Mark Fidrych Roundtable Discussion Part I

Mark Fidrych walked off the mound at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto on October 1st, 1980 after throwing five innings against the Blue Jays. He surrendered five runs (four earned) on seven hits while walking three and striking out three. He also earned his 2nd win of the season. It wasn’t his best performance or his worst performance, but it was his last performance. Fidrych would never pitch in the big leagues again.

I recently had a virtual “roundtable discussion” with baseball authors, and Mark Fidrych specialists, Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson about The Bird, his legacy and the sad end to his career.

 How would you describe Fidrych as a cultural phenomenon to someone who didn’t experience Bird-Mania?

Epstein:

Within the context of 70s pop culture, I like to say that The Bird was cooler (and, for a year there, hotter) than Peter Frampton, Evel Knievel and the Fonz put together. It was a total “overnight sensation” thing: He was practically unknown when he made his first start for the Tigers on May 15, 1976; less than two months later, he’s the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game.

 His story and his personality resonated with people far beyond the realms of baseball fandom, to the point where even opposing teams could sell 10,000-20,000 extra seats when he took the mound for the Tigers — and wherever he pitched (but especially at Tiger Stadium), the fan reaction was so crazy and intense that it was like being at a rock concert. He was so naturally telegenic, Hollywood producers wanted him to cast him in their films, TV shows and commercials. People recorded songs about him, little leaguers wanted to pitch like him, and teenage girls across the country had his posters tacked to their walls. And best of all, he had the ability to back up all of the hype that surrounded him.

Wilson:

I talked to so many people who remembered that summer and the number one response to that question is, “You can’t describe it. You had to be there.”

I think the reason for that response is that there has never been anything close to it. People nowadays have absolutely no reference point to judge it.

You can get a little sense of it watching the youtube clip of the end of the famous Yankee game: 50,000 fans, on their feet, screaming “Bird, Bird, Bird,” the announcers struggling to come up with superlatives to describe what they were seeing, a huge smile on everyone’s face—and all for a meaningless June game played by a fifth-place team! And the thing about it was that he did that every single time out. It went on for four months. He never disappointed.

The cultural phenomenon exploded unlike anything baseball had ever had. It pulled in nonsports fans of all ages. People couldn’t get enough of the Bird. Overnight he went from an unknown quirky rookie to the most recognizable, and loved, person in the country.

Why do you think he still holds people’s interest to this day? Right place/right time or was it something inherently Fidrych that people still connect to?

Wilson:

For those who know the whole story, it still resonates because it was something totally unique and fun. It was definitely a right place/right time phenomena because the ‘70s was the perfect era for something like this. As I said in my book, if he had come up in the button-down ‘50s or the troublesome generation-gap ‘60s, he would have been popular with a lot of people, but the whole experience wouldn’t have been the same.

But I think Mark’s brilliantly unique personality would connect with anyone, anywhere. I talked to so many people who met him long before, and long after 1976 and they all loved the guy. He was just impossibly energetic, fun-loving, completely without guile or ulterior motives, and, I think, above all, one-hundred percent genuine. People respect that.

Epstein:

No one who experienced “Birdmania” will ever forget it, because it was such a magical moment in baseball history and popular culture. The joy that he radiated whenever he took the mound was absolutely infectious and completely genuine, and none of his quirky mound mannerisms — the “talking” to the ball, the grooming of the mound, the goofy celebrations after his teammates made great plays — were an “act”. They were just part of who he was.

 But I also think the fact that he never pitched another full season in the bigs has a lot to do with why Mark Fidrych continues to fascinate us. If his amazing first season had been followed by five or six solid-to-mediocre ones before his arm gave out, we likely wouldn’t care as much about him today. Even if he’d had a Vida Blue-like career, where he followed his early dominance with over a decade of sometimes great, sometimes not-so-hot seasons — and likely have some of his natural exuberance ground down in the process — I’m not sure that we’d remember him quite so fondly now.

 As it is, though, the Fidrych story is like Icarus with a baseball — he flew (or threw) too close to the sun for one brilliant season, and he paid the price for it. And that’s still compelling as all hell.

 Note:

Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson literally wrote the book(s) on Mark Fidrych.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and StrikesBig Hair and Plastic Grass, which give great insight into baseball in the 1970s. He also is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and other publications. He can be found online here and on Twitter here.

Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Mark Fidrych, Carlton Fisk, and Brooks Robinson as well as a book about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. He can be found online here.

