Mark Fidrych: Twice Gone Before His Time

Sean KennedyCorrespondent IApril 14, 2009

27 Sep 1999: Mark Fidrych waves to the crowd during the last game played at the Tiger Stadium against the Kansas City Royals in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Royals 8-2. Mandatory Credit: Ezra O. Shaw  /Allsport

Mark Fidrych put the Joy in Baseball

Baseball fans all over the country, including myself, immediately fell in love with "The Bird" in 1976. He was playful and goofy, without any hint of pretension. Fidrych put the joy in baseball; he was a big kid in a kid's game. One of the game's genuine characters, he simply captured our imaginations.

On the heels of Fred Lynn, Fidrych almost pulled off his own awards double-play; he was named Rookie of the Year and finished second to Jim Palmer in the Cy Young balloting.

Fidrych went 19-7 as a rookie, leading the league in earned-run average (2.34) and complete games (24).

For comparisons sake, Roy Halladay led the Majors with nine complete games last year. My, how the game has changed.

Halladay also led the Majors in innings, with 246. As a rookie, Fidrych threw 250 innings. That would never happen in today's game.

I don't know whether modern pitchers are any less durable or if teams are simply protecting their investments. Bullpens are notoriously dicey, and many games are lost after a manager goes to his relievers. Most teams would be better off just riding their starter through at least eight innings. Perhaps it's all about prolonging careers. Or could it be that modern pitchers simply tire earlier than their predecessors? Surely, they are more pampered; no one will ever get used to pitching nine innings and completing their starts unless given the opportunity.

The pitchers of previous eras threw numerous complete games on four-man rotations and still had lengthy, productive careers; many pitched for 20 years or more.

But no pitcher has reached double digits in complete-games since Scott Erickson had 11 for Baltimore in 1998.

From the 1920's through the mid-‘80's, 20-30 complete games a season were commonplace in baseball. No longer.

Most recently, in 1985, Bert Blyleven had 24 complete games for Cleveland and Minnesota. And in 1986 Fernando Valenzuela had 20 for the Dodgers. But no pitcher has reached 20 complete games since then, and it's likely that no one ever will again.

Fidrych was a byproduct of that bygone era, when pitchers were truly workhorses that could carry heavy loads over great distances.

But his brilliant flame burned out rather quickly; he made just 11 starts in 1977, and a combined total of just 16 over the following three seasons. His career was effectively over in 1980. Fidrych's rocketing ascent briefly scorched baseball's atmosphere before quickly coming back to earth.

However, it wasn't the result of overuse. Fidrych tore knee cartilage while chasing fly balls in the outfield during Spring Training in 1977 and was placed on the disabled list. He sustained a serious shoulder injury that July while compensating for the knee problem. Sadly, he never fully recovered. Fidrych won just 10 big league games after his remarkable rookie year.

Even more sadly, his life, like his career, ultimately proved to be far too short.

He will be missed by many.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.