Smile, Jesus loves you. Nolan Ryan smiles. "That's our street, Dezso Drive," he says, "just the other side of that Jesus sign—this is Baptist country—and I was raised in that little house there. My mom still lives in it." Ryan is in the family van conducting a tour of sorts of his hometown, Alvin, Texas (est. pop. 20,000). With him are his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Wendy, 9. His sons, Reid, 14, and Reese, 10, are tending to chores on the Ryan acreage just outside of town. "There's our church, the First Methodist, and that's where Ruth used to live, on Richard Street." The core of Alvin, its downtown, has been siphoned off into commercial centers on Highways 35 and 6, but the residential neighborhoods of spacious green lawns and brick and clapboard houses, all shielded from the merciless summer sun by spreading live oaks, are much as they were when Ryan was growing up there as the town's boy wonder. Alvin is no dusty Last Picture Show plains town with tumbleweed careering through its streets. It is humid and verdant, 26 miles south of Houston and 29 miles west of Galveston, smack in the path of the fierce storms that sweep inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Alvin? Now, what kind of a name is that for a town? Just the right one, say the townsfolk, named for one Alvin Morgan, a Santa Fe Railroad man who built the first house there in 1879. Baseball has taken Nolan Ryan to both coasts, but it has never taken him out of Alvin. It's what he's all about.
On the corner of Sealy and Gordon streets stands an abandoned service station, and next to it there is a crumbling old movie theater. "I'd roll newspapers right in that service station, the old Sinclair station, at two and three in the morning," says Ryan. "Got quite an education there. Oh, there'd be an occasional drunk staggering by from out of the pool hall down the street—even though this is a dry county—and I'd see skunks come out of the drainage system to eat the popcorn that people dropped coming out of the movie. My dad was a hardworking man. He'd work all day at the Amoco oil company, where he was a supervisor, then come home about four, take a nap, eat at six, go to bed at nine and get up at one in the morning to deliver The Houston Post. My brother Bob and I worked with him. I rolled papers on that corner from the time I was in the second grade until I was 14 and old enough to drive and deliver them myself. We had all of Alvin as our route, about 1,500 papers. We finally gave it up when I graduated from high school. By then my dad had put three kids through college and had two more in there."
The van turns down Johnson Street. "My dad's name was Lynn Nolan Ryan. I'm a junior, but they called him Lynn and me Nolan." He laughs. "It's funny, my boy, Reid, is actually Robert Reid. Named him after my brother, who's seven years older than I am, a colonel now in the Air Force. But we call the boy by his middle name, too. My other boy, Reese, was named after Jimmy Reese. You know, the Angels coach [now 80]. And Wendy here. Well, she's Wendy Lynn. I thought that would be a great name for a country singer." He turns to wink at the slender child sitting in back with her mother. "But it looks like the talent just isn't there." Wendy huffs with indignation. "Daddy, you know I want to be a classical singer." "Classical?" says Daddy. "We'll just see about that."
The brick buildings of Alvin High School are on the left. Both Nolan and Ruth were star athletes there, Nolan a 6'2" center on the basketball team and a pitcher on the baseball team with an arm the likes of which may never be seen again. Ruth was no slouch, either. As a sophomore, during Nolan's senior year, she, then Ruth Holdorff, and her partner, Rachel Adams, won the state tennis doubles championship in their AAA division. And she and Nolan played a mean game of touch football together on lazy Saturdays over in Connie Hankamer's backyard. Ruth was "All School Most Beautiful" at Alvin High for three years running, and Nolan was "Most Handsome" in his sophomore and senior classes. Their son Reid is in his first semester at Alvin High, burdened perhaps but not overwhelmed by the legacy of his legendary parents. Reid was badly injured at age seven when a car hit him near Anaheim, where his father was then playing—he's in perfect health now—so he knows what it's like to be a survivor. And, anyway, there's a lot of respect for elders in this family. Both sons call their father Sir.
