What he did: I’m a few days late on this column, so forgive me if seems passé. I’ve been wanting to write about Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, who recently came out of nowhere to lead New York on a seven-game winning streak. Athletes emerge from obscurity periodically to star, whether it’s sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe and leading the New England Patriots to Super Bowl glory or Florence Griffith-Joyner quitting a job at a bank to become a gold medal sprinter. And it’s happened before in baseball. I’m reminded of Hideo Nomo, who was a star in Japan but a little-known player stateside before coming to the majors in 1995 and propelling the Los Angeles Dodgers to the top of the National League West. There have been others like him in baseball, too.
Lin has been all the buzz the last couple of weeks online, and a few days ago, Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee Tweeted about him. Marcos (@marcosbreton) wrote:
I’m dating myself, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything in sports like Jeremy Lin since Mark “the Bird” Fidrych back in the 1970s
It’s an interesting idea, with Breton going on to note that Fidrych had similarly humble beginnings, capitalizing on a non-roster invitation to spring training in 1976 to go 19-9 and start in the All Star game. Joe Guzzardi wrote here in 2010 of seeing Fidrych pitch that year, not long after the rookie captured the public’s imagination in a 5-1 win over the Yankees on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. There are some key differences between Fidrych and Lin, most notably that Fidrych’s presence didn’t change much for the Tigers who were in a lull between having World Series-caliber teams in the late ’60s and 1980s. Still, it got me thinking about Fidrych, another player who would have benefited in an era better suited to his talents.
Era he might have thrived in: Fidrych’s numbers read like a cautionary tale against throwing young hurlers into the fray too early, with more than half of his career wins, innings, and strikeouts coming in that dazzling ’76 season. He tore his rotator cuff the following year, and while the injury wouldn’t be diagnosed until 1985, he won just 10 games his remaining four seasons. Fidrych belongs in the baseball history books with Denny McLain, Smoky Joe Wood, and other pitchers who were essentially done by 25. Wood later reinvented himself as an outfielder, and while the jury’s out on if Fidrych could have done likewise, I’d see him having a longer career debuting with a club more welcoming to young hurlers. The Atlanta Braves of the 1990s and San Francisco Giants of the past several years come to mind.
Why: It’s all too common for teams to push talented newcomers too hard, and I suppose this makes sense in that clubs have to do their best to win with the players they have. Still, I only wonder how long it will be before Lin wears down playing 38 minutes a night. Baseball’s past is littered with pitchers who perhaps wouldn’t have crashed so soon with better handling early on, from past subject and ’60s phenom Wally Bunker to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in recent years. Occasionally, guys like Bob Feller buck the trend and forge Hall of Fame careers, but these cases are few and far between. More often, young hurlers get used up before their time.
I’d like to think baseball is becoming more responsible in this regard, with writers like Tom Verducci cautioning against increasing the workloads of pitchers under the age of 25 more than 30 innings from year-to-year. And certain clubs, like the aforementioned Braves and Giants have been bastions for young hurlers, with former Atlanta stars Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz looking destined for Cooperstown and current Giant rotation anchors Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain each having a reasonable shot to be enshrined. It’s a credit in part, I think, to good coaching and to these pitchers being on teams where they weren’t the only options. Fidrych might have benefited from either of these things or from pitching today when he’d have better medical care and less of a chance to throw 250 innings his rookie season.
As it stands, Fidrych exists in baseball lore as a curiosity, a feather-haired goof who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his Sesame Street doppelganger Big Bird. Here’s hoping Lin finds more lasting success.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Cesar Cedeno, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Doug Glanville, Eddie Lopat, Elmer Flick, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, Gene Tenace, George W. Bush (as commissioner), George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack Morris, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Gibson, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Tony Phillips, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays