Nolan Ryan will probably tie the major league record for lifetime strikeouts--3,508 by the late, great Walter Johnson--in the seventh inning tonight. That would be consistent with Ryan's 11-year record of averaging 9.4 strikeouts per game, better than one per inning.
And, in the following inning, it is presumed Ryan will leave some unfortunate member of the Phillies' batting order to contemplate what has just happened. What will have just happened is that Ryan will have made him a part of history, his eighth strikeout victim of the game, No. 3,509 of his career, better by one than the record held by Johnson for 56 years.
Unless, by some chance, the Phillies become uncooperative in the Houston Astrodome and cut short Ryan's work night.
Sunday, Ryan served notice that he is ready to go after Johnson's record. In his first start of the year, coming off a urinary tract infection, he struck out seven Montreal Expos in six innings. "The old velocity was there," said Ryan.
The chances are good that Nos. 3,508 and 3,509 will be the victims of Ryan's famed fast ball. "What I'm throwing now," Ryan said, "is 70 percent fast balls, 30 percent curve balls."
With the directness that has always been his trademark, Ryan also said over the phone from his hometown of Alvin, Tex., that he really isn't very familiar with the career of Walter Johnson.
"All I know about Walter Johnson is that he's a legend," Ryan said. "I know he holds the record, but I don't know anybody who ever saw him pitch. Really, I don't know much about him."
Mr. Ryan, meet Mr. Johnson, who pitched 21 years for the Washington Senators (1907-27).
Compared with your excellent record of averaging a shutout every nine starts, Johnson averaged a shutout every 6.9 starts.
When you speak of your "good velocity," Mr. Ryan, pitchers of the Johnson era wouldn't know what you were talking about. "Velocity" wasn't in their vocabulary. They spoke of speed and fast balls and said things like, "He could hum that ball."
Johnson couldn't match your splendid five no-hitters, Mr. Ryan, because he pitched only one, but there were tons of one-hitters and two-hitters. In 1912, he won 16 games in a row. A couple of times, he struck out four men in an inning. Some catchers couldn't hold him. His won-lost record in 1913 was 36-7.
In 1918, Johnson led the league with a 1.27 earned-run average. He did it with his fast ball. They didn't have the instruments to measure the speed of pitches in those days, but what Johnson was throwing gave rise to the batters' lament: "You can't hit what you can't see."
Relevant to that is the story told by umpire Billy Evans about Ray Chapman, a Cleveland batter who faced Johnson in a game in 1920.
With Johnson throwing rockets and Chapman taking two strikes with the bat on his shoulder, Chapman suddenly started walking toward the dugout, with Evans yelling, "You got another strike coming." Chapman didn't break stride, telling Evans over his shoulder, "You can have it, it won't do me any good."
Ryan didn't know all these things about Johnson. When told that Johnson averaged 20 victories a year for 21 years, he said, "Gee!"
And when advised that, during one weekend, Johnson shut out the Yankees on Friday and again on Saturday, and after being idled because of the Sunday blue laws, came back on Monday to shut them out again--three shutouts in four days--Ryan again said, "Gee!"
Ryan's speed, unmatched in this era or any other, has made him the first million-dollar-a-year pitcher. He had the speed when he broke in with the Mets, but didn't have it under control. He controlled it in eight season with the Angels and has it now, in his fourth year with Houston.
"Back in 1973, they measured the speed of my fast ball, when they said I set a record," Ryan said. "Some people from Rockwell International did it with an infrared device, and they said my ball was moving 100.9 miles per hour."
That speed hasn't tailed off much in Ryan's 19th year as a professional. "The other night against the Expos, they said I was throwing 97. I'll accept that," Ryan said. "There are one or two pitchers who will match that, but I don't think there are many throwing in the 90s."
As for Johnson's record, Ryan said he knew it was close, "but I'm not much on numbers. Records come from ability, and if you pitch a lot of innings."
Ryan, who never brags, did not say over the phone that tonight he would get those eight strikeouts. But he did note that the Phillies "are a big-swinging team." That might have sounded just a bit smug.