Monday, July 27, 2015

By Rob Goldman, Historical Writer - 

Nolan Ryan sought every edge in competition, and showed little sympathy for anyone who stood 60 feet, six inches in front of him. But if you happened to be a struggling young pitcher with unlimited potential, he didn’t hesitate to display a kinder, nurturing side. Twenty-eight-year-old Randy Johnson of the Mariners was a mess when the Rangers rolled into Seattle on August 7, 1992. A typical performance for him was the one he had given on June 10 in Arlington: four innings, 92 pitches, five earned runs, six walks, and two hit batters. To Nolan Ryan, the spectacle of a talented young pitcher getting trounced like that was appalling. Johnson was like him—a power pitcher with uncommon gifts—and it irked Ryan to see someone with that kind of ability self-destruct.

By the time the Rangers arrived in Seattle, things had gotten even worse for Johnson. He was 7–12 and led the league in walks, wild pitches, and hit batsman. After 26 years in the game, Ryan could readily detect a pitcher’s weaknesses and flaws, and he saw several in Johnson. In addition to being very emotional, he’d been landing wrong after each pitch, which jarred his body and caused all sorts of problems. Watching Johnson get pounded yet again, Ryan said to House, “Enough is enough. When a guy with a 98-mph fastball beats himself up every five days, it’s time to make a change.”

The following day, Johnson was walking near the Rangers dugout for a bullpen session when House pulled him aside.  “Nolan and me have seen you pitch long enough to realize there are some mechanical things that haven’t been cleared up yet,” House told him. “We’d like to give you a little input.” Johnson was shocked.

“At the time, all I knew about power pitching was, give me the ball and I’ll throw it really hard,” recalls Johnson. “But after three seasons under my belt with not much success, I was willing to listen to anybody.” Especially if that anybody Nolan Ryan. Their initial meeting took place in the tunnel between clubhouses. Ryan showed Johnson how his hard landing was disrupting his delivery and explained how excessive emotion affected his concentration.

“Nolan said I was opening up too quickly,” recalls Johnson. “By landing on the heel of my foot instead of the ball, it would spin and my knee and body would follow, throwing all my momentum toward third base. He and Tom basically straightened me out, enabling me to correct my arm angle, make me consistent, and have all my momentum going toward home plate.” Putting what he learned from Ryan and House into practice, Johnson recorded 34 strikeouts in his next three starts, then 45 Ks in three consecutive starts a month later—the second-highest total in baseball history after Ryan’s 47 in 1974.

On September 27 in Arlington, teacher and pupil finally squared off. “It was one of my biggest games up to that time,” recalls Johnson. “I struck out 18 on 160 pitches in eight innings. What was really neat, though, was after Nolan came out of the game in the seventh, he didn’t go upstairs but continued to watch me from the dugout.”

The intervention of Ryan and House, says Johnson, “is something I never forget. I was surprised someone playing in a different organization would actually take me aside and try and help me. It’s not very often the opposing pitcher and pitching coach will take a player from another team and actually mentor them.” 

Leading up to 1992, Johnson never knew what would happen when he pitched. He might strike out 10 and walk 8. As good as his pitching coaches were up to then, for some reason they were never able to impart the information needed to turn his mechanics around. That all changed when he connected with Ryan and House.  “Without a doubt, Nolan and Tom had the biggest impact on me in such a short period of time,” Johnson declares. “It was the big turning point of my career. From that point on, I became more of a consistent pitcher.” And a more intimidating one, according to Gene Coleman, who got to know the “Big Unit” when Johnson played in Houston.

“Nolan told him, ‘Randy, big as you are, you should be intimidating. When you go out there and they get a hit off you or you make a bad pitch and you show all that emotion, those guys in the other dugout are saying, ‘Hey, we got him now!’” Coleman said. “‘You’re just building up their confidence when you show emotion. You don’t ever want to show a chink in your armor.’ And so you look at Randy and he covers his face with his glove, because Nolan told him. That’s where that came from. It’s from part of that week he spent with Nolan. Roger [Clemens] got that too, and Andy Pettitte got it from Roger.” Ryan calls helping Johnson just part of the process of “passing on” to the next generation.

“Through watching, discussions, or instruction, I had benefited from being around certain pitchers,” he says, “and if I can help further someone’s career, I want to do that. So if somebody ever calls me or wants me to talk or watch ’em, I’m open to that.” His friends say Ryan’s greatest attribute is his respect for others. He calls it “treating people the way you want to be treated.” “I think people know when someone is sincere, and I think people understand that I try to be straightforward and sincere with them,” says Ryan. “It’s the same working with players and pitchers. If somebody wants to learn something from me and is willing to listen and work on it, I’m very supportive of that. But if they’re just wasting everybody’s time, we need to move on, and they need to go about their business and do something else, and I need to get back to whatever’s important to me.” Ruth Ryan marvels at her husband’s ability to listen and learn. She thinks it’s rooted in the dyslexia that forced Nolan to process and absorb things differently from a young age.

“Some people are auditory learners, and because Nolan had dyslexia he had to listen,” she says. “That is how he learned. He struggled with reading and writing, but he could listen and retain anything, and still does. That has been a huge asset. He is good at reading between the lines and very good at deciphering things. He rarely offers information on himself, choosing to let the other person talk while he listens. He lets people prove their true colors, good or bad. He’ll tell you that people tell a lot about themselves and their character by the things they say.”

© Nolan Ryan the Making of a Pitcher, by Rob Goldman, Triumph Books, 2014
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