Nolan Ryan's Secret to Success

The surprising key to a baseball Hall of Famer's winning ways

by Tim Wendel — Posted on Mar 29, 2010

Nolan Ryan struck out a record 5,714 batters and pitched seven no-hitters and 12 one-hitters during his major league career.

In 1999, in his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with 98.8 percent of the vote, just six votes short of a unanimous selection.

But early in his career, success was far from guaranteed for Ryan. In fact, he nearly quit the game he loved because he was so frustrated. He felt he wasn’t doing justice to the gift he had been given.

Ryan details that struggle and how he eventually turned his game around with Tim Wendel, author of High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time  (Da Capo Press 2010).

“When I was in ninth grade, back in Alvin (Texas), they had the President’s Physical Fitness tests. You ran 40 yards, did X number of pushups, sit-ups, and one of the deals was the softball toss. They told us to throw it as far as we could.

“So we go out to the football field, with no warm-up, no nothing. It was here it is, just throw it. I threw (the softball) 309 feet. I’ll never forget that number. From then on I knew I had something.
      
“As a kid, I could always throw the ball farther than anybody else. But my velocity was no different then the top four or five kids in Little League. I was not a standout in Little League.

“Then I hit my last growth spurt as a sophomore in high school. I went to baseball practice right after the basketball season ended. All of a sudden, it was like I had a different arm. Why? Nobody really knows for sure. That’s the way it is with a quality fastball. You can talk about height and weight and arm mechanics, but nobody’s really sure why one guy can throw hard and another guy can’t.

“Early on in my career, I knew I had something, but I couldn’t do right by it. That very fact really frustrated me. I almost quit several times.

“When I got to the big leagues (with the New York Mets) in ’68, I continued to be frustrated. Mentally and emotionally, I wasn’t into what I had to do to be a (successful) pitcher. That was probably the worst time for me. If I had quit, I probably would just gone back to school and worked somewhere close to home, back in Texas.

“Why didn’t I quit, just walk away? I knew I had this talent and I couldn’t help believing that if I could find the right situation, the right people, then I could turn this around. Really do what I wanted to do out there on the mound.

“You have to remember, there wasn’t sports medicine back in those days, so nobody really understood the mechanics of throwing a baseball and what you needed to do properly. The only thing pitchers really had was the trained eye. That’s what I was desperate for. Somebody who could really help me.”

After the 1971 season, Ryan was traded from New York to the California Angels in a package deal for infielder Jim Fregosi. There he met catcher Jeff Torborg, who had once caught Sandy Koufax, and pitching coach Tom Morgan.

“The Angels were in a rebuilding mode and they allowed me to pitch every fourth day. Tom Morgan got me to understand what I needed to do to be more consistent. He slowed down my delivery. He always had an eye on me to make sure my delivery held the right form. Once that happened, something clicked with me about pitching, what I needed to do.

“I learned that if you cannot handle the mental side of it, you’re never going to be able to handle the physical side. You have performance anxiety, which happens to everybody at some level. But if you stay consistent in your approach, work to control your emotions and be exact about what you need to do, you can overcome this, too. If not, you won’t be able to put the pitch where you need it, no matter how hard you throw.

“Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of kids who had unbelievably great arms but never made much of it all. They either got injured or were never able to master the principles of throwing. When you get to the top level, there’s not a lot of separation in the physical abilities of players. It’s the mental approach to the game that separates people.

“If you’re blessed with the ability to throw hard, you have to consider all the factors. It’s a gift that you did nothing to earn. I mean that. It was given to you and what you do with it is up to you.

“Once I realized that I said to myself, ‘Hey, this is a gift and I’m going to take advantage of it and be the best I can be for as long as I can.’ A lot times professional athletes, even people in general, don’t realize what a blessing they have and they don’t utilize it to the fullest.”

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