The sun was still high above Disneyland's Space Mountain last Friday, tracking steadily across the sky toward Sleeping Beauty's Castle, when Nolan Ryan, about to face the New York Yankees, took a surgeon's scalpel from his locker in Anaheim Stadium and began to whittle away at the fingers on his right hand. In the cool of the California Angels' clubhouse, Ryan went about his work slowly, drawing the blade painstakingly down each of the fingers as if he were peeling grapes. With each stroke the knife shaved away a layer of the pitcher's skin, removing his fingerprints, as if Ryan were a thief determined to leave no clues behind. Having prepared himself this way, Ryan knew that a baseball clutched in his right hand would feel as smooth as a bullet. And bullets are what the Yankees would see.
Outside in the sunlight, the Yanks fretted over the prospect of facing Ryan's fastball in the twilight that would envelop the stadium at the 5:15 p.m. outset of the game. Thurman Munson, the Yankees' stumpy catcher, was taking batting practice. "Everybody's so sensitive," he said, with a rare flash of humor, "you'd think Nolan Ryan was pitching." When Munson had finished taking his swings, he stepped out of the cage and walked over to Angel Pitcher Jim Barr, who was standing nearby. "You can tell Nolan that it won't matter what the light's like at five o'clock," he said. "I can't hit him at eight o'clock, either." With that, Munson walked away and was not heard from again the rest of the evening.
Nor were scarcely any of the other Yankees, except as requisite foils for Ryan's performance. What happened in Anaheim last Friday evening is that Nolan Ryan, age 32, with four no-hitters in his accomplished 12-year career and with more strikeouts per inning than any other pitcher in the history of the game (see box, page 16), proved he is still baseball's most exciting pitcher—and quite possibly the best. With a national television audience looking on, Ryan pitched his seventh one-hitter—so the record will say—that lone hit coming with one out in the ninth inning.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the game is that it was not really vintage Ryan the nation was watching. He was tired, having thrown a six-hit shutout against the Red Sox four evenings before, so in the early innings he was not as overpowering as he often is. When Ryan is right, he might have as many as six strikeouts after three innings, his fastball moving at speeds that have been clocked as high as 100.9 mph. But against the Yankees he started unspectacularly. He struck out Graig Nettles in the first inning, but Bobby Murcer hit the ball to the outfield for an out and Munson walked. When he tried to steal he was thrown out.
In the second there was a hint that Ryan wasn't all that tired. He struck out tough-hitting Lou Piniella on three pitches, something that won't happen to Piniella three times a season. "That's the thing Nolan does," says Angel Pitching Coach Larry Sherry. "He embarrasses hitters, and they hate that."
Bucky Dent looked at a third strike in the third inning, and Murcer went down swinging, waving at the ball with only one hand on the bat. In the next inning, Munson's pregame pronouncement was borne out as he blinked at a third strike, giving Ryan five strikeouts after four innings. More important, he had given up no runs and no hits.
Meanwhile the Angels had, as it developed, assured themselves of victory with two runs off Luis Tiant in the bottom of the third, Willie Mays Aikens and Brian Downing singling home the runs. California would add a run in the sixth and three in the eighth, but that was merely for show. Two was enough.
In the seventh inning Ryan struck out Nettles and Piniella again, his sixth and seventh strikeouts of the game. The other Yankee outs were soft ground balls or flies—no one was hitting the ball hard. And now Ryan himself was getting interested. "It's not at all unusual for me to go four or five innings without giving up a hit," he said matter-of-factly after the game. "But after six or so I begin to bear down."
"If you let him get a head of steam by the seventh inning," said Sherry, "you can't hit him. You can't even see him." In fact, he has won 105 of 110 games in which he had led at the end of the seventh inning.
In nearby Paso Robles, Sandy Koufax was not watching the game when a reporter phoned to tell him Ryan had a shot at a fifth no-hitter. Only Ryan and Koufax have pitched four. "That's great," Koufax said. "It's not just my record, it's his record, too."
The sellout crowd of 41,805 was becoming increasingly excited, too, standing to applaud from the sixth inning on when Ryan left the mound. In the eighth Chris Chambliss, the leadoff hitter, flied out to Rick Miller in deep left center. Five outs to go. Then came the play that because of its exposure on national television was discussed and argued by fans across the country for days afterward. Jim Spencer, the designated hitter, hit a sinking line drive to centerfield. Miller, a topnotch fielder, hurried in and sank to his knees, but the ball caromed off his glove and beyond him, Spencer reaching second. Almost instantly an E for error flashed on the Anaheim scoreboard. Dick Miller of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the official scorer for the game, had judged that the ball should have been caught and that Ryan was therefore still pitching a no-hitter. Whereupon the storm broke. The Yankees, in a rare display of unity, came out to the top step of their dugout and waved derisively up at the press box. Angel General Manager Buzzie Bavasi charged into the press box and berated Miller. Bavasi reportedly had promised a $25,000 bonus to any Angel pitcher who threw a no-hitter. "I'll give him $25,000 for a one-hitter," Bavasi raged. "You didn't have to do that. You've embarrassed us." Miller, for his part, had already decided that anything breaking up a no-hitter in a late inning had to be a clean hit. "Spencer's was only 95% a hit," he said later.
