Monday, January 7, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Nolan Ryan

Everyone has regrets in life.  Sometimes regret comes in the form of leaving a job right before you would have been offered a promotion and raise.  Other times it manifests itself as a significant other who goes on to a happy relationship with someone else while you remain single and wonder what might have been.  Life wouldn't be life if we didn't regret things sometimes.  But life would sure be a heck of a lot better if we didn't make those mistakes that caused those feelings of regret.

Over the years, the Mets have gone on to make several moves they have since regretted.  In 1966, the Mets drafted catcher Steve Chilcott with the first overall pick in the June amateur draft.  With the second pick, the Kansas City A's drafted Reggie Jackson.  Jackson went on to have a Hall of Fame career that saw his teams win 11 division titles and five World Series championships.  Chilcott went on to do absolutely nothing, never advancing past the Triple-A level.  The Mets have regretted that oversight ever since.

But the passing over of Jackson for Chilcott in 1966 was about players who had never played a game in the major leagues at the time of the regretful move.  What about those players who actually played for the Mets, then left the team to become stars elsewhere?  Those are the true Mets who got away.

Over the next three months, we will discuss thirteen players who either began their major league careers as Mets or became established as big league ballplayers in the orange and blue, then went on to achieve greater success elsewhere.  We will cover players from every decade and every position.  One week you might see a pitcher from the '60s while another week we might cover a 21st century infielder.  The Mets have allowed many future All-Stars to get away from them, but when considering all the ones who got away, one player seems to resonate far more than the others.

Photo by Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. was a lanky pitcher at Alvin High School in Alvin, Texas.  At 6'2" and 140 lbs., Ryan was passed over by many scouts despite his obvious potential and blazing fastball.  But Red Murff, a Mets scout and fellow Texan, saw something special in Ryan and took a chance with him, despite his slight build and inability to control where his 100 MPH fastballs would end up.  Murff's faith in Ryan led the Mets to draft the pitcher in the 12th round of the inaugural June amateur draft in 1965.

A total of 294 players were selected before Ryan in the draft, including 127 pitchers.  Five of those 127 pitchers were drafted by the Mets, including three hurlers who never threw a pitch in the big leagues and one (Les Rohr) who won two games in the majors despite being the second overall pick in the draft.  Jim McAndrew had some success with the Mets after being taken with their 11th round pick in 1965, but he only had a 36-49 record as a Met despite pitching for teams that had winning records in five of his six seasons in New York.  Nolan Ryan, however, had quite a career.

Ryan was a late-season call-up in 1966, after going 17-4 with a 2.36 ERA for Single-A Greenville and Double-A Williamsport.  The 19-year-old fared well in his first appearance in the big leagues, a two-inning relief stint against the Atlanta Braves.  He retired the first four batters he faced, including future Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews (strikeout) and Hank Aaron (groundout).  He did surrender a home run to Joe Torre and a walk to Rico Carty in his second inning of work, but those were the only blips in an otherwise successful major league debut.  His next appearance one week later was quite the opposite.

On September 18, Ryan made his first major league start, taking the mound against the Houston Astros.  Just 16 months before, Ryan was pitching for his high school team 30 miles south of the Astrodome.  Now he was facing major league hitters in front of his family and friends.  It would be a memorable start, but not in the way Ryan had hoped.  In a portent of things to come, Ryan struck out the side in the first inning, but also allowed four hits, two walks and threw a wild pitch.  Meanwhile, Astros' starter Bob Bruce, who was 2-13 at the time, pitched a complete game, striking out ten Mets in the 9-2 victory for Houston.  Ryan, on the other hand, was knocked out after his one inning of work.  It took Ryan 16 months to advance from his high school mound to the major leagues.  It would be another 19 months before Ryan made his return to the majors.

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Ryan barely pitched in 1967, missing time because of an arm injury.  He also was required to fulfill his obligation with the U.S. Army Reserve.  As a result, he was only able to pitch 11 innings in the minors that year, starting one game at Winter Haven in the Florida State League and making three relief appearances for Triple-A Jacksonville.  That off-season, the Mets acquired Gil Hodges from the Washington Senators to be their manager.  In his first spring training as Mets skipper, Hodges was so impressed with Ryan's arm, he insisted on bringing him up north to be part of the starting rotation.  Ryan never pitched in the minor leagues again.

