Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Mark Fidrych Makes His First Start: 39 Years Ago This Week The Bird Took the First Step to the Most Electrifying Season in Baseball History
May 15 marked the 39th anniversary of the start of one of the wildest, craziest, funnest rides baseball fans have ever had. I'm talking about The Bird. Mark Fidrych. A 21-year old, impossibly energetic, magnetic, charismatic rookie pitcher for the 1976 Detroit Tigers. In those days before ESPN and full-time blanket sports coverage, Fidrych was a relative unknown to the baseball world when he made the team in spring training. But that changed very quickly.
Contrary to popular myth that said Mark Fidrych only got a start because another pitcher had a cold, manager Ralph Houk had been planning to put him in the rotation all along. Houk had been impressed by Fidrych in the Fall Instructional League and in spring training. But he planned to bring him along slowly, letting him get used to major league baseball. Fidrych had pitched in two short relief appearances and had started an early May exhibition game against the Reds. He had been scheduled to start a week earlier, but a rainout caused a rotation shuffle that forced him to miss the turn.
May 15 started out cold and dreary in Detroit. It rained on and off and there was some question that the game would be played. After a delay, however, the game went off in front of barely 14,000 fans--die-hards who showed up to watch a miserable team going nowhere.
Fidrych breezed through the Cleveland Indian lineup, working very quickly, using his darting, sinking fastball and quick-breaking slider. He demonstrated impressive control for a youngster and everything was at the knees.
Sure, he was getting guys out, but it wasn't the quality of his stuff that attracted attention. Fans, teammates and opponents soon became aware that some strange things were happening out there on the mound. Fidrych was a nonstop twitching, shrugging, arm-flapping mass of movement. At the beginning of each inning, he sprinted from the dugout to the mound and dropped to his knees, removed his glove and carefully arranged the dirt with his hands, then patted it in place. He actually chased the grounds crew off the mound one inning, preferring to do it himself.
Wearing a huge smile, he raced around the infield shaking his fist at teammates whenever they made even a routine play behind him. He windmilled his arm and pointed the ball at the plate like a dart-thrower. Cleveland slugger Rico Carty complained that Fidrych was trying to hypnotize him.
The biggest wonder of all was that before every pitch, he stood on the mound, with the ball held in front of his face as he looked toward home plate and he talked--he was talking to the ball. And apparently the ball was listening! He continued to throw blanks at the Indians--no-hitting them for six innings.
Fans and players weren't the only ones to notice. After a few innings, Tiger announcer George Kell drawled to his partner Al Kaline, "You know, Al, that guy is kind of goofy out there."
But it wasn't just what he was doing that electrified fans. It was how he did it. With his huge smile, expressive face, and constant energy, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that this guy was obviously having a blast out there. It was fun to watch somebody who enjoyed the game so much.
When the Indians finally broke through and scratched out a run to make it 2-1, instead of panicking, the rookie reached back and closed the game out. It was a complete game, two hitter.
After the game, reporters flocked to the Tiger clubhouse to meet this phenom. And what they got was just a taste of things to come. There were no shy rookie mumblings. No need to work to pry loose a usable quote. Actually, the problem was you couldn't shut the guy up. He bubbled forth a constant verbal barrage about everything from how impressed he was with his teammates ("They're doing all the work") to what a great job the goundskeepers did keeping the weeds off the field. He filled their notebooks, then some.
For baseball fans, it was the start of an unbelievable summer. Fidrych would go on to compile a 19-9 record with a league-leading 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award. As impressive as his on-field performance was, it was his impact on fans that would leave the greatest legacy. He mesmerized the nation. Attendance for Fidrych's starts would soon spike to 40 to 50,000 every time he went out--at home or on the road. Rival general managers would ask Houk to shuffle his rotation so Fidrych could pitch in, and fill up, their stadiums. Fidrych would become the greatest box-office attraction baseball had ever seen.
Fidrych would take fans on an fantastic ride as he lit up the baseball world that summer.
