25 Baseball Players Who Spawned Tebow-Like Fanaticism
I bet you already have an opinion one way or the other about the young Denver Broncos quarterback. America has certainly fallen in love with him by and large, and honestly, when your last name is turned into a verb, you know that you have become huge.
However, falling in love with great personalities or great stories is definitely not unheard of. Granted, I do not know many other athletes who have been turned into a verb, but I do know that Major League Baseball has had its share of sensational fan favorites.
In fact, I am going to share 25 of these extremely popular stories with you right now. Enjoy!
It would be hard to find a baseball player who burst onto the scene as quickly as Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. As a 21-year-old rookie in 1976, he went 19-9 with an insanely low 2.34 ERA. These exploits led to a place on the All-Star team, the Rookie of the Year award and the runner-up for the Cy Young Award.
Lynn Henning of The Detroit News described what Fidrych meant to Detroit in a tribute article written in 2009.
Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych was a Detroit Tigers baseball icon so unique as to defy explanation to those who were not part of the Bird mania that gripped a town and a nation 33 years ago.
Listen to him describe his own antics in this video from Fox Sports. His quirky personality combined with his overwhelming success made him a fan favorite all over America in 1976.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Ichiro made Japanese baseball cool. There had been Japanese baseball players in America before, but Ichiro showed that Japanese players can be among the best in the circuit.
He burst onto the scene in 2001 and just started hitting. In fact, he posted a .350 batting average that season. Ever since, he has been beloved in Seattle and around the country.
In 2005, he was only the eighth player ever honored with the Historic Achievement Award. The main reason he received that award was because he broke George Sisler's record for most hits in a single season when he posted 262 in 2004.
He has become one of the most well-known players in Major League Baseball and has opened the door for many other Japanese players to come to America.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
It's Lima time!
Jose Lima may not have had long-lasting success on the mound, but he definitely had some dominant seasons and a larger-than-life personality that won over his supporters.
He was ultimately a highly passionate individual, and this passion could not be missed. For more stories as to the type of player that Lima was, you should definitely check out this article on MLB.com by Bailey Stephens.
If you don't want to read that much, here is the essence of Jose Lima, as expressed in that article by Tal Smith, the Houston Astros president of baseball operations when Lima tragically passed away a few years ago.
Jose was one of the memorable and will be one of the most unforgettable characters we ever had that played for the Astros. He just had a great flair and enthusiasm for life and for pitching and singing and dancing. He was a great performer, and for two years, he was a very successful pitcher.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ken Griffey Jr. was arguably the biggest star in Major League Baseball throughout the 1990s. His powerful bat, acrobatic catches and legitimate five-tool performance made him a superstar.
The fans started to love "The Kid." In fact, he was so popular that he ended up with a series of video games named after him. I know that some of you might think that this is commercialism at its worst, but very few athletes can say that a video game title was named after them.
He ended his career with 630 home runs, 13 All-Star game appearances and an MVP award to his credit. He helped to define an era of Major League Baseball, and he was definitely a fan favorite.
Sure, Reggie Jackson probably would not be compared to Tim Tebow in very many articles. Tebow seems to be all about the team whereas Jackson was essentially all about Jackson. However, they were both immensely popular because of their ability to come through in the clutch, and both of them met tremendous public support because of it.
Although he had a Hall of Fame caliber career, Jackson is, of course, most well known as "Mr. October." The nickname came about in 1977, when, as a member of the New York Yankees, Jackson hit five home runs in the World Series. Nobody has ever surpassed that type of success in any World Series since, although Chase Utley tied that mark in 2009 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Despite his outbursts, the fans loved him. Even after he left the New York Yankees, the Yankee faithful still chanted in support of him even as a California Angel. Mr. October is still a legend today.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is the second Japanese player on this list for one huge reason. The gyroball. The mystical pitch was supposedly Matsuzaka's secret weapon that everyone wanted to see. On the left of this article is footage of what a gyroball supposedly looks like, although some people argue that it really is nothing special.