As the 1968 season began, Hodges pegged Ryan as the team's No. 4 starter behind Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell.  As a result, Ryan was given the ball to start the Mets' fourth game of the season, once again against the Astros in Houston.  Ryan was practically unhittable in his first start since his one-inning debacle two seasons earlier.  He struck out five of the first six batters he faced and did not allow a hit until the sixth inning.  Ryan shut out the Astros before being lifted with two outs in the seventh inning.  The Mets won the game, 4-0, with Ryan earning his first major league victory.  He allowed three hits and two walks while striking out eight.

In his first 13 starts, Ryan was as dominant as any pitcher in the league.  In 93⅔ innings, Ryan allowed 63 hits and struck out 103 batters.  He had a stellar 2.21 ERA and was holding the opposition to a .193 batting average.  Ryan did walk 49 batters over that stretch, but it was still a far cry from his minor league numbers (200 BB in 291 IP).  But Ryan crumbled in the second half, going 0-4 with a 5.13 ERA in eight appearances (five starts).  He also walked 26 batters and only struck out 30 in 40⅓ innings.  These inconsistencies from appearance to appearance would continue to plague Ryan throughout his tenure in New York.

The 1969 season began with Ryan in the bullpen, as rookie Gary Gentry took over the No. 4 spot in the rotation after a strong season at Jacksonville.  Ryan was used as the long man in the bullpen who made an occasional spot start.  But because the starting rotation of Seaver, Koosman, Cardwell and Gentry was so good, Ryan only appeared in ten of the team's first 66 games.  In two starts and eight relief appearances, Ryan was brilliant (3-0, one save, 1.86 ERA, .202 batting average against).  However, those two good months were followed by one horrible month, with Ryan not being able to find the strike zone.  Although he allowed only 12 hits over his next 16 innings, he allowed 15 runs (14 earned) to score.  The main reason for his 7.88 ERA over that month was his inability to prevent the umpire from saying "ball four", as Ryan issued 14 bases on balls.

Ryan settled down over his final 11 appearances (five starts), walking only 23 batters in 44⅓ innings, while going 3-2 with a 3.05 ERA.  He became even more unhittable over those final two months, holding opposing hitters to a .176 batting average.  His most memorable outing during that stretch came in a complete-game victory over the Montreal Expos in the second game of a doubleheader on September 10.  In that game, Ryan allowed one run on three hits while striking out 11.  His stellar performance helped give the Mets sole possession of first place in the National League East.  It was a lead they would never relinquish.

Ryan's strong finish earned him a spot on the Mets' postseason roster.  In Game 3 of the first-ever National League Championship Series, Gary Gentry took the hill trying to pitch the Mets into the World Series after the team had taken the first two games in the best-of-five series.  Gentry was hit hard by the Braves, allowing two singles, two doubles and a home run in two-plus innings of work.  With the Mets already trailing the Braves by two runs with runners on second and third and no outs, manager Gil Hodges replaced Gentry with Ryan.  Ironically, only six months earlier, it was Gentry who took over for Ryan in the starting rotation.  Now it was up to Ryan to stop the bleeding and propel the Mets into their first World Series.

Knowing that the Braves could blow the game wide open with a timely hit, Ryan proceeded to strike out Rico Carty for the first out.  After issuing an intentional walk to the power-hitting Orlando Cepeda, Ryan fanned Clete Boyer before retiring light-hitting rookie catcher Bob Didier on a fly ball to left.  With the rally squelched, the Mets began to chip away at the Braves' lead.  A solo homer by Tommie Agee in the third cut the Mets' deficit in half and a two-run homer by Ken Boswell (who was drafted by the Mets eight rounds ahead of Ryan in 1965) gave the Mets their first lead of the game.  The Braves retook the lead in the fifth on a two-run homer by Cepeda, but that lead was short-lived, with Ryan himself starting the Mets' game-changing rally.