The first start was only the beginning. No one could possibly know how much bigger and better it would get each week. They couldn't possibly know, because there was nothing like it to compare it to. Nothing like it ever before.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
One of the great things about being a parent is that you can rely on the hard-earned lessons of your youth to become a wise-beyond-your-years sage, always knowing the most appropriate, thoughtful ways to deal with each crisis to spare your children the demons and angst you yourself faced as a child. Or so you tell yourself.
And then you actually have kids and it becomes fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and hang-on-tight. You put out day-to-day fires as they pop up and before you know it, the kids are grown and gone and you realize you never had time to say and teach all the little important things you wanted to. And you just hope that the good stuff somehow soaked through by example.
I was up in my son's room recently. He moved out to start medical school not long ago. Looking at a once-prized shelf of dust-covered, treasured mementos from his childhood--things much too valuable to throw out, but that didn't quite make the cut for a crowded grad-school apartment--I saw a small plastic figure, about two inches tall. It was sitting among several baseballs from long ago games, the significance of a few of them forgotten, a tiny plastic dinosaur which brought great joy when it was won at a grade school carnival, and a small football helmet from his favorite team. The emotional turmoil and pain that this seemingly insignificant little piece of plastic brought my son would be lost to time were it not for the oral history that is passed down, and relished (by his siblings), each year when the kids gather for holidays.
Eerily like my own experience with the Harmon Killebrew 3-D card of my youth (see my post from December, 2014), this one started with great expectation and avarice at the breakfast table. One year, I think it was around 2000, some cereal company put tiny baseball player bobbleheads in their boxes. I didn't pay too much attention, but it was a big deal to the kids. Or I should say, it was a big deal to my middle child, Matt. My oldest son, while remaining a baseball fan, was nearing adolescence and, since the hero of his early childhood (Nolan Ryan) had retired, he no longer had a particular favorite player. My daughter, about five at the time, only would have cared about baseball if the players rode horses while playing.
But Matt, at nine years old, was in the middle of ravenous, all-consuming, baseball fanaticism. Not yet jaded by years of toil and disappointment, he was thrilled when he saw on the cover of the box that the object of his idolization, Ken Griffey, Jr., was included in the players immortalized by the small, very-unlifelike, plastic bobbleheads. He just knew he would get the one he desired.
Not having learned a thing from my own childhood, I announced what I thought was a reasonable plan: the kids would take turns regarding who got the loot from each box. My older son went first and scored a Luis Gonzalez--no big deal. Then Matt's turn came and he got a Mike Piazza. Disappointed, but not devastated, he thought maybe he could last until the next round (not yet comprehending that the boxes with bobbleheads would all be gone a week later). And then in a few days, Stephanie opened her box. You guessed it--a Ken Griffey, Jr.
Matt immediately underwent painful spasms of gnashing of teeth (they actually gnashed, I heard them) as he watched his little sister hold and examine the precious object--the stuff that dreams were made of--with a mixture of barely-controlled rage and jealousy. He was able to pull himself together to come up with a plan, however: she was a little girl, she didn't care about baseball, maybe they could work out a trade. But Matt, who we've warned to never play poker, had already seriously overplayed his hand. Stephanie realized how much her big brother burned with desire to have this innocent-appearing token and she knew that she was very much in a position of power in the negotiations.
"Do you want to trade?" Matt asked, trying to put on his best loving-concerned-big brother face.
"No, I think he's cute," Stephanie replied. Her pigtails swirled as she flicked the tiny tab on the back of Ken Griffey Jr.'s head over and over with her dainty little fingers, making the head bobble. Matt's stomach churned painfully each time Ken Griffey Jr.'s head went up and down. Up and down. Up and down.
Stephanie rebuffed all of Matt's overtures, including, I'm sure, the rights to his first two or three future millions. She continued to torture him with it all week, as if playing with the little bobblehead was the most fun she had ever had. She carried it with her everywhere, continually bobbing the little head while we ate, rode in the car or watched television. All while her big brother's insides slowly turned to mush and he gave up the will to live.
