While winless Nolan Ryan struggles and hints that this might be his final season, another 40-something right-hander, Bert Blyleven, is strengthening his Hall of Fame credentials.
Blyleven, 41, whose return to the major leagues last month caused the California Angels to release Don Robinson, is 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in five starts since being recalled from Triple-A Edmonton.
He says he isn't satisfied.
"I won't really feel I'm back until I pitch nine innings," said Blyleven, whose longest outing was a seven-inning stint against Cleveland. "But that will come. I feel I'm getting stronger with each start."
Blyleven's comeback is one of the best stories of the young season.
After a dismal 1990 season (5.24 ERA), Blyleven underwent the shoulder surgery that caused him to miss last season. The shoulder didn't respond to the operation. Six months later, he underwent more surgery to repair a tear in his rotator cuff.
The Angels released him last October and, a few months later, signed him to a minor-league contract for $300,000.
"I never had any doubt about trying to come back," said Blyleven, who wants to become a college coach when his playing days are over. "I was a free agent for a while, but I felt obligated to the Angels to come back and pitch successfully because they paid me in '91 for, really, no service. And California is home.
"I didn't want to say to myself, 'You can't pitch anymore,' then, four or five years from now, always wonder, 'What if I had tried to come back?' I wanted to find out."
He has found out that 300 career victories is not out of the question.
Blyleven, who has 241 complete games, is 282-238 in a career that began in 1970. He ranks third in major-league history with 3,654 strikeouts, behind only Ryan (5,570 and counting) and Steve Carlton (4,136). (Ryan has walked 2,712 in 5,217 innings; Blyleven has walked only 1,300 in 4,869 2/3 innings.)
The victories and the strikeouts, the shutouts (60) and the longevity, the exceptional strikeout/walk ratio (nearly three to one) and ERA (3.26) undoubtedly will earn Blyleven a place in the Hall of Fame.
For now, though, Cooperstown will have to wait.
* Comeback trail: Atlanta first baseman Nick Esasky, who hasn't played in the majors since April 21, 1991, is doing a rehabilitation stint at Triple-A Richmond.
After hitting homers in three of his first five games, he went into a 1-for-16 tailspin. Overall, he was hitting .244 with three homers and five RBI after his first 13 games.
Esasky, who was sidelined because of vertigo -- he still has bouts with dizziness -- will be watched closely by special-assignment scout Bill Lajoie, who will help evaluate whether the Braves should activate him later this week.
* Front-seat driver: Deion Sanders says the decision of Brian Jordan, an Atlanta Falcons teammate, to give up one of his two sports won't affect his own situation.
"I'm driving; they're in the back seat," the Atlanta outfielder said of future negotiations with the Falcons and the Braves. "I'm in control."
Jordan, a rookie outfielder out of Milford Mill, last week agreed to a three-year, $2.3 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. The contract includes a clause that prevents him from playing football.
"I'm happy for him that he chose his route and he'll be financially secure," Sanders said, "but I think his attorney sold him a little short."
Sanders has one year remaining on his four-year, $5 million contract with the Falcons. He is supposed to report to the team Aug. 1. The Braves are hoping that he will play baseball exclusively after his football contract expires. He has hinted he will do just that.
Sanders said he would not play the Falcons against the Braves in negotiations.
"I don't need leverage," he said.
* Big guy in town: When the St.Louis Cardinals held an old-timers' game June 14 with the Philadelphia Phillies in town, it was difficult to keep your eyes off a rounded, good-natured, 350-pound -- a conservative estimate -- former Phillie who was playing first base.
His name: Roger Freed.
"It's the first time the Kiwanis Club played first base," former Cardinal Joe Garagiola cracked.
Added Garagiola: "To get ready for this game, Roger Freed went into strict training. He was out jogging. The first day, a cop pulled him over and gave him a ticket. They said Roger was leaving potholes."
* Poor investment: The Cardinals raised most of their ticket prices $1 this year. If you take that $1 increase and multiply it by 2.7 million -- St. Louis' average annual attendance over the last three seasons -- you get $2.7 million.
Which is interesting because that's about the same amount the Cardinals -- make that, the Cardinals' "fans" -- are being forced to eat on reliever Juan Agosto's contract.
St. Louis recently released Agosto, who was signed by Seattle. The Mariners will have to pay him only about $65,000 for the rest of the year.
* Extra bases: Montreal's Spike Owen hit six homers in his first at-bats this season. That's one every 27.2 at-bats. Before this year, he had hit 33 homers -- and had averaged one home run every 112.8 at-bats. . . . Atlanta reliever Mike Stanton allowed six homers in his first 23 innings this season. Last year, he allowed six homers in 78 innings. . . . It didn't receive much fanfare in the off-season, but Cincinnati's signing of free agent Scott Bankhead has turned into a wise investment. Bankhead was one of the game's up-and-coming young starters before shoulder problems limited him to 21 major-league appearances in 1990 and 1991. Converted into a middle reliever this year, he is healthy and among the National League's leading winners at 8-1. . . . Based on the Phillies' first 63 games, John Kruk could go 0-for-50 and still be hitting .301.