Friday, April 4, 2014

What If Gil Hodges Had Lived Longer?

 April 4, 1924, 90 years ago: Gilbert Raymond Hodges is born in Princeton, Indiana.

April 2, 1972: Gil Hodges, manager of the New York Mets and formerly a superb first baseman and powerful slugger for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, dies of a heart attack at spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.

What if the manager who had engineered the Mets' 1969 "Miracle" had lived longer?


Yogi Berra was promoted from coach to manager after Gil's death. He got the Mets to the 1973 Pennant. But he is often criticized for starting Tom Seaver on 3 days' rest in Game 6 of the World Series at the Oakland Coliseum, instead of saving him for Game 7. The Oakland Athletics beat Seaver in Game 6, and then beat Jon Matlack in Game 7.

But if not Seaver, who would Hodges have started in Game 6? Matlack was not yet available, having pitched Game 4. Jerry Koosman was not available, having pitched Game 5. The Mets' 4th starter, George Stone, had last pitched in relief in Game 2, pitching the 12th inning and getting the win, but allowing a run. Other than that, his last appearance was starting  in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds, 11 days earlier, and losing.

No, Seaver was the right pick: At that moment, Tom Seaver on 3 days' rest was better than almost anyone else on full rest. Don't blame Yogi for the choice: Almost certainly, Gil would have made it, too.

So having Hodges still alive in October 1973 doesn't make a difference. What about afterward?

With team owner Joan Payson in failing health, team chairman M. Donald Grant was pretty much doing whatever he wanted, trading away players he felt too expensive or too unwilling to go along with management. The Mets had a bad year in 1974, but finished 3rd in 1975 and 1976, winning 86 games in the latter year, so they weren't terrible.

It all came crashing down in 1977, with the most notable example being Koosman, who went from 21-10 to 8-20 (and then 3-15 in 1978, before he was traded to Minnesota and then won 36 games over the next 2 years). And, of course, on June 15, came the Midnight Massacre, Grant trading Seaver to the Reds for 4 players, and Dave Kingman (who, it should be said, was hitting very poorly at the time) to the San Diego Padres for 2 guys, one being a broken-down, washed-up Bobby Valentine.

Now, imagine that Gil Hodges, still managing the Mets at the age of 53, had told M. Donald Grant, "If you trade Seaver, I will resign."

It was Grant who hired Hodges to manage the Mets in 1968, after he'd been fired as manager of the Washington Senators. Would Grant have listened to Hodges, or called his bluff? With Mrs. Payson dead, and her daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, as owner, he could pretty much do what he wanted without "Linda" (as she preferred to be called) slapping him down. But would he really have wanted to be known as the man who pushed Tom Seaver AND Gil Hodges out of New York?

Grant calls Hodges' bluff: "Go ahead and quit."

Hodges isn't bluffing, and he tells the New York media, which loves him, what happened.

Grant makes Joe Torre the new manager. (Which happened in RL, only earlier in the year, as Joe Frazier -- not the boxer -- was fired.)

The next day, June 16, 1977, the Mets start a homestand by playing the Houston Astros. Only 8,915 fans come out. (This was the attendance in RL.) Two of them bring a banner to Shea Stadium. They unfurl it during the 7th Inning Stretch. It reads:

TOM 41 & GIL 14

Saturday, June 18 -- the same day as the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin bustup in Fenway -- 52,784 come out to Shea for Banner Day. (As in RL -- the Mets' biggest home crowd the rest of the season, aside from when Cincinnati came in with Seaver, was 24,445. 29 home games had fewer than 15,000 fans. Shea became nicknamed "Grant's Tomb.")

The banners that come out are vicious. "GRANT SUCKS" seems to be a popular theme. "GIL & TOM SI, GRANT NO" reads one carried by a group of Puerto Rican fans. A pair of Italian fans bring a banner calling Grant the profanity "SFACCIM." It gets confiscated, but the guys become Met fan heroes for all time.

Mrs. de Roulet has had enough. She doesn't want anything to do with the Mets anymore. She seeks out a buyer, and finds the team of Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, and by the close of the 1978 season, the Mets are sold out of the Payson family for the first time. Doubleday and Wilpon immediately fire Grant, and hire Hodges back as general manager.

When Torre is fired at the end of the 1981 season, he is immediately picked up as manager by the Atlanta Braves, so his story doesn't change much. But who do Doubleday and Wilpon hire as Met manager? Hodges. They move him back into the dugout, and hire Frank Cashen to be their general manager.

By early 1984, the Mets are respectable again. On October 27, 1986, the Mets are World Champions. This is the 2nd time, it's happened, and both times, Gil Hodges was the manager.

In 1987, the first time he is eligible through the Veterans Committee, Gil Hodges is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He gets the Mets to the 1988 NL Eastern Division title, and takes Dwight Gooden out so that he doesn't get tired in Game 4, and the Mets finish the Los Angeles Dodgers off in Game 5. There is something fitting about the Mets, the spiritual successors to both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, getting their first chance against the Los Angeles team owned by the O'Malley family and beating them with Gil Hodges as their manager. But they lose the World Series to the A's, as they don't have a clutch pinch-hitter to save them in Game 1 like Kirk Gibson did for the Dodgers in RL.