All week, I reminded myself to stay at least a half step between the two of them, lest Matt's pain-twisted mind finally snap and give in to the murderous thoughts and reach for his little sister's neck with sinister intent. Fortunately, some lesson from Sunday School, or maybe threats from his mother, caused Matt to resist the urge and Stephanie lived on.
Finally, when I could take the sight of my son's pitiful suffering no longer, remembering my own pain years earlier, I sat down with my daughter for a serious, and well-rehearsed, heart to heart. "Stephanie, Matt really wants that Ken Griffey Jr. bad, it would be really nice of you if you could trade with him," I began.
"Oh, he can have it," she cut me off as she played with her little plastic horses--resuming her normal routine, as if the whole sordid episode had never occurred.
Amazed that I had convinced her so easily with my wisdom, I just stared.
"Besides," she continued while making her horses gallop, "it's broke. The head doesn't bobble anymore."
Even though it was no longer officially a "bobble" head, Matt was nevertheless ecstatic and relieved beyond all human comprehension when Stephanie presented him with the prize. His suffering was finally over. He immediately installed it next to his other most treasured objects on his shelf of fame.
Where it still sits today.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
The Gorillas were running away with the game, displaying their powerful offense which included a literally-screaming liner hit into the seats and consistent hitting and base running that resembled a conga line going around the bases.
With the home team trailing 95-0, the rabbit was inserted into the game to stem the tide. The rabbit shutout the Gorillas with his pitching over the rest of the game. Particularly impressive was a single slow pitch that struck out three batters (establishing a new major league record). The rabbit mounted a steady comeback at the plate and pulled ahead by one run. Most old timers agree that his miraculous catch for the final out of a tremendous blast off a bat the size of a tree trunk, in which he took first a cab, then a bus and finally an elevator before climbing the flag pole on top of the Umpire State Building, deserves a place in the top ten greatest defensive plays in baseball history.
After the game, the rabbit voiced what most fans felt about the questionably rule-bending play of the losing team when he said, "The Gashouse Gorillas are a bunch of doity ballplayers."
While most observers predicted future stardom for the rabbit after his impressive debut, unfortunately his career fizzled--done in by a rotator cuff injury as well as, it was rumored, being chased out of the clubhouse by his gun-wielding manager who shouted, "Forget baseball, it's wabbit season."
Contacted years later, the manager expressed remorse about his role in possibly causing the rabbit's injury by pitching him too much. "I'm sincerely wegwetful about this," he explained. "Golly, I weally wiked that wascal. We could have wun away with the pennant wace if he hadn't gotten hurt."
Friday, May 8, 2015
He took college classes at Northwestern and the University of Chicago several times over the years, taking classes in sociology, psychology and economics, as well as courses in real estate and the insurance business. He was a young man on the move, eternally grateful for the opportunities presented to him, determined to improve himself and make his mark.
The Honorable Richard J. Daley, long-term Mayor and Czar of Chicago Democrats, publicly predicted that Banks would finish the alderman race, “Somewhere in left field.”
The fact of the matter was that Ernie Banks was indeed out of his league; and out of his element. Banks' public persona was one in which he always wore a smile, was nice and agreeable to everyone and reflexively avoided all conflicts--not exactly ideal for politics. And this was Chicago politics we're talking about. Politics, as they say, is a dirty business and Chicago was one of the places “they” had in mind when they said this; it can safely be stated that over the years, certain episodes have occurred in the political arena in Chicago that have given citizens cause to wonder aloud whether the whole thing was really on the up and up. Alderman is a position that carries definite power and influence in Chicago--one of fifty men who form the City Council and make decisions for a city of millions. The temptations are numerous--think civic contracts, construction projects, valuable government jobs--and, apparently, more than one Chicago Alderman has attempted to use the powerful position to further his own cause. The first conviction of an alderman for accepting bribes to rig crooked contracts came in 1869. In the years from 1972 to 1999, 26 current or former aldermen convicted of official corruption--essentially one in three of all who served during that time.
