Fidrych -- who also pitched for the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1982 and 1983 after being released by the Tigers -- was found by a friend yesterday afternoon under a truck he apparently had been repairing. He was only 54 years old.
Throughout that nationally televised game -- at a time when only one game per week was shown nationwide (and in Vermont, Red Sox games were shown only on weekends) -- fans watched Fidrych talk to the baseball before pitching. Before he began an inning, he got down on his hands and knees to groom the mound, smoothing out cleat marks and other imperfections. He was already a celebrity in Detroit, but after that night, Fidrych became a star.
He would ... throw back balls that "had hits in them," insisting they be removed from the game ["I want it to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls in there. Maybe it'll learn some sense and come out as a pop-up next time."]. ... Every time he pitched, Tiger Stadium was jam-packed with adoring fans who became known as "Bird Watchers". In his 18 appearances, attendance equalled almost half of the entire season's 81 home games. Teams started asking Detroit to change its pitching rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks [He started on only three days rest 13 times in 1976] ...
Fidrych finished the 1976 season with 19 wins. He led the American League in ERA (2.34), ERA+ (158) and complete games (24). He had the 3rd lowest WHIP (1.079) and 5th lowest walks per nine innings (1.9). He started the All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Year, finished 2nd for the Cy Young Award and 11th in the MVP voting.
Fidrych tore cartilage in his knee during spring training the following year and made only 11 starts (from May 27 and July 12). He also tore his rotator cuff (though it went undiagnosed at the time) and pitched only three times in 1978, all in April.
Take a look at Fidrych's game log for 1976 and you'll see one of the clearest examples of a manager abusing a young pitching talent -- Fidrych was only 21 (he turned 22 that August) -- and quite possibly ruining his career.
The Bird completed 24 of his 29 starts and threw a whopping 250.1 innings. Manager Ralph Houk had Fidrych throw back-to-back 11-inning complete games on May 31 and June 5. He pitched at least nine innings in 23 of those 29 starts.
9, 8, 11, 11, 9, 9, 7.1, 9, 9, 9, 9, 11, 9, 4.1, 9,He faced at least 34 batters -- nearly four times through the lineup -- in 17 of his 29 starts. B-Ref does not have pitch counts for these games, but I swear I read somewhere that games of 130-150 pitches were common. (If anyone has any info, let me know.)
7, 9, 9, 9, 10, 9, 11.1, 3.2, 9, 9, 2.2, 9, 9, 9
Out of Left Field:
Fidrych was also kind of a poster child for the abuse of young arms. The double edge of his runaway success was that the Detroit Tigers allowed a pitcher just two years out of high school to throw 24 complete games — a career for some pitchers — in 29 starts, including five extra-inning games. Using Tom Tango's pitch count estimator, one can guesstimate that Fidrych had several games where he threw 150 to 175 pitches. For instance, in his fourth career start, he pitched an 11-inning, 5-4 win, with four bases on balls; he probably threw in the area of 176 pitches.BP's Will Carroll (my emphasis):
If a dude stood on the mound and talked to the ball today, I think they'd gently remove him from the mound, cut to an ad for Effexor, and then take him to the showers where they'd all beat him with sanitary socks filled with gravel. Of course, that would have been a good thing to do to Ralph Houk, the manager that sent a 21 year old rookie out for 250 innings in just 29 starts. While we don't have pitch counts for these games, he only had three starts where he faced less than 25 batters. ... His arm turned to mush ...In my mind, the other prime example of the unnecessary abuse of a young pitcher's arm is Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman's mismanagement of Kerry Wood in 1998.
In both cases, it seemed like the Tigers and Cubs worked Fidrych and Wood as much as possible, squeezing as much out of them as they could, and not giving a damn about any future consequences. For the major league club, after all, there's always another young arm right around the corner. And what could Fidrych or Wood do -- complain about pitching too many innings? It's an crucial aspect of the game that is almost always forgotten when fans and media gripe about excessive players' salaries.