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One night in 1980 in the Houston Astrodome, Nolan Ryan was throwing his usual unhittable heat for the Astros. It was late in the game, and the Montreal pitcher was due up at the plate. In the visitors' dugout, three of the Expos' pinch-hitting candidates—Tommy Hutton, Jerry White and Roland Office—slunk quietly to the end of the dugout, hoping that manager Dick Williams wouldn't notice them. Williams gazed down his bench, spied Hutton and ordered him to grab a bat. Office and White burst out laughing.

That's Hutton's favorite Nolan Ryan story. Everyone who faced the legendary fastballer has his own memorable tale of woe. "How did I do against him? Terrible," says Gene Tenace, now a Toronto Blue Jay coach, 2 for 31 lifetime against Ryan. "I got this one hit off him—it was an accident. I told him that: Mister Ryan, it was an accident!"

Though few would deem Ryan the greatest pitcher ever, he is undeniably the greatest strikeout pitcher ever. And, statistically at least, he was the hardest pitcher to hit; the career batting average against him was .204, the major league's alltime lowest for a pitcher with at least 1,500 innings. A genetic miracle, Ryan for nearly 30 years threw a baseball as hard as any man who ever lived. And in his long heyday he was the game's most entertaining pitcher to watch: Every time he went to the mound there was the very real chance of a no-hitter.

His achievements are staggering: 5,714 strikeouts (more than Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson combined), 324 wins, seven no-hitters and 12 one-hitters. But it was more than numbers that have made Ryan a legend. In this era of the pampered and petulant player, he was the last of the game's old-style gentlemen, a willing role model who maintained his dignity through 27 major league seasons. He suffered through tough times and endured his share of criticism, but he didn't make excuses or blast management or berate reporters or blow past kids on his way to the bus.

It has been suggested that the Cy Young Award be changed to the Nolan Ryan Award—and yet Ryan never won it. Indeed, even now there are critics who brand him a mere .500 pitcher (he lost 292 games) who piled up a lot of K's. He told a teammate in the early '70s that he was going to strike out more hitters than anyone who ever lived. Going for strikeouts, detractors say, cost him wins. He was a 20-game winner just twice (21 in '73 and 22 in '74, with the California Angels), and in both those seasons he lost 16; in fact, he never finished more than six games over .500 in a season. Indeed, had Ryan retired after leaving the Astros via free agency following the 1988 season, he would have been on the Hall of Fame bubble. But during his five seasons with the Texas Rangers, he recorded his 5,000th strikeout, threw his last two no-hitters and won his 300th game, making him a lock for Cooperstown. It was in those final seasons that Nolan Ryan grew larger than life: an aging superman with an unmatched work ethic, and the most unpretentious star in an increasingly pretentious game. Never was the nature of his appeal more evident than on May 1, 1991. On that evening Oakland's Rickey Henderson became baseball's alltime stolen base leader, after which he proclaimed, "I'm the greatest." That same night Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter, after which he rode the exercise bike for his usual hour, while his family waited patiently outside.

Ryan still lives in Alvin, Texas, the small town where he was raised. His father worked for an oil company but delivered the Houston Post every morning, often with Nolan at his side. "Dad worked two jobs to put four girls through college," Ryan has said. "I know he didn't want to get up at one in the morning, but that's what he had to do, so he did it. I think that's the way I am."

He has almost surely signed more autographs than any other ballplayer, yet has never charged for one. In the late stages of his career, opposing players asked for his signature so often that in 1993 a sign had to be posted in the visiting clubhouse at Arlington Stadium indicating that Ryan would be able to sign only before the first game of each series. It is the admiration of his peers that stands as the highest tribute. Former Toronto third baseman Rance Mulliniks once pondered what the world would be like if everyone was like Nolan Ryan. "Everyone would love each other," he said. "And no one would get a hit."