With the Mets now trailing 4-3, Hodges could have gone to a pinch-hitter for Ryan, who was leading off the bottom of the fifth for the Mets.  But Hodges left Ryan in to bat for himself and was rewarded immediately.  Ryan led off the inning with a single and came all the way around to score two batters later on a home run by Wayne Garrett.  The Mets would go on to score another run in the inning to take a 6-4 lead.  This time, Ryan made sure to hold the lead.

After Cepeda's fifth inning homer, Ryan retired 13 of the final 15 batters he faced, allowing two singles over the final 4⅓ innings.  For the game, Ryan pitched seven solid innings of relief, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out seven.  The Mets went on to win the game, 7-4, and advanced to the World Series to face the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.  Just like the NLCS, Ryan was used only once in the World Series.  Again it was in Game 3 and again it was in relief of Gentry.  Only this time, the Mets needed him to come through to change the complexion of the series.  And once again, Ryan delivered.

With the series tied at one game apiece, Gentry was matched up against the Orioles' Jim Palmer.  Palmer was uncharacteristically erratic, allowing five hits and four walks in six innings.  Gentry, on the other hand, was on top of his game, shutting out Baltimore through the first six innings.  But Gentry tired in the seventh, allowing three consecutive walks after retiring the first two batters.  The next batter was Paul Blair, who hit a career-high 26 HR in 1969 and led the Orioles with six RBI in their three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS.  In what was perhaps the most critical moment in the World Series, Hodges once again turned to Ryan to bail out Gentry.  Ryan responded by getting Blair to line out to Tommie Agee, who made a spectacular sprawling catch to end Baltimore's threat.

After retiring Blair to end the seventh, Ryan pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth, then set down the first two batters he faced in the ninth before allowing two walks and a hit to load the bases.  With the Mets holding on to a 5-0 lead, the tying run was now in the on-deck circle in the form of future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who was hoping to get a chance to bring his team all the way back.  For him to do so, the batter at the plate would have to reach base.  That batter was Paul Blair.  Just like he did in the NLCS, Hodges did not pull Ryan from the game when he could have, instead allowing him to work out of the jam he created.  Ryan retired Blair in a key spot in his previous at-bat.  Hodges was entrusting him to do the same in this at-bat.  With the game and perhaps the series on the line, Ryan struck out Blair to end the threat and the game, giving the Mets a 2-1 series lead.  The Mets would go on to win the World Series two games later.

The Mets went into the 1970 campaign with high expectations after surpassing everyone's expectations the previous year.  Gil Hodges also expected more from Nolan Ryan in 1970, inserting him into the starting rotation to replace Don Cardwell, who made 21 starts for the Mets in 1969.  At age 34, Cardwell was the oldest pitcher on the Mets staff, and Hodges decided he would serve the team better coming out of the bullpen.  The switch from Cardwell to Ryan in the starting rotation wasn't the only significant move made by the Mets prior to the start of the 1970 season.  In January, general manager Johnny Murphy passed away after suffering his second heart attack in a two-week span.  To replace him, the Mets chose Bob Scheffing, who had been in baseball for nearly 30 years as a player, coach, manager and scout.  Scheffing would be connected to Ryan for a different reason less than two years later.

In his first start of the season on April 18, Ryan thanked Hodges for having faith in his ability to start by producing one of the greatest pitching performances in franchise history.  Ryan pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout, allowing a leadoff single to the Phillies' Denny Doyle before recording the next 27 outs without allowing another hit.  In the process, Ryan tied a franchise record with 15 strikeouts (Tom Seaver shattered the record four days later by striking out 19 Padres).  Ironically, Ryan defeated Jim Bunning, who just six years earlier had also recorded 27 outs without allowing a hit in a Father's Day matchup against the Mets.  However, unlike Ryan, Bunning did not allow anyone to reach base in his perfect game.  In addition to Doyle's leadoff single, Ryan walked six batters.

