h1

Through Eight

May 5, 2022

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

This breathless moment of anticipation and hope never actually happened in real life. But what even is real life? Everything is always changing, even things that have already happened, so maybe what we think of as “what really happened” is merely a first draft, and there are infinite revisions of that draft. In one revision that’s currently unfolding in a simulated baseball league and in my mind and in these words, Mark Fidrych is through eight innings and has not allowed a hit.

In his actual career, the closest he came to a no-hitter was the first time he started a major league game, on May 15, 1976, when he racked up 6 no-hit innings against the Cleveland Indians before Buddy Bell opened the seventh with a single, and Rick Manning followed with another single, and that was about it for the Indians that day. That 2-hitter that launched the Bird’s magical 1976 run would still be standing at the end of his career as his game with the fewest hits allowed in any of his 56 major league starts. He had a lot of talent as a pitcher, but he wasn’t unhittable. His astounding success in 1976, in which he went from a complete unknown to the best pitcher in baseball, rested on his ability to lock in, to flap and pace and pump himself into a goofy magnetic shamanic trance, which in turn enabled his near flawless execution of the simple impossible Prime Directive of Pitching: keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.

He didn’t have Nolan Ryan’s stomach-hollowing 100-MPH fastball, Steve Carlton’s brutal, misanthropic slider, Bert Blyleven’s limb-locking curveball, Phil Niekro’s irrational, decentering knuckleball, Gaylord Perry’s lawless, diving spitter. He didn’t glower and terrify like Goose Gossage or spin and hesitate and obfuscate like Luis Tiant. He didn’t overpower anyone or trick anyone or confuse anyone. He just threw pitch after pitch that traced a sizzling line at the knees of the batter and over the black stripe on one side or another of the plate. And while that was enough for him to pitch better than anyone in the world for one year, it didn’t strip from opposing hitters the ability to make contact with his pitches. He was never unhittable.

That was one of the beautiful things about the summer of the Bird. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. When a teammate made a good play for him he bubbled over with appreciation, pointing, gesturing, smiling, talking. Always talking! Waving to the fans, beaming, amazed—of course he couldn’t do it without us either. Shaking hands with the ump! Shaking hands with the cop! Talking, always talking. Even to the ball, of course to the ball. The most famous thing about him: he talked to the ball! And why not? Isn’t there a beating spirit alive in everything, all things, all beings? Isn’t this world all one thing in a million billion pieces, held together—if it’s held together and not falling apart—by love?

I was a kid when I saw all that, and I’ve never gotten over it, and I never want to. I was a curly-headed boy, eight years old, weird and happy and scared and overpowered and in love with baseball and the world. He was me, I was him. It was the same story for anyone who saw him—he was us, the way we wanted to be and the way we wanted the world to be.

He started flickering out the next year, and soon enough after that he was gone.

Except he’s not gone. That was the first draft, and we’ve been finding new ways to revise him ever since. I found a new way myself the other night, lying in bed. Before going to sleep, I checked to see if the latest three games for my Strat-O-Matic online baseball league had been posted, and they had, so I checked the score of the first game, a 14-inning win, and imagined that the dramatic nature of that win, along with the team’s early sprint toward the top of their division, built extra electricity for the following game, Mark Fidrych’s third start. His first start had gone poorly, and the second start had been decent, good enough for a win. Nothing spectacular yet, no signs of the Bird in full flight. But maybe this game would be different.

Instead of going straight to the box score for the result of the game, I clicked on the replay feature, in which the game unfolds in a gradual, no-frills readout of batters’ and pitchers’ names and at-bat results and the progression of runners around the bases. I lay there in the dark next to my curly-headed younger son, who had fallen asleep between my wife and me. My wife played a Tetris-like game on her phone, her end-of-day ritual. My son was on his stomach, and his back rose and fell slowly with his breathing.

Inning gave way to inning without a hit for the opposing team. I imagined the building din around the frenetic broad-shouldered stalking concentration of the Bird, imagined his appreciation for Geronimo making a running over-the-shoulder grab, for Bowa making a tremendous backhanded stop and throw to a fully-extended Hernandez at first. It wasn’t a flawless game for the Bird. He made an error in the first, surrendered a walk in the sixth. And in the bottom of the eighth, after Hernandez botched a grounder, allowing Paul Blair to reach, he seemed to lose focus altogether and walked two men to load the bases. At this point I was barely breathing at all. I imagined Thurman Munson rising from behind the plate and walking slowly, grumpily, to the mound. Can you see this? I can, or I’m trying to. The lean excitable long-haired smooth-cheeked pitcher jerky, shifty, unspooling, spinning out, the lumpy unshaven catcher not moving at all, glowering, trying to look his pitcher in the eye. Finally he thumps him in the chest with his mitt, and not lightly, to bring the pitcher’s darting gaze to his own. Now he can deliver his message clean and clear: Keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.  

And so Fidrych gets the next batter, a soft looper to Bowa, to end the eighth inning, stranding a runner at every base. Can you see it? The Bird applauds Bowa again, points to Munson (who ignores him, or appears to), and bounds toward the dugout in a way that makes it seem that beneath the stadium turf is an enormous trampoline. The whole place is going absolutely berserk.

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

***

Part of me wants to leave it there, with the possibility still alive that he’s going to make it all the way, that three more outs will come and go without a hit, that the team will swarm Mark Fidrych and carry him off on their shoulders. But what actually happens is maybe also OK. Maybe it’s more like real life, but still with some magic. He gives up a hit to the lead-off batter, Bob Watson. He gives up a hit to the next guy too, George Foster, and two outs later, he gives up a third hit, to Paul Blair, and once again the bases are loaded. Once again Munson goes to the mound, but this time I see it all differently.

“I got it, Cap,” Fidrych says. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We got it.”

He gets Jose Cardenal to ground to Bowa to end the game, and that’s that. No ecstatic swarm on the mound, no lifting the hero and carrying him off. The last out doesn’t make the place explode like it might have if there had been no hits at all, but in the moments after the last out the sound from the crowd builds, feeding on Fidrych, who is in the middle of the diamond thanking everyone around him and then turning to the crowd and pointing and waving, thanking everyone, absolutely everyone, and the sound keeps building and building.

We don’t carry him. He carries us.

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 7 through 12:

  • G7: W 10-6
    • Soderholm homers twice; Thomas triples again and drives in 2. Tekulve continues bullpen’s success with 2 scoreless innings.
  • G8: W 8-4
    • Bostock (4 hits) and Hairston (3 hits) lead 17-hit barrage. Campbell and McClure (notching second save) log 4 shoutout innings in relief
  • G9: L 6-3
    • Mike Marshall struggles, but team is in it until Campbell gives up a 3-run blast to Pops Stargell in the 8th (all unearned due to Soderholm lead-off error)
  • G10: W 4-3 (14 innings)
    • Tekulve with 4 hitless innings; Mingori with 4 scoreless innings. Cruz starts comeback with 2-run homer in 6th. Bowa drives in Hairston with a single in 14th
  • G11: W 9-0 (Fidrych 2-1)
    • Fidrych carries a no-hitter into 9th. Glenn Burke with 2 hits, 2 RBI, and a steal. No-hitter broken up by Bob Watson (like Enos Cabell, who ruined the Bird’s first start, Watson is a key figure, perhaps the key figure—given that he’s the one who says, “C’mon, let the kids play!”—of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) (and his notable hit in this imaginary universe comes on the anniversary of the day he was celebrated by Tootsie Rolls as the scorer of major league baseball’s one millionth run) (what I’m saying is, if it had to be anyone, I’m glad it was Bob Watson), followed by 2 more hits, but Fidrych retires Don Money to leave the bases loaded and preserve the shutout.
  • G12: L 2-1 (10 innings)
    • In the loss, Bill Campbell extends an inexplicably brilliant start to the season for the low-priced bullpen with 1 run scored in 5 innings (through 12 games, the reliever corps of Campbell, Mingori, Tekulve, and McClure have given up 4 earned runs in 44 innings for a 0.82 ERA)

3 comments

  1. Wow! Hats off to The Bird. Great description of Thurman Munson’s pep talk…what a battery!


  2. God damn it Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


  3. Glad to see Fidrych was able to hold on to the shutout. Exciting game.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: