Tom Veryzer was, according to a story that I can’t seem to lift from the haze of the apocryphal, a measuring stick of inconsequentiality. Have you heard this story? It’s of the Bird, Mark Fidrych, who died too soon a year ago today (the Huffington Post has more of my Bird-mourning today). In the story, Fidrych showed up early to Tiger Stadium for a game he was due to pitch during his wondrous one and only healthy season of 1976. Fidrych was amazed by the crowds already present outside the stadium, waiting to get in. According to the story, someone, either Tom Veryzer or some other buddy of the wide-eyed rookie sensation, slapped Fidrych on the back and said, “They’re not here to see Tom Veryzer.”
I searched the Internet for this story and found it only on a couple of blog posts, and neither post listed a source for the story. I revisited a video feature of Fidrych in the early 1980s on youtube, thinking maybe he mentioned it there, but it didn’t turn up. I read a long 1986 Sports Illustrated article by the great sportswriter Gary Smith, who depicts Fidrych as somewhat adrift and rueful about being cast out so abruptly of the wonderful dream that was 1976, but the story wasn’t in that article either. So, in essence, at least as of this moment, Tom Veryzer exists in my mind as a footnote used to define inconsequentiality in a conversational exchange that may not have ever happened.
But while the throng in Detroit may not have come to the ballpark to see a light-hitting shortstop who would soon be shipped to Cleveland to make room for Alan Trammell, I come to these cards to see Tom Veryzer. I come to see every player that ever arrived in my hands as a kid and seemed, by their very presence in the cardboard, to be something better and more lasting than the flimsy uncertainties of everyday life. And while a certain sunny and powerful glow comes off the cards of superstars, the cards of guys like Tom Veryzer exert a quieter but somehow stronger pull on me. You have to lean close to hear what the cards of guys like Tom Veryzer are saying, and that’s when they grab you and don’t let go. To say Tom Veryzer is inconsequential is to say that this life is inconsequential.
One man who would never have made either claim, about life or Tom Veryzer, was Mark Fidrych. At the pinnacle of his fame and on-field dominance, he humbly gave all credit to his defense, which was anchored that year by Tom Veryzer: “My teammates . . . are the ones who count,” Fidrych said in a 1976 Sporting News article. “They’re the ones who are making me. I don’t make them. If I was making myself, I’d be striking out everybody. If they don’t play well behind me, I’m not even here. I can’t believe what these guys are doing for me. I feel so good. I don’t know how to say thanks.”
Years later, long after anyone had come to the park to see Mark Fidrych, the Bird, who could have easily descended into a deep gap of bitterness over how quickly it all ended, continued to be grateful for all he’d seen and to all who’d once thronged to the park to see him and cheer his name.
“Please,” he asked Gary Smith in 1986, “just end this story by saying thank you to the people. Thank you to our society.”
(Love versus Hate update: Tom Veryzer’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)