September 28, 1986
"It's hard to believe Reid's going to the same school we went to," says Ruth, a lovely brown-haired woman who, if she were somehow eligible, could easily repeat as Alvin High's Most Beautiful. "Can it have been that long since we were there? Oh, my, there's the gym. How many hours did I spend waiting outside that place for a certain person? Come to think of it, I'm still doing it." At the rear of the school, adjacent to the football field, is the baseball diamond, which since 1973 has been named Nolan Ryan Field. Alvin has done its level best to honor its favorite son. When Ryan signed as a free agent with Houston in November of 1979 for the then unprecedented sum of $1,125 million a year, the town turned out 2,000-strong for him on Dec. 15 for "Welcome Back to Texas Day." He had signed with the Mets right out of high school, had gone to the Angels by '72 and now, after all those years, he was home again. Not that he had ever left Alvin. "When the season's over," says Ruth, "your car heads home." But now at least he was playing where the home folks could see him. "Nolan," said Carl Ellis, president in '79 of the Alvin Chamber of Commerce, "we in Alvin are just dad-burned proud of you."
And Ryan is dad-burned proud of Alvin. His attachment to his hometown is genuine. He's a director of a bank there, a familiar figure on the streets and the sponsor of the Nolan Ryan Baseball Scholarship program at Alvin Community College, where both he and Ruth have attended classes. He annually raises about $18,000 for the scholarship fund with a celebrity golf tournament at the Columbia Lakes Country Club, 40 miles southwest of town. "This is a very special man," says Phillips, dean of instruction at the college. "He came to me with the scholarship idea. He wanted to see to it that Texas youngsters who are interested both in learning and in playing baseball get their chance. And he works with the kids on our baseball team during his off-season. I tell you, his autograph around here isn't worth a dime, he's given out so many. Why, he'd sign 9,000 a day if you asked him to. I don't believe you can find anyone in Alvin who is not appreciative of his presence here."
Ryan turns the van away from the high school and heads for home. "I grew up in this town," he says. "I was blessed with a good childhood. When I left home, I never really found a place I wanted to live in except Alvin." He weaves the van down country roads, then turns into a long driveway that takes him past rolling green fields where his cattle lazily graze. Two excitable English pointers bound forward to greet the returning family. "I guess if I were, say, a member of the Chamber of Commerce here, I'd have trouble selling the place," says Ryan. "The weather's lousy. There are mosquitoes this big. In winter there are drastic changes in the climate. One year , we had 43 inches of rain in two days and 102 inches for the year. Eighty percent of the farmhouses here were flooded. Ours, fortunately, was on about the only hill around. We had a hurricane in 1980 that scared Ruth half to death. And, of course, right now, the economy in this area stinks. Why choose this town, you ask me, over some place like San Diego, with its beaches and perfect weather?" He opens the car door and greets the dogs, admonishing the one named Buster for chewing on one of his old cowboy boots. "Well, I guess it's because I've always been here. I know it's no great attraction, but it is home."
"Before he threw a ball, Dave said to him: 'Now go easy. Don't cut loose and take a chance till you're in shape.'
'All right,' says Kane.
"And all of a sudden, without no warning, he whammed a fast ball acrost that old plate that blew Tierney's cap off and pretty near knocked me down. Tierney hollered murder and ran for the bench. All of us were pop-eyed and it was quite a while before Dave could speak. Then he said:
'Boy, your fast one is a fast one! But I just got through telling you not to cut loose. The other fellas ain't ready for it and neither are you. I don't want nobody killed this time of year.'
"So Kane said: 'I didn't cut loose. I can send them through there twice as fast as that. I'm scared to yet, because I ain't sure of my control. I'll show you something in a couple more days.' "
The fastball pitcher, the strikeout king, the kid who can throw the high hard one, the dark one, the hummer, heat, smoke, is, with the home run hitter, the glamour boy of the game, the stuff of baseball legend. Consider the mythic status of Walter Johnson, who threw so hard he never bothered to learn to throw a good curve-ball and still won 416 games and led the American League in strikeouts 12 times. As Lardner once wrote of Johnson, "He's got a gun concealed about his person. They can't tell me he throws them balls with his arm." Or consider Lefty Grove, of whom columnist Bugs Baer once wrote, "He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf." Or Bob (Rapid Robert) Feller. Or Van Lingle Mungo. Or Dizzy Dean. Or Dazzy Vance. Or Sandy Koufax, who had that terrifying heater but couldn't find the plate early in his career until, as his manager, Walter Alston, once marveled, "When he finally made it, he didn't just get adequate control, he went from wildness to perfection."
