- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

With a sore heel, a bad back and flu-like symptoms, the famous pitcher felt like he was 84 instead of merely 44. “I don’t know how long I can go,” he told Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House. “But it’s Fan Appreciation Night, so I’ll give it a try.”

Several hours earlier, after breaking Lou Brock’s career record for steals with his 939th, Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics had lifted second base high over his head and bombastically announced, “Today I am the greatest!” But not for long. Nolan Ryan was about to make him a loud liar.

On the evening of May 1, 1991, at Arlington (Texas) Stadium, Ryan pitched his seventh — and most improbable — no-hitter in a 3-0 victory over Toronto. And if you like historic coincidences, consider this: The last batter for the Blue Jays (Roberto Alomar) was the son of the leadoff man (Sandy Alomar) in Ryan’s first no-hitter, on behalf of the California Angels against the Kansas City Royals on May 15, 1973.

There have been 250 major league no-hitters — 17 of them perfect games. Don Larsen of the New York Yankees worked a perfecto against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Cincinnati’s Johnny Vander Meer had back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. Cleveland’s Bob Feller pitched one on Opening Day 1940. Sandy Koufax had four of them for the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of them perfect.

But for sheer frequency, nobody came close to Ryan, who also shares Feller’s record of 12 one-hitters. His fastball hissed and smoked so fearsomely over its 60-foot, 6-inch path to the plate that he seemed a threat to pitch a no-no in every start. Wrote Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf after No. 7: “So now Ryan has as many no-hitters as there are seas, heavens, wonders of the world, days of the week, sacraments and deadly sins.”

Ryan, who ended his 27-year major league career with 324 victories in 1993 and was elected to the Hall of Fame six years later, ranks first all time in strikeouts (5,714) and fewest hits per nine innings (6.56).

He also is first in walks (2,795) and wild pitches (277) and third in losses (292) because — like Koufax — it took him years to harness the power in his arm. But once he did, hoo boy! He led his league in strikeouts 11 times, including a record 383 in 1973. And perhaps fittingly, he became the first $1million-a-year ballplayer when he signed with the Houston Astros in 1979.

Ryan’s career mirrors that of Walter Johnson, the old Washington Senators fireballer, in that he accomplished his astounding feats while playing for many mediocre teams. In 1987 with the 76-86 Astros, for example, he had an 8-16 record but led the National League in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270).

According to legend, a hitter once walked away from the plate against Johnson with two strikes. Reminded by the umpire that he had another coming, the batter replied, “You can have it — it won’t do me any good.”

Likewise in the frustration department, Norm Cash of the Detroit Tigers came up against Ryan in 1973 with a sawed-off table leg instead of a bat. “I wasn’t gonna hit him anyway,” Cash explained.

Against the Blue Jays while pitching no-hitter No. 7, Ryan had it all despite his physical condition. “Baseball is a funny game,” he said afterward. “There have been a lot of days when I felt great, then went out and was hit hard. This time I was popping Advil all day because I felt awful. But once the game started, I didn’t notice it.”

Ryan needed just two hours and 25 minutes to work his magic, never throwing a fastball below 93 mph. He struck out 16, walked only two. Mark Whiten had the two hardest-hit balls against him, sending a drive to the warning track in the fifth inning and lining out in the eighth. Center fielder Gary Pettis contributed a running, knee-level catch of Manny Lee’s bloop in the sixth,

“I think this was probably the most overpowering game I had in baseball,” Ryan said. “I had command of all three pitches, and my velocity was really good. It was one of those nights when everything seemed to be working.”

Said Texas right fielder Ruben Sierra: “He was unbelievable. The hitters didn’t have a chance.”

Yet the no-hitter was hardly a sure thing as Roberto Alomar came up with two out in the ninth. Ryan had seen five previous no-hitters broken up in the final inning, and Alomar was a tough out who would collect 188 hits and bat .295 that season. The count went to 2-2.

“I figured if I was going to lose the no-hitter now, I was going to lose it with my best pitch,” Ryan recalled.

Everybody knew what that was.

Swish!

Pandemonium.

Again.

“Are you tired of pitching no-hitters?” a reporter asked Ryan in the clubhouse.

Ryan grinned, “Not yet.”

That was Nolan Ryan’s last good season (12-6, 2.91 ERA). His age finally caught up with him in 1992 and 1993, when he went 10-14 before hanging up his spikes and heater. But he’ll long be remembered, especially by those unfortunate enough to face him with a piece of wood in their hands.

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