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RYAN STILL THROWING HARD AS HE BEGINS 26TH SEASON

Nolan Ryan is back for his 26th major league season, and even getting started wasn't easy.

Ryan, 45, endured fouled transportation connections at a Florida airport and snarled freeway traffic to arrive at the Rangers spring training camp Sunday evening. He immediately went out and threw for 17 minutes.The need to throw after a hard day of travel reminded Ryan of the high price of playing at his age.

"It's more of a challenge, because I think you know it could be your last (season)," Ryan said. "It takes more to compete, so I think you get more satisfaction out of it."

Ryan, tied for 13th on the career victory list at 314, will earn $4.2 million this season. The Rangers have an option for 1993 but will let Ryan decide if he wants to return.

Last year, Ryan gave no indication he was near retirement. He went 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA and held opponents to a major league-low .172 average, third-lowest in history.

"You're looking at a guy who's getting older but not necessarily getting any worse," Texas manager Bobby Valentine said.

This season presents a new demand for Ryan. Texas is scheduled to play 34 games in the first 35 days and 62 games in the first 66 games. That means the Rangers will start the season with a five-man rotation with few possibilities of finding the extra rest that has helped Ryan.

In his three years with Texas, Ryan is 16-13 with a 3.78 ERA when starting on four days rest and 23-7 with a 2.54 ERA when starting on five or more days rest.

Last year, Ryan started 10 games on four days rest and left three of those games with physical problems that forced him to miss his next turn.

"I expect to be able to pitch every fifth day," Ryan said. "If we have to make any adjustments, we'll do it."

"I think he'll be able to handle the workload," Valentine said.