Ryan finished the month of April with two wins and a 0.69 ERA.  Although he was virtually unhittable, allowing six hits over his first 26 innings, he was constantly pitching out of jams he created by not being able to find the strike zone.  Once he started giving up more hits, his ERA started to creep up.  From May 5 to June 10, Ryan made six starts, pitching 38⅓ innings.  In those six starts, he allowed 32 hits and walked 25 batters.  In the process, his ERA rose from 0.69 to 3.78.

For the rest of season, Ryan continued to prove that the only thing consistent about him was his inconsistency.  From July 19 to September 9, Ryan made eight starts.  He allowed four hits or less in half of them and reached double digits in strikeouts three times.  But he also walked five or more batters in five of those starts.  Just like Ryan, the Mets were also inconsistent in 1970.  The Mets were in the hunt for the division title all season, but never took charge in the NL East.  They spent 25 days in first place and were tied for the division lead as late as September 14.  When the season ended, the Mets had finished six games behind the division-winning Pirates.  It was their largest deficit of the year.  By that time, Ryan had already been banished to the bullpen, making five consecutive appearances in relief between September 13 and September 27 before being given one final start on September 30 after the Mets had been eliminated from playoff contention.  Naturally, he allowed three hits but walked eight batters in that start, a loss that gave him a 7-11 record on the season.

It was more of the same for Ryan and the Mets in 1971.  For the second straight year, Ryan finished four games under .500 (this time with a 10-14 record) while the Mets repeated their 83-79 record from the previous season.  The only difference this time around was that the Mets were already out of division contention by the All-Star Break, as the Pirates held a commanding ten-game lead at the break over the Mets.  Although Ryan set career highs in starts (26), innings pitched (152) and strikeouts (137), he also established new career marks in walks (116 - which remains a Mets record to this day) and hit batsmen (15 - a team record not surpassed until Pedro Astracio plunked 16 batters in 2002).

The 1971 team scored 588 runs, a dropoff of over 100 runs from the previous season's total of 695.  One of the reasons the team had trouble scoring was its inability to find an offensive-minded third baseman.  The Mets had auditioned dozens of men at the hot corner throughout their first decade of existence, but none of them was able to play well enough to keep the job.  Four players started at least one game at third base for the Mets in 1971, but the two main handlers at the position were former Brooklyn Dodger Bob Aspromonte and young Wayne Garrett.

Aspromonte started 97 games at third base for the Mets but was abysmal at the plate, hitting .225 with five homers and 33 RBI.  But he was Ron Santo compared to Wayne Garrett.  In 1970, Garrett showed much promise at the position, slugging 12 homers and finishing second on the team in runs scored (74) and walks (81), despite playing in only 114 games.  But Garrett regressed in 1971, hitting .213 with two doubles, one homer and 11 RBI in 202 at-bats.  How bad was Garrett in '71?  His offensive numbers compared favorably to those of Tom Seaver, who batted .196 with three doubles, one homer and 7 RBI, all of which was accomplished in only 96 at-bats.  Needless to say, the Mets were in desperate need of upgrading their offense for the 1972 season, especially at the hot corner.

According to an article by Leonard Koppett in the New York Times, the Cubs would have discussed trading Ron Santo to the Mets, but they first had to address their managerial situation.  (Manager Leo Durocher was expected to be replaced by Whitey Lockman, but Durocher remained Cubs manager in 1972 until he was fired midway through the season, when he was then replaced by Lockman.)  Rico Petrocelli was also considered by the Mets, but they thought Boston's asking price was too steep.  The article went on to say that Gary Gentry - not Nolan Ryan - was the pitcher who was coveted by potential trade partners.

But Ryan was not pleased with the way the staff was being handled.  With Seaver and Koosman on the team, Ryan was always a back of the rotation starter.  Therefore, his turn was skipped more often than not and he'd be required to pitch out of the bullpen more often than he would have liked.  In addition, his wife, Ruth, did not like living in New York, causing Ryan to fear for her safety whenever the Mets were on the road.  As a result, Ryan asked to be traded from the Mets, a request that was finally granted on December 10, 1971 by general manager Bob Scheffing.  The California Angels, who originally wanted Gary Gentry in a trade, settled for Ryan, sending former Gold Glove winner and six-time All-Star Jim Fregosi to the Mets for the disgruntled pitcher.  (Scheffing also threw in Frank Estrada, Don Rose and Leroy Stanton for good measure.)  The Mets have regretted that decision ever since.