On April 2, 1989, just before the new season starts, Gil Hodges dies of a heart attack at spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He was just short of turning 65.

The Mets immediately retire his Number 14, joining the 37 of Casey Stengel and the 41 of Tom Seaver. Patches with the letters GRH are sewn onto the players' sleeves. The Mets' new spring-training home at Port St. Lucie is officially renamed Gil Hodges Memorial Stadium. A Statue of Gil is placed outside Shea later that year. The Marine Parkway Bridge is renamed for him. (In RL, this happened in 1978.) Tidewater Tides manager Mike Cubbage is promoted to manage the Mets, but can't maintain the excellence, and is undone by factors beyond his control, especially the injuries to, and aging of, the 1984-88 Met stars.

Before Game 3 of the 2000 World Series, Gil Hodges Jr., a securities executive, throws out the ceremonial first ball. It ends up being the only World Series game the Mets have won since October 18, 1988.

In 2009, the Mets open Citi Field. The Hodges statue is moved to the center field concourse, adjacent to Shea Bridge, much like the one of Richie Ashburn at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What If Ken Hubbs Hadn't Crashed?

February 15, 1964, 50 years ago today: Ken Hubbs is killed in a plane crash outside Provo, Utah. He was only 22 years old.
Unlike a later baseball player who died in the crash of a plane he was piloting, Thurman Munson, who genuinely loved piloting, Hubbs had been taking flying lessons to conquer a fear of flying.

In 1962, the Chicago Cubs promoted the 20-year-old 2nd baseman directly from Class B (which would be Double-A ball today). He won the National League Rookie of the Year award, and was the first rookie to be awarded a Gold Glove, setting records with 78 consecutive games and 418 total chances without an error.
He was a sensational all-around athlete: He'd won a boxing tournament at age 12, and had also been recruited by Notre Dame to play quarterback and by John Wooden to play basketball at UCLA.
The Cubs did not retire uniform numbers in those days, but the did keep his Number 16 out of circulation for 3 years.

Kenneth Douglass Hubbs was more than just another baseball player. He was the kind of athlete all games need. A devout Mormon, a cheerful leader, a picture-book player, blond-haired, healthy, generous with his time for young boys; he was the kind of youth in short supply in these selfish times.
-- Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times

In 1993, Sports Illustrated asked a few baseball writers to do short "What if?" articles. Steve Rushin speculated that, had Hubbs lived, the Cubs would have done better in 1964, and wouldn't have traded Lou Brock, and, together with Hubbs, Brock, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, the Cubs, starting in 1969, would have become "the Big Blue Machine" (instead of the Cincinnati Reds becoming the Big Red Machine that we know).
Oh really? Let me take a better look at that.
February 15, 1964: Hubbs lands safely.
June 15, 1964: The Cubs do not trade Brock, Jack Spring and Bob Toth to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz and Doug Clemens. Instead, they move Brock to right field, since they already have Williams in left and the decent-hitting Billy Cowan in right.
August 15, 1964: In RL, on this date, the Cardinals sold Shantz, now 38 and playing out the string, to the Phillies. In 1952, 12 years earlier, pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics, Shantz went 24-7 for a 4th place team, and won the American League's Most Valuable Player award. He remained with the A's through their move to Kansas City, as the Phils became the owners and (after the NFL's Eagles moved to Franklin Field in 1958) sole occupiers of Shibe Park, now named Connie Mack Stadium even though Mack had nothing to do with the Phillies. Shantz would help the Yankees win 3 Pennants and the 1958 World Series.
In TTL, the Cubs sell Shantz to the Phils. This will matter.
October 4, 1964: Nope, having Brock and Hubbs doesn't help the Cubs a whole lot this season. What it does do is deny Brock to the Cardinals, meaning they don't get his great year, and they don't take advantage of the Philadelphia Phillies' 10-game losing streak near the end of the season.
But what everyone forgets is that, while the Phils were losing 10 straight, the Cards were winning 8 straight, and the Reds won 9 straight. If the Cards don't win the Pennant by 1 game over the Phils and Reds, but rather are, say, 6 or 7 games back, the Phils and Reds finish in a tie for the Pennant.
October 5, 1964: The Playoff is held at Crosley Field in Cincinnati -- there, instead of at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, because that's where both teams ended the regular season. Phils manager Gene Mauch can't use his best pitcher, Jim Bunning, since Bunning pitched the day before, beating the Reds just to keep the Playoff possible. Chris Short has had only 2 days' rest. So he goes with experience and starts... Bobby Shantz, who now has one more chance to be a Philadelphia sports hero. (In RL, the little lefty had last pitched in relief on September 29, and it was his last major league appearance.)
Dick Sisler, whose home run in the 10th inning on the final day against the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1950 Pennant for the Phillies, but now filling in as Reds manager for the dying Fred Hutchinson (of cancer), goes with Bob Purkey, one of the heroes of their 1961 Pennant.
Shantz pitches his heart out, but it's 2-1 Reds going to the top of the 9th. But Johnny Callison singles, and Richie Allen (as Dick Allen was then, to his consternation, usually called) crushes Purkey's first pitch over the left-field scoreboard, and onto Interstate 75, the Mill Creek Expressway. The Phillies win, 3-2, and take the Pennant.
October 15, 1964: With Bunning, Short and Shantz starting all games, and Callison and Allen hitting like crazy against a Yankee staff shortened by a Game 1 injury to Whitey Ford, the Phillies win the franchise's first World Championship in 82 seasons of trying, taking Game 7 at Connie Mack, 7-5. (This matches the RL score of Game 7, won by the Cardinals at the original Busch Stadium, a.k.a. Sportsman's Park.)
And so, a generation of fans in the Delaware Valley, who don't remember the 1950 Whiz Kids, are not permanently scarred by 1964.
October 1, 1967: In RL, this was the last day of the regular season, and the Cardinals had clinched the NL Pennant by 10 1/2 games over the San Francisco Giants, 17 1/2 over the Cubs, and 19 over the Reds, while the AL was a 4-team battle between the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, and with the Tigers having a rain-forced doubleheader on the last day, the Pennant wasn't even decided after the Red Sox played their 162nd game and eliminated the Twins, the ChiSox having fallen out the preceding Friday.
But in TLL, without Brock having perhaps his best season, maybe the NL race also becomes a 4-way dogfight, making this perhaps the best baseball season ever. But with Brock shifted to the Cubs and Hubbs, now 25, still alive and playing for them, the Giants still had the most talent, and they win the Pennant.
October 12, 1967: The Giants go on to ruin the Red Sox' "Impossible Dream," as Willie McCovey takes Jim Lonborg deep twice in Game 7. Willie Mays provides the exclamation point with a towering shot over the Green Monster in the 9th inning, and Juan Marichal, doing what Bob Gibson did in RL, blows the Sox away. The Giants win, 7-2, and win their first World Series since moving to California. (Something they didn't do in RL until 2010.)
September 29, 1968: In RL, the Cards won the Pennant by 9 over the Giants, 13 over the Cubs and 14 over the Reds. No Brock in St. Louis, looks like another tough fight, but the Giants win the Pennant again. This time, the Tigers beat them in the Series.

