Back home in Alvin, Texas, far from the madding crowds, Nolan Ryan can find refuge and peace.
There is no refuge and very little peace for Ryan on the road, though, where he pursues his trade as power pitcher extraordinaire.
The most remarkable pitcher of our time is working in his 26th major-league season for the Texas Rangers. He has won 314 games, pitched an astounding seven no-hitters, struck out a major-league record 5,518 batters.
And yet, the numbers don't begin to paint the portrait of Nolan Ryan, cattle rancher in Alvin, but a living legend everywhere else.
At 45 the oldest player in the majors, Ryan still is flinging fastballs to the envy of pitchers half his age. In his second start since coming off the disabled list last week, Ryan will fling a few at the Orioles today in a special 12:15 p.m. start at Camden Yards.
His fame (he is a certain Hall of Famer) and fortune (he is making $4.2 million this season) have come at a price, however. The price is his privacy.
If Ryan is in the twilight of a marvelous career, his popularity has never been greater. Wherever he goes, he attracts a throng of autograph seekers, reporters or just plain old well-wishers.
"I wouldn't say it's a distraction, but it's an inconvenience at times," Ryan said before last night's game when he greeted a crowd of more than 25 reporters. "It demands more of your time. I think it comes with longevity and what I've accomplished, and all the media attention all sports get now.
"It's more a sign of the times than anything else."
That sign suggests that Ryan, a native Texan, is indeed bigger than life. He gets some 500 pieces of mail a day, and 15,000 pieces a month, according to Rangers public relations director John Blake. "And it keeps increasing," Blake said. "It's doubled in the last three years."
Requests for autographs even come from opposing players. At Texas Stadium in Arlington, the visiting clubhouse attendant brings baseballs by the dozen for Ryan's signature to the Rangers offices. There, Ryan will sit, for as long as 90 minutes, signing away.
There are very few places Ryan can escape the public eye. He has, in fact, quit trying.
"I don't even go out, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't go to malls. If I go to the theater, I go right as the movie starts and slip in. My exposure to the public away from the park is minimal."
Once when Ryan was in a restaurant in Arlington, he was asked to sign a cast. When Ryan consented, the stranger propped his casted leg on Ryan's table -- right next to Ryan's food, bare toes and all.
Another time, when Ryan attended a football game, a junior high student asked him to autograph his wooden leg. Although Ryan said yesterday, "I don't do body parts," he gave the autograph.
The Ryan phenomenon struck home one day in Kansas City last year, again with Ryan in a restaurant. A man approached with two sons in tow.
"The man said he had come in from Nebraska, that he had seen me pitch when he was a kid," Ryan said. "His dad had taken him to Kansas City and they saw my first no-hitter [in 1973]. And now he was bringing his sons. It was a third-generation
family. It made me realize these kids have grown up."
Orioles coach Davey Lopes has another perspective on the Ryan phenomenon. He played against Ryan and with him (in Houston). He spent the last three years with him as a coach at Texas. And Lopes thinks the fascination with Ryan exploded when he returned to the American League with Texas in 1989, a decade after he last pitched there with the California Angels.
"When he made the move back to the American League, he became almost a national monument," Lopes said. "Tourists wanted to come out and see him, see if he still could do the things he did 10 years before, see if he was still a power pitcher.
"Every city we went the last three years, it was like a World Series atmosphere. I don't think that would have happened if he had stayed in the National League. He got his due there, but it wasn't like it is now.
"He's Mr. Texas now. When you say Texas, it's synonymous with saying Ryan."
Ryan is not ready for it to end just yet. Although he has said this probably will be his last season, he is careful to leave the door open. It was only last May, remember, that he pitched his seventh no-hitter. His 203 strikeouts ranked third in the American League last season, and his 2.91 ERA was fifth. Opposing batters hit just .173 against him, and his record was 12-6.
Yet, recurring injuries lead to increased speculation his career is nearing the end. He has been on the disabled list four times since 1990. He hears the whispers.
"Any time I have any kind of problem, whether it's poor performance or physical injury, I think everybody is looking at that as, 'Is this the thing that's going to put him out of the game? Is his career over?'
"I don't know if Nolan Ryan will wake up and say I can't do it any longer. Or maybe it'll be six or eight poor performances in a row and all of a sudden I'm ineffective. Or maybe it'll be a physical injury that will be the determining factor. You just hope to go out on your own terms."