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SPORTS Possible Ryans

He’s done everything one athlete could hope to do. But what if...
By Dan Baldwin |

Twenty years ago this sum- mer, the New York Mets were just about to give up on a skinny kid pitcher from Al-vin, Texas. Had you told baseball people or savvy fans that the skinny kid would go on to pitch seven no-hitters and endure until he was dominating hitters half his age, you’d have been certified as just plain crazy. This same pitcher would put the career strikeout record incredibly out of reach and win 300 games for mostly mediocre teams. Now this kid is 44, middle-aged and ageless, seemingly still in his prime, still chucking it in there at 95 miles per hour. And he’s the purest folk hero in America today.

That Nolan Ryan will be ushered to the Hall of Fame after his playing days end- if they ever end-is as inevitable as the effect of gravity on a pop fly. His accomplishments go beyond mortal calculation into the stratosphere of legend. To imagine Ryan doing more, you have to go into alternate universes and ask about other Ryans, possible Ryans that might be or might have been. We checked with the experts and asked: What if?

What if Ryan had developed his devastating change-up in, say, 1973 rather than the early 1980s when he was with the Houston Astros? Nolan had four no-nos by 1975 and didn’t pitch another until 1981. Then came one in ’90 and one in ’91. Seven is more than twice as many as any other pitcher in history except one (Sandy Koufax had four), but Rangers pitching coach Tom House has said that, armed with that change, Nolan might have as many as 12 or 13 no-hitters.

“A lot of the one-hitters slithered away in the late innings, “reflects NBC sports commentator Bob Costas. Ryan has lost five no-hitters in the ninth, and has pitched 12 one-hitters. Costas witnessed a Ryan one-hitter in which two infielders watched a Don Mattingly pop fly drop between them for an early inning single-the only hit of the game. “If you throw in House’s theory plus a little luck, he could be in double figures, ” says Costas.

“Who knows?” asks Rangers radio broadcaster Eric Nadel. “He carried so many into the late innings. Certainly some of those would have become no-hitters. “

Only 19 other pitchers have reached 300 victories in their major-league careers, so Ryan is in elite company, to say the least. But only one pitcher has reached 5, 000 strikeouts-Ryan. When and if he retires, he should have almost 50 percent more than Steve Carlton, his closest rival, who retired after the 1988 season with 4, 136 whiffs. It’s a mark that may stand forever, and it’s hard to find other records in baseball to which these figures can even be compared. Babe Ruth’s . 690 slugging percentage. Cy Young’s 511 wins. The numbers speak of incredible dominance.

What if Ryan had stayed with the Houston Astros? Ryan’s fortunes, along with his uniform, changed for the better when Eddie Chiles inked him to a Rangers contract on Pearl Harbor Day, 1988. It was definitely the Astros who were bombed in this deal.

“The guy [Astros owner] made a real bad decision, obviously, ” opines Rangers managing general partner George W. Bush Jr., who might end up paying Ryan $5 million for 1992. “He underestimated the impact of Ryan leaving. The way you build a franchise is by having legends. Nolan Ryan has become our legend. “

He also helps at the gate. Bush is reluctant to put a dollar figure on Ryan’s impact, but he says that the Rangers net around $9 a fan at Arlington Stadium, and that approximately 8, 000 extra tickets get sold each time Nolan pitches, about 15 home games a year.

Clearly Ryan has been good for the Rangers, but so have the Rangers provided the elixir for Nolan. 1989 and 1990 (16-10 and 13-9) were his two best years in succession since 1982-83. And not to forget the two no-hitters. General manager Tom Grieve agrees that the change of venue for Ryan created a more exciting atmosphere, which generated greater national exposure. “The fans in Houston were used to him, ” says Grieve.