This is Bob Scheffing, the man who traded Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi.  Insert colorful expletives here.

Fregosi had played very well for the Angels since his first call-up to the team during their inaugural 1961 campaign.  In 11 seasons, Fregosi was a .268 hitter who hit for power (404 extra-base hits as an Angel), which was exactly what the Mets were seeking in a third baseman.  There was only one problem.  Fregosi had never played a single inning at third base.

As the Angels shortstop, Fregosi had a career year in 1970, achieving personal bests in doubles (33), home runs (22), RBI (82) and runs scored (95).  However, his 1971 campaign produced numbers almost identical to what Bob Aspromonte put up for the Mets.  Both players produced five homers and 33 RBI, although Fregosi had a slight edge in batting average (.233 to Aspromonte's .225).  Still, the Mets thought they'd be getting the vintage 1970 Fregosi model when they sent Ryan out west.  Instead, they got a clunker in return.

Fregosi collected five home runs and 43 RBI, while playing 156 games in 1972 and 1973.  Those were his total numbers as a Met, not what he produced per season.  Fregosi's performance, or lack thereof, almost made fans long for the return of Bob Aspromonte.  But what they really longed for was Nolan Ryan, who became a superstar for the Angels.

In his first year in California, Ryan finally realized his potential as a starter, going 19-16 with a 2.28 ERA.  He also struck out a whopping 329 batters in 284 innings and was selected to represent the American League in the All-Star Game.  But this was nothing compared to what he accomplished in 1973.

In his second year with the Angels, Ryan became a 20-game winner for the first time, going 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA.  He also threw two no-hitters and set a major league record by striking out 383 batters in 326 innings.  Ryan struck out ten or more batters in 23 of his 39 starts.  He also walked 202 batters, becoming only the second pitcher since 1900 to surpass 200 walks in a season.  However, the other pitcher to accomplish the feat was Hall of Famer Bob Feller, who walked 208 batters as a 19-year-old for the Cleveland Indians in 1938.

In 1974, Ryan "only" struck out 367 batters, but set career highs with 22 wins and an eye-popping 332⅔ innings pitched.  No American League pitcher has thrown that many innings in a season since Ryan.  The only National League hurler to surpass that total was knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who did so with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 and 1979.  Of course, Nolan Ryan threw a little bit harder than Niekro did.

From 1972 to 1979, Ryan averaged 302 strikeouts per season with the Angels.  He also was the author of four no-hitters in California and left the team as its all-time leader in games started (288), wins (138), innings pitched (2,181⅓), strikeouts (2,416), complete games (156) and shutouts (40).  He also helped lead the Angels to their first-ever postseason appearance in 1979.  In what became his final start as an Angel, Ryan started Game 1 of the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles, allowing three runs (one earned) on four hits in seven innings.  He struck out eight and walked three.  Ryan never got a chance to pitch the Angels to their first World Series appearance, as Baltimore took the best-of-five series in four games, with Ryan waiting to take the mound in a fifth game that never happened.

That off-season, Ryan returned to his Texas roots, signing as a free agent with the Houston Astros.  One year after helping the Angels reach the playoffs for the first time, he did the same with the Astros.  Ryan went 11-10 for the NL West champion Astros, reaching the 200-strikeout plateau for the eighth time in nine seasons.  But for the first time in his career, he came up short in the playoffs.

After pitching spectacularly for the Mets and Angels in two previous postseason runs, Ryan pitched okay in his first playoff game with the Astros (two runs on eight hits in 6⅓ IP) before being lit up in the do-or-die Game 5 against the Phillies, allowing six runs in seven innings to the eventual World Series champions.  The following season, Ryan led the Astros to the playoffs once again, following a brilliant campaign in which he pitched his fifth career no-hitter and went 11-5 with a league-leading 1.69 ERA.  But for the second straight year, the Astros lost a do-or-die playoff game to the eventual World Series champions, with Ryan taking the loss in Houston's 4-0 loss to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the first-ever NLDS.

