Hello, dear readers! Very sorry to have missed my column last month, but it enabled me to take a trip of a lifetime with my family to England for eight days. We had a great adventure and even got to see the Royal Family on Trooping the Color Day in honor of King Charles’s birthday. The driving was quite the adventure for my wife and her copilot, my daughter Natalie. To ensure that I came home uninjured and still married, it was decided that I would keep my mouth shut and stay in the back seat. Worked like a charm. This month, we will be looking at some baseball players that were one-year wonders. A flash in the pan. Momentary greatness that is as short lived as a sudden bolt of lightning.
Bob Hazle was 26 years old when he got a midseason callup to the Braves in 1957. He earned the nickname “Hurricane” because he took the league by storm by batting .403 in his 41 games and leading Milwaukee to the World Series. The following season in April, he was hit in the head with a fastball. This disrupted his equilibrium and his batting average tumbled to .179. After 58 more at bats, he was released and never played in the majors again.
A one-year wonder from my youth was Joe Charboneau of the Cleveland Indians. In 1980, he hit .289 with 23 homers in a city that was starved for anything to root for. Cleveland Stadium had capacity for 70000 fans. There was plenty of room most nights. Joe lived his life to the fullest. He was too poor to go to the dentist and decided to take care of the abscessed tooth on his own using pliers, a razor blade, and some whiskey for local anesthesia. Joe owned a pet alligator named Chomper, dyed his hair red, white and blue for a 4th of July afternoon double header, and once removed an unfortunate tattoo with a straight razor. He had been told that tattoos were frowned upon in the major leagues. Joe reported to Spring Training after his rookie of the year campaign full of confidence and ready to pick up where he left off. He hit a ball into the gap, slid into 3rd base headfirst as was his custom, and heard something snap in his back. Joe tried to play through the pain, but his batting average fell to .210 and his power was gone. He was sent to the minors and after a few more injury plagued seasons, retired.
One of my favorite Baltimore Orioles players of the 1990’s was Brady Anderson. He was a great fielding outfielder and steady at the plate but not a power hitter at all, launching just 72 home runs total over nine seasons. In 1996, Anderson went on a home run binge, hitting 50. At the time, only 11 other players in MLB history had hit 50 or more. Anderson remained an above average hitter for several more years, but never hit more than 24 in a single season after 1996.
When I was growing up in the 1970’s, baseball was always on the TV at both of my grandfather’s houses. I spent quite a bit of time at my maternal grandfather’s house in the summer of 1976. We watched every game we could of the greatest one season wonder in my opinion and the most eccentric by far, Mark “The Bird’ Fidrych.
He was nicknamed “The Bird” due to his lanky 6 ft 3 frame and an unruly mop of blond curls that made him resemble the popular Sesame Street character of the time. Fidrych was called up from the minors in late April due to an injury on the Detroit Tigers pitching staff. He made his first start and threw 6 innings of no-hit ball and picked up the win with a complete game, giving up only one run. Fidrych had some mannerisms that no one had ever seen on a pitching mound before. He talked to the ball before several pitches, apparently giving it directions. He would pace circles around the mound, giving encouragement and berating himself depending on how the previous at bat played out. Fidrych would meticulously groom the mound on his hands and knees between batters and swore at the grounds crew when they tried to rake his sacred area. The Bird continued mowing down the opposition nearly every time he took the mound. The 24-7 sports media wasn’t a thing in 1976 and my grandfather found out about Fidrych by reading the paper and when his antics were featured on ABC Nightly News. ABC had an MLB game of the week, and The Bird was featured in all his glory vs the Yankees for a national audience. My grandfather and I sat in the living room in front of his giant console TV to see what all the hype was about. Fidrych knew he was on ABC and played up his antics on the mound even more than usual. He won the game in front of a sellout crowd of 47000 at Tiger Stadium. Management must have been happy since before The Bird’s arrival, the Tigers couldn’t draw a crowd of flies if they were covered in syrup. The fans would not leave until Fidrych came out for a curtain call. He won Rookie of the Year and was second in the Cy Young award voting. He threw an incredible 24 complete games.
Like most one-year wonders, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Fidrych injured his knee in Spring Training the following year. He tried to fight through the injury and had to change the way he pitched to compensate. He started off strong until he tore the rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder. There wasn’t a surgical fix for the injury at the time. The Bird tried to pitch through the pain but was unable to regain even a fraction of his former glory and retired for good in 1983. He went back to his home state of Massachusetts and worked as a contractor, hauling loads of gravel to construction sites in his dump truck. Fidrych was trying to repair his dump truck when his shirt caught the spinning axle and wrapped around his neck, suffocating him. He was 54 years old. The Tigers had a Mark Fidrych Day during the last season of Tiger Stadium before it was replaced. His daughter came out before the game and groomed the mound in tribute to her father.
Hope you enjoyed this month’s article, and I will leave you with a quote from the great Washington Post writer George Will. “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”