In 1980, after 12 seasons with the New York Mets and California Angels, soft-talking, straight-shooting, flame-throwing Nolan Ryan signed with the Houston Astros. Four years. Four million dollars. Only 30 miles from his hometown of Alvin, Tex. The deal was semi-perfect. Ryan said it was the last contract he'd ever sign. When four more years were up, so was he. He'd leave baseball for his first love, ranching, leaving behind, as smoke from a distant fire, the memory of the remarkable heat he brought to the plate from 60 feet 6 inches away.

So it was somewhat of a surprise to read last year that Ryan had re-upped for an additional two years, that spring training would find him putting on the Astros' spilled-pizza uniform, cranking up the fabled right arm that has struck out more batters per nine innings--9.4--than any other pitcher in major league history. It seemed appropriate to greet Ryan with a lyric from "Piano Man": "They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, 'Man, what are you doing here?' "

Ryan grinned.

"I'm as surprised as anyone else that I've held up so well physically so long," he said, blushing apologetically.

But it's not just his physical well-being that prompted Ryan to stay. It's a combination of factors, including Ryan's psychological comfort at playing, almost literally in his backyard, the millions of dollars he continues to earn, and the marked success he's had pitching for the Astros. "I've enjoyed my years here," Ryan said, "more than any I've had in my career." Justice: a good ending for a good man.

Before 1980, for all his strikeouts--383 in one season, the record --for all his no-hitters--four at the time, tying the record--for all his legend, Ryan was only nine games above .500. "The bottom line is Ws and Ls," Dick Williams said then. "Look at his record. It's nothing." When he left the Angels, the general manager, Buzzie Bavasi, was asked--How will you replace Nolan Ryan? Bavasi said: "You mean, can I find two 8-7 pitchers?"

Before 1980, Ryan's earned run average was 3.26; since then it is 2.91. And walks, the bane of his career--he holds the dubious achievement of 2,022 walks, the most ever--haven't undone him. Last year Ryan pitched his first nine-inning game without walking anyone. In four seasons in Houston, Ryan has 376 walks; at California he walked 406 in 1974 and 1977 combined.

More significantly, Ryan's won-lost record has improved dramatically; he is 16 games above .500 with the Astros. In Houston, Ryan got his fifth no-hitter, and was first to surpass Walter Johnson's career record 3,508 strikeouts, though he now trails Steve Carlton by 32 on the all-time list.

A spot in the Hall of Fame, which Ryan once considered a long shot, seems even money now. "I'm no shoo-in. But if I didn't pitch another pitch, I'd say I stood a much better chance of making it than I did four years ago," Ryan said. "The fifth no-hitter will get their attention and these last few years might get their votes."

Is he a better pitcher now than ever?

The answer came without hesitation. "Oh yeah," Ryan said. "What I've lost in natural ability, I've gained in knowledge and experience. I think I really haven't had the best year with the Astros I'm capable of."

But is he as fast as ever? Can he still throw the fearsome 100.9 mile per hour heater?

Ryan shook his head. "No," he said. "Time has caught up to me. I just can't throw as hard as I did 10 years ago."

At 37, he can still throw well into the 90s; he was clocked at 99 once last season. "The difference is," Ryan said, "I used to throw 30 pitches a game like that. Now I only throw 10 or 15."

The mistake people make is thinking that Ryan is a one-trick pony pitcher, nothing but speed. In truth, if he'd thrown only the fast ball, he might have a better record. Nobody could hit his fast ball. Mark Belanger said it was a moral victory not to strike out against Ryan.

But Ryan always wanted the perfect strikeout, the one where the pitch was delivered to such a precise location that a batter had no choice but to watch, in awe, as it sailed by. The problem was, Ryan tried to throw that pitch each pitch. What good is a perfect strike on a one-and-one count? The best you can get is strike two.

Ryan always thought it most important that people saw him as a pitcher, not a thrower. He may have escaped greatness by seeking perfection. For the more pitches he threw, the better his chances of self-destructing through wildness.

Perhaps those days are gone. But Ryan's combativeness in pursuing singular victory remains. He has always been enamored of confrontational pitching, especially against the uppermost echelon of sluggers. Twice in his career--once against Dick Allen, once against Reggie Jackson--Ryan sought to test his best against the best, so he told both men that the next pitch would be a fast ball. Get ready, 'cause here I come.

Allen flied out.

So did Reggie, though when he tells it, it's a line drive.

No matter. Ryan calls each decision a draw, explaining, "I didn't strike them out."

Just for old time's sake, Ryan did it again last season, against Pedro Guerrero. Ryan told his catcher to tell Guerrero, "All fast balls." Guerrero nodded at Ryan, like a matador to a bull, and smiled.

What happened?

"I walked him," Ryan said, laughing at the irony. It's a classy man who knows when the joke's on him and wears it as graciously as when the joke's on you. "When you do it for an entire count, you give the guy a chance to be selective." Ryan winked. "But that didn't dawn on me until later."

Ryan thinks that, barring injury, he can pitch until he's 40. Should he make it, he'd have 20 years in the majors, a rare, noteworthy accomplishment. He'd like to overtake Carlton in strikeouts; he might be inclined to play an extra season to do so. "If we were going neck and neck," Ryan said, "and it looked like we'd both only pitch one more year, I'd stick around. But I'm told Steve thinks he can pitch until he's 50."

Ryan rolled his eyes.

"I know I can't."