Wildness. What a fearful word. And it goes hand in glove with speed. Fast and wild. Most of the great fastball pitchers were wild at some time in their careers. It is the wildness, or the fear of it, that gives the fireballer that extra edge. With a fastball pitcher in front of him even the most dauntless hitter has a sense of dread.
Fastballers are always other-dimensional, outsized. Rube Waddell (the single-season strikeout king from 1904 until Koufax superseded him in 1965), Vance, Sudden Sam McDowell and Ryne Duren were prodigious roisterers. Smokey Joe Wood, Dean, Ewell Blackwell, Herb Score, Koufax and J.R. Richard were all tragically flawed by injury or illness that took their soaring careers from them too soon. Even today, the true giants of the mound are the Hurry Kanes: Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens ascending, Tom Seaver, Goose Gossage and Steve Carlton descending.
But all of these legends, living and dead, are as so many balloon-tossers when compared with Nolan Ryan, "The Ryan Express." When Clemens fanned 20 Seattle Mariners in a game on April 29, he surpassed the single-game strikeout record of 19 then held jointly by Ryan, Seaver and Carlton. Clemens thus became the owner of the only significant strikeout record Ryan does not hold. And 19 K's in a game wasn't all that big a deal for Ryan, anyway; he has done it four times. He has struck out at least 10 hitters in a game 161 times to date. He had 23 such games in 1973, when he set the single-season record of 383 strikeouts. The season record is all the more impressive because it was accomplished the first year the American League went to the designated hitter. "If they'd had pitchers batting that year," says Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog, "he'd probably have struck out 440." In five different seasons Ryan struck out 300 or more hitters, surpassing Koufax, who had three such seasons. He had three consecutive 300-strikeout seasons, one more than Koufax, J.R. Richard and Waddell. He broke Johnson's career record of 3,508 K's on April 27, 1983, by fanning Brad Mills of the Expos. He became the first to reach 4,000 when he fanned Danny Heep of the Mets on three pitches on July 11, 1985. And he holds the ongoing career record of 4,259 (in 20 seasons), a standard unlikely to be surpassed in this century, if ever. Ryan's average of 9.35 whiffs per nine innings is the best ever, exceeding Koufax's 9.27.
For good measure, he has thrown a record five no-hitters, one more than Koufax. The first two came exactly two months apart in 1973, and he had one each in 1974 and '75. The last one came against the Dodgers on Sept. 26, 1981, with his mother, Martha, watching in Houston. He was then 34. He also, of course, holds the career record for walks, now at 2,264.
Various mechanical contrivances have been employed over the years to time fastballs. By piecing together photo frames, some experts concluded that Johnson got the ball up to 100 miles an hour. Feller was timed by the Army, using something called lumiline chronography, in 1946 at 98.6 mph, the fastest pitch officially recorded to that date. Electronics technicians from Rockwell International, operating sophisticated radar equipment, caught Ryan at 100.9 mph on Aug. 20, 1974, during a game against the Tigers in which he threw seven pitches at more than 100. And on Sept. 7, using even more advanced gadgetry, they timed one of his pitches at 100.8. That pitch was thrown, following about 150 others, to the White Sox leadoff hitter in the ninth inning, proof, as beleaguered major league hitters had long suspected, that the Ryan Express runs faster the later it gets. Ryan was notorious at that time for the number of pitches he threw in a game. "When I was at California [in '75 as a coach]," says Herzog, "he averaged 157 pitches a game. He threw 229 in one 15-inning game. Then he came back three days later and pitched a three-hit shutout."