October 7, 1968: The Cardinals give up on Curt Flood a year earlier. For TTL, it doesn't matter who they trade him to, as his fight against the reserve clause turns out the same way. But even if he still gets traded, as he did in RL, to the Phillies, it won't be for Dick Allen, who, in the wake of the 1964 title, is much more popular, and much happier, in Philadelphia than he was in RL. He stays with them until 1971, at which point he goes to the White Sox, and, in 1972, helps save them from being moved as in RL.
July 8, 1969: By now, Brock is in center field, with Williams in center and Jim Hickman (ironically, an original 1962 Met) in right. Leadoff singles by Brock and Hubbs begin a 5-run Cub 1st inning, and Tom Seaver's perfect game is ended before he can get the 1st out, let alone the 27th (Jimmy Qualls in RL). The Cubs beat the Mets, and are in full control of the NL Eastern Division race, in this first season of divisional play.
September 8, 1969: Tommie Agee is incorrectly called safe at the plate, but Hubbs goes on to start a rally and the Cubs beat the Mets 4-3, instead of losing 3-2 as in RL.
September 9, 1969: Those balls that Don Young didn't catch in center field in RL? Yeah, Brock gets them. And also gets 2 key hits, as does Hubbs. Instead of losing to the Mets 7-1, the Cubs win, 5-4. The black cat is a footnote, and this 2-game series, in RL the 5th & 6th of an 8-game losing streak that knocked the Cubs out of 1st place, is instead a Cub sweep. The Mets still make a run for it, but...
October 1, 1969: As in RL, the Cubs play the Mets at Wrigley Field in the last 2 games of the regular season. Mirroring the Yankees-Red Sox race of 20 years earlier, the Cubs need to take the last 2 to win the Division. In RL, they lost this game, 6-5 in 12 innings. In TTL, they win 5-4 in regulation. It all comes down to Game 162.
October 2, 1969: As in RL, Cubs 5, Mets 3 -- and the Cubs win the NL East.
October 16, 1969: As in RL, the NL Champions shock the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in 5, clinching at home -- only in TTL, it's the Cubs doing it at Wrigley Field, taking their first World Series in 61 years.
October 1, 1973: Oh yes, Met fans, it's happening again. Banks is gone, and Brock, Williams and Santo are older. But Hubbs, now 31, is in his prime, and leads the Cubs to a 7-6 win that clinches the NL East at Wrigley on the day after the intended last day (there had been rainouts).
October 8, 1973: Hubbs decks Pete Rose, the way Bud Harrelson couldn't have, in Game 3.
October 9, 1973: Rose, still in shock, doesn't hit the game-winning homer in Game 4. Instead, it's Rick Monday whose 7th-inning homer gives the Cubs a lead they will never relinquish. They win the Pennant, although they go on to lose the World Series to the Oakland Athletics.
November 17, 1973: Frustrated at pitching his heart out, and not being able to win a Pennant in New York, Tom Seaver demands a trade from team president M. Donald Grant. The Fresno native is sent to the San Francisco Giants for prospects and cash. Met fans, even surlier than in RL, "vote with their feet," and Shea Stadium, with no Pennants to its credit, becomes known as "Grant's Tomb" even earlier.
June 15, 1977: Now 35, Hubbs is nearing the end of the line. But the Phillies aren't getting production out of 2nd base, as Dave Cash was lost to free agency, and Tom Sizemore, though a good fielder, can't hit. (In RL, this would eventually be solved by getting Manny Trillo.) So the Phils trade for Hubbs at the deadline.
October 7, 1977: In TTL, this is not "Black Friday." With Hubbs available to make the right play, the tying run doesn't score, and the Phillies beat the Dodgers, 5-4, and go on to win the Pennant the next day. It is Hubbs' 3rd Pennant.
October 18, 1977: Instead of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough, Reggie Jackson hits those 3 homers off Larry Christenson, Warren Brusstar and Gene Garber. The Yankees get revenge on the Phillies for 1964.
October 2, 1978: While the Yankees are winning an AL East Playoff at Fenway Park, the Giants win an NL West Playoff at Candlestick Park, as Tom Seaver outpitches Don Sutton. It is the 3rd time in 28 years that the Giants have been in a playoff with the Dodgers, and they've won them all.
October 7, 1978: The Giants win Game 4 of the NLCS when Johnnie LeMaster singles home Darrell Evans in the bottom of the 10th inning, beating the Phillies, 4-3 to clinch the Pennant. It is the 4th Pennant for Willie McCovey, the 1st for Tom Seaver. Hubbs, 36, retires. The Giants lose the World Series to the Yankees.