Ryan would have to wait five more years before returning to the playoffs.  Although Ryan and the Astros didn't reach the postseason from 1982 to 1985, Ryan finally learned how to control his pitches, over a decade after not being able to do so with the Mets.  After leading the league with 109 walks in 1982, followed by 101 bases on balls in 1983, Ryan walked only 69 batters in 1984.  It marked the end of a stretch in which Ryan walked 100 or more batters in 11 of 13 seasons.  Ryan never walked 100 batters in a season again after 1983, despite pitching ten more years and making 291 additional starts.

Fifteen years after he was traded from the Mets, Ryan finally got a chance to face them in the postseason.  Ryan had fared extremely well against the Mets prior to 1986, going 6-3 with a sparkling 1.68 ERA in 13 starts versus his former team, but 1986 was a different story.  Ryan did not record a single victory against New York in 1986, going 0-3 with a 5.16 ERA in four starts.  The Mets' dominance over Ryan continued in the post-season, as they scored five runs in five innings off the 39-year-old fireballer in Game 2 of the NLCS.  In his next start five days later, Ryan took the hill against Doc Gooden in a much-anticipated matchup between two of the best strikeout pitchers of their time.  They did not let the crowd down.

In one of the most tightly contested pitchers duels of all-time, Ryan and Gooden matched each other pitch-for-pitch.  The game was scoreless until the fifth inning, when the Astros scored a run on a fielder's choice.  Ryan had been dominant, retiring the first 13 batters he faced until Darryl Strawberry hit a line drive home run that barely cleared the 338-foot sign in the right field corner.  The game remained tied through nine innings, with both Ryan and Gooden going the distance.  Ryan was removed for a pinch-hitter as the game went into extra innings, after allowing only two hits and striking out 12.  Gooden was more economical with his pitches, striking out four batters, but the low pitch count allowed him to pitch ten innings.  Neither pitcher factored in the decision, as the Mets eventually won the game on a Gary Carter RBI single in the 12th inning.  But Ryan let the Mets know that Mike Scott wasn't the only pitcher who could handcuff them at the plate.  Unfortunately for the Astros, neither Ryan nor Scott pitched again in the series, as the Mets defeated the Astros in a classic Game 6 to win the pennant and deny Ryan another opportunity to pitch in the Fall Classic.

Both Gooden and Ryan won rings with the Mets at a young age.  But Ryan accomplished just a tad more over his career.

The lack of run support in Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS served as a precursor to what Ryan would experience in 1987.  For the first time in his career, Ryan won two-thirds of the pitching Triple Crown, leading the league with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts.  However, his won-loss record for the year was a confounding 8-16.  Ryan won half as many games as teammate Mike Scott (16-13, 3.23 ERA) despite allowing 24 fewer earned runs.  But the Astros only gave Ryan an average of 3.3 runs per start, making wins hard to come by for the Ryan Express.  Houston scored two runs or less in 16 of Ryan's 34 starts, losing 15 of the 16.  Ryan also had 25 quality starts in 1987, but the Astros managed go 11-14 in those games.

In 1988, just two years removed from a division title, the Astros dropped to fifth place in the NL West.  Although Nolan Ryan won 12 games for the '88 Astros, he wasn't playing for a young team.  The Astros used 39 players in 1988, of which 21 had already celebrated their 30th birthday.  The average age of the 15 pitchers used by Houston that year was 33.  The Astros had qualified for the postseason three times in Ryan's nine-year tenure with the team, but it was time for the Ryan Express to move on.  It didn't have to go far before reaching the next station.

