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By Steve Miller
Watching him walk toward the mound to start his warm-up pitches, it was as if he had a star over his head and you knew he was special. He walked with long strides, favoring the right side of his body, looking like a figure from a Leroy Neiman painting. You knew, you just knew that this guy throws hard, really hard.
July 1966. I was starting that night against the Greenville Mets. I had always been one of the hardest throwers in the Houston organization, but after watching him take his warm-ups, I knew there was a "new sheriff in town." Boom! Guys who threw hard could make that sound as the ball entered the catcher's glove. But the "boom" his pitches generated was like the sound of a long-range gun fired from a battleship. Everyone, including the players, was silent as each warm-up pitch exploded into the catcher's mitt.
The game got under way at 7:30 P.M. in front of thirty-five hundred fans. We both were hard throwers who worked fast. By the time the third inning came around, it was only 8:15. Each of us had five strikeouts. My turn at the plate came this inning (I had struck him out an inning earlier on three fastballs). I knew I was going to see his best. Pitchers, after all, do have something to prove to each other.
His first pitch was high and inside. The ball came from his hand with such speed and movement behind it that as it passed me into the glove, it was literally a white blur. One had the sense that the ball was not made of hide and cork, but of lead. I stepped out of the box thinking about my own mortality. I looked at the catcher and asked him, "Was that his fastball?" We both laughed under our breath. He proceeded to strike me out on four pitches.
Entering the sixth inning, he had eleven strikeouts, four walks, and one hit batsman. I had nine strikeouts, three walks, and hit two batters. It was quite a show. We both left after the sixth. Showering in the locker room, I knew it was only a matter of time before the opposing hurler would be in New York. No doubt about it, a pitcher like him comes along only once in a lifetime.
I had a brief look that year at the big club, but like other fastball throwers with great arms, I never really settled down to the art of pitching. While I joined the ranks of the obscure, he became one of baseball's all-time best hurlers.
Of my memories playing with and against players who went up to the big leagues, the one that stays with me is the time when I got as close as one could get to greatness: the sensation of trying to hit something as impossible as Nolan Ryan's fastball.
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