Bush Jr. is more blunt. “I thought Nolan was being taken for granted in Houston. They didn’t know what they had until they lost him. Nolan’s arrival here has drawn a big share of the Texas market to the Rangers. “

It’s certainly arguable that Ryan might even be out of baseball by now had he stayed home in the dome, but that’s not the kind of second-guessing you’ll hear from the man himself. Talking in the Rangers dugout prior to a June game, Ryan says he never thinks of what staying in Houston would have brought, but he admits that the move was helpful. “Certainly it has surpassed any expectations I might have had because I came up here with the intent of playing one season. I have to be happy, and surprised to some degree, over what’s developed. “

What if Ryan ran for office? Don’t laugh. Jack Kemp couldn’t complete 50 percent of his passes as a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, and he might well be president some day. Ryan, who seriously considered running for Texas agricultural commissioner in 1990, has name identification that few can-didates could buy-and an image combining the best of Hercules, Mr. Smith (goes to Austin!), and a drawling Ward Cleaver. What if Ryan tossed his Rangers cap into the gubernatorial ring?

“You’ve got the president’s son and a Republican Hall of Fame pitcher, ” says former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman Sandy Kress. “That’s intimidating for me as a Democrat and a Rangers fan. But being a Hall of Fame pitcher and a good governor are two different things. If he has half a clue about politics, he’ll be an imposing candidate. But then a lot of our governors haven’t had a clue, either. “

Mayoral candidate Steve Bartlett, who had Rangers box scores wired to him when he was a U. S. congressman, agrees that Ryan would be a tough opponent and says, “I’d vote for him in a minute if he’d keep pitching for the Rangers for four years. ” But he also wonders what would happen if Nolan’s competition came from George W. Bush Jr., also rumored to have Austin on his mind.

“It would make you wonder about who works for who, “Bartlett says of the prospect of a Ryan/Bush primary. “Would George still pay his contract? It would give a new definition to the joke about the 800-pound gorilla. “Sit wherever you’d like, Nolan.

What if there’s a movie? An inevitable consequence of folk hero status is that sooner or later a producer will decide that the public cannot exist without a movie that chronicles the Amazing Ascent from Alvin. Needless to say, Frankie Avalon makes his comeback with a rigorous piece of method acting as Bobby Valentine. But who will play The Express?

“That’s tough. ” says Channel 8 movie critic Gary Cogill. “There’s a local actor, Steve Reed, who was cast as JFK in Oliver Stone’s new movie. With a hat, he looks just like Nolan. If you sent Ron Howard to [personal trainer] Larry North, he might fit the part. “

Everyone who was asked this one strug-gled. Nolan himself had no clue. A few thought Robert Duvall would get the accent just right but might be too old. Kevin Costner’s too skinny. Maybe Kurt Russell. Charlie Sheen showed a good pitching motion in Major League. Where’s Gary Cooper when you need him?

As for the made-for-TV production, Dallas Morning News television critic Ed Bark offers the oft-cast Mark Harmon (the man who played Ted Bundy!), “thirtysome-thing” stud Ken Olin, or one of the young guys from “Twin Peaks. ” But Bark hit it on the head when he declared, “You’d definitely have to find a guy who didn’t look like a geek throwing a baseball. “

Finally, what if Ryan ever gets old? Lorraine Clark, Ph. D., associate area representative for the American Association of Retired Persons, believes that we tend to overemphasize chronological age. “A lot of people are young in their 90s and old in their 30s. Maybe the public perception of what people can do at an age is way off base. He [Ryan] simply emphasizes what’s possible. Most of us do ourselves in; we don’t reach what is possible. “

“We all are going to get older physiologically, ” Clark says. “So long as his attitude remains good, he will not age much. This is all in a research phase, and he will be interesting to watch since he is not the norm. “

So much for speculation. What is not speculation is that Ryan continues to dominate hitters at an age when most pitchers are inflating their exploits and their waistlines on the banquet circuit, and he does it with a down-to-earth grace and aplomb that disarm even the severest cynic. Perhaps Costas offered the most succinct analysis.

“The reason he’s so appealing is that he’s half gift and half grit. If someone is the prod-uct of hard work, that’s admired. But when someone has a gift and combines it with the common virtue of hard work, that’s what makes him a figure of myth. “

Sure, but what if… ?