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.