And the risks to unwanted candidates were real. Threats, intimidation and even murders were not uncommon for Chicago political wannabes. The above mentioned Lewis, who flaunted an extravagant lifestyle that, according to contemporary reports, was much out of proportion to his known income, was found the morning after the 1963 election in his office, executed gangland style--handcuffed with three close-range bullets fired into the back of his head. It is a crime that remains "unsolved" to this day. Chicago politics--not a business for the faint of heart.
Ernie Banks faced long odds in his bid for election. Independents have a hard time winning elections for county clerk in rural Idaho; they have little chance winning elections against hard political veterans backed by political machines in Chicago. The Eighth Ward had very strong Democratic organization and the incumbent Condon told reporters he was not worried. Condon wasn't worried because he knew a little secret that Banks apparently did not: the odds of a non-Democrat without the express written consent of Mayor Daley winning the election was about the same as the odds of the Cubs winning the Series--that is to say, don't expect it more than maybe once every 100 years or so.
“We’re gonna win it,” Ernie told a visiting reporter. “The Eighth Ward and the pennant.” But his promise sounded about as good as his yearly preposterously optimistic promise of a pennant winner with the dismal Cubs. Ernie explained his belief against long odds: “I believe in P. M. A. Positive Mental Attitude, that’s my theory of life.”
"We need someone with a little independence in this ward," a local businessman told a reporter from the Sporting News. "Someone who doesn't jump every time Daley says something."
Asked if he would have speech writers, Banks said he would not, that he would talk about things he knows. Banks had become an excellent public speaker, making in excess of 50 speeches in recent years mostly appearances to juvenile groups.
The sprawling Eighth Ward contained 93 precincts, with 46,000 registered voters: 45% black, 55 % white. It lay within the so-called "Black belt" of the South Side in which blacks were free to obtain residence and was rapidly changing from white to black. Incumbent Condon was white. Daley's successful strategy in such wards seemed to be to stick with the white Alderman until the ward was nearly 100% black, then make the switch. In general, it was still a good ward, with a majority of homeowners, although in 1962, a small article in Jet magazine had noted that a rear breakfast room window of the Banks house had been broken by a bullet and Ernie's wife Eloise noted that "young toughs" had begun hanging around the "Negro" neighborhood looking for trouble.
Ernie campaigned hard. He averaged about four speeches a day during the two months. His main stated goal was to combat juvenile delinquency. By all indications, Banks was entirely altruistic in his desire for office. He did not appear to be motivated by the potential for monetary gain. He had never lived extravagantly and was currently under contract to the Cubs for $65,000--not as much as Mantle, Mays and Musial, who were $100,000 guys, but firmly entrenched in the second tier of baseball salaries (about as much as Aaron). It was more money than anyone in his family had ever dreamed of. Banks maintained that his political aspirations were not a stunt. He said that he wanted to get into politics in order “to do everything in his power to help youth.”
Years later, Ernie said, “My timing was a little bit off.” But he added, “I don’t regret doing it.” He remained active in the community, however, and later served on numerous boards including Jackson Park Hospital, Glenwood Home for Boys, Metropolitan YMCA, the Woodlawn Boys Club, Chicago Rehabilitiation Institute and Big Brothers.
Friday, May 1, 2015
After my last post regarding the fight of the century in baseball, some friends noted that there have been a number of baseball rumbles that could lay claim to the title fight of the century. And why not? It seems that boxing, college football and college basketball have fights or games of the century each week. With that in mind, I searched my memory for some other memorable days when baseball fans went to the ballpark and a hockey game broke out.
Marichal vs. Roseboro, August 22, 1965
One of the most celebrated, and scary, baseball fights occurred during the dog days of 1965 when Giant pitcher Juan Marichal, number 27, took matters into his own hands. The Giants and Dodgers, of course, had a long history of bad blood and the 1965 tight pennant race certainly did nothing to encourage them to play well together. While batting against Sandy Koufax, Marichal felt that catcher Roseboro was intentionally throwing the ball close to his ear when returning it to Koufax. Without a word, Marichal turned and cracked Roseboro over the head with his bat. He landed at least two blows before he was stopped. Roseboro left the game bleeding profusely from a scalp laceration but was otherwise, miraculously, left with no permanent damage. The damage to the psyche of the American baseball fan, however, was considerable. If baseball is, as lyrical wags frequently claim, a metaphor for American society, the image of Marichal, holding his bat with two hands high in the air, preparing to take another swat at Roseboro's unprotected head, should have scared the hell out of anyone contemplating what lay ahead for us as a country in the next five years.
