Maybe I'm too far back in the bleachers, but what are gushing sportswriters and so many baseball addicts seeing in Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers? The approach of his winning 300 games was treated with all the awe due the second coming of Cy Young, the legendary ancient who won a record 511 times. The New York Times sports section says the 43-year-old Ryan is a "phenom" with "a prodigious arm" and is at the height of "his astonishing 24-year big-league career."
What's the astonishment in a thrower who regularly leads the leagues in walks, is the fifth losingest pitcher in baseball history, has a lackluster earned run average and has never been close to winning the game's highest pitching honor, the Cy Young award?
The shininess of Ryan is his fastball. Every strong-armed flamethrower from Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians to Nuke Laloosh of the Durham Bulls is assured the media's flattery and the fans' cheers when he overpowers batters with speed. The fast lane is the only lane. Smoke it between 95 mph and 100 mph and such minor details as preventing runs and winning games are ignored.
Ryan's glitter is strikeouts. By last count, he had more than 5,080 in more than 4,790 innings. That ranks him first all-time in strikeouts per nine innings. Yet Ryan's average of 9.54 strikeouts a game is not that far ahead of the 9.27 of Sandy Koufax or Sam McDowell's 8.86. In more crucial categories, his performance record is well below the genuinely great modern pitchers. At the end of the 1987 season, Ryan's won-lost percentage was .519. Tom Seaver, who won 311 games in 20 seasons and lost 205, was .603. He gave up 1,390 walks. Ryan walked 2,268 in 20 years. Seaver had five years in which he won 20 games, Ryan only two.
Koufax's winning percentage in 12 years was .655. In three of his last four years, he won 25, 26 and 27 games. His earned run average those three years was 1.88, 2.04 and 1.73.
Ryan's winning 300 times in 24 seasons is not especially remarkable. That averages less than 13 wins a season. His two 20-game seasons put him in a tie with that pitching great, Babe Ruth.
Ryan loyalists talk about his six no-hitters as if those ecstasies cover up a career pattern of mediocrity. Koufax had four no-hitters in half the span of Ryan's career. He also played for one team, which suggests his employers believed they were getting their money's worth. Ryan's haven't. He came up with the New York Mets in 1966 and after five consecutive losing seasons was traded to the California Angels. Then it was on to Houston and now the Texas Rangers.
In "Off the Record," Buzzy Bavasi, the former general manager of the Angels, writes of Ryan's wanting more money after his 1979 season of 16-14: "I stated that to replace him, all we needed were two 8-7 pitchers. If nothing else, the mathematics bear that out. Ryan was 16-14 on a club that batted .282 with 164 home runs. Was that worth $1.1 million a year? I didn't think so."
What emerges from the statistics of Ryan's career is a portrait of an athlete whose record is in the range of fair to admirable but not prodigious or astonishing. Ryan is baseball's Hulk Hogan, a figure of brute and flashy strength but no more. Pitching is more than blazing speed. Its artistry is often found in no-blaze slowness.
Consider Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer who won 318 games in 24 years -- most with the consistently wretched Atlanta Braves. Unlike Ryan, Niekro was not born with the rare gift of an overpowering arm. So he developed overpowering genius with the knuckleball, a pitch that floats in like a curveball with arthritis. Niekro's achievements easily surpass Ryan's: more 20-game seasons, a better won-lost percentage, more complete games and about 500 fewer walks.
It is the same for another knuckler, Hoyt Wilhelm, an iron man, not merely an iron arm. He retired at 49 with a .540 won-lost percentage and holding the major league record for pitching appearances, 1,070. Still another knuckleball pitcher whose slowness was more artistic than Ryan's heat was Wilbur Wood, who did what few have ever done: four consecutive 20-game years. Each of those years he pitched more than 320 innings, twice for records. Ryan had only two seasons over 320.
In a May 1973 game in Anaheim, Calif., Wood, who rarely threw beyond 65 mph, pitched for the Chicago White Sox against Ryan, whose pitches rarely went under 95 mph. In the matchup of the game's slowest against the fastest, Wood won, 4-1.
After strikeouts, Ryan's next notable achievement is huckstering. He currently appears in seven ads or commercials. The pitcher has become a pitchman, another reason fans should look elsewhere for greatness.