''I remember the day I lost my great fastball
''I remember the day I lost my great fastball
Mar. 21, 1991
''I remember the day I lost my great fastball. ... All of a sudden you're wondering how to pitch to hitters whose names you never had to know because you could always blow the ball by them. But that hasn't happened to Ryan yet. It will someday, but who knows when?'' - Hall of Famer Bob Feller.
--- By JIM LITKE AP Sports Writer PORT CHARLO (AP) _ - By JIM LITKE AP Sports Writer
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) - It has happened to everyone else. To the power pitchers who were on the scene when he arrived, to the ones who came along at the same time and to more than a few who made the game buzz since. Yet Nolan Ryan soldiers on, still throwing heat.
It happened to the established stars, Koufax, Marichal and Gibson. It happened to his contemporaries, Seaver, Palmer and finally Carlton, who chased him the longest before disappearing somewhere around the 4,000-strikeout plateau. It happened to a host of Ryans-to-be, with names like McDowell and Belinsky and Fidrych, whose arms went dead with breathtaking suddenness.
''I played with plenty of people who worked as hard and have been as dedicated,'' he said, ''and I didn't have any reason to think it would be different with me.
''I just assumed that in my early 30s, maybe mid-30s at the outside, I'd take the same course as all the other power pitchers and start losing velocity in a hurry.''
It has not happened to him. Not yet.
Lynn Nolan Ryan Jr. will be 44 years, two months old and in his 24th big- league season when he picks up the baseball for the Texas Rangers on opening day, rears back and lets fly with a pitch that will hum across home plate at 90-plus mph.
He has waited for a decade now, during almost every outing, for some telltale sign that his time is up. Waited for his fastball to shorten up forever, for his legs or his arm or his back to lock up for good, for the hitters to start moving up in the box, and none has been forthcoming. He has ventured out twice already this spring and the results have been no different - nine innings, no runs, one hit, seven strikeouts.
Ryan has been called, admiringly, a freak of nature, and there is certainly truth to that. But even so, his kind of longevity comes with a stiff price tag. And so on this day, while a light steady rain rakes the diamonds at the Rangers' training complex, he throws for an hour and then ducks into the weight room to make another down payment.
For the better part of two hours, Ryan does sets of arm curls, bench presses and leg lifts. Teammates wander in, work out, and wander back to the locker room to read the newspapers and swap stories. He closes out his regimen, flat on his back with his legs on a bench, playing catch with strength coach Marty Stajduhar using a medicine ball.
The sweat is still glistening on his forehead when he takes a chair and a visitor asks him what it is like to cheat Father Time.
''Cheating isn't the right word,'' Ryan said.
''The best you can hope to do is slow down the aging process. Pitching tears down the body, and when you're young, the strength and flexibility you need to do it four days later comes back fairly easily.
''I have to put in more time and more work to get it back. But so far it's worked,'' he added matter-of-factly. ''I don't really have a better explanation for it. I'm as surprised as anybody that I'm still here.''
Ryan knows he still has the gift, even if he doesn't know why. He also knows it will leave him some day, but he doesn't know when. He has heard about or seen first-hand what happened to so many of the others who were similarly blessed, and he knows only that he does not want his career to end the way theirs did.
''Sandy (Koufax) did it the best way, but it's a little too late in the day for me to do it like that. ... When I first broke in, I felt like one of the worst things a guy could do was stay too long. I saw how some of the other (power pitchers) went out and I always figured I'd know when my time was up.
''But I'm a little bit on the other side, now. I can understand now why the decision is so hard, how, when you do something for that long, it's hard to just pick up and walk away from it. I only hope I do it before the day comes when I'm embarrassing myself.''
Bob Feller lost his heater when he slipped off a mound in Philadelphia one afternoon, but hung on with guile and managed a few good seasons after that. A few others extended their their playing days in similar fashion, scuffing the ball or coming up with a new pitches, but they rarely worked for long. As John Tudor, like Feller a member of the once-fast fraternity who fell back on craftiness said, you can tire pretty quickly of having to be ''perfect'' simply to survive.
Ryan has made some concessions to age in the way he pitches, but he won't make any more.
''At the peak, about 70 percent of my pitches were fastballs and now it's about 65. But I'm not going to go to a knuckler or a split-finger just to hang on. I've had more than enough.
''When the day comes that I can't perform physically at this level this way anymore,'' he said, ''that's the day I'll be gone.''
It will someday. But who knows when?