2017-01-22 / Sports

Fidrych in the bird cage

Baseball World
By CARL JOHNSON
Special to the Journal Tribune

Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week.  The three played a total of 59 years and 7,195 Major League games between them.  They were all, in my opinion, deserving of election.  Despite the fact that Trevor Hoffman missed election, in his second year of eligibility, by a mere five votes, and Vladimir Guerrero, one of my favorites, missed by fifteen votes in his first year, they will be voted in next year or the year after.

In reviewing the election results, I was reminded that there were many other players who appeared as young players to have the talent and drive to become Hall of Famers but, because of injury, illness or other factors over which they had no control, had brief careers and disappeared from the baseball world, never to be considered for inclusion in the Hall.  We will never know what their future would have held.

Below is the story of one such player, excerpted from my recent book THE BASEBALL BUFF’S BATHROOM BOOK, VOLUME II.    

In the history of baseball, seldom, if ever, has a player burst upon the scene like Mark Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers.  Drafted as a pitcher out of Northboro High School in Massachusetts, in the 10th round of the 1974 draft, Fidrych made his debut with the Tigers on April 20, 1976, in relief.  He got into only one other game, in short relief, until May 15th of that year when he made his first Major League start. 

In that first start, against the Cleveland Indians in Detroit, he pitched a complete game two hitter, giving up just one run as the Tigers won 2-1.  He had a no hitter going into the seventh inning of that first game.  Between then and July 3, he would start a total of 10 games and complete all but one.  That’s right, he pitched nine complete games in his first ten starts in the Major Leagues.  Not only that, he won nine of them.  The only one he lost was against the Red Sox at Fenway Park where he gave up just two runs on six hits and lost 2-1.  

In that period, he threw nine or more innings nine times, throwing 11 innings on June 5, in a 3-2 win over the Rangers at Texas,where he gave up just two runs on seven hits.  From June 20th until June 28, he started three times on just three days rest, each time, and gave up just seven runs in 25 1/3 innings and won all three games.

At 6’3” tall and only 175 pounds, Fidrych was a tall scarecrow of a man and it didn’t take people long to realize that he appeared to be somewhat eccentric.  He wandered around the mound, sometimes getting down on his hands and knees and appearing at times to be talking to the ball or to himself between pitches.

In an article on Fansided on the Internet recently, Bobby Mueller said of Fidrych ‘ With a landscaper’s touch, he got down on one knee and smoothed the dirt on the mound.  Sometimes he appeared to be talking to the ball as he held it out in front of him and pointed it toward the plate.’  

Between his remarkable start and his seemingly strange behavior, he became a crowd favorite quickly and began to draw big crowds not only in Detroit but wherever he appeared.    

In an example given by Mueller and verified through Baseballreference.com, he pitched in Detroit on Monday, June 28 before a crowd of 47,855 and the next day, Tuesday, June 29, with no Fidrych, the crowd numbered just 21,350.  On July 3, with Fidrych pitching, 51,032 fans showed up and the next day, July 4, the crowd was just 14,454.  The same was true in New York the next month when, on August 2, a Monday, a crowd of 22,245 appeared.  The next day, with Fidrych on the mound, 44,909 showed up.

He picked up the nickname ‘The Bird’,  because his scarecrow like appearance and his eccentric behavior reminded fans of the Big Bird character on Sesame Street.

Probably partly because of the revenue he generated and partly because of his success,  he was used more than most rookies are ever used.  That first year, he pitched in 250 innings, starting 29 games from May 25th on and threw 24 complete games, including four shutouts and threw ten or more innings in a game four times.  

He ended the season with a 19-9 record, led the league in ERA with 2.34 and complete games with 24, was named Rookie of the Year in the American League and finished second in the Cy Young Award balloting, behind Jim Palmer, and 11th in the Most Valuable Player voting.  He was also named to the All Star team.

This 22 year old, who had never started a Major League game until May 25 of that year, started the All Star game on the mound for the American League, just 59 days after that first Major League start.  He gave up a lead off single to Pete Rose and a triple to Steve Garvey who scored on a ground out.  In the second inning, although giving up two singles, to Johnny Bench and Dave Concepcion he held the Nationals scoreless.    

Before the All Star Game, which was played on July 13, he pitched a complete game shutout against Baltimore on July 3 and lost a complete game to Kansas City on July 9.  Three days after the All Star Game, on July 16, he pitched a complete game shutout and beat Oakland 1-0 and a complete game to beat Minnesota 8-3 on July 20.

In the spring of 1977, he stepped in a hole and strained his knee and didn’t make his first start until May 27, when he pitched a complete game but lost to Seattle, 2-1.  His next start, June 1, he lasted just six innings, giving up five runs on 10 hits and losing to Cleveland 6-4.

From June 6 to June 29, he pitched six complete game starts including a shut out of California on June 6.  In July, he started three games and didn’t finish any, giving up 12 runs in just 12 innings, and was charged with two losses.

That was the end of his pitching for the year as he appeared to have what they called, at the time, a dead arm and hoped that it was temporary.  There was speculation that it was due to his being overworked at such a young age or that he had hurt it favoring his leg in the spring.

Whatever the reason, that was effectively the end of the career for the phenomenon they called The Bird.  Over the next three years, he won four and lost six and never approached the form of that first year.  He hung on and pitched in the minors until 1983 when he called it quits.  

He died in an accident while working on a truck at the age of 55.  There is no telling what he might have done had he come up in the 21st century when more resources were available and baseball was more aware and protective of young pitchers’ arms.  He was certainly a unique talent and there are no limits to what he might have achieved in a full career.  

Carl Johnson lives in Sanford and writes a weekly baseball column for the Journal Tribune Sunday. Contact him at baseballworldbjt@yahoo.com and check out his blog at baseballworldbjt.com.

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