Tuesday, April 29, 2008

#10 - Pitcher Perfect

It helps if the hitter thinks you're a little crazy. - Nolan Ryan

Imagine this: a rancher scribbles a chalk batter's box on an old barn wall then proudly watches his son hurl a hardball straight through the red timber planks like a rock piercing wet tissue paper. Just another far-fetched TV commercial? Not this time -- at least not for me, or anyone else who's ever seen Nolan Ryan pitch.

With a laser-like fastball -- clocked at 100 mph even at age 40 -- but a penchant for erratic pitch location, Ryan still holds several major league baseball records and I had the privilege of documenting two of them.

On July 11, 1985, at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, Ryan fanned New York Mets batter Danny Heep in the 6th inning of the Astros' 4-3 win to become the first pitcher to record 4000 strikeouts (note: Ryan amassed over 5000 K's in his career, a mark that stands today). Unfortunately, the photo opportunities at this significant event were slim -- only the obligatory shot of Ryan pitching and a tip of the hat to the adoring crowd after the feat. Later I vowed to look beyond these obvious images if I ever had the chance to photograph any sports milestones again.

As fate would have it, I was covering the Milwaukee Brewers 5 years later when the Texas Rangers came to town and Ryan was attempting to become the 20th pitcher in MLB history to win 300 games. Shadowing the hurler for 9 long innings of inactivity the night before his historic start, I was able to capture him in an anxious pose on the dugout steps, setting the stage for the drama ahead.

The next evening, July 31, 1990, as most of the media was sitting down to dinner in the press room, I staked out the Rangers' batting practice session and recorded a UPI exclusive -- Ryan tossing a football to loosen up -- and as it turned out, this photo garnered the majority of play for the a.m. newspaper cycle because the action and jubilation pix from the game were filed past most deadlines.

Reflecting on these two contests I've recognized there's always a story within the story and the "expected" images don't necessarily depict an event the best way. Moreover, remember this: he may have been called dull, humble, or even wild at times, but he was never predictable. Nolan Ryan was just pitcher perfect.

Every hitter likes fastballs just like everybody likes ice cream. But you don't like it when someone's stuffing it into you by the gallon. That's how you feel when Nolan Ryan's throwing balls by you. - Reggie Jackson