Out on the mound, Ryan didn't know what to think. "I couldn't tell whether it was a hit or an error," he said. "It was a tough call. But from the reaction of the crowd and the players and everything, my concentration was really broken. It probably worked out for the best. I wouldn't have wanted to throw a no-hitter and have it constantly argued that it was a no-hitter only because of the official scorer."
And Miller? "The ball hit the tip of my glove," he said after the game. "I think I should have made the play."
Even without his concentration, Ryan got two more outs and moved into the ninth inning. Munson led off with a bounding ball that Jim Anderson at shortstop failed to field cleanly. Again an error was ruled, although some would disagree, notably Spencer, who later referred to Ryan's effort as a "nice three-hitter." Ryan got Nettles on a popup, bringing up Reggie Jackson. On the first pitch Jackson slapped the ball up the middle by Ryan's glove and out into centerfield for a 100% clean hit. Jackson took two steps from home plate, then turned and waved toward the press box. But when he reached first base, he joined the huge crowd giving Ryan a prolonged standing ovation. In response, Ryan, looking suddenly quite weary, doffed his cap.
That was the only hit the Yankees would get. Munson, who scooted to third on the hit, scored when Piniella flied out, to make it 6-1. Ryan then blew one of his better fastballs by Chambliss for the final out.
The victory gave Ryan a 12-6 record, and his nine strikeouts raised his total for the year to 160. He has an excellent chance to get 300 this season, which he has already done five times in his career. His earned run average is 2.54, second best in the league among starting pitchers, and his walks per game—a longtime bugaboo—are down to 3.84. That his lifetime won-lost record is only 163-151 can be traced to the fact that his teams, the New York Mets and the Angels, have rarely given him adequate support.
"In the past I went out there trying to shut out everybody," Ryan says. "We not only had teams that couldn't hit, they couldn't catch. I was always going out there and performing for myself because we were always mathematically eliminated by July."
Now that has changed.
With July already half gone, the Angels not only have not been eliminated, but they also finished last week two games ahead of Texas in the race for the AL West pennant and were looking very much for real. Don Baylor, the team's designated hitter, was leading the league in RBIs (85), runs (72) and had 23 home runs and a batting average of .299 to easily qualify as the best player ever to finish 14th among outfielders in the All-Star balloting. And Catcher Brian Downing, who underwent elbow surgery in the off-season, was leading American League hitters with a .352 average, a spot usually reserved for another Angel, Rod Carew. Carew is hitting .355, or was, before he tore ligaments in his right thumb; he has been on the disabled list for a month and a half, but will likely return to the lineup this week. Also among the Angels' big guns in the first half of the season have been Third Baseman Carney Lansford, who is hitting .308 and is second to Baylor in runs scored with 71; Second Baseman Bobby Grich, who is hitting .310 and has an astonishing total of 19 homers; and the prodigiously monikered Aikens, who has filled in for Carew at first base and hit .276, with 14 home runs.
Unquestionably the happiest surprise in the Angels' season has been the emergence of young Mark Clear as the league's preeminent short reliever. Clear, who was cast off by the Phillies in 1975, boosted his record to 10-2 last week when he came on in the 11th inning to nail down California's rousing come-from-behind 8-7 victory over the Yankees on Saturday night. The Angels, who are second in the American League in hitting with a .284 team average and have scored 50 more runs than second-place Boston, won that one after spotting the world champions six runs and then getting two homers in as many at bats from Baylor. The second tied the game up with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Since joining the American League in 1961, the Angels have never finished better than a tie for second, which they did last year. So maybe their time is here. It certainly seemed so last Sunday when, following Ryan's brilliant effort and the team's Saturday heroics, the Angels swept the Yankees in the last game of the series, again rallying from well behind for a 5-4 victory. Grich drove home all five runs, the last two with a home run in the ninth. But even if it isn't the Angels' year, California fans are luckier than most. Every four days or so they get to watch a game within a game, Nolan Ryan against the world. Last week that game was at its most exciting.
When he got a standing ovation after Jackson's ninth-inning hit, Ryan made a classic response.
Seconds after the non-hit, as Ryan prepared for the next batter, the scoreboard flashed E for error.
On the controversial non-hit, Centerfielder Miller charged Spencer's drive and dropped to one knee but the ball glanced off his glove. As it went by, he fell to all fours before giving chase.
The scorer's decision brought the Yankees from the dugout, Jackson especially showing displeasure.
When Carew went to the sidelines, Aikens stepped in, producing fewer hits but much more power.
Carew, nibbling his injured thumb, hoped to return in time to fight for his eighth batting title.
Both Baylor and Downing are leading the league, the former in runs batted in, the latter in hitting.