It was unseasonably cold in Detroit and so, evidently, was Nolan Ryan, strikeout artist of the California Angels. The Tigers got three runs early, and with Mickey Lolich pitching for them that will usually do. But then something seemed to go out of the Tigers. As California Manager Bobby Winkles said, "Frank Robinson noticed it and started stirring things up on our bench. 'If they don't want this game,' he hollered, 'let's go out and get it for ourselves. It's too cold to sit around here and lose.' By the sixth inning we had the game tied and in the seventh I went to the mound to talk to Ryan. 'Nolie,' I said, 'are you getting a little tired? You've thrown 120 pitches.' He said, 'If you'd put a two in front of that 20 I'd believe you.' "
When the game between the Angels and Tigers was over last Wednesday the 26-year-old Ryan had worked 12 innings and thrown 205 pitches. "I couldn't find my fastball until the eighth inning," he said. "My rhythm was messed up. It sometimes happens at this time of the year." Ah, but Ryan had picked up his fourth victory as well as his fourth complete game in six starts while increasing his strikeout total—highest in baseball—to 66. On Sunday he added five more strikeouts but was wild and maybe tired as the Angels lost 5-0 to Baltimore.
"I really don't try to strike people out," Ryan says disconcertingly. "I am not going after any strikeout records. If they come, they come." Well, they are coming at a rate that should propel Ryan to a place alongside the only two pitchers since 1900 to strike out 300 hitters in consecutive seasons, Rube Waddell and Sandy Koufax. Three times this season Ryan has struck out more than 10 batters in a game. That makes 34 such performances in a very brief career. Until last year Ryan had never had the opportunity to pitch more than 152 innings a season. When he did get the chance he struck out 329 hitters in 284 innings—an average of 10.42 strikeouts for every nine innings of work. In their best seasons Koufax averaged 10.23 and Waddell 8.20. Bob Feller, another pretty fair fireballer, averaged 9.35.
Ryan is pitching for the Angels because the New York Mets traded him for Third Baseman Jim Fregosi during the winter of 1971, a deal that now looks like the grandest heist since Detroit exchanged Denny McLain for Washington's baseball team. "I liked the Mets," says Ryan, "but they always seemed to be in a pennant race, and I never got to work as much as I needed to just to learn how to pitch."
May 13, 1973
Admittedly, in his Mets days there seemed to be no controllin' Nolan. Today he is capable of fulfilling all the batting-cage metaphors: throwing a strawberry through a locomotive, a marshmallow into Fort Knox, etc. A wild Ryan in New York, however, might walk the opposition's entire roster as well as a passing poodle or two.
On first seeing him, Rube Walker, the Mets' pitching coach, said, "His fastball has a heap of hurry on it." Others were not so kind. It was suggested that his arm needed a body transplant. In 73 starts for the Mets he finished only 13 games. And when he was not having problems with blisters on his pitching hand, he was off on military duty.
The Mets had originally come by him as the 295th choice in the 1965 draft. They dispatched him to Marion, Virginia in the Appalachian League, where that year he struck out 115 batters in 78 innings. A year later, at the age of 19, Ryan fanned 313 in 205 innings and was 17-2 for Greenville of the Western Carolina League.
He advanced to the Mets in 1968. They were developing pennant potential; Ryan, blisters. Still, such is the hunger for a thrower of strawberries through locomotives that Ryan was a semi-celebrity, and New Yorkers expected him to be Christy Mathewson, Allie Reynolds, Don Newcombe, Joe Page and Tom Seaver all at once. In 1969 Ryan was brilliant for New York in both the playoffs and World Series, but two winters later the Mets quit on him and made the trade for Fregosi—a .194 batsman when last we looked.
The trade was engineered by Harry Dalton, who in November 1971 had left Baltimore to become general manager of the Angels. What Dalton inherited was an inept and largely faceless team; in fact, he had been hired because Owners Bob Reynolds and Gene Autry were up on their high horses over front-office bungling. To get him, the Angels had to give Dalton a great deal of money. They also incurred the ire of Oriole Owner Jerry Hoffberger, having talked to Dalton without asking Hoffberger's permission. (Because of the furor over Dalton's departure from Baltimore—and the three top scouts who eventually went with him—Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has ordered the Angels not to hire anyone else from the Orioles until 1974.)
