Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Year of the Bird

Powered by Peter Schilling, Jr.

Normally, being a Tigers fan is an exercise in self-abuse, but this year has been a joy. The Tigers have dominated the weaklings, and though they’ve barely made a dent against the terrible trio of the Yankees, Red and White Sox, they seem to be making a run for at least a first round playoff exit (skepticism still reigns for this fan). This is also the 30th anniversary of the Tigers fabulous 1976 season. For despite the fact that the Detroit lost 87 games, Mark Fidrych burst onto the scene.

There could be no question that the star of 1976 was the former gas-pumping kid from Worcester, Massachusetts. Tall and lanky, Fidrych had a friendly mug and a mess of curly blonde hair, and resembled Harpo Marx more than Big Bird, for whom he was nicknamed. Mark raced out to the field (as opposed to the slow saunter of most every pitcher), spoke to his ball, smoothed the mound, cheered on his fellow players from the dugout, and shook hands with his teammates after a good play. With every pitch, he would bob up and down and up and down before firing the ball in around 93 mph. That made him kooky enough to stand out. That he did these theatrics while also being the best pitcher in baseball is what made him a star.

The Bird made his first start on May 15, 1976, leaving his box apartment in the faceless suburbs of Detroit, and driving to Tiger Stadium in a beat-up Dodge Colt. Since his relief debut on April 20, Fidrych had sat on the bench, blowing gum bubbles, going nowhere. But thanks to a number of rainouts, Tigers manager Ralph Houk had to juggle his mediocre rotation, and Fidrych got the call. So that afternoon, after a 26-minute rain delay, just fewer than fifteen thousand Tigers faithful watched young Mark throw six innings of no hit ball as he eventually beat the Tribe 2-1. His conversations with the baseball were so unnerving that the home plate umpire, Marty Springstead, would have thrown him out of the game if he hadn’t been warned in advance of the Bird’s antics. “He’s a strange boy,” Springstead remarked.

This victory brought the Tigers record to a respectable 13-11. In typical fashion, they would go on to lose six straight and twelve of the next fifteen.

But Fidrych, at least, was the real thing. He lost his next game, but then took seven straight. In his third start, he got a thrill fanning the great Hank Aaron en route to an 11-inning complete-game victory over the Brewers. Five days later, Fidrych bested Bert Blyleven in Texas - again an 11-inning complete game! - before a sellout crowd in Arlington, eager to see Bert over the Bird in a contest that sounds like it was sponsored by Sesame Street. In his next start, Fidrych out-dueled Nolan Ryan in the prime of his career, then shut down the mighty Royals, and in his next outing beat the Twins in front of barely 12,000. All but the last were complete game victories, without a break in the five-man rotation.

By now, Fidrych was gaining momentum. After The Bird took his seventh victory in a rematch against the Red Sox, he appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and People, and was named to start the All-Star Game. By now he was a national phenomenon and ABC picked his next start against the Yankees for its signature Monday Night Baseball.

I have a DVD of that game—the first baseball game I ever watched, incidentally, and the one that sent me into a tailspin from which I haven’t recovered. To watch Fidrych today is to see a relic and a pitching style far removed from today’s game. There’s no hesitation between pitches, no walking around licking fingers or blowing in the hand, none of the nods and shakes and disagreements with his catcher. Fidrych moved fast. He would bob up and down from the crouch, yakking the whole time, before he would fire the ball in with great precision. Throw, catch, return, repeat. All in one hour, fifty-one minutes.

Fidrych won that game, too, 5-1, against a battery that included seven left-handers. Afterwards, seemingly unfazed by the fact that he just beat the first-place Yankees in front of the entire country, he asked ABC’s Bob Uecker, “Where’s my gift? Don’t I get a gift at the end of Monday Night Baseball?”

By now, Michigan was in a tizzy for The Bird, and the Tigers rode his coattails. Eight years earlier, the Tigers had won one of the greatest World Series’ ever, and in 1972 a bunch of old men squeaked out a division title, and took the mighty Oakland A’s to the fifth game of the playoffs before bowing out. The ’76 club was part of the rebuilding process, full of youngsters and a few notable veterans.

Fidrych would go on to win the Rookie-of-the-Year award and finish second in Cy Young voting, losing to Jim Palmer. His mug would grace the covers of two awful biographies (one written by Paris Review editor Tom Clark), Rolling Stone, Sport, Sports Illustrated, and would meet a number of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra. His numbers are forever burned into my memory: 19 wins and 9 losses; a painful 24 complete games (including 4 shut-outs); 2.34 ERA in spite of just 97 strikeouts (he walked 53 and gave up only a dozen homers). He led the league in ERA and complete games.

Unfortunately, those complete games probably cost The Bird his career. He wrecked his arm the next season, in what many people today believe was probably a torn rotator-cuff. Slowly, he went on to throw in 27 more games over the next four years, going 10-10. Now he’s a farmer in Massachusetts, a guy who doesn’t have much to do with baseball, eschewing Tiger events because someone has to get the work done on the farm.

And how did he like Detroit? “Great,” he said. “I haven’t been beaten up yet.”

On the Hill
Powered by Twins Geek

Friday: Zach Miner (6-2, 4.07 ERA)

  • 2005 (AAA): 7-16, 217 IP, 124 K, 4.02 ERA

  • 2006: 48.2 IP, 53 H, 30K, 15 BB, 5 HR

  • Miner is a pretty good example of what is going on with the Tigers young pitching lately. They identify the talent, develop them, and put them in a position to succeed in the majors.
  • At this time last year, he was 2-7 with the Braves AAA farm team. The Tigers acquired him in a deadline trade for Kyle Farnsworth.

  • This year with Detroit, he tightened his control, and had a 2.82 ERA in AAA when starting pitcher Mike Maroth was hurt.

  • Called up to take a spot in the rotation, he hasn’t been dominant, but he’s been pretty steady. His numbers are league average across the board, but for a fifth starter, they’re great. And the Tigers offense is getting him the “W”s.

Saturday: Nate Robertson (9-6 3.70 ERA)

  • 2005: 7-16, 196.2 IP, 122 K, 4.49 ERA

  • 2006: 129 IP, 124 H, 87 K, 42 BB, 17 HR

  • Another surprise on a team full of them. For two years Robertson has been a league average pitcher. This year the 28-year-old improved his changeup and has been considerably better than average.

  • His weakness before this year has been giving up home runs, and that much is still true.
  • He’s struggled recently. His ERA in July is 5.65.

Sunday: Jeremy Bonderman (11-4, 3.66 ERA)

  • 2005: 4-13, 189 IP, 145 K, 4.57 ERA

  • 2006: 137.2 IP, 123 H, 132 K, 38 BB, 12 HR

  • Wow. In a few years, 2006 is going to be remembered as the year so many young pitchers had breakthrough seasons. Any other year, the 23-year-old Bonderman would be drawing all kinds of attention for his dominance. This year, he’s not only overlooked nationally, but he’s not the biggest pitching story on his own team.

  • Bonderman was thrown into the fire in 2003 as a 20-year-old who started 28 games, and struggled for the next two years.

  • In May, he gave up five runs in 6.2 innings versus the Twins. The Twins won that game with a ninth inning rally.

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