I am extremely grateful for their cooperation on this and click here for Part II.

(Mark) Clear as Mud

Not many guys can go from getting seriously knocked around in the Appy League to becoming a Major League All-Star in less than five years, but that’s exactly what Mark Clear did.

Clear was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 8th round in 1974 and spent his first professional summer with the Pulaski Phillies of the Appalachian League. To say it didn’t go well would be a gross understatement.

The 1974 Pulaski Phillies were, to be blunt, terrible. They finished the season with an 18-50 record, led the league in errors and passed balls and their team E.R.A. was 6.07, nearly a run-and-a-half higher than the next closest team.

The manager of this crew was a man named Frank Wren, who had recently left a very successful career as a college coach at Ohio University, where he had helped Mike Schmidt become an All-American. He had to be wondering what he had gotten himself into.

A Clear Problem

If the Pulaski had the worst pitching staff in the Appy League that season, Mark Clear was one of the reasons why. In fourteen appearances, Clear went 0-7 with an 8.65 ERA. He gave up 69 runs (49 earned) in 51 innings while allowing 71 hits, 43 walks and hitting 11 batters. He also threw six wild pitches. He was just 18 at the time, but it wasn’t a great way to begin your professional baseball career. The Phillies felt so too, and on April 2nd, 1975, less than a year after he was drafted, they released him.

Like a Phoenix

Mark ClearBut the California Angels saw something they thought they could work with, signed Clear as a free-agent in June and moved him to the bullpen. It worked. In the rookie Pioneer League, Mark Clear shaved more the six runs off his E.R.A. in 13 appearances. There were still a few rough patches on his ascent, but on April 4th, 1979, four years and two days after being released by the Phillies, Clear made his major league debut and threw two and one-third scoreless innings against the Seattle Mariners. Four days later, he got his first win. He would win eleven games in 1979, make the All-Star team, and finish third in the Rookie of the Year balloting behind John Castino and Alfredo Griffin.

Eleven Seasons

Mark Clear ended up spending eleven seasons in the major leagues with California, Boston and Milwaukee, compiling a 71-49 record and winning a career-high 14 games with the Red Sox in 1982. He’s a reminder to athletes to never give up and a reminder to teams not to give up too soon on athletes.

 

 

Cecil Cooper and the Forgotten Summer of 1980

Like the character in the movie Airplane!, who picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Cecil Cooper picked the wrong season to have a career year.

Like Jan exclaiming, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” on The Brady Bunch, Cooper was well within his rights to exclaim, “Brett, Brett, Brett!” That’s what happens when you have the best season of your career in the same summer someone else has one of the best seasons ever.

Overshadowed

Cecil Cooper
Coop got not respect

George Brett’s 1980 season was simply amazing, but Cecil Cooper put up numbers that likely would have won him the MVP in any other year. While Brett, and some of his teammates, were complaining about all the attention he was getting, Cooper was getting frustrated by the lack of attention he was getting.

“It’s my tough luck that the man’s having a hellacious year,” Cooper said. “But what can I do? All I can do is go out there and keep doing what I’m doing.”

What he was doing was very impressive. On September 1st, while newspapers across the country were running daily updates on Brett’s chase for .400, Cooper was quietly batting .359. The Royals hosted the Brewers for a three-game series at the beginning of the month and Cooper outhit Brett, going 5-12 in a Brewers sweep while Brett went 3-9. But the numbers that mattered were the batting averages and Brett finished the series at .401 to Cooper’s .360.

What Does a Guy Have to Do?

Cooper wasn’t bitter, nor was he jealous. “I wish George every ounce of luck,” he said. “The guy is hitting more than .400 and that’s terrific.” It just seemed that no matter what he did, George Brett was the story.

“I read the paper, ‘Ah, Coop got two hits and it’s no big deal,” he said. “As if to say I’m supposed to do that, I’m expected to do that. It just seems like nobody gives a (bleep), you know?”

“I’m not complaining. I’m obligated to go out and play, but it does bother me a bit. I mean, if I was in L.A. and having this kind of year, I’d be a celebrity. But then maybe I couldn’t handle that either. As long as my teammates and the fans here know what kind of year I’m having, I have to take satisfaction in that and keep doing my job.”

