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Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel

Posted: October 21, 2010 11:35 AM

Despite a Hall of Fame career, successful business ventures off the field, some still underestimate "Big Tex." The oh-shucks moniker belongs to Nolan Ryan. Those close to him are more than willing to play along with this game. That success for Ryan, a.k.a. Big Tex, just sort of happens.

But of all the athletes I've encountered during 20-some years covering sports, nobody has a better plan for success than Ryan. Just look at how he's helped turn around the Texas Rangers.

Coming into this season, the Rangers had never won a postseason series. Despite Wednesday's loss to the New York Yankees, they stand a game away from the Fall Classic and the man behind curtain is Big Tex.

In a way, Ryan has been underestimated for much of his life. In high school, the New York Mets were about the only major-league team that showed any interest in him. And that was due to one scout, Red Murff, seeing something in the skinny right-hander that nobody else could yet envision.

After being drafted by the Mets, Ryan struggled in the minor leagues. He showed a live fastball and not much else. Even though Ryan turned some heads in the '69 World Series, he was eventually traded to the California Angels. Afterward Mets manager Gil Hodges said that among all the young pitchers on this ballclub (Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw), Ryan was the one he would miss the least.

"Looking back on it, that trade was the best thing that ever happened to me," Ryan once told me. "The Angels were in a rebuilding mode and they allowed me to pitch every fourth day.
"With the Angels, I found out that at the top level there's not a lot of separation in the physical abilities of players. It's the mental approach to the game that separates people. If you're blessed with the ability to throw hard, you have to consider all the factors. It's a gift than you did nothing to earn. It was given to you and what you do with it is up to you."

That's the philosophy Ryan brought to the Rangers' front office. Quietly, doggedly, Ryan let it be known that it was no longer business as usual. While other teams often coddle their pitching prospects, limiting them to 100 pitches or less in a ballgame, Ryan went in the opposite direction. Last season, he sent a memo to teams in the Rangers' minor-league system, telling them to stop counting pitches and start to coach instead. In essence, quit being bean counters and trust instinct and experience to really develop talent. Physically, a young pitcher was strong enough to throw more than 100 pitches in a game. Ryan did so more times that he can remember in his 26-year career.

In this postseason, Derek Holland stands as an example of Ryan's approach. The Rangers' left-hander has some giddy-up on his fastball, as scouts like to say, but he has struggled to be consistent. In Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, he came out of the bullpen to pitch 3 2/3 scoreless innings.

I once asked Holland what it is like to have Ryan in the Rangers' front office. What could a young pitcher still learn from him?

"Responsibility," Holland replied.

Earlier this season, Ryan joined with Chuck Greenberg to win ownership of the team. When they finally cleared the last legal hurdle, many in the Dallas-Fort Worth area cheered the news. They knew what the Ryan touch had meant to the team, to the region. Now the rest of the sports world is finding out as well.

When I was finishing my book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time, I knew I had painted myself into a corner. I needed to declare a fastest of the fastest in the closing section.

Now any baseball expert will tell you it's relatively easy to throw a blanket over the top fastball arms ever. Round up the usual suspects - Bob Feller, Steve Dalkowski, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, J.R. Richard and Goose Gossage. To add some spice, you can give a nod to such contemporary hurlers as Billy Wagner, Stephen Strasburg, Joel Zumaya and Aroldis Chapman.

But when forced to pick just one guy, I went with Nolan Ryan. After all, you have to admire a guy who recently fired a ceremonial first pitch with so much zip that co-owner Greenberg said, "I wonder whether he's available for duty later in this series."


 

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