In late november,Ryan was enjoying a few cold ones with childhood friends at a bar in hishometown of Bossier City, La., when the news broke: The crawl on a big-screenTV announced that the Blue Jays were about to sign Ryan, a free-agentlefthanded closer, to a whopping five-year, $47 million contract. Withoutsaying a word, Ryan got up and left the table. "I knew that I wouldn't hearthe end of it from my friends," Ryan says. "It's a lot of money. Itgoes without saying that I picked up the tab."
Ryan's palsweren't the only ones suffering sticker shock. The contract, the most lucrativeever given to a reliever, left many around the American League a little numbgiven his scant experience as a closer--last season, during which he had 36saves in 41 opportunities for the Orioles, was his first in the role. But at6'6", 250 pounds and armed with a knee-buckling slider, Ryan glares down atbatters like the archetypal ninth-inning intimidator.
General managersthroughout the majors will be watching to see if Ryan can hold up his end ofthe historic deal. "This is a massive risk for [the Blue Jays]," saysthe G.M. of one National League club. "You're talking Mariano Rivera moneyfor a guy who hasn't really proved himself. Of course, if he succeeds,[Toronto] will look very smart and it could drive the cost for closers evenhigher."
After suffering21 blown saves in 2005 (third most in the AL), Toronto is confident in itsinvestment because of Ryan's age (at 30, in his prime), high strikeout rate(12.8 per nine innings, tops among AL closers last year) and equaleffectiveness against lefties (.208 batting average against) and righties(.207).
"We've seen alot of him in our division, so we know his ability," says general managerJ.P. Ricciardi. "Our bullpens have been good, but our closers have beenshaky, so it was great to solidify the closer's role for the next fewyears."
Mellow andamiable off the mound, Ryan returns to Bossier City every off-season and worksout with the baseball team at his old high school, Airline. "I'm a simpleguy," Ryan says. "I just want to go out there, get my three outswithout much of a fuss and go home." That's all the Blue Jays are askingfor.