Publish date:

Fear Strikes Out Again

A sailor must navigate the Bermuda Triangle. A climber must
scale Half Dome. A fat man must conquer page 3 at Denny's.

And if you think of yourself as a hitter, you must face Nolan

The other day, having kielbasa for brains, I did.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Ten lucky Baby Ruth
customers won an all-medical-expenses-paid trip to face Nolan
Ryan, the greatest strikeout pitcher in history. A p.r. guy
wanted to know if I'd be the 11th.

I thought, Well, what could be more fun than facing the greatest
fastball pitcher of all time wearing a pathetic plastic Baby Ruth

To prepare, I took hitting lessons from a former New York Yankees
farmhand named Bill Stearns, who kept saying, "You're gonna do
great! Just keep your head in there!" Uh, Bill? You heard this is
Nolan Ryan, right? Once threw a pitch clocked at 100.9 mph?
Tossed a record seven no-hitters? You keep your head in there.
I'll be bailing like a Titanic crewman.

So there we were at The Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Texas, home
of the minor league Express, which Ryan owns a piece of. We
started off hitting in the cage against Nolan's son Reid. And I
was just flat raking it. Thank you, Bill Stearns. Line drives.
Opposite field ropes. Two bombs, the last of which I stood and
admired. After all, how often do you see a ball fly almost all
the way to the warning track?

That's when I heard this voice from behind: "You admire one like
that against me and I'll give ya an earful."

It was Nolan Ryan himself.

Would anybody have a spare pair of underwear?

O.K., so he's 55 now. And he had double bypass surgery 2 1/2 years
ago. And he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 1993. But his
arm still has 90 mph in it. "It's just the rest of me that
fails," he said. I made the mistake of asking him if he'd ever
hurt anybody badly.

"Yeah, one time a guy squared around to bunt, and I hit him right
in the head. He was out eight weeks. I mean, I know I'm capable
of killin' somebody."

O.K., kids! Who's ready to step in?

The 10 winners tried their luck. They hit only one pitch past the
infield, an anemic bloop Willard Scott could've run down.
Suddenly, sickeningly, it was my turn.

At first, it seems kind of cool. He peers in at you, menacingly.
Wow! I've seen him do that 1,000 times! you think. Then he starts
that familiar leg kick. It's like I'm inside SportsCenter! But
when you see that right hand rear back behind his hip, you
realize, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! He's throwing it toward me!

I crushed his first pitch, a fastball, off the knuckles. My hands
felt as if they'd been run over by the Ohio State marching band.
The ball went approximately 15 feet, hit right of the chalk and
spun nearly back to my feet.

I've got to get on a better steroid program.

Then I took a called fastball on the outside corner. I never saw
that pitch. To me, it's still only a rumor. I looked at the
catcher. "Gas," he said, grinning. The third pitch was going
right for my head when it suddenly broke off the countertop and
just missed on the inside corner. Sitting on my butt, I looked at
the catcher again. "Nasty hammer," he said, laughing.

On the next pitch, parts of my body were in mutiny.

Feet: Screw this. We're out of here.

Me: Please stay. At least until he starts his windup?

Colon: Uh, we may have a problem.

I whiffed on a curve only a chiropractor could love. Strike
three. The next time up he fanned me on four pitches, including
two curves and a sick circle change. The third time up, on an 0-2
count, I squared to bunt when I suddenly remembered what happens
to people who bunt on Nolan Ryan. Somehow, I bailed out and
bunted at the same time, fouling it off, strike three.

So...three ABs, three K's, 11 pitches.

Hey, thanks for stopping by the booth!

Afterward Ryan sat down next to me on the bench, sweat-soaked.
"Whoo-ee," he laughed. "I threw some good pitches to you!"

O.K., so I was humiliated. But I'm still going to tell people I
took Ryan to the warning track, twice.

Who says I have to mention which Ryan?


What could be more fun than facing the greatest fastball pitcher
of all time wearing a plastic Baby Ruth helmet?