|BEN WALKER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Up close, it's the right arm of most any man about to enter middle age. It does not start with bulging biceps like Jose Canseco's; it does not feature formidable forearms like Steve Garvey's, and it does not end with huge hands like Johnny Bench's.

No, by itself, there was nothing really remarkable about the right arm of Nolan Ryan. Only one thing made it special--over the years, it became bigger than his left arm.

Built up by throwing 100,000 pitches in the longest career in baseball history. Built up by striking out nearly one-tenth of every major leaguer ever to play the game. Built up, maybe, to a level that fans may never see again.

When the Ryan Express blazed into town at 100 m.p.h., buddy, batters became jumpy. The ones that didn't and and dared to dig in often got what he called the Ol' Bow Tie--a fastball right below the chin.

Reggie Jackson said Big Tex was the only pitcher he ever feared. Pete Rose tipped his cap to Ryan after striking out. Norm Cash once walked to the plate carrying a leg from a wooden table, instead of a bat.

For 27 years, fathers took their sons to see Ryan, and their sons took their sons. Heck, hundreds of fans, including some of Ryan's teammates, named their kids after him.

How popular was he? There's a sign in the visitor's clubhouse at Arlington Stadium that reads: "Please Note. Nolan Ryan Autographs Will Be Signed 2nd Day Of Series Only. No Exceptions. Please Limit 2 Per Person, If Possible."

All because of that right arm, the one Ryan always thrust up in the air when he was carried off the field after another no-hitter. He pitched seven of them, setting one of the 52 major league records he holds, and had five no-hit bids broken up in the ninth inning.

He won 324 games, winning in ballparks such as Crosley Field, Connie Mack Stadium, Jarry Park and Metropolitan Stadium, places that in some cases are just parking lots now.

And the strikeouts. Where to start?

He struck out Roger Maris. He struck out Rocky Colavito. He struck out Maury and Bump Wills, one of eight father-and-son duos he fanned. He struck out everyone from Aaron to Zisk--everyone except a player whose last name started with X, because there never was one.

In all, he struck out 5,714 of the nearly 22,500 batters he faced. Walked a few, too, also setting a record in that category.

He won a game against Bob Gibson and Jim Bunning, plus Gaylord and Jim Perry. He played against Hoyt Wilhelm, who turned 70 years old this summer.

Ryan signed his first pro contract before baseball had artificial turf. The Astrodome was in its first year when Ryan signed in June 1965, but back then the Astros were trying to grow grass inside the stadium.

He pitched when a salary of $7,000 was a big deal, and later became baseball's first $1 million man. All that time, he always referred to himself as just as a hard-working Texan who respected the guy who earned an hourly wage, a man who would happy living the life of a cattle rancher.

As a boy in high school, he woke up at 1 a.m. to help his father deliver newspapers in his hometown of Alvin. Later, when he excelled in sports, his main goal was to play basketball at Texas A&M. Even when he started pitching in the big leagues, he spent some off-seasons pumping gas at a local pump.

Of course, his stature eventually grew too big for that, even if his head did not.

And, for all of that, he never won a single Cy Young Award and pitched in only one World Series game, as a reliever for the 1969 Mets. Hard to believe for a Hall of Famer, huh?

Before this season began, Ryan said it would be his last. Injuries had taken their toll and, at age 46, the brown spots on his face made him look old for the first time in his career.

At best, it would've been something to see Ryan pitch another no-hitter--he didn't, but there always was that buzz in the ballpark until the first hit--and maybe pitch Texas into the World Series.

It didn't turn out that way. He hurt his knee, hip and rib cage, going on the disabled list each time. When he felt something pop in his elbow Wednesday night in Seattle, he said enough was enough and walked off the mound to his last standing ovation. Two of them, actually.

He left with a 5-5 record and a career-high 4.88 ERA in 13 starts in his last season. He struck out 46--his age, appropriately--and punched out Robin Ventura six times.

That's better than most great pitchers go out. Steve Carlton (0-1, 16.76 ERA), Jim Palmer (0-3, 9.17 ERA), Phil Niekro (7-13, 6.30 ERA), Gaylord Perry (7-14) and Tom Seaver (7-13) all struggled in their final years.

Ryan, until Wednesday night, was throwing 96 m.p.h. fastballs and grunting loudly on each one. He wanted to make one more start in Texas and close out the last week of Arlington Stadium, and didn't want to give up.

Only, after all those years and all those pitches, that remarkable right arm finally gave out.

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