After nine years in Houston, Ryan went north up I-45 toward Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers.  Although he had not faced American League hitters since 1979, the 42-year-old Ryan pitched as though he had never left.  Ryan finished his first season in Texas with a 16-10 record and a 3.20 ERA, numbers that were already impressive for someone of Ryan's age.  But what made his season more astonishing was his league-leading 301 strikeouts.  Ryan struck out ten or more batters in 18 of his 32 starts, including 13 in his final start of the season, a complete-game three-hit shutout against the California Angels on September 30, 1989.  For the record, Ryan did not walk a batter in that game.  It was the third time that season in which Ryan reached double digits in strikeouts without walking a batter, something he never accomplished in 288 starts as an Angel and 74 starts as a Met.

Ryan proved that 1989 wasn't a fluke by pitching his sixth and seventh no-hitters in 1990 and 1991, respectively.  Ryan was 13-9 with a 3.44 ERA in 1990, winning his final strikeout title with 232 Ks.  In 1991, Ryan finished the year with a 12-6 record and a 2.91 ERA.  His earned run average placed him fifth in the American League, barely behind the 2.62 ERA posted by league leader and fellow Texan flamethrower Roger Clemens.  Ryan also recorded the final 200-strikeout season of his career in 1991, finishing third in the league with 203 Ks.  (Clemens once again topped the league in that category with 241 Ks.)

In 1992, age finally caught up to the Ryan Express, as the 45-year-old only won five games in 27 starts.  His 157⅓ innings pitched were his lowest total in a non-strike-shortened season since his final year with the Mets in 1971, as were his 157 strikeouts.  One year later, Ryan called it a career after making 13 starts for the Rangers and posting a 4.88 ERA.  It ended a streak of 25 consecutive seasons in which Ryan maintained an ERA under 4.00.  But before hanging up his cleats for good, Ryan gave us one final example of his toughness and why he was considered a power pitcher.

For a major league record 27 seasons, Nolan Ryan constantly overcame the odds.  When teams passed over the scrawny, 140-pound pitcher from Alvin, Tex. in the 1965 amateur draft, Mets scout Red Murff made sure the Mets gave him a chance.  After not being able to master his craft in New York, the California Angels took Ryan over Gary Gentry and turned him into a star.  When Ryan went home to Houston, he finally learned how to control his blazing fastball and helped the Astros reach heights they had never reached in their first two decades of existence.  Finally, when he closed out his career with the Rangers, he accomplished things no pitcher of his age had ever accomplished before, pitching at an elite level well into his 40s.

Consider this.  After Ryan turned 40 prior to the 1987 season, he won 71 games, had a 3.33 ERA and struck out 1,437 batters.  Only nine pitchers in Mets history have won more than 71 games.  And only four pitchers (Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman Sid Fernandez) struck out more batters as members of the Mets than Ryan did after hitting the big four-oh.

After his Mets career ended in the ill-fated trade for Jim Fregosi, Ryan became an eight-time All-Star who, although never winning the Cy Young Award, finished in the top ten in the voting for the award eight times.  He also won 295 games, completed 209 starts, threw 59 shutouts, authored seven no-hitters and struck out 5,221 batters after leaving New York.  Take away his time with the Mets and Ryan would still be the all-time leader in strikeouts by 346 Ks over No. 2 strikeout king Randy Johnson, who also pitched in the majors until he was in his mid-40s.

Overall, Ryan won 324 games, posted a 3.19 ERA and recorded an untouchable 5,714 strikeouts.  To put his strikeout record in perspective, former Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey paced the NL with 230 strikeouts in 2012.  Twenty consecutive seasons of 230 strikeouts would still fall over 1,000 strikeouts short of Ryan's record total.  

Without question, when beginning a discussion of those Mets players who got away, Nolan Ryan has to top the list.  His trade to the Angels was one of a series of poor moves made by the franchise during the 1970s, and even after he was gone, he indirectly contributed to the departure of Tom Seaver.  (Daily News columnist Dick Young claimed that Seaver's wife, Nancy, was jealous that Ryan was being paid more money by the California Angels, thus causing Seaver to demand a trade.)

Ryan won his only World Series ring as a member of the Mets, but has his number retired by the other three teams for which he played.  One can only dream of what might have been had Ryan remained a Met.

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