We underestimate reality every day. Perhaps we should expect the incredible, since it insists on happening anyway. Maybe we should schedule the impossible -- put it right on our calendars.
As a personal first step toward developing this sense of wonder, I'm devoting July 16-17-18 to my own private Nolan Ryan watch. I have it on mystical authority that, on one of those three nights, he's going to pitch a perfect game in Baltimore with 27 strikeouts.
That's when The Act of God who pitches for the Texas Rangers comes to the major league ballpark nearest my home. If Ryan doesn't pitch against the Orioles in Memorial Stadium one of those days, I'm going to be sorely vexed.
Why? Because like countless other baseball fans, I've decided a special Nolan Hommage Visit is necessary in the wake of what Ryan did Monday night.
The Express got No-Hitter No. 6 -- with 14 strikeouts against the world champion A's in the Oakland Coliseum.
Ryan did it in his second start since coming off the disabled list after a back injury that, for a 43-year-old, might have been career-threatening.
And he did it with his son, Reese, 14, rubbing his pitching shoulder in the dugout between innings. "It was a wonderful sight," said Texas Manager Bobby Valentine of the father-son tableau, adding that the Rangers don't usually allow family in the dugout but "we might start a different policy."
Like most fans, I've watched Ryan pitch dozens of times in the last 23 years, on TV and in person. But I've never watched him like I hope I can next month -- paying attention to him alone, taking a final mental picture and, probably, even cheering for him.
Like the 33,436 fans in the Oakland Coliseum who chanted "Nolan, Nolan" on Monday, I've long since surrendered. Even foes find it hard not to pull for him.
Ryan's no-hitter-in-progress was shown live on the scoreboard between innings in The Kingdome as Seattle played Chicago. "I hoped they'd say, 'Let's just wait until the Ryan game is finished,' " said White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. "I was so busy watching him that I almost missed a couple of warm-up pitches."
Even A's Manager Tony La Russa said: "Nothing impresses me more than longevity. . . . Sometimes there is honor in defeat."
What fascinates us so much about Ryan at age 43 is that we know he has as good a chance as ever to amaze us. Maybe even a better chance. As his fastball, curve and temperament have become less explosive, they have become more controllable. That seems to be an even better pitching mixture.
On Monday, Ryan walked only two men and used just 130 pitches in the sort of high-K game where he once might have thrown 180. In fact, Ryan pitched just the way frustrated mentors begged him to for 15 years. Throw under-control fastballs in the low 90s and get ahead in counts; mix in your second-best pitch of the night (a change-up) and scrap your other stuff until you need it.
The result? Ryan sacrificed perhaps 5 mph, but said he "spotted" his fastball. He also abandoned an erratic curveball, saying he didn't want to lose his no-hitter on his third-best pitch. Alas, too soon old and too late smart.
While Ryan is legendary, he is also obviously vulnerable. We don't want to wait one season too long to get a last look at the 5,152 Strikeout Man. Normally, when a pitcher strikes out 301 men in a season, as Ryan did last year, or takes a no-hitter into the eighth inning five times in one season, you assume his career has many years left.
And usually, when a man pitches a one-hitter with 16 strikeouts in April, as Ryan also has this year, there's no cause to run to the park for one last nostalgic glimpse.
However, Ryan is blunt in discussing his back pain. It hurt six weeks ago. And it doesn't feel much better after a rest cure. "I better learn to live with it," he said.
Ryan has struck out 76 men in 58 innings this season and allowed only 34 hits. When he's on, he's as good as ever, which means as good as anybody ever was -- or, for one game, maybe even a little better. Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax, who probably had the best all-around right- and left-handed stuff, respectively, before Ryan, had "only" three and four no-hitters, respectively. Not only does Ryan have the most no-hitters and the most low-hit games, including 12 one-hitters, but he's also now the graybeard of the No-No set. The distinction formerly belonged to Cy Young, a babe of 41. And Ryan is untouchable in no-hitters for most teams (three) and in most decades (three).
On the other hand, Ryan's ERA this year is 4.32 and he's allowed nine home runs. When he has an off night, he doesn't resemble The Ryan Express too much. The back stiffens and he gets hit hard. That's why we should see him quickly. This fellow only needs six more wins to get 300 and, after that, you can bet he's not going to stick around very long unless baseball is still fun.
What an odd combination. The best ever. Never better. Almost finished.
Ryan, who has never gotten to start a World Series game, is ending a career that possesses a curious symmetry. He's the center-ring attraction on a sixth-place circus-show team that's going nowhere. He's passing milestones as his team passes the time, waiting for closing day. He's a legend in his own dugout. New Texas catcher John Russell had never worked with Ryan until Monday. Russell said that as the no-hitter evolved, "I was in a coma. I was just numb."
Russell shouldn't have worried. Ryan has never really needed anyone. In a sense, his whole career has been played out in majestic isolation. "In a game like that," said Ryan on Monday, "the further you go, the further away from you everybody sits in the dugout."
Nolan Ryan is all alone now. The only man with six no-hitters. Or 5,000 strikeouts. Or 200 10-strikeout games. Or six 300-strikeout seasons. Or three strikeout titles after age 40.
Yet he has fewer 20-win seasons and a worse career winning percentage than Jim Kaat or Tommy John. And the teams they played on were no better than Ryan's.
Oh, well. Let it lie.
The circus is coming to town. In the spotlight will be Ryan, the ringmaster, baseball's best solo act. The Nolan Ryan Traveling Show should not be missed. If you haven't seen it for a while, take the whole family.
I'll be the large little boy with the cotton candy.
VITAL STATISTICS (Through Monday's game): In his 24th season. Won 294, lost 266 (.525). Pitched in 720 games and 4,844 2/3 innings with a 3.17 ERA. Gave up 3,526 hits and 1,943 runs (1,704 earned runs); walked 2,566, struck out 5,152.
NO-HITTERS: Major league record of six no-hitters. Only player to pitch a no-hitter in three decades ('70s, '80s, '90s) and for three teams (California, Houston, Texas).
LOW HITTERS: 12 one-hitters, 19 three-hitters, 59 shutouts. Has carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning five times before giving up a hit.
RECORDS: Holds 45 major league records.
STRIKEOUTS: Has struck out 10 or more in 201 games. Holds major league record for strikeouts. Has struck out 44 MVP winners, 19 Hall-of-Famers, and six father-son combinations.
LAST YEAR: Led the major leagues with 301 strikeouts. Was oldest pitcher to fan 300 batters in a season and struck out 100 or more in a season for the 21st time.
LONGEVITY: At 43, oldest pitcher, to throw a no-hitter. Second oldest, Cy Young, was 41 when he pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees in 1908.