When you combine this mystical pitch with the fact that Matsuzaka had a ton of success in Japan, people got very excited to see him come to the Boston Red Sox. Although his career hasn't quite lived up to the hype that he originally generated, he did have two very solid years and won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2007.
No matter what happens with the rest of his career, people will still probably dispute whether or not he really can throw a gyroball. Can he?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The kid hasn't even taken one swing in a Washington Nationals uniform, but Bryce Harper is already being heralded as the next huge star in Major League Baseball. As a 16-year-old, he was highlighted in Sports Illustrated as "Chosen One." He has a powerful swing and arguably as much potential as any baseball player in recent history.
Because of that, there has been a ton of hype around his imminent debut this spring. Will he be as good as everyone says he should be? Will he ever end up showing all of the potential? These questions obviously cannot be answered until we see the real deal.
People are excited about him, and he has breathed new life into a Nationals fanbase that is looking for a contender in 2012.
Why would I be including a solid, yet often under-appreciated, middle-aged starting pitcher like Randy Wolf in an article like this? Well, Tim Tebow has some of the most passionate fans and supporters around, and any Philadelphia Phillies fan will remember the famous Wolf Pack.
The Wolf Pack became a Philadelphia staple. Whenever Wolf would come to the mound, they would don wolf masks to sit in the upper deck and cheer on their favorite pitcher. They are featured at points during this video that I have attached here.
Randy Wolf, apparently, motivated a group of fans to get behind him and get excited. Although Tebow did this on a much bigger scale, I think the passionate fans are still there.
How can this list be complete without Fernando Valenzuela? According to biography.com, "Fernandomania" increased attendance by approximately 9,000 people whenever he pitched on the road.
Valenzuela didn't waste any time when he arrived in the major leagues, winning both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in 1981. He won 173 games in his career, and he essentially became one of the greatest heroes in Mexican baseball history.
"Fernandomania" and "Tebowmania" share many characteristics. They both demonstrate what early career success can do for a player's popularity. Everybody loves the young hotshot that bursts onto the scene.
Babe Ruth essentially brought baseball into a new era. He was definitely one of the best players of his era, and he was one of the best power hitters of all time. In 1920, according to this article from ESPN, his individual total of 54 home runs was more than all but one team in Major League Baseball. No other individual player had more than 19.
Of course, even though he was not exactly an ideal role model for young athletes, his teammate in Boston, Harry Hooper, said the following of Ruth, which is quoted from the same article I cited above:
This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over—a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since.
That is pretty high praise and pretty indicative of his fame around America.
Michael Nagle/Getty Images
Willie Mays was one of the most exciting baseball players to ever play the game. He virtually did everything that a center fielder was supposed to on the diamond. In an era dominated by center fielders, the “Say Hey Kid” stood out among all the rest.
Because of the advent of television, Mays became more and more popular. People around the country could finally see him play his game. Here is an excerpt from the book Willie Mays by James S. Hirsch, which was printed in the New York Times.
Mays was an unlikely celebrity, but he flourished in an increasingly intense media culture. He appeared on television variety shows, talk shows, sitcoms, and in documentaries—timid, to be sure, but also handsome, respectful, and self-deprecating. Magazines splashed him on their covers while recording artists celebrated him in song, screenwriters immortalized him in films, and cartoonists grandly etched him in print. He was the game's first true international star, playing before huge crowds from Mexico to Venezuela to Japan in winter league games or exhibitions.
Tune to 3:05
Joe DiMaggio is definitely best known for his 56-game hitting streak. Whenever another hitting streak reaches about 30 games, DiMaggio returns to our consciousness. He holds a record that has always been pursued but never seriously challenged.
"The Yankee Clipper" was one of the most beloved players in franchise history and is legitimately a piece of Americana. Besides playing the National Pastime, he dove even deeper into popular culture by marrying Marilyn Monroe. Even though that marriage didn't work out so well, people were still crazy about it at first. He truly was one of the most popular men of his time.