All well and good, but this was more than a decade ago. Fireballers are famous for flaming out early. But Ryan—ah, Ryan—is still throwing the old smoke at age 39. In fact, he's still throwing as hard or harder than anyone in the game, including the young flamethrowers, Gooden and Clemens. As late as 1984, Ryan was clocked at 99 mph. Last year, he was still up to 97 and 98. He was caught at 97 on July 22 of this year—a week before he went on the disabled list for the second time this season with a sore elbow—in a game against Montreal in which he struck out 14 in nine-plus innings. In winning the 250th game of his career, on Aug. 27, he got the old hummer up to 95. "He's consistently at 93, 94," says his manager, Hal Lanier, "and he's over 90 every time he goes out there." This season he is again averaging better than a strikeout per inning. Despite an ineffective spell at the start of the year and the two stints on the DL, Ryan is 10-8 with a 3.59 ERA. Since the All-Star break, he has an ERA of 2.63, giving up just 34 hits and striking out 82 in 68‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings.
This fantastic ability still to "bring it" after all these years absolutely baffles the baseball savants. Larry Dierker, an Astros broadcaster and once a Houston fireballer himself, says, "The way he's throwing, if you didn't know how old he was, and you thought he was just coming out of high school, you'd draft him Number 1 in the nation on stuff alone. And here's a guy who has thrown more than 4,000 innings." "How many pitchers have thrown that hard for that long?" asks Houston pitching coach Les Moss. "The answer is none." According to Reds third baseman Buddy Bell, who has batted against him in both leagues, "Nolie hasn't lost much velocity. You can see the ball a little better, but not much."
"Think about it," says Giants pitching coach Norm Sherry. "This guy came up in 1966 throwing incredible gas, as hard as you'd ever want to see. Here it is 20 years later, and he's still throwing it."
Ryan says it's all a matter of mechanics. He throws with his legs and his hips. He has stayed in shape. He's the right size—6'2", 208 pounds. "Most of the great fastball pitchers have been about the same size, not too tall, not too short," he says. And the arm is still sound because he has never thrown a slider, just a nifty curve. "It's a theory of mine," he says, "that the slider puts more stress on the arm than the curve." Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski, who pitched with Ryan in 1973, says, "He was unbelievable then, and he's still unbelievable. His secret? God gave him one hell of an arm."
God certainly did. But this year the arm's hurting. Since Ryan's second return from the disabled list, Lanier has limited the number of his pitches in a game to "around a hundred." Ryan suffers his sore arm in silence. "The casual observer would never know Nolan is hurting," says Astros third baseman Phil Garner. "He never complains, never makes excuses. Everywhere else you hear about people with sore arms, sore backs, sore knees. The clubhouses are full of them. But you'll never hear any of that from Nolan Ryan."
"I haven't pitched without being in pain this year," Ryan admits. "The injury developed in spring training. At first it was just the usual aches and pains, then we thought it might be tendinitis. Now we know it's much more. It's either a partial tear or a complete tear of that ligament [medial collateral]. But it improves with rest. The way things are going, it should heal. I realize now I'm just going to have to throw through it [the pain]. I try not to favor it while I'm pitching. Afterward, there's quite a bit of discomfort. I can't lift things around the ranch. But my attitude is that the less attention I bring to it, the better off I'll be. People don't want to hear about your problems."
Ryan is sipping his morning coffee in the kitchen of the farmhouse that he and Ruth rebuilt on 82 acres just outside of Alvin. "Every little kid seems to fantasize about growing up to play in the big leagues," he says, brushing back strands of receding hair. "Me, I always wanted to be a rancher." And that's exactly what he has become. He keeps heifers on the Alvin property and commercial cattle on 3,000 acres he leases 25 miles west of town, near Rosharon. But his real ranch, his working property, is 150 miles west, about 50 miles outside of San Antonio. On his 2,000 acres there he has 250 head of registered Beefmaster cattle, a breed part Brahman, part Hereford, part shorthorn that originated in Texas some 50 years ago. Ryan is no gentleman rancher. In the off-season he's on horseback, riding herd, "getting kicked, stomped and hooked." He hasn't ridden much during baseball season since he got thrown a few years ago. "I couldn't move afterward," he recalls. "Sat in the whirlpool for two days trying to recover. I didn't miss a turn, though. I don't think the Astros were aware of the hazards of my other occupation, and I wasn't anxious for them to find out. But that incident made me see the light. Now I realize how little time we have in this game. During the season, I'll leave the getting kicked and thrown and having your fingers mashed to the cowboys."