Campaneris vs. LaGrow, October 8, 1972
This one really needs to be seen to be appreciated.
Rose vs. Harrelson, Ocotber 8, 1973
After order was restored among the players, manager Sparky Anderson threatened to pull his team from the field as Shea Stadium partisans demonstrated their opinion of Rose by showering him with all manner of refuse when he took his position in the outfield. A peace delegation led by Yogi Berra and Willie Mays made its way to the outfield to plea for calm and the game was finally finished.
Rose got his revenge the next game, hitting a 12th inning home run and sprinting around the bases while defiantly shaking his fist at the Shea Stadium crowd, but the Mets took the series in five.
Ryan vs. Ventura, August 4, 1993
Mathews vs. Robinson, August 15, 1960
Robinson was known to maul more than one baseman with hard, spikes-high slides. When he plowed into third base with a triple and spiked Mathews, the Braves' slugger immediately launched several shots to Robinson's face. While Mathews was ejected, Robinson, bleeding from both his nose and a nasty cut over his eye, stayed in the game. In the second game of the double header, playing with one eye nearly swelled shut and a badly jammed thumb, Robinson hit a 2-run home run and a 2-run double to lead the Reds to a 4-0 victory, prompting a rival coach to say, "Robinson beat the Braves with one eye."
After the game, wearing a face that should have been screaming, "Yo Adrian," a battered-appearing Robinson told reporters, "I won the fight because we won the game."
Piniella vs Fisk, May 20, 1976
Piazza vs. Clemens, October 22, 2000
Martin vs. Jackson, June 18, 1977
As everyone knows, the two later made nice (temporarily) and Reggie responded with three home runs in the final game of the World Series that fall.
Martin vs. Boswell, August 6, 1969
Billy Martin, in his first managerial gig, set a tone which would be oft repeated. He immediately turned the team into winners, and very soon afterwards he began to get on people's nerves. And get on people's nerves is a nice way of saying that he beat them up. Dave Boswell was on his way to a 20-win season for the Twins, who would win the A.L. West that season. After a game in Detroit, a few players and Martin were relaxing in a favorite post-game nightspot not far from Tiger Stadium, the Lindell AC. Martin was apparently upset that Boswell had not finished his required running for pitching coach Art Fowler and decided to calmly discuss the matter. They continued their polite discussion out in the alley, where things soon took a turn for the worse. Martin described his version of managerial tough love for an AP reporter, telling him he landed "about five or six punches to the stomach, a couple to the head and when he came off the wall, I hit him again. He was out before he hit the ground." With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Yankees vs. Loudmouth drunks at the Copacabana, May 16, 1957
The article reporting on the incident in the New York Post which stated, "The great battlefields include Bastogne, Verdun, Gettysburg and the kitchen of the Copacabana," was guilty of hyperbole and inaccuracy (I thought Verdun was overrated). In the aftermath,Yankee owners were so mad at Mickey and Whitey that they traded Billy.
Lonborg vs. Tillotson, June 21, 1967
The Yankee-Red Sox feud had been dormant for years by 1967, but heated up as the Red Sox unexpectedly charged toward the pennant. In a game at Yankee Stadium, New York pitcher Thad Tillotson's first pitch to Joe Foy, who had been swinging a hot bat, was high and very tight. The next pitch clunked him on the head, knocking his batting helmet off. As so often happens in baseball, Tillotson led off an inning later for the Yanks. Gentleman Jim Lonborg, on the mound for the Red Sox, as per the time-honored tradition of protecting his peeps, nailed Tillotson on the shoulder. When Tillotson made some threatening comments regarding what he would do when Lonborg next came to the plate, Foy charged across the infield and the fight was on. Benches cleared, fists flew.