People loved him so much that he has been entrenched in culture ever since. He has been referenced in movies, music (like the song on the left) and artwork. I don't think it would be possible to forget "Joltin' Joe."
Michael Jordan definitely belongs in the gym. However, when he quit basketball to pursue baseball, a media circus ensued. Whenever the best player in one sport decides all of a sudden to quit that sport and pick up another one, heads turn.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, baseball did not work out as well for Jordan as basketball did. He struggled mightily in the minor leagues. Despite his lack of production, he still had fans. Even though people were mad at him for leaving basketball, he was so incredibly popular.
Part of what reinforced that image was the dedication that had always defined him. Michael Jordan did not settle for second best. The sentiment is best summed up by Scott Collins of the Los Angeles Times.
He practiced ferociously in the batting cage, however, and his dedication and charm won over many skeptics, including teammates who had previously resented him as a celebrity interloper.
People admired Michael Jordan's hard work just like they admire Tim Tebow's. However, Tebow has had much more success in football than Jordan had in baseball.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
If you want to talk about overcoming adversity, Josh Hamilton is your man. Hamilton was blessed with a world of talent, but substance abuse almost knocked him out of baseball for good. However, he was able to turn his career around and eventually develop into the All-Star outfielder we know and love today.
The reason he became so popular is because he is a symbol for many people who want—or want their loved ones—to overcome the same types of problems that Hamilton faced. He showed that there is hope, and he also demonstrated the value of persistence. He could have easily given up, but he didn't. People love that type of story.
Often times, Mickey Mantle was the big man in New York. In fact, he was one of the best Major League Baseball players in history. He legitimately possessed all five tools, and he paired with Roger Maris to form one of the most powerful duos in history.
Again, like Hamilton, people could identify with Mantle. He had flaws, but he kept producing on the field. Bob Costas was quoted as saying the following about Mantle in an article on ESPN.
He was a presence in our lives—a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic.
Powerful and vulnerable all at once. "The Mick" was truly one of the greatest baseball players in history.
Lou Gehrig was a run producer if there ever was one. In the 2,164 games he played in, he drove in 1,995 runs. It is pretty ridiculous that he almost averaged one RBI per game over his entire career. He was one of the most fearsome hitters that ever lived.
However, he became even more popular after his retirement. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis took its toll on "The Iron Horse," and it forced him to retire from Major League Baseball at the age of 36.
Nevertheless, his legacy as one of the most beloved baseball players in history was cemented by his speech on July 4, 1939, when he said: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
No one will ever forget the contributions that this great man made to baseball.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. His courage and obvious talent are legendary, and he has been greatly praised for both of them.
Robinson was an exciting player to watch, but obviously, his legacy goes far beyond that. He will never be forgotten for many reasons, but one of the most obvious is that his No. 42 is retired in every stadium. Nobody will ever be able to wear that number again, and it will be inevitably intertwined with him forever.
He was a champion, and he definitely deserved the following he garnered.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Dontrelle Willis is similar to Tim Tebow in that he burst onto the scene and had immediate success by helping the Florida Marlins win the World Series. His fans gathered around the "D-Train" and his extraordinarily unorthodox delivery.
Like many athletes on this list, Willis came into the major leagues and immediately made an impact. Although it took Tebow an extra season, this is a similar situation.
Although Willis did have a bit of a drop in production for a few years, he is trying to complete a comeback, and he actually appeared to be emerging as a left-handed specialist. We will see if he continues this trend in Philadelphia in 2012.
Ozzie Smith was a Hall of Fame shortstop with flair. Whether he was flashing the leather en route to winning one of his 13 consecutive Gold Gloves, or producing one of his signature back flips, "The Wizard of Oz" will be remembered as one of the most beloved St. Louis Cardinals of all time.