Ryan never saw himself as a big league superstar when he was growing up in Alvin. "In Little League I was successful but not superior to other kids," he says. "In fact, I didn't have a superior arm until I was a sophomore in high school. The only indication I had that there was something there was that I could always throw farther than the other kids—not harder, just farther. Of course, growing up around here I was throwing something or other all the time. My mother was constantly on me about breaking windows. As kids we'd go down to Mustang Bayou and throw rocks at the water moccasins. We had all that time in the summer to fish and just fool around down there. We didn't have that much to entertain us.
"All I thought about in high school was basketball. I was 6'2" but I was the center because I was a good jumper. We were 27 and 4 two years in a row. I know I could've played small-college basketball, and that's what I wanted to do. It's funny the turns your life will take. I remember that one of the colleges—I think it was San Jacinto—held basketball try-outs in our area just as baseball season was starting. I was scheduled to pitch on the day of the tryout. I wanted to go, and I would have if I hadn't been pitching. A friend of mine, Darrel Hunt, did go. In fact he ended up going to that school, but they ruled him ineligible for high school baseball that season because of it. Think about it. If I'd gone to that tryout, I don't know what would've happened. Maybe the Mets never would've seen me."
Jim Watson was Ryan's baseball coach at Alvin High. Watson is now the principal at Pearland High School, about 10 miles north of Alvin. He's a burly man—a University of Texas lineman in the mid-1950s—but he's a little heavier now and a lot softer than he was when he was putting the Alvin High Yellowjackets through their paces a generation ago. He pulls from an office bookshelf a copy of the 1965 Alvin yearbook and turns quickly to the sports pages. "Look at that skinny kid," he says, indicating No. 33 on the basketball team. "Nolan never did weigh more than 150 pounds in high school. But his dad was a big man, so I knew he'd fill out. But even as a skinny little kid he could throw that ball through a wall. He was quiet, a good student, probably the most unpretentious young man I've ever seen.
"Nolan was very raw as a high school pitcher. He didn't have a curveball. But that fastball! I swear that ball jumped about eight inches when it reached the plate. And yes, he was wild. He didn't have any idea where the ball was going, but he didn't have to exactly thread the needle back then. Those kids were so scared, they'd swing at anything just to get out of there. He'd average 15, 16 strikeouts in those seven-inning games."
When Ryan was a sophomore a New York Mets scout named Red Murff, working south Texas, stopped to catch a high school tournament Alvin High was playing near Houston. He had just seen Turk Farrell of the then Houston Colt 45's and Jim Maloney of the Reds pitch against each other in the old Colts Stadium. Farrell and Maloney were two of the hardest throwers in the National League back in the early '60s, but Murff hadn't seen anything until he saw Alvin play that night. "I saw two great arms that day," Murff recalled later. "Then I saw this skinny kid throwing better." Murff hurried over after the high school game to buttonhole the Alvin coach. "Who the hell is that kid?" he asked Watson. Murff was a fixture at Alvin games from that moment on.
