ARLINGTON, Texas -- Show time for Nolan Ryan was yesterday afternoon, with the minicams surrounding the Arlington Stadium batting cage and the spotlight focused on his mega-million-dollar right arm, the one that never seems to wear out.
Gut-check time, however, comes today, when the cameras have cleared out, the reporters have disappeared and a balding, middle-age man goes one-on-one with his own mortality.
It never has been the arm, you see. It's those achy-breaky, 46-year-old legs that have betrayed Ryan in this, his 27th and final major-league season.
It's not whether Ryan still can break the 90-mph barrier on the radar gun or throw his curveball for strikes. He can and will do those things. It's not the challenge of facing Ken Griffey Jr. or Frank Thomas or any of the American League's young gunslingers. Ryan has no fear of those face-offs, relishes them in fact.
It's the legs, boys. Ryan's are shot, and he knows it.
Ryan's agenda today calls for PFP -- pitcher's fielding practice. It's not nearly as romantic as facing a young high school star (Ben Grieve) or a college hotshot from the University of Florida (Tripp McKay), as he did yesterday during batting practice.
It's not likely to draw a media crowd, as yesterday's session did, dTC but Ryan's season may hinge on his ability to drag himself through PFP and his determination to be a complete pitcher again, not just a 46-year-old statue with a remarkable arm.
"I can't be a one-dimensional pitcher," Ryan admitted after yesterday's workout. "I have to be able to field my position."
Rangers rehabilitation coach Tom House strongly has recommended that Ryan do very little of that.
"I've told [the Rangers] that he has to be a pitcher who barely fields his position," House said. "Throwing is no problem. He doubled his efforts in the weight room so that he'd be stronger when he was able to come back. The key now is that he doesn't try to ask too much out of his legs. He can't cover the field, line to line, like he used to. If he tries to do that, that's when he'll run into trouble again."
But will Ryan's stubborn nature and pride allow him to "not" try to field every nubber down the line, every bunt that some speedster thinks he can sneak by the old man?
"That stubbornness is why he's still pitching today," House said. "If they try to bunt on him, they'll pay. He knows how to send a message. There'll be some tit for tat if that stuff starts happening."
House admits that Ryan worried him when he first started throwing again last Friday. He didn't look like the same pitcher House had spent the last four years with in a Rangers uniform.
"Now I'm convinced that he's back. He's going to pitch again," House said. "You can take it to the bank."
Yes, there had been a question whether Ryan ever would pitch again. Doctors could not predict a time frame for the hip injury he had sustained. No one was sure just how long it would take for the muscle to reattach to the bone.
Then, 10 days ago, Ryan began to get a handle on the pain. He discovered he had reached a point where he could "block it out." Now July 19 is his target date for returning.
How big has House's role been in all this? Huge. Ryan and House connect well. House helps get Ryan prepared both physically and mentally.
"Housie has been good for me," Ryan said. "He doesn't let me slide or get away with anything less than my best effort."
Are you listening, Tom Grieve? How important is it to the Rangers that Nolan Ryan have a strong second half?
Grieve should risk tipping over a political hornet's nest by bringing House to Arlington to work with Ryan on a daily basis for the rest of the season. Pitching coach Claude Osteen has his hands full trying to keep the Rangers' young pitchers working effectively.
Sure, it's a risk, mixing a controversial figure from the old regime with the different approach of this year's coaching staff. But the upside -- a healthy, happy and productive Ryan -- should outweigh all other considerations.