October 20, 1982: The Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 in Game 7, and win their first World Championship in 36 years (since 1946).
October 7, 1984: The Cubs lose Game 5 of the NLCS to the San Diego Padres, 6-3. However, having won 2 Pennants in the last 16 seasons, there's less of a sting to it for their fans.
August 4, 1985: Seaver, now pitching for the White Sox, beats the Yankees 4-1 for his 300th career win. On the same day, Brock, Dick Allen, Enos Slaughter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Arky Vaughan are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike Slaughter, whose plaque shows him wearing a Cardinal cap, Brock is shown wearing a Cub cap.
August 3, 1986: McCovey, in his 1st year of eligibility; Hubbs, in his 4th; and Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi, through the Veterans' Committee, are inducted into the Hall of Fame. (I chose that year for Hubbs to be elected, as I was actually at this induction ceremony.)
Is that the end of the story, with Hubbs, in 2014, a 72-year-old Hall-of-Famer?
No. I won't speculate on who he would have ended up marrying, or how many children he would have and what they would be doing. But I have heard that, as Hall of Fame shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau was, by Hubbs' debut, a broadcaster with the Cubs, his daughter Sharyn had been engaged to Hubbs. Instead, she ended up marrying Tiger pitcher Denny McLain, whose life has been an entirely different kind of tragedy.
October 16, 1986: Despite dominating the NL all year long, the Mets lose Game 6 of the NLCS to the Houston Astros, 7-6, in 14 innings. Without their traditions of "magic" and "miracles," they can't get the job done, and don't have "the teamwork to make the dream work." The next day, they lose Game 7 to Mike Scott, and the Astros win their first Pennant -- and also become the first team to host a World Series game indoors.
October 25, 1986: Calvin Schiraldi strikes out Astro catcher Alan Ashby for the final out, and the Red Sox win the World Series in Game 6 at the Astrodome, for their first title in 68 years. (In RL, it was the Mets' catcher, Gary Carter, who started the rally.)

August 2, 1990: Tom Seaver, Rollie Fingers, Hal Newhouser and Bill McGowan are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Seaver wears a Giant cap on his plaque. Later that season, the Giants retire his Number 41.
July 18, 1999: The Cubs hold a ceremony at Wrigley Field, honoring the 30th Anniversary of their last World Series title. In addition to the already-honored 14 of Banks and 26 of Williams, the numbers of Santo, Hubbs and Jenkins -- 10, 16 and 31 -- are retired. (This is also the day of David Cone's perfect game.)

August 1, 1999: Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount, George Brett, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Selee, Smokey Joe Williams and Nestor Chylak are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Ryan, unlike in RL ('69 Mets), has never won a World Series. His only appearance in one was with the '86 Astros.

October 16, 2000: The Mets finally win their 1st Pennant, in 39 years of trying, beating the Cardinals 7-0 at Shea Stadium to win Game 5 of the NLCS. Better yet, for their fans, they get to face the Yankees.

October 26, 2000: Met fans never learn, do they?

October 15, 2003: Hubbs throws out the ceremonial first ball before Game 7 of the NLCS, the Wrigley faithful gets pumped up, the previous night's disaster is put in the past, and the Cubs beat the Florida Marlins, 5-3, and win their first Pennant in 30 years -- actually a longer drought than the 24-year drought of 1945-69.

October 22, 2003: Jeff Weaver gives up a walkoff homer in Game 4 of the World Series to that other Alex Gonzalez, this time at Wrigley rather than the Dolphins' stadium that was then the Marlins' home.