"It's probably my fault Nolan was drafted so low [14th round, 295th player selected]," says Watson. "I knew how to put a team together, but I didn't know anything about teaching pitching. And I was real macho then, or at least I thought I was. I wouldn't even let players rub the sore spots where balls would hit them. Even now, with that sore elbow of his, Nolan tells me, 'Coach, I don't rub it.' Anyway, I got mad at our boys after two straight 1 to oh losses, so I had the whole team out running the next day—and I mean running hard. Well, later that day Murff comes up to me and says, 'Jim, Bing Devine [then head of Mets scouting] is coming to town to see Nolan pitch.' He's all excited, but I tell him, 'Red, Nolan just pitched yesterday, and I ran him today until he puked green.' But Red said, 'You gotta pitch him. This is the only time Devine will be down here.' What was I gonna do? I told Nolan he was pitching. When Nolan left in the third inning, the other team was ahead. 7 to oh. Nolan tells me today I cost him $50,000. He's always on me about that. As it is, the Mets signed him for $20,000, and I guess you can say he's sure made up for it since."
Ryan, the aspiring rancher, the homebody, wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of signing a big league contract. "I didn't have much desire to be off in some rookie league," he says, "and I thought I'd blown my chance in that game Devine saw, anyway. But Murff had done his homework on me, and the Mets made their offer. My dad said I should take it, so I did. I always had a lot of respect for my dad."
As raw and fundamentally unsound as he was then, Ryan was in the majors within two years. He was promoted to the big club late in that '66 season. A forearm injury and a service obligation limited him to only 11 innings in the minors in '67, but the next year, fully recovered, he was a Met full-time, joining a remarkable staff of young pitchers that included Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.
Ryan was the odd man out. As a member of a top-priority Army reserve unit, he was obliged to attend regular meetings in Pasadena, Texas, which prevented him from becoming part of the starting rotation. "I would go 10 to 12 days between starts," he recalls, "and with my inexperience and the type of pitcher I was, I never did get consistent." He had married Ruth in '67, the year of her graduation, and though she had relatives on Staten Island, the young Texas couple never fully adjusted to life in the fast lane. "New York," says Ryan in masterful understatement, "created inconveniences for us." But in 1969, the year of the "Miracle Mets," Ryan pitched seven innings in the pennant-clinching win over Atlanta in the National League playoffs, and he saved Game 3 of the Mets' five-game triumph in the World Series against Baltimore. That, at least, created a temporary euphoria. "Mother and Dad came to stay with us in New York for the Series. Things were happening so fast. We were suddenly the toast of the town, ticker-tape parades, the whole thing. You almost got to the point where you were taking all this for granted. But my dad died the next year, and here it is 1986 and I'm still waiting to get back in another Series." He will get another chance in a few weeks—if the Astros can get past the Mets.
Back then the Mets, feeling the pressure of success, grew impatient with their part-time soldier and wild man of the mound. Ryan was frustrated, bitter. He compared himself unfavorably to Seaver, a young pitcher only slightly older than he, but who was, relatively speaking, "a polished gem." Ryan, the unpolished country boy, felt like a bumpkin alongside the smoothy from California the people were calling Tom Terrific. He saw himself as a Hurry Kane:
"He had a brown paper suitcase held together by bandages. Some of them had slipped and the raw wounds was exposed. But if the whole thing had fell to pieces, he could have packed the contents in two of his vest pockets without bulging them much...."
"The different life-style, my inexperience, the pressure on the Mets to repeat as champions created an atmosphere I just couldn't be effective in," says Ryan. One night during the 1971 season he suggested to then G.M. Bob Scheffing that it might not be a bad idea to trade him. Scheffing obliged that winter, dealing the unhappy young pitcher in a four-player package to California for Jim Fregosi.
The trade was a bonanza for Ryan and the Angels. Ryan at last was out from under his military obligation, so he would finally get his chance to pitch with some regularity. But he came away from spring training in 1972 convinced that again he had "blown it." He had had a "horrendous spring," and the season opened with a players' strike. Discouraged now beyond endurance, Ryan wanted to quit baseball and go home to Alvin. "I wasn't even in the starting rotation at the end of spring training. Ruth and I didn't have any money. I wanted out. If Ruth had been supportive of that decision, I would have quit on the spot, but she convinced me to stay on. As it turned out, she had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did."