The Final Tally

Cecil CooperCecil Cooper finished the 1980 season with a .352 batting average, good for 2nd overall in the major leagues. He was 2nd in hits (219) and total bases (335). He led the big leagues in RBI with 122, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. His .352 average would have been tops in the major leagues in 12 of the previous 20 seasons. He finished 5th in the A.L. MVP voting.

“If I put the stats together, it’ll come,” he said. “It might come two years later than you expect it, but it’ll come.”

 

Wild One at the Vet

Sometimes mistakes can work in your favor. That was certainly the case for Tommy Lasorda and the L.A. Dodgers when they took on the Phillies at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on May 4th, 1980.

Prior to the game, Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton took the lineup care to home plate and handed it to umpire Paul Pryor. There was just one problem.  Bench coach Monty Basgall had two different versions of the lineup. He handed one to Sutton, but posted the other on the wall of the Dodgers dugout. Then the fun began.

Eventful 1st Inning

Davey Lopes led off with a single off Phillies starter Randy Lerch and Rudy Law reached on an error by 2nd baseman Luis Aguayo. Two batters later, Steve Garvey was up when Pete Rose noticed something was amiss. The lineup posted in the Dodgers dugout had Dusty Baker up after Garvey, while the one given to the umpires (and the Phillies) had Ron Cey as the next batter.

Rose noticed the Dodgers were out of order

“I’m out there on first and I see Baker on deck,” said Rose. “I said to (first base umpire John) McSherry, ‘They’re batting out of order. What do I do?’ He said, ‘Wait ’til he makes an out or something.”

So that’s what Pete did. Garvey singled to score Lopes and give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead and when Baker strode to the plate, he hit a ground ball to Aguayo for what looked to be an inning-ending double play. But the Phillies couldn’t turn it and Baker was safe on a fielder’s choice while Rudy Law scored the Dodgers’ second run.

“When I got to first, Pete Rose said, ‘You hit out of order,'” Baker told the media after the game. “I said, ‘Man, you’re crazy'”

But it turned out Pete was right. at least according to one of the lineup cards. Rose immediately told the Phillies dugout what had happened and the umpires were summoned. But then there was another problem. The rule book stated what happened when the batter got a hit or made an out but there was no specific mention of what happened if the batter hit into a fielder’s choice. A lengthy umpire conference ensued and the final decision was that Cey, who should have been hitting, was declared out, Law was returned to 3rd, Garvey returned to 1st and Baker was the batter. Phillies manager Dallas Green was furious.

“I didn’t make the mistake, yet I’m the one suffering the consequences,” he said. “The batter should be out because he did what he did. And the runner at second was out so he should be out. If the batter makes an out, I don’t say anything. If we turn a double play, I just let it go.”

But that’s not what happened and it was about to get even worse for Green and the Phillies. Baker stepped up to the plate to face Lerch for the second time in a row. But instead of grounding out, he hit a three-run homer.

“It was a weird game,” said Baker. “Weirdest I’ve ever been in.”

More Twists

It only got worse for the Phillies from there. The Dodgers tacked on one run in the 3rd and four more in the 6th. When the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the 6th, they trailed 9-0. But that’s when their bats came to life.

Bull got the Phillies on the board

Dodgers starter Dave Goltz was riding a scoreless streak of more than 20 innings when Del Unser singled and Mike Schmidt doubled to put runners on 2nd and 3rd. Greg Luzinski followed with a three-run homer, Bob Boone homered after that and suddenly it was 9-4. Philadelphia added three more in the 7th and two in the 8th. What was a 9-0 game was suddenly a 9-9 tie.

“I’m sitting there relaxed,” said Lasorda. “I’m feeling good. I’m winning 9-0. I’ve got a guy out there going for his 3rd straight shutout. All of a sudden I look up and I’ve used everybody on my (pitching) staff.”

Eventful 9th Inning

Green went with Dickie Noles, his 5th pitcher of the afternoon, for the 9th inning and things immediately went downhill. A Derrel Thomas single was followed by back-to-back broken-bat singles by Gary Thomasson and Garvey and a passed ball by substitute catcher Keith Moreland.  Mickey Hatcher then doubled to score Thomasson and Garvey and the Dodgers were up 12-9.

Lasorda called on Jerry Reuss, who would later throw the season’s only no-hitter, to close the game for the Dodgers. Two singles and another passed ball made it 12-10, but Reuss struck out Moreland to finally end the game.

It was a game that featured 36 players, 28 hits, 22 runs, 11 pitchers, four errors, three passed balls and two wild pitches. Just another day at the yard.