At 36 Nolan Ryan became the majors' alltime strikeout leader—as chronicled here by Jim Kaplan—an achievement that spoke to a workhorse career with four teams. He pitched 10 more years and took the record into a new orbit: His 5,714 K's are still some 900 more than Randy Johnson's total at No. 2.
This is an article from the May 4, 2009 issue
It was a perfect setup for a strikeout record: a dominant pitcher against an outmatched hitter. On the mound at Montreal's Olympic Stadium on the afternoon of April 27 was Houston righthander Nolan Ryan, one K away from replacing Walter Johnson as baseball's alltime strikeout leader. The sainted Senator had assumed the lead in 1921, with 2,820, when he passed Denton True (Cy) Young, and had 3,508 when he retired six years later.
Now, Ryan had just struck out Expos catcher Tim Blackwell, and at the plate was Brad Mills, a substitute infielder with 154 at bats in the big leagues. Ryan walked around behind the mound, telling himself not to rush his delivery. He braced on the rubber, raised his hands over his head, tucked his left knee under his chin and threw with his simple and fluid motion, leading with his left foot, shifting his weight and releasing the ball with his right arm at an 11 o'clock position. In came a fastball, over the outside corner for a called strike. Now a curve, low and inside, but Mills couldn't stop his swing. Strike two. Ryan wasted a fastball outside. One and two. Tugging at his cap, Ryan walked on and off the mound and shivered like a dog shaking off water as he looked in for the sign. A big, sidewinding curve over the outside corner. Called strike three!
As the 19,309 fans at Olympic Stadium rose to cheer, Ryan hesitantly raised his hat. Meanwhile giant likenesses of Ryan and Johnson appeared on the scoreboard in centerfield.
Like Johnson before him, Ryan is a modest, clean-living young man from rural America who has pitched uncomplainingly for generally mediocre teams. He was born in 1947, the year after Johnson died. As Johnson did, Ryan relies primarily on heat. Johnson was the Big Train; Ryan—Nolie or Tex to his teammates—throws the Ryan Express. Oh, there are differences. Johnson threw almost nothing but a sidearm fastball, which all but blinded the hitters of his day. "You can't hit what you can't see," former American Leaguer Ping Bodie marveled. Ryan goes over the top and throws a nifty curve about 30% of the time. But Johnson and Ryan are linked as the most overpowering pitchers of their times.
The record could not have come at a better time for Houston. The Astros went 3--16 in the spring and lost their first nine games of the season, while Ryan missed three weeks with prostatitis. "When he plays, Nolan has a positive effect on the team," says Houston general manager Al Rosen. "He's like Joe DiMaggio—not a holler guy, but a leader. You respond to him. There's a sense of majesty, like Affirmed at the post."
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