The Greatness of Nolan Ryan
I have been a baseball fan since 1977. The first memory I have of watching baseball on TV was during the World Series that year. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, I would later learn as I educated myself on the subject of baseball history, were facing each other in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1963. That year, the Dodgers, behind the pitching of Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, and Don Drysdale, swept the Bronx Bombers. The '77 Series, however, marked the birth of "Mr. October", as Reggie Jackson slugged three home runs on three successive pitches in Game 6 to clinch the Series for the Yanks.
Less than two years later, on July 13, 1979, I watched the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball. They were facing a 32-year old fireballer named Nolan Ryan. That night, he nearly threw his fifth career no-hitter without his best stuff. He "settled" for his 7th one-hitter while striking out 9 in a 6-1 victory.
It was this type of performance by the Ryan Express that helped him gain the respect of his peers and the adulation of millions of baseball fans all over the country. Every fifth day, fans came to the ballpark to see if Ryan was going to add another milestone to the baseball record books and a notch to his no-hitter belt.
Nearly a decade after his retirement, and only two-and-a-half years after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the name Nolan Ryan surprisingly draws the ire of some of his detractors. Just recently, I encountered some baseball "fans" on an Internet message board that expressed their beliefs that Ryan shouldn't be called a "great" pitcher. They also stated that no-hitters weren't "special". All they do, these "fans" stated, was make a good baseball story.
I couldn't disagree with them more. Nolan Ryan, while (most would agree) not the greatest pitcher in baseball history, was certainly the greatest power pitcher to ever toe the rubber. His numbers, I contend, don't leave any room for debate on this subject. First, he held hitters to an all-time low .203 batting average and 6.55 hits per nine innings (also a record). In 1972, he set the single season record by allowing only 5.26 hits per nine innings while winning 19 games and posting a 2.28 ERA, as well as a league-leading 329 strikeouts. All this for an Angels team that finished in fifth place, 18 games behind the Oakland A's. In 1973, Ryan set another single season record with 383 K's (and 2 no-hitters), while posting a 21-16 record for a team that went 79-83 (15 games out of first place). In '74, he went 22-16 while the Angels finished dead last at 77-85. Ryan dominated American League hitters while receiving very little run support on teams that finished no better than fourth between 1972-1977.
Ryan's strikeout totals are mind-boggling. His record of 5,714 will never be touched, and he struck out 10-or-more in a game 215 times (another of his records). In order for a pitcher to approach Ryan's strikeout record, he would have to average nearly 300 strikeouts over 20 seasons, which is nearly impossible. To put Ryan's strikeouts in perspective, consider that if current 'K' king Randy Johnson were to strike out 300 hitters for the next 7 seasons, he would get close to Ryan. A pitcher is going to have to average over a strikeout per inning and develop a workout regimen that would enable him to maintain his style of pitching throughout his career and stay healthy enough to avoid arm injuries and long stints on the disabled list.
His 7 no-hitters, the last of which he threw in 1991 when he was 44 years old, is another unreachable record. In front of the Arlington Stadium faithful, the ageless legend fired a 94-mph fastball by Roberto Alomar to finish the game and guarantee himself a trip to Cooperstown.
In addition to his 7 no-hitters, he also set the major league record for most low-hit games (19) and allowed four hits or less in 96 games during his career. In 1974, in one season, he struck out 19 hitters in a game three times (twice against Boston and once against Detroit).
When you consider his 5,714 strikeouts, 7 no-hitters, 53 major league pitching records, 300 strikeout seasons, opponent batting average, and hits allowed per nine innings, Nolan Ryan was one of the top 10 greatest pitchers in the history of the game. However, when the discussion turns to power pitchers, I would put him second to none.
» Rob Olds, 34, is a Nolan Ryan historian and has his own website highlighting the career of the Ryan Express at http://www.nolanryanheat.com
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