During the melee, Red Sox Rico Petrocelli and Yankee Joe Pepitone, buddies from their early years in Brooklyn, were apparently jawing and joking but were soon swallowed up in the fight. Pepitone, famous for his blow-dried coif, became enraged when someone in the pile pulled his hair.
Another curious sight in the mob scene was the appearance of a New York cop, a member of the special stadium security detail, who joined the fray and was noted to be threatening Yankees. It was later discovered that he was the brother of Petrocelli, who jumped in to protect his sibling.
A Rod vs. Varitek, July 24, 2004
In 2004 Alex Rodriguez was not yet the universally reviled pariah he would become in the next decade. He was simply the most destructive offensive force in the game. With the Yankees leading 3-0 in the top of the third inning, A Rod was drilled in the back by pitcher Bronson Arroyo. An unhappy A Rod exchanged angry words and threats with Arroyo as he slowly walked up the first base line. Lip readers could make out several words that begin with F. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek apparently heard enough and responded on Arroyo's behalf with a shove to the face which was captured perfectly and for all time in the above photo.
Pedro Martinez vs. Don Zimmer, October 11, 2003
In the bottom of the inning, Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens threw very close to the head of Manny Ramirez. Manny took exception and yelled out to the mound. Clemens stalked toward the plate, yelling choice words of his own. During the exchange of unpleasant words between teams, Pedro seemed to be gesturing at someone on the Yankee bench, saying, "Come at me bro."
Then the gates opened and both teams charged the field. One of the first men into battle was Zimmer, who targeted Martinez. Pedro sidestepped the charging septuagenarian like a bull fighter, grabbed him by the head and hurled him to the ground, thereby instantly becoming Public Enemy Number One in nursing homes throughout the country.
Phillips vs. Molina/Cueto vs. entire Cardinals team, August 10, 2010
So there you have it, my list of baseball's fights of the century. If you feel that I left out a better one, or if you take exception to anything I might have written about one of your favorite players, just throw one high and tight the next time I come up, I'll get the message.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
While there have been a number of famous brouhahas in baseball, I am partial to Fisk-Munson because of the historical context. You had two great players, closely related by geography, who played the same position, who were both in their prime and who were leaders of their teams; teams which, seemingly since the game was invented, had hated each other--all the ingredients were there.
In the days of one nationally televised game a week, on Saturdays, the Red Sox seemed to always appear and announcer Curt Gowdy, a former Red Sox man, continually gushed about Fisk.
Players from both teams flooded the field and crowded around home plate. While Fisk was squared off with Munson, Michael took several shots at the back of Fisk's head. Fisk then grabbed Michael in a headlock and, while holding Michael firmly with one arm, slugged Munson with the other. They were then buried under both teams. At one point as peace-makers tried to separate the combatants, Yankee manager Ralph Houk slithered through the dirt under the pile with his hands on Fisk’s arm, trying to break the vise-like grip with which he held the scrawny neck of Gene Michael.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Popular veteran lefty Joe Nuxhall was another teammate who made an early impression on the rookie. "Nuxie was another great guy. But you never met a bigger competitor, he hated to lose. Once we walked into the San Francisco clubhouse after a game--he had gotten beat. I think McCovey hit one out late. Joe came in and you could tell he was mad and about to blow. Nobody said anything. He spotted the spread of food in the clubhouse and went to kick the table. He still had his spikes on and his back spike slipped on the concrete and he went flying on his keester. Food went everywhere. I'm at my locker hiding my face, doing everything I can to keep from laughing because he was still so mad."
Recalling this line, I had to laugh when I later read the Cincinnati Post account of McCool’s first major league victory, which came in Milwaukee June 2, 1964. In the clubhouse after the game, Joe Nuxhall laughingly told anyone who would listen that when the peach-fuzzed McCool first came off the field he said, “Boy that Joe Torre scared the hell out of me when he came to the plate. I’ll bet he hasn’t shaved in two weeks.”