ROUND ROCK, Texas -- The swelling is gone, having turned
into purplish bruising. It still hurts to squeeze anything tight,
but not enough to keep me from typing out what it was like to stand
in a batter's box against Nolan Ryan.
OK, so he's 56 now and a decade removed from his last
major-league game. And, other than some ceremonial soft tosses, he
hadn't pitched off a mound in six months before facing me and 12
others in a promotional event.
But he was still throwing in the mid-80s -- and he's still Nolan
Ryan, the all-time leader in strikeouts, no-hitters and frightened
batters, the pitcher Reggie Jackson said he feared "not because he
could get me out, but because he could kill me."
Maybe it was lucky, then, that I had only four days to prepare
for the biggest at-bat of my life. That was just enough time to let
my friends and family know -- notifying the next of kin, you could
call it -- and make a trip to the batting cage.
After working my way up from 40 mph to 70 mph, I headed home
pleased to have tried getting ready and discouraged about my
chances of making contact. I began wondering whatever happened to
my copy of "The Art of Hitting .300," the book by batting guru
Charlie Lau that I loved reading as a Little Leaguer.
Instead, all I had was the advice of friends I grew up with in
Houston during the years Ryan pitched for the Astros.
"Don't get intimidated if he starts you out high and tight,"
"Leave no doubt in his mind, YOU OWN THAT PLATE," another
"Just make sure your front foot stays out of the bucket,"
someone else reminded.
Gee, thanks, fellas.
The showdown was at Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock
Express, the minor-league baseball team Ryan owns. The main
participants were 10 winners of a Baby Ruth contest in which people
sent one-minute videos explaining why they deserved this
The group ranged from a 73-year-old Oregon man who once played
for the Homestead Grays to a guy in his late 20s whose entry
included talking bobbleheads. I was one of three reporters invited
to try, too.
We all got loose by taking some whacks against Reid Ryan,
Nolan's oldest son and the team president. I hit last. By then,
Reid's pitches weren't very accurate. Neither were my swings.
As workers took down the batting cage and prepared for the big
event, the psyche job began.
The outfield video screen played clips from Ryan's career, with
interviews mixed in. Ray Fosse, best known as the catcher bowled
over by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star game, shared what he always
said before stepping in against Ryan: "Dear Lord, don't let me get
I had been thinking the same thing for two days, since hearing
Ryan say on a national radio show that his control was "a major
"My goal is not to hit anybody," he said in an interview
hyping this event.
Results were mixed among the 11 batters before me -- some good
cuts, but mostly a lot of misses. The hardest hit? Probably the
fastball that smacked Kevin Szymanski, the bobblehead guy, in the
middle of his back.
While I was taking my practice cuts, one of the organizers came
rushing over, waving a hand-held pitch counter.
"Swing early," he said, clicking off another pitch. "He's
already nine over his limit."
"Does that mean he's getting slower?" I said hopefully.
"No," I was told. "He's getting wilder."
I figured he was joking. Then the reporter who batted before me
walked by, shook his head and muttered, "He's not throwing many
Gulp. Now I knew how Reggie and Fosse used to feel.
Head down, I walked to the batter's box. Bat on my shoulders, I
set my feet but made sure not to dig in. In fact, I wore sneakers
instead of cleats so I wouldn't even give the impression I was
Then I looked out at the mound -- and nobody was on it. I hadn't
even noticed that Ryan went to get a drink of water.
To shake off the embarrassment, I turned to the catcher and made
small talk. He mentioned something about a lack of accuracy. Just
what I needed to hear.
Finally, Ryan was ready and I was, too. At least, I thought I was.
The pitch came and I froze. Luckily, it was a ball, low and away. Good eye.
Angry at my hesitation, I vowed to hack at the next pitch.
Here's how I remember what happened next: Ryan pitched, I swung and my right hand started burning. Only then did I notice the ball bouncing toward the right side of the infield.
No, the pitch didn't hit me. I actually hit it with the bat. That realization provided enough adrenaline to numb the pain.
Trying to hide my smile, I flailed wildly at the next pitch. "A two-seamer," the catcher said, snickering.
For some reason, that's when I paused to appreciate the fact I was living out a childhood fantasy. I stepped out of the box and peeked at the mound in awe. No wonder the next swing turned out a bit cartoonish.
"Last pitch!" someone yelled as I was trying to regain my balance.
The big miss helped me remember that my goal was just to make contact, not drive the ball. That meant not swinging so hard. And since I have the bat speed of Jaime Aron, not Hank Aaron, I had to start my stride about the time he released the ball.
All that thinking caused me to lock up again. Luckily, the pitch was low and away again. What great discipline I was showing.
I asked for one more chance and Ryan nodded. I must have started swinging about then because not only did I make contact, I pulled it to the left side of the infield. Unbelieveable.
I walked away in a daze. I had just seen six pitches from Nolan Ryan, swung at four and hit two of them fair. Even typing it out now, it still doesn't seem possible -- except for the painful
reminder when I try smacking the space bar and the videotape taken by my brother-in-law.
After one more batter and a round of pictures for Ryan and the contest winners, he sat down in a conference room to talk about the outing.
He said something about his release point being off and joked that the only mound presence he showed "was being present." He said his arm felt fine, but his right knee would be sore tomorrow.
"If it's any consolation," I said, "my hand will be, too."
"Is it your thumb?" he said, smiling proudly to know his heater can still send a wicked sting through a Louisville Slugger. "That's how that works. ... Put some ice on it, or just wrap your
hand around a cold drink."
We chatted for about 30 minutes, discussing everything from life after baseball to his own hitting exploits. I brought up the homer he hit in his first game as an Astro, the first of two in his
career, and he smiled again.
"Well, any time you hit a home run off a Hall of Famer, you've got to feel pretty good about it," he said. "Every time I see Don Sutton, I remind him of it."
"So every time I see you, I can remind you about the two dribblers I hit?" I said.
"Yeah," he said, laughing, "And I can't deny it, can I?"
Nope. I've got the video, and the bruise, to prove it.