October 25, 2003: Mark Prior (rather than Josh Beckett as in RL) pitches a shutout to win Game 6 and clinch the World Series at Yankee Stadium, 3-0. It is the Cubs' 4th title.

March 8, 2004: Having lost Andy Pettitte to free agency, the Yankees need a lefthanded starter, and sign Shawn Estes of the defending World Champion Cubs -- despite his having thrown at Roger Clemens in a 2002 Yankees-Mets game at Shea. (In RL, Estes signed with the Rockies on this day, and 2004 turned out to be his last good season.)

October 20, 2004: Shawn Estes starts Game 7 of the ALCS, and, steroids or no, the Red Sox' lefty-dominated lineup can't touch him. The Yankees win, 3-2, and the Curse of the Bambino is extended for another year.

October 27, 2004: The Yankees sweep the Cardinals for their 27th World Championship. Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina and Ruben Sierra get their 1st rings. Estes gets his 2nd. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada get their 5th.

October 28, 2007: Not having had the experience of winning it in 2007, the Red Sox can't stop the Cleveland Indians from winning the Pennant, and the Indians sweep the Colorado Rockies to win their first World Series in 59 years.

September 28, 2008: The Mets lose to the Marlins in the last game at Shea Stadium, and blow a chance at the Playoffs. A closing ceremony is held, and the players from the 2000 National League Champions -- the only Pennant in the team's 47-year history -- get the loudest applause. Players from the near-misses of 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1988 get only polite applause. Several men who played for the Mets but had Hall of Fame careers elsewhere are invited. Yogi Berra and Willie Mays attend, and are cheered. Rickey Henderson attends, but is booed. Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Tom Glavine and Duke Snider do not attend.

November 4, 2009: The Yankees win their 28th World Championship by beating the Phillies.

October 30, 2013: The Tigers, having beaten the still-cursed Red Sox in the ALCS, beat the Cardinals 6-1 in Game 6, and win their first World Series in 29 years.

April 4, 2014: Ken Hubbs, age 72, throws out the ceremonial first ball on Opening Day at Wrigley Field.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

What If Mark Fidrych Hadn't Gotten Hurt?

Once again, I have let this blog slip.  I've decided to resume it by examining what might have happened if certain great players who got hurt or died too soon had been able to complete their careers.

This was inspired by seeing The Bird, a biography of Mark Fidrych by Doug Wilson.  If you don't remember Fidrych as an active pitcher, you're not alone: His one full season was 1976.  The first season of which I have any memory is 1977.  So while I saw him (on TV, anyway), I saw a pitcher who clearly had talent, but also had too much pain to make it work.

And even though his team was then in the same division as my favorite team, this was a damn shame.  As Joe Delessio of Sports On Earth puts it in his review of the book: 

Mark Fidrych appeared in the majors in 1976 and almost immediately became a national phenomenon. With his mop-top hair and on-field quirks (like manicuring the mound and appearing to talk to the baseball), the fun-loving Fidrych drew massive crowds to Tiger Stadium during a Rookie of the Year season in which he posted a 19-9 record with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games. But injuries derailed his career the very next year, and though he'd play in parts of four more big-league seasons, he'd never again enjoy sustained success on the mound.

Mark Steven Fidrych was born on August 14, 1954, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and, in spite of being forever identified with the Detroit Tigers, nevah, evah, lahst his Mahssachusetts ahccent.  But he was no "Masshole": He was a salt-of-the-earth guy, who people genuinely came to like.

Among the weird things Fidrych did was how he reacted to his inability to throw without pain: He returned to his native Central Massachusetts and operated a farm and a contracting business.  Apparently, he made a decent income.  It certainly helped that the baseball memorabilia craze that began in the 1980s made him a star at card shows, and he had the personality that made the people running those shows want to re-invite him.  He pitched in old-timers' games, and was generally well-liked by the baseball community.

And then, tragedy struck: On April 13, 2009, he was working on the truck he used to haul gravel when something happened (it's not clear what), and he died.  He was just 54.  He left behind a wife and a daughter.


That's the personal.  What about the professional? Well, he became a superstar right before he turned 22.  But...

Think about this: Before he turned 25, Warren Spahn hadn't yet won a game in the major leagues, but, after turning 25, he won 363; after he was 26, Mark Fidrych never even threw another big-league pitch.

(That's kind of the declarative version of a trick question.  It omits the salient point that Spahn spent the seasons in which he turned 22, 23 and 24 fighting in World War II.  And I do mean "fighting": He was in combat, including the Battle of the Bulge.)

On April 20, 1976, Fidrych -- nicknamed "The Bird" because his curly blond hair reminded people of the Sesame Street character Big Bird -- made his major league debut.  Wearing Number 20 and pitching righthanded for the Tigers, he took the mound in the 9th inning against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum.  Joe Coleman had taken a 5-2 lead into the 9th, but he got tired.  (This almost certainly would not have happened today: Even an old-school manager like Ralph Houk, who had previously managed the Yankees, would have brought in the Tigers' closer, at that time John Hiller.) Coleman allowed a single and a walk.  New pitcher Jim Crawford allowed a double steal, a lineout, a walk and a game-tying single.  Fidrych was brought in, and he faced one batter, Don Baylor, who singled home the winning run.  A's 6, Tigers 5.  According to Baseball Reference, the A's had a 7 percent chance to win when the inning began.  However, the loss was hardly Fidrych's fault; blame Houk for leaving Coleman in too long.

