Mickey Lolich, Hal Newhouser, Denny McClain or most anyone else that predates my parents marriage are interesting, Hall of Fame worthy Tigers whose contributions led to World Series titles, but I can’t connect with them.
Jack Morris was great, but there’s so much debate surrounding him that it’s hard for me to see the forest for the trees. David Wells, Jose Lima, and Justin Thompson didn’t pitch long enough for the Tigers to make an indelible impression for me. The Mike Maroths, Nate Robertsons, Jeremy Bondermans, and every other pitcher that languished with the deplorable pre-Dave Dombrowski Tigers were just overshadowed with horrible teams. As for Justin Verlander, a pitcher I’ve followed since Old Dominion? Well…the inner hipster in me can’t tolerate how popular he is with everyone else (yes yes yes, I’m horrible, I know this).
Frank Tanana was my boy for a long time. He was once a strikeout artist, a power pitcher paired with Nolan Ryan in California whose combined efforts birthed the slogan, “Tanana and Ryan have batters cryin’.” An arm injury in 1977 sapped the strength from his golden left arm, and prohibited him from throwing a fastball that once touched over 100 mph. A product of Catholic Central in Redford, he was traded to his hometown Tigers in 1985 and remained there until 1992.
Personally, he was a guy who blew my mind because I would see him in everyday life: his daughters went to my high school and he would show up at school functions or to pick them up. He was a heck of a nice guy and whenever he’d participate in the dunk tank crowds would gather to watch him throw. Still, Tanana doesn’t have the mystique of Mark Fidrych.
Fidrych was an afterthought as a 10th-round selection in 1974, but showed promise in the minor leagues as he improved with every level. In 1976 he was a non-roster player who capitalized on a teammate’s bout with the flu and turned in a season in which he won the AL Rookie of the Year and SHOULD have won the AL Cy Young*.
He captivated a nation that season not just because of his dominance on the mound, but also for his demeanor on and off the mound: he was this goofy dude that you wanted to have a beer with. His eccentricities while pitching – talking to the ball, grooming the dirt, nonsensical gyrations, and my personal favorite of discarding balls that he believed “had hits in them” – at first appeared stand offish to opposing teams, but then he won them over with his sincerity. Heck, just watch this video and tell me that he isn’t one of the most genuine athletes you’ve seen:
One of my earliest memories of hearing about Fidrych came from my mom, who told how she once saw George Brett in the outfield during practice before a game against the Tigers, and he mimicked the Bird’s proclivity of talking to the baseball, complete with finger wagging and nods. No doubt Fidrych heard of it and took it in stride.
But then, as quick as it all began, it ended.
During spring training with Detroit in 1977 he tore cartilage in his knee and went on the disabled list until May 24. He still managed to lower his FIP from the previous season (from 3.15 to 2.50) and his walk rate (1.91 to 1.33), but by adjusting his motion to compensate for his knee pain he ended up tearing something in his shoulder and hitting the DL for the rest of the season. It ended up being a torn rotator cuff that wasn’t properly diagnosed until 1985(!!) when Dr. James Andrews (yes, that one) discovered it and repaired it.
He tried multiple comebacks, but without the proper help for his misdiagnosed shoulder he couldn’t recapture the magic he once had. He was given an outright release from the Tigers in 1981, and signed on with his hometown Boston Red Sox, toiling in their minor league affiliate Pawtucket for two more seasons. He was forced to retire at age 29.
Fidrych remained beloved by the Tigers fan base for years and years after that. My family was blessed enough to attend the final game at Tiger Stadium on September 27th, 1999, and at the conclusion of the game former Tigers paraded out from the bullpen. When Fidrych burst from the gate, in a full sprint no less, the ball park exploded for him. He ran all the way to the pitchers mound, pulled out a plastic bag, and filled it with dirt. He stood, doffed his cap, and the cacophony reached another decibel. I looked to my dad at that moment, and his eyes were glassy with tears. I realized then that mine were too, and I became fascinated by this man who was still so loved by a fan base after such a short tenure.
His story doesn’t have a happy ending, though: Fidrych remained out of the public’s eye upon his retirement, occasionally emerging when the Tigers achieved success, or at the occasional honoring of his career. For the most part he lived on his farm with his wife Ann, and did the usual farmer’s work and was contracted for hauling gravel or asphalt in his enormous truck. It was that very same 10-wheel truck that took his life. Per ESPN:
According to the Worcester District Attorney’s office, a family friend found Fidrych dead beneath his ten-wheel dump truck at his Northborough home around 2:30 p.m, April 13, 2009. He appeared to have been working on the truck at the time of the accident. Authorities said Fidrych suffocated after his clothes had become entangled with a spinning power takeoff shaft on the truck he was working on. The state medical examiner’s office ruled the death an accident, according to a release from the Worcester District Attorney’s office. “He appeared to have been working on the truck when his clothes became tangled in the truck’s power takeoff shaft,” District Attorney Joseph Early, Jr. said in a statement.
Joseph Amorello, owner of a road construction company who had occasionally hired Fidrych to haul gravel or asphalt, stopped by the farm to chat with him when he found the body underneath the dump truck. “We were just, in general, getting started for the [road-building] season this week and it seems as though his truck was going to be needed. It looked like he was doing some maintenance on it,” Amorello said in a telephone interview. “I found him under the truck. There’s not much more I can say. I dialed 911 and that’s all I could do.
He has gained mythical status since then, and his ferocious love of the game has had a profound affect on me. I collect his cards, wear his jersy, and I want to care about baseball with the same endearing, goofy passion that he did. I can’t think of a better pitcher to admire. *Seriously, Fidrych being robbed of the Cy in ’76 by Jim Palmer was almost as bad as Bartolo Colon winning over Johan Santana in 2005 (notice a Mr. Frank Tanana in third place!):
|Rank||Tm||Vote Pts||1st Place||Share||WAR||W||L||W-L%||ERA||G||GS||GF||CG||SHO||SV||IP||H||R||ER||HR||BB||IBB||SO||HBP||BK||WP||BF||WHIP||ERA+|
Fidrych also led the majors in ERA+ (159), pitching WAR (9.6), and Adjusted Pitching Wins (4.0). It’s cool though; Palmer had three more wins, two more shutouts, and had a WHIP 0.003 better. Ugh.