October 1st of 1980 wasn't a particularly special day in Blue Jays history. It was the final home game of the regular season at old Exhibition Stadium. The Jays were days away from wrapping up a 67-95 season. On this day, there were but 12,426 fans in the stands to watch the culmination of a fifth straight losing season.
The fans on hand probably didn't even realize they were witnessing something special, something unique. Not the final score. Detroit out slugged the Blue Jays 11-7. So what was it about this game? Well it was the final start of the incredible, yet semi tragic career of Mark Fidrych.
On this day the man-child they called the "Bird" went five innings giving up five runs, four of those earned. The Jays effectively ended his day by scoring four runs in the fifth. Ernie Whitt keying the rally with a three run homer, the last "Round Tripper" Fidrych would ever surrender. Fidrych gutted it out through that fifth inning and managed to get the win, to finish his season at (2-3). The starter for the Blue Jays that day was a 23-year-old Dave Stieb. He got torched for seven hits and six earned runs in just 2 1/3 innings and took the loss to fall to (12-15). Greatness was yet to come for Stieb who was in just his second season in the Majors, his first full campaign. For Fidrych, we were just left with memories and the lingering question of how great he might have been.
Flash back to May 15th of 1976. The Tigers were home to Cleveland. Their scheduled starter that day had the flu. The manager, Ralph Houk "the Major" of Yankees fame, handed the ball to a 21-year-old long lanky right hander, who reminded a minor league coach of his at Lakeland of the legendary Sesame Street character "Big Bird". All
Fidrych did was pitch a complete game two-hitter as he out-dueled Cleveland's Pat Dobson in a 2-1 Tigers victory. There were 14,583 people on hand for the game. Remember that number.
There were some great Blue Jays and Canadian baseball connections in that game.
Rusty Staub was in right field for Detroit. Alan Ashby, a Blue Jay a year later was catching for Cleveland and the two DH's - the Tigers Willie Horton and the Indians Rico Carty - played with the Jays as well. For Fidrych this was only the beginning of one of most magical seasons in baseball history.
After losing his next start at Fenway in yet another complete game, 2-0 to the great Luis Tiant, Fidrych would go on to reel off seven straight victories He was more than just a pitcher though, he was a fun loving unassuming kid who just loved playing the game. He would talk to the ball and carefully groom the mound before every inning. He caught the baseball world by storm. Fidrych appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice and was the first athlete ever to appear on the cover of "Rolling Stone" Magazine.
In his first 13 starts, Fidrych worked an unbelievable 120 1/3 innings. If you do the math, that's over nine innings per start. How is that possible? Well three times over that span Houk let him go 11 innings.
On June the 28th, he was featured in a Monday Night baseball national telecast, Fidrych beat the Yankees 5-1 in just an hour and 51 minutes. Fidrych would go on to start the All-Star game for the American League in his 12th Major League start.
He would go on to finish the season at (19-9) for Detroit with a 2.34 ERA. But it was some of his other numbers that were truly astounding. Fidrych made 29 starts from mid-May till the end of the season. He pitched 24 complete games including four shutouts and pitched 250 1/3 innings. Pitchers today are proud just to hit 200 innings. On May 31st, he pitched a game that lasted one hour and 48 minutes. Then in his next start, he bested that taking just one hour and 46 minutes.
Another unusual thing about Fidrych was he had his own personal catcher. He was 24- year-old Bruce Kimm, a rookie who played his first game with the Tigers just two weeks before Fidrych made his first start. They worked so well together in that first start Houk kept them as a battery all season. I don't know if that would ever happen today.
As great as he was for Detroit that season, the Tigers still finished up the track at 74-87. Somehow, though he was voted Rookie of the Year, he didn't win the Cy Young too. That honour went to the Orioles' Jim Palmer.
But Fidrych's success on the diamond would be short lived. He injured his knee in the spring of 1977, and later in that season damaged his shoulder. Times being what they were, and medical advances in the treatment of arm injuries were still in their infancy, it wasn't discovered till 1985 that the "Bird" had a damaged rotator cuff. He finished his career with a (29-19) record and 3.10 ERA and 34 complete games in just 58 starts.
This is the really incredible number. When Roger Clemens, one of the All-time greats pitched for the Blue Jays in 1997 and 1998, attendance barely increased on days he was on the mound at Rogers Centre. Yet in 1976, a year in which the Tigers drew 1,467,020 fans, more than half of that number showed up for the 18 games Fidrych pitched in. That is incredible.
So if you were one of the few who were at Exhibition Stadium on Oct. 1, 1980 consider yourself lucky. You saw the final appearance of one of the most unique talents and colourful characters the baseball world has ever seen.