This card, featuring the awesome cap-obliterating power of Randy Jones’ Eurfro, celebrates the pinnacle of Jones’ career: his starting assignment in the 1976 All-Star Game. Later that year he was awarded the National League Cy Young award, capping a two-year period in which he was the best pitcher in the league (he’d finished second in the Cy Young voting the year before), but that award was based primarily on his staggering achievements prior to the All-Star break. In other words, the pale junk-tossing star known as Randy Jones never shined brighter than when he took the mound to start the 1976 All-Star Game with more victories, 16, than any pitcher had ever had at the time of the midsummer classic.
Aside from the All-Star Game matchup ten years later between dueling phenoms Doc Gooden and Roger Clemens, I don’t think there has been an All-Star Game starting pitching matchup with as much juice to it as the one in 1976. On the one hand, you had Jones, who though perhaps generally forgotten now was at that moment thought to be both an elite pitcher and, more specifically, in stunningly good shape for a run at the already seemingly unreachable plateau of 30 wins for the season. And on the other hand, of course, you had another curly-haired pitcher who just happened to be the most exciting, entertaining, charismatic, and infectiously joyful rookie who ever lived.
That was the first All-Star Game I ever watched, and though I was amazed by Randy Jones’ 16-3 midseason record my attention was focused more intensely on his opponent, Mark Fidrych, whom I’d watched for the first time a couple weeks earlier, on Monday Night Baseball, talking to the baseball and mowing down the Yankees as 47,000 Tigers fans laughed and roared.
Jones ended up faring better in the All-Star Game than Fidrych, but it didn’t really matter to me. When I was a kid the All-Star Game meant a chance to see the stars from my baseball cards basking in the bright lights, laughing, happy to be there. It was about the moment itself, free of consequences. My brother and I got to stay up past our bedtime to watch the whole game, and it was always the best night of the summer, no matter what happened.
Apart from such rare moments, life tends toward disappointment as surely as water tends to run downhill. Randy Jones compiled a 6-11 won-loss record after the All-Star Game, falling well short of 30 wins, and went 43-69 after 1976. Fidrych cooled to 10-7 after the break, narrowly failing to win 20 for the year, and after 1976 went 10-10 during the sporadic appearances that comprised the remainder of his career. The divebombing career arcs of Jones and Fidrych, though by virtue of their brief high peaks more pronounced than most, are still closer to the rule than to the exception. Things fall apart.
But when Jones and Fidrych faced off in 1976 they did so in a game that was outside the schedule, outside the standings, outside the inevitable progression toward disappointment. The players wanted to do well, but the result of the game did not matter. It was meaningless. It was a sanctuary. Randy Jones will always be 16-3. Mark Fidrych will always be 21 years old.