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.
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:
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.