Her confidence was not misplaced. Ryan won 19 games for the fifth-place Angels in '72 and led the league with 329 strikeouts. He broke Koufax's major league strikeout record for a season and won 21 games the next year. On a struggling, building team that couldn't climb higher than fourth in the standings, he won 62 games during his first three years in California and struck out a mind-boggling 1,079 hitters. The fireball legend was building. So, regrettably, were a pair of counterlegends—that he was nothing more than a .500 pitcher and that he threw hard, all right, but couldn't find the plate. Indeed, Ryan has led the league in walks eight times in his career, and, to date, his winning percentage is .526. But since '69 he has played on only two division winners and no league champions. Those early Angel teams could neither field nor hit, so Ryan felt compelled to go for strikeouts and shutouts. He was wild, walking an average of five or more batters per nine innings. But he has cut that back to less than four in recent seasons. And he will tell you he gets as many strikeouts now with his curve as with the heater. His change-up has improved every year.
Nothing aggravates Ryan more than the suggestion that he still hasn't learned anything about pitching. "Some inexperienced writer will pull out the press guide," he says, "and see all those walks and then say I'm still a wild man. People like that have no idea where I've come from in this game and what has gone into my career. For a long time now I've been a student of pitching mechanics. I can tell you who's going to have a sore arm just by observing his motion. If I hadn't made the transition and become a pitcher, not a thrower, I'd have fallen by the wayside. The books are full of people like that. You know, 'Boy, he sure had a great arm, but.... Too bad about him.' "
In one hand Ryan holds a ball signed by Walter Johnson and, in the other, one signed by members, active and inactive, of the 3,000-strikeout club. "I'm missing Niekro and Bert Blyleven," he says. "When I get them, I'll have them all." Wendy has joined him at a trophy case that is as filled with artifacts from the athletic careers of his wife and children as from his own. "I don't put any emphasis on records," he says absently. "I expected the 19-strikeout one to be broken, and it was. They all probably will be. The year Carlton passed me in career strikeouts, I said I expected him to keep the record. He was pitching more often then than I was, and he said he thought he could keep going for another 10 years. I knew I couldn't."
"Why not, Daddy?" his daughter asks. "Why can't you pitch for another 10 years? Anyway, if you don't, I want you to be a coach."
Ryan rolls his eyes. "You see where her priorities are. The fact is, these young kids I play with now don't know what I've accomplished, what records I hold. I think records are important only to the holder. What is important to me is where I've come from and what I've been able to do. I'm home now and that is really important. I have another year on my contract, but I can see a time down the road when I'll be spending a lot more time on the ranch."
Martha Ryan lives five minutes from her younger son, in the Dezso Drive house. She is a small woman in her middle 70s, handsome like all the Ryans. She is watching a Dodgers-Mets game in her living room on this hot and humid Saturday afternoon in Alvin. "I've always been a baseball fan," she says. "Nolan's father was a great fan. I prefer to watch the games on TV now, though. It's getting too hard to get out to the Dome." Her eyes remain on the TV as she talks away.
"Nolan has lived in this town since he was six weeks old. You know, when children are growing up they never seem to like where they live. A small town like this, they'll say, is bo-rrrr-iiing. There's nothing to do, nothing exciting going on. But when they grow up they see it differently. Nolan wasn't like that. He liked it here. He never seemed to have any idle time at all. He was very, very active, and as the youngest of six children, he got an awful lot of attention. I'm proud of all our children, and happy that three of them have stayed here in Alvin, my two youngest daughters and Nolan."
She turns the volume down on the TV during a commercial and looks away from it. "I wasn't too happy when Nolan and his dad decided he should go away to play ball. I'd have been happier if he'd gone to college and played ball there. All my other children went through college and into graduate school. But if that was what Nolan wanted, that was fine with me then. As long as he's been happy, I've been happy, too." She smiles. "And you know, he's done very well, hasn't he?" She turns up the volume as the game resumes. "There's one important thing about what he's done, that's sure. Now, people from all over darn well know where Alvin, Texas, is."
Alvin, Texas? That's home. Always will be.