For Autry and Reynolds, Dalton had in writing "not quite 100 questions and concerns." One of the questions was whether he would have the free hand he wanted in player trades. He got it—and began eyeing Fregosi, the best player the Angel organization ever dressed. Many felt that Jim would become the team's player-manager. Dalton had other ideas. He went after a pitcher with Fregosi as bait. The pitcher Dalton ostensibly wanted was Gary Gentry of the Mets, because Dalton's Baltimore scouts had been high on Gentry and the first management man that Dalton as G.M. hired was Coach Bobby Winkles, who had handled Gentry at Arizona State. When the Mets would not yield Gentry, Dalton asked for Ryan. Some suspect he was the pitcher Dalton wanted all along.
Dalton knew that strikeout pitchers draw fans. Feller had an attendance clause in his contract with the Cleveland Indians; Koufax was generally credited with bringing 8,000 extra customers to Chavez Ravine each time he pitched. "Our ball club was so bad last year," says Dalton, "that it is difficult to judge Nolan's value off attendance figures. Still, I would say he meant at least 1,000 more people per game to us."
Virtually nobody was looking at California during the last third of the 1972 season, although the pitching staff put one excellent game atop another. Over the final 55 games the opposition was limited to three runs or less 41 times. So far this year Angel pitchers have sustained that excellence. Bill Singer has come over from the Dodgers to help Ryan, Clyde Wright and an improving Rudy May. Singer and Wright both have no-hitters and 20-game seasons behind them. Says Dalton: "I think our front four compare favorably with the Baltimore staff of Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson the year they all won 20 games. I'm talking about potential. They don't have the experience of that four, but they are men we can build on."
As Dalton builds, Ryan trys to duck comparisons with Koufax. "I don't think I will ever see a pitcher as good as Koufax," he says. "When I was in high school I went from home in Alvin, Texas to the old ball park in Houston to watch him pitch. His fastball did things I never thought a ball could be made to do." Sandy Koufax's fastball did do frightening things to batters. They would see it coming toward the plate at belt level and then leap armpit high. But while the Koufax fastball was best thrown high, Ryan's is best thrown low.
Jeff Torborg, who catches many of Ryan's games, caught Sandy's perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in 1965. "People think you can measure how fast a man throws a ball," says Jeff, "but you can't, at least when you get to that level of speed. Sandy was a control pitcher—a complete control pitcher. He had a superior curveball. Nolie has an excellent curve that gets better every time he works. If I had to make a comparison I'd say that right now Ryan reminds me of both Koufax and Don Drysdale. Nolan can sniff a win and really bring the ball in when he gets that whiff. In that way he reminds me of Drysdale. His speed reminds me of Sandy."
In Wednesday's Detroit game Torborg got a painful reminder of Ryan's speed. "We got crossed up on our signs," says Jeff. "I was expecting a curve when he threw the fastball. I got it on my bare hand and thought it was broken. If it hadn't caught the meat part, it certainly would have been broken. In a couple of days the swelling should go down."
Ron Perranoski, once the top Dodger reliever, now works out of the Angel bullpen. "I had read about Ryan when he was with the Mets," Perranoski says. "I watched him on television a couple of times. He could throw hard, but he really didn't seem to have too much of an idea about how to pitch. I think he does now. He is as fast as anybody. In time he is going to break all the strikeout records. Pitchers don't get their good stuff that often, but when Nolan does he is going to overpower the hitters. Look how long it took Sandy to get where he got."
John Roseboro caught two of Koufax' four no-hitters for the Dodgers. Roseboro, at present a coach for the Angels, says, "It isn't fair to compare Ryan and Koufax, but I'll say this: there is no pitcher in baseball today who is in better shape than Nolan Ryan. He knows what work is, and he works."
And when Ryan works, the Angels sing.