After another 9th inning relief appearance 2 weeks later, Houk gave Fidrych his first start on May 15, against the Cleveland Indians at Tiger Stadium.  He went the distance, winning 2-1.

Now, if you're around my age, you remember the Indians being dreadful in the 1970s and '80s.  So you're probably thinking the same thing Fidrych thought of as the title for his memoir of the 1976 season: No Big Deal.

Actually, you'd be wrong: The Indians were a decent team in '76.  Frank Robinson, in his 2nd year as the majors' first black manager and his last as a player, had quite a bit of talent: Rico Carty, George Hendrick, Buddy Bell, Rick Manning, Charlie Spikes, John Lowenstein.  Robinson himself, Boog Powell and Ray Fosse were washed up, but still made some contributions.  On the mound, Robbie could call on Dennis Eckersley, Pat Dobson, Jim Bibby and Rick Waits; his bullpen had Dave LaRoche, Jim Kern and Don Hood, plus a washed-up Fritz Peterson.  With a couple of more decent hitters, the '76 Indians could have done a bit better than 81-78.  Alas, they couldn't keep it together, and in '77, they lost 90 games, fired Robinson, and got rid of a lot of those players, including the Eck, which would be a terrible mistake.  (The reason they got rid of him is worthy of its own story.  But some other time.)

It was in this game that Fidrych's eccentricities began to be noticed.  While batters doing all kinds of odd things in the batter's box had been well-documented, and smoothing out the dirt in it with your spikes was very common, seeing a pitcher smooth out the dirt on the pitcher's mound with his hand was not.  The Bird did this.

It also looked like he was talking to the ball.  This became his trademark: "Mark The Bird Fidrych Talking To The Ball." He later explained that this was not what he was doing: Rather, he was talking to himself, telling himself to settle down, you're getting too excited, calm down, you can get this guy.  Carty, from the Dominican Republic and familiar with the voodoo culture of the island of Hispanola, which includes his country and Haiti, saw Fidrych's gestures, and had an even wilder interpretation: "He was trying to hypnotize us."

Fidrych's next start was against his boyhood team, the defending American League Champion Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, 35 miles from his home town of Northborough.  He pitched pretty well, but gave up a home run to Carl Yasztrzemski, and was outpitched by Luis Tiant, 2-0.

May 31: Goes 11 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers.  Allows a run in the top of the 11th.  But the Tigers bail him out in the bottom half, winning 5-4.

June 5: Goes 11 again, outpitching Bert Blyleven to beat the Texas Rangers, 3-2.

June 11: Tiger fans begin to notice, as 36,377 come out to watch him face Nolan Ryan and the California Angels.  Fidrych outpitches the Express, and the Tigers win, 4-3.

June 16: 21,659 might not seem like much of a crowd, but this was on a Wednesday night in Detroit.  Fidrych did all he could, but going into the bottom of the 9th, the Tigers still trailed the Kansas City Royals, 3-2.  But they came from behind and won, 4-3, making him the winning pitcher.

June 20: The Bird gets plenty of runs in Minnesota, as the Tigers beat the Twins, 7-3.

June 24: back to Fenway.  The Bird goes the distance, and the Tigers win, 6-3.

June 28: This was The Mark Fidrych Game.  On ABC Monday Night Baseball, at Tiger Stadium, the Tigers faced the Yankees, who were back in first place in the American League Eastern Division and on their way to a new dynasty.  But against the Bird, on national TV, they couldn't do much.  Elrod Hendricks -- with the Yankees toward the end of a career spent mostly in the Baltimore Orioles' organization -- hit a home run off him, but that was about all the Bronx Bombers could do.  Aurelio Rodriguez -- a superb-fielding 3rd baseman, but no one ever called him "A-Rod" -- and Rusty Staub, his hair as orange as a tiger's fur, hit home runs off Ken Holtzman, and the Tigers won, 5-1.  Attendance: 47,855.  For a Monday night, in a city with a crime problem as bad as Detroit's already was, when they could have stayed home and watched on TV, this was an enormous crowd.  And when it was over, they chanted, "We want Bird! We want Bird! We want Bird!" They got him.  And, in case current Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay is reading this: The time of the game, a supremely manageable 1 hour and 51 minutes!

July 3: Fidrych tossed a 4-hit shutout in front of 51,032 at Tiger Stadium, and the Tigers beat the Baltimore Orioles, 4-0.

July 9: Fidrych loses this one, but it's hardly his fault: 51,041 see a great pitchers' duel with Dennis Leonard, and the Royals win 1-0.

Fans demanded that Fidrych be the AL's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, which (like the NBA & NHL All-Star Games and the NCAA Final Four) was being held in Philadelphia in honor of the nation's Bicentennial.  But, as the National League always seemed to do in those days, they roughed up the best the AL had to offer, and the Bird was the losing pitcher: NL 7, AL 1.

