When it comes to the greatest performance ever by an aging athlete, it is hands-down a tie between Nolan Ryan, Nolan Ryan and yes, Nolan Ryan.
You can point to a lot of amazing stats of Ryan’s to praise this freak with the bionic arm, but there were three performances in particular that summed up the kind of dominating and intimidating player he was.
Most impressive of all, they each happened when the Hall-of-Fame hurler was middle-aged.
May 1, 1991. Ryan doesn’t even know if he is going to be able to go for the Texas Rangers in a game against a very good Toronto Blue Jays team that ultimately won their division that year.
The 44-year-old Ryan had just thrown 131 pitches in his previous start. His back was having spasms during warm-ups so severe that he didn’t know if he was going to be able to play. He popped some Advil in the hopes that he could make it through five innings and not put the rotation in a tough spot.
Ryan proceeded to throw 96-mph gassers all night long, striking out 16, including All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar to end the game and complete his record-shattering seventh no-hitter.
The irony there was, Ryan had struck out Roberto’s dad, Sandy Alomar Sr., 18 years earlier to complete his first no-hitter in 1973 with the California Angels.
His seventh no-hitter, combined with his 12 one-hit performances, 5,714 career strikeouts, and 215 games with 10 strikeouts or more established Ryan as the most dominating pitcher of all time.
It was the 305th win of Ryan’s illustrious career, tying him for 17th all-time with Eddie Plank, and his 60th complete-game shutout.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock that Ryan was able to no-hit the Jays. After all, he had already turned in what was now the second greatest performance by an aging athlete the previous season, when he became the oldest player in MLB history to throw a no-hitter by stunning the A’s.
It was how he did it against the Jays that was the most stunning. Out of the mind-blowing 122 pitches he threw to Toronto batters, 83 were strikes and the last pitch of the game was a 93-mph fastball.
What made Ryan the biggest freak of all, was his ability to pitch at this dominating level with what got him there his whole career. Power.
Ryan wasn’t one of these guys who tried to extend his career, which spanned 27 years, by learning how to throw a knuckleball, taking human growth hormones, or even having surgery. He did it all with his trademark high leg kick, his size and flat-out toughness.
Which brings us to the third Ryan performance that rivals the other two: the royal thumping he laid on a foolish 26-year-old Robin Ventura, who felt it necessary to charge the mound on a 46-year-old Ryan two years after his final no-hitter.
The noogie patrol was in full effect upon Ventura’s arrival at the mound when Ryan grabbed that chump like a rag doll, and promptly used his pitching hand to lay about seven blows on the top of Ventura’s helmet-less dome.
It has to be by all standards the greatest baseball beat down in the history of the sport, and it was handed out by a guy 20 years older than the guy Ryan used as a punching bag.
What a way to finish the career of the most intimidating man ever to stand on a pitcher’s mound.