According to the St. Louis Cardinals website, Smith also became "one of the city's most popular citizens." He was a class act as well as a Hall of Fame player, and because of that, people loved him. In fact, also according to the St. Louis Cardinals website mentioned above, when Smith retired in 1996, he received more All-Star fan votes than any player in National League history.
Very few shortstops could handle the glove like he could, and that definitely earned him a loyal fan following.
Sandy Koufax may have only been in Major League Baseball for 12 seasons, but no pitcher has ever been as dominant as he was, especially for the last six years of his tenure. Over that time, he won 119 games. Also, his highest ERA was 3.52, and his lowest win total was for that time period was 14. To say that those were his worst numbers is pretty scary, to say the least.
As noted by David Dalin at CBS Sports, Koufax inspired many American Jews by demonstrating that his faith was important to him.
Koufax achieved, as Jane Leavy put it, 'another kind of perfection by refusing to pitch the opening game of the World Series because it fell on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur.' By refusing to pitch, 'Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above craft.' Like Hank Greenberg's similar decision 31 years earlier, this became a defining moment for a new generation of American Jews, and a source of inspiration for Jewish baseball fans.
Koufax dominated an era, and he remains among the best pitchers of all time.
Satchel Paige was arguably the best pitcher to ever come out of the Negro Leagues. Although hard stats are not necessarily available, according to negroleaguebaseball.com, Paige is generally believed to have thrown over 300 shutouts over his career.
Of course, Paige was a showman, and there were times where he would simply tell his outfield to take a break because he didn't need them. Although these are also incomplete records, Paige is also generally credited with 1,500 victories over his entire career, according to the same source as above.
His wild success obviously won him a lot of fans. He was one of the most popular barnstorming players of all time, and he was the first player from the Negro Leagues to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He definitely accumulated quite a following as he simply dominated from the mound.
When Hank Aaron was pursuing Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, obviously, people were interested. His career was virtually a flat line. I don't mean that in a negative way, but rather I mean that he performed at virtually the same level for an incredibly long time.
He never hit more than 47 home runs in any individual season, but he averaged 37 per year over his career. That is what I mean by a flat line. He was incredibly steady.
America waited on the edge of its collective seat while Aaron chased history, so I think that he definitely deserves a place on this list.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Since we were speaking about chasing history, Barry Bonds generated a ton of fans as he pursued Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. Of course, since that time, people have become much more critical of Bonds, but I still think that he sent America into a frenzy as he hit home run after home run.
Of course, he didn't only break Hank Aaron's career home run record, but he also broke Mark McGwire's single-season home run record of 70 with 73 of his own. He simply never stopped performing, as he acquired seven MVP awards and ended his career with 762 home runs.
Of course, even though he has come under much more scrutiny, his pursuit of history created quite a few fanatics around the country.
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa
I had to put Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa together because of the great summer of 1998. Sure, both of these athletes had their own individual followers and fans, but I think that the competition between the two to shatter Roger Maris' record created a greater frenzy than either one would have individually.
In 1998, these two men were hitting home runs like nobody ever had before. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, but he had not been equaled until these two men blew by him.
McGwire ended the season with 70 home runs, and Sosa ended with 66. I remember my own personal excitement about this chase. I was only seven years old at the time, but I remember tracking the progress of both of these athletes every morning on TV. It was a national event.
Again, they both have seen their controversies, but over that summer, America was in a frenzy because of them.
I know I have brought up the name of Roger Maris throughout this slideshow quite a bit. However, I saved him for last because of his resemblance to Tim Tebow.
I am definitely not talking about physical appearances. Rather, Maris kept hitting home runs just like Tebow kept winning. Many people said that he would eventually be surpassed by Mickey Mantle and rooted against him in the same way that many people said that Tebow didn't have the skills to continue winning as much as he did.
However, both of them put together very impressive seasons. In particular, Roger Maris set the single-season home run record, whereas Tim Tebow made the playoffs.
Even though a substantial piece of the frenzy tended to be negative in both of these cases, it was still a frenzy, nonetheless.