Fidrych shook off the All-Star loss, and kept winning in the 2nd half, even though the Tigers were going nowhere (74-87, 5th place, 24 games out).  On September 12, he made his only start of the year at the newly-renovated Yankee Stadium.  A crowd of 52,707 saw him outpitch Dock Ellis (15-7 for the Pennant-winning Yankees that season) with the help of a Ben Oglivie homer, and the Tigers won, 6-0.

(Dock Ellis and Mark Fidrych. The former claimed to have thrown a no-hitter while high on LSD.  The latter had the fans thinking they were on some kind of mind-altering drug.  This could well have been the all-time favorite game of Dan Epstein, Tiger fan, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass and the soon-to-be published Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of 1976. If it isn't his favorite game ever, here's the box score so he can reconsider! And here's a link to his blog of the same title.)

Fidrych finished the season 19-7. He won the AL's Rookie of the Year award, and finished 2nd in the voting for its Cy Young Award.  Who won? Jim Palmer of the Orioles.  Good choice? Yes.  Better choice than Fidrych? Not appreciably better.  A better choice still would have been Ed Figueroa of the Pennant-winning Yankees, but he finished 4th behind those 2 and Frank Tanana of the Angels; no pitcher of the AL West Champion Royals even finished in the top 10.  The NL Cy Young was won by Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, and that was a much better pick, as he had a year so strong that the Padres' bad season couldn't be held against him.  (Jerry Koosman was 2nd, as he became the 2nd Met after Tom Seaver, who finished 8th, and 1st Met lefthander, to win 20.)

Imagine how much hype the Bird would have gotten if he'd gotten to 20 wins. To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, If you win 20 in The Show, you can talk to the ball, and the press will say you're colorful; until you win 20 in The Show, it means you're a psycho.
Then came spring training 1977.  Fidrych was fooling around in the outfield and fell, and tore the cartilage in his knee.  He came back from the injury on May 27, and by June 29 was 6-2, including, almost a year to the day, pitching another complete-game win over the Yankees, 9 strikeouts, no walks.  But on July 12, he tore his rotator cuff, and that was pretty much it.  After that, he appeared in just 16 more big-league games.  His finale was on October 1, 1980 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, going just 5 innings but getting the win against the Blue Jays, 11-7.

Final record: 29-19.  ERA: 3.10.  ERA+: 126.  WHIP: 1.203.


So let's suppose he didn't get hurt on July 12, 1977, and had only the occasional brief injury thereafter.  How would baseball history be different?

There were 120 games left in the season.  In a 4-man rotation with Dave Rozema, Fernando Arroyo and Bob Sykes -- Fidrych's spot in the rotatin was taken by an aging Dave Roberts, a prime Milt Wilcox, and a rookie named Jack Morris -- he probably would have made 30 more starts.  (Try being a pitcher in 2013 and asking if you can make 30 starts all season long, and watch your manager hit the ceiling.) A Tiger attack that averaged 4.4 runs per game, led by Rusty Staub, Jason Thompson, Ben Oglivie, Steve Kemp and Ron LeFlore, Fidrych could have gone .600 the rest of the way.  He wouldn't have had a decision in every game, but probably in most games.  So, figure, around 16-6.

So let's imagine the Bird through the years, figuring he'd have pitched until around age 39, and averaging around 17-11 in his prime:

1976 19-9
1977 16-6
1978 17-11
1979 17-11
1980 18-12
1981 12-6
1982 17-11
1983 20-8
1984 25-5
1985 21-9
1986 18-12
1987 20-9
1988 18-12
1989 16-12
1990 14-10
1991 14-10
1992 11-12
1993 9-12

1981 was the strike year, hence his lower totals. You'll notice that he picked up a bit in 1983, because that's when the Tigers starting getting really good.  Actually, they could have taken either half of the 1981 split-season with a healthy Fidrych, but that was a year of weird happenings even without him.  So let's move on.

1983: The Tigers won 92 games, 6 games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East.  This with a rotation of Morris, Wilcox, Dan Petry, and the 4th spot split between Juan Berengeur and Dave Rozema, who, between them, went 17-8.  So, most likely, Wilcox, 33 at this point and 11-10 with the highest ERA of these guys, would have been the one displaced.  Sparky Anderson, the Tigers' manager at the time, didn't believe in the 5-man rotation.  He did, however, believe in the 5-man bullpen.  Going from Wilcox's 11-10 to Fidrych's projected 20-8, and that works out to around a 6-game difference, and if one of those games is against the O's, then the Tigers are AL East Champs.  Beat the Chicago White Sox in the AL Championship Series and the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, and it's the first title since 1968.

Then in 1984, no change: The Tigers roar out of the gate, going 35-5, finish with 104 wins, beat the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, and the San Diego Padres in the World Series.  Back-to-back titles.  Only this time, instead of reliever Willie Hernandez, it's the Bird who gets the AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.

The Tigers finished 15 games back in 1985, so a great year by Fidrych doesn't help.   They were 8 1/2 back in 1986... Nope, doesn't help.  They won the Division in 1987, and does Fidrych, now 33, make a difference in the ALCS against the Minnesota Twins? Probably not: The pitcher whose place in the rotation he would've taken would've been Walt Terrell, and he won the only Tiger victory in that series.

