Bulletin: Ryan Pitches a No-Walker

It should have been a big, black, blaring headline like, “Tokyo Bombed!” or, “Man on Moon!” It was almost surreal as in, “Gorbachev Turns Republican!” or, “Kadafi Wins Nobel Peace Prize!”

What I mean is, I never thought I’d live to see it happen. So far as I know, it’s never happened before.

Yet, the papers seemed to kiss it off, burying it in the body of the stories. One story had it in Paragraph 5, another in Paragraph 3.

I didn’t think it was “Man Bites Dog,” I thought it was “Man Bites Lion.”

Big stories build slowly. And, in the sixth inning of the Dodgers-Astros game last Thursday, I turned to my companion, Dr. Gary Sugarman: “Doc, I must have missed some batters here. I don’t understand this. It’s the sixth inning and I don’t show any bases on balls for the Dodgers. Hasn’t Nolan Ryan walked anybody?”

“Not yet,” was his cheerful reply. “But the game’s young.”

Not for Nolan Ryan. Six innings may be a record. Three innings later, I couldn’t believe my score card. Nolan Ryan had pitched and won a complete game without walking anyone!

If you don’t think that’s headline stuff, you don’t know Lynn Nolan Ryan. For Nolie Ryan to go through nine innings without walking anybody is like Liz Taylor going two years without marrying anyone.

I hot-footed it down to the locker room. “Nolan, do you realize you didn’t walk anyone?” I asked him.

Nolan, peeling a uniform over his head, frowned. “That’s right, I didn’t,” he agreed.

“Nolan,” I said. “When’s the last time that happened?”

Ryan paused. “Well, not this year,” he acknowledged. This year? How about ever!

For Nolan Ryan to go 31 batters without issuing a walk is bulletin stuff. Even the story that put the feat in Paragraph 3 had this to say: “For Ryan, this was something historic. It was the first time in 13 National League seasons that he pitched a complete game without a walk.”

Nolan Ryan leads the world in walks, 2,441 of them. No one is within 500 of him.

Nolan Ryan has pitched five no-hitters, tops in history. But even in his no-hitters, he walks the ballpark. He once pitched a 15-strikeout no-hitter in which he walked — get this! — eight batters. Not one of his no-hitters was a no-walker.

For Nolan to go 31 batters without a walk is stop-the-presses stuff. Nolan is not a cinch to go three batters without a walk, ordinarily.

It is hard to figure whether Nolan Ryan has been blessed or cursed with this lack of control.

If he had a modicum of control, Nolan Ryan would go down in history as the greatest pitcher who ever threw a ball. On the other hand, if his fastball didn’t do the violent, unpredictable things it does, would he be the overpowering figure he is — a man with 4,759 strikeouts, 1,250 more than Walter Johnson and 600 more than anyone else in the game? An even bigger story than Nolan Ryan pitching a complete game without a walk would be Nolan Ryan pitching one without a strikeout.

Every time Nolan Ryan pitches a game, he resets the record for strikeouts. Up until last Thursday, every time he pitched a game he reset the record for walks.

When Ryan is through pitching, his arm should hang in the Smithsonian, right next to Lindbergh’s airplane, as a historic American artifact. It is an implement unique in the annals of sport.

Ryan is 41 years old. At 41, most pitchers’ fastballs are as long gone as their hair. Nolan’s has dwindled down, oh, probably, all the way to 96 m.p.h. If Ryan is now going to put the ball where he wants it, the game has no chance. Giving Nolan Ryan control is like giving a leopard horns.

Ryan has figured in a staggering 525 games. He has won 272 of them. But this doesn’t take into account the number of winnable games he turned over to relievers. Nolan never got knocked out of the box in the conventional sense, he just, so to speak, walked out. God is just. He gives uncanny control to those who will need it. Nobody gets everything.

Ryan’s legend will grow. They won’t have to make up much of it. This is a man who struck out 19 batters in one game — and lost it. He struck out 19 batters four times in his career. He struck out 17 three times and 18 once. When he was on, he didn’t need an outfield. Some innings, he didn’t need an infield.

If he retires, as he says he may, after this season, a lot of people will be sorry. They will also be baffled. Nolan Ryan able to spot the ball could make the league’s worst nightmares come true. Retiring would be humane.

The important dates in Nolan Ryan’s career are May 15, 1973; July 15, 1973; Sept. 28, 1974; June 1, 1975, and Sept. 26, 1981. Those were the dates of his no-hitters. To them must now be added Sept. 8, 1988. That was the day of his no-walker.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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