But in 1988, the Tigers finished just 1 game behind the Red Sox.  The Sox got swept by the Oakland Athletics.  Does Fidrych make a difference here? The last 4 games of the regular season were started by Terrell, Morris, Alexander and Frank Tanana.  If Fidrych pitches instead of Terrell, then... No, Fidrych would have been opposed by Dave Stewart in Game 1, and probably wouldn't have pitched any better than Bruce Hurst.  Maybe he could have made a difference later on if some other Tiger pitcher did, but I still don't see the Tigers winning this series.  Still, that's a Division title they didn't win in RL.

The Tigers had a bad year in 1989, and although they bounced back in '90 and '91, I just don't see Fidrych, at this point in his career, making much of a difference in their fortunes.  Then they fell off again in '92, and weren't contenders again until 2006.

But late in the 1993 season, he wins his 300th game.  By my count, he finishes with a career record of 302-189.  Reaching 3,000 strikeouts is probably out of the question, since even in his one full season he struck out only 97 batters.

But in 1999, the last season of Tiger Stadium -- and he was there for the closing ceremony -- he would likely have been, in his first year of eligibility, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Even if he still dies in 2009, he has 10 years to enjoy it.

The Tigers retire his Number 20.  In 1999, The Sporting News names him one of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.  He's introduced at his hometown ballfield, Fenway Park, before the 1999 All-Star Game as one of the nominees for the All-Century Team.  The next year, when Comerica Park opens, he gets a statue there, along with the other Tiger retired number honorees.

A life still too short, but much more accomplished.  And he seemed like the kind of guy who would have handled it better than many people that we could mention.

And the Tigers win an extra Pennant and World Series, in 1983, and one other Division title, in 1988.  That's not a huge increase, but for a team that's been around for over a century and has only won 4 World Series, the last one 30 years ago, that ain't bad.


But there's something else to consider.  If the Tigers win the World Series, the AL Pennant, the AL East in 1983, that means the Baltimore Orioles don't.

And with the team being owned by D.C.-based "superlawyer" Edward Bennett Williams at the time, they were in genuine danger of being moved down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.  Before his death, he signed a lease for a new ballpark, the one that would become Camden Yards, because of the reaction of the fans to their awful start in 1988, losing their first 21 games, nearly going 0-for-April, and yet the Maryland fans came out in droves to cheer their Birds on.

But in TTL, they haven't won a World Series since 1970, or a Pennant since 1979...

1989: The Orioles, now the new (or newer) Washington Senators, with their D.C. and suburban Maryland and Virginia fan base no longer having to schlep up M-295 to get to Memorial Stadium, ride the noise of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium past the Blue Jays, and win the AL East.  They lose to the A's in the ALCS, setting up the earthquake-plagued Bay Bridge Series.  But Washington has postseason baseball for the first time since the early days of the New Deal.

1994: Jacobs Field in Cleveland becomes the "retro" model for all new ballparks to follow, instead of Camden Yards.

1996: The stadium we know as Nationals Park opens, 12 years sooner.  The Senators can't beat the Yankees in the '96 ALCS, but they beat the Cleveland Indians in '97, and beat the Florida Marlins to win the World Series -- the capital's first baseball title in 73 years.

And, with Wayne Huizenga's gamble not quite paying off, he breaks up the Marlins, and in 2002, Commissioner Bud Selig authorizes their sale to a group that moves the Fish to Baltimore.  Camden Yards joins the already-built Ravens stadium.  The name Baltimore Orioles is revived, only now, we have the opposite of RL: Baltimore in the NL East, and Washington in the AL East.

The Montreal Expos still appear doomed, but where could they move to? Washington is occupied.  Miami has already failed as an MLB city, and there's no new ballpark on the horizon.  In one of his last acts as Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin gets the national government to fund a new ballpark for the Expos.  He just barely hung on to a minority government in RL-2004, so in TTL-2004, his Liberal Party government falls to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives 2 years early.

2012: The Washington Senators defeat the Texas Rangers for the Wild Card berth, the Yankees in the AL Division Series, the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, and the Montreal Expos in the World Series.  And in spite of having won their first Pennant ever, Montreal fans are left to wonder what would have happened in Expo management had let manager Davey Johnson use Stephen Strasburg in the postseason...

Meanwhile, as the last MLB team in Florida, Tampa Bay Rays ownership sees that attendance remains pathetic in spite of their decent record since 2008, and are now negotiating with the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area to build a new ballpark.  They'd be in the same division as the Washington Senators, and a lot closer, so there'd be a built-in rivalry.


So if Mark "the Bird" Fidrych hadn't gotten hurt, it would have been a better world, or at least a better game, for several reasons.  Especially if you live in or around Detroit, Washington and Montreal.  In Baltimore, not in the short term, but in the long term -- you won't have Cal Ripken and '96 and '97, but you also won't have Peter Angelos and Rafael Palmeiro embarrassing you.  Miami loses out, but I haven't cared what they think since November 2000.

When asked why he never used an agent, Fidrych said, "Only I know my real value, and can negotiate it."

Real value? Sadly, we never really saw it.