Last week the Yankees lost their legendary closer Mariano Rivera when he injured himself chasing down a flyball in the outfield prior to a game against the Royals in Kansas City.
The sight of Rivera crumpled on the ground in agony on the warning track was a gruesome reminder of how fragile the career of an athlete can be. And though Rivera has vowed to return, stating that he doesn’t want “to go out like this,” the odds are against him returning to the same level after tearing his ACL and meniscus.
The injury and the ensuing controversy over whether or not Rivera should have been in the outfield shagging flies immediately reminded me of another pitcher who hurt himself 35 years ago in a somewhat similar fashion. A heralded young pitcher who never returned to his form and whose career was famously shortened.
Mark “The Bird” Fidrych captured the baseball world in 1976 like few others ever have. He bounced out to the mound with his curly locks peeking out from under his Tigers cap. He pitched complete games that took less than two hours, firing strike after strike at the knees of opposing batters. He spoke to the ball, gesticulating and pointing to the spot where he wanted the sphere to go. He galloped over and congratulated his teammates after they made spectacular defensive plays behind him. From his knees he groomed the mound with his bare hands, patting away the spike marks. He packed fans into the ballpark, both at home and on the road, to the point where opposing teams begged the Tigers to pitch him against their club. After he dispatched of the opposing team in complete game fashion, he hopped out of the dugout and took a curtain a call. A curtain call!
“I never saw anything like it,” Fidrych teammate Rusty Staub told me in an interview a few years ago. “I had never seen anyone get a curtain call in baseball.”
19 wins and a league low ERA earned The Bird the Rookie of the Year award for the Tigers, and when he reported to spring camp in Lakeland for the 1977 season he was flapping his wings to do more. The sky (literally) seemed to be the limit for The Bird.
Then he hurt his knee.
According to Staub, who was there the day it happened, Fidrych was in the outfield shagging flies in spring training when he hurtled himself through the air to get at a hard hit ball. He landed on his left leg and twisted it in an odd manner. The Bird bounced on it and limped a little, but he still continued to stand out there for a few minutes. Staub knew immediately that Fidrych had injured himself.
“He had this big grin on his face, like he always did. He was goofing around out there and he [landed] wrong.”
There’s no record whether or not Fidrych told the trainers about the injury, and he didn’t stop throwing. That was the problem. The Bird kept throwing even though he’d damaged his knee. As a result, he started to throw the ball differently to compensate for the injury to his left (landing knee). Within a week he reported soreness in his famous right wing. The Tigers took some precaution, but back then there wasn’t the sort of medical attention that is paid today to pitching arms. Fidrych threw later in spring and after a few days again felt some pain. As a result he started the ’77 season on the disabled list. He returned in late May after a rehab stint in the minor leagues, and tossed a complete game in his first start. After two losses, he fired six straight complete game victories, even three-hitting the Yankees at Tiger Stadium in June. The Bird was back! Or so it seemed.
In July, just before the All-Star break, Fidrych reported more pain in his right shoulder. He was shut down and didn’t pitch the rest of the year. The Tigers sent him to specialists but no one found any source for the pain. The common tactic at that time was to rest the shoulder and then slowly build back up to throwing again after several months. Cortisone shots were also frequently administered.
Fidrych reported that he was pain-free in the spring of ’78 and he opened the Tigers season on the mound, hurling a five-hit complete game win over the Blue Jays at The Corner. The 23-year old righty won his next start too, but in his third outing he felt a “pop” in his shoulder in the fifth inning and left the game. He was done for the year and though he (and the Tigers) didn’t know it, he had completely torn his rotator cuff, an injury that would have required surgery had it been diagnosed.
The next year The Bird came back in May, and by this time Tigers fans were skeptical that they’d ever see Fidrych pitch a full season again. The Tigers were cautious with him this time, and he didn’t go beyond the sixth inning in any of his four starts. But he was ineffective, losing three games before he left his last start on May 22, 1979, with shoulder pain. He attempted yet another comeback in 1980, even pitching one last complete game in September, but on October 1 he made his final big league start, going five innings against the Blue Jays in the season’s final week.
Later, Fidrych tried to make a comeback with the Boston Red Sox, but never made it past the AAA level. It was with that organization that The Bird found out his rotator cuff was torn clean through. He had been pitching with that injury for years, probably since the ’77 season when he hurt his knee shagging flies and then altered his pitching motion. Surgery could repair the tear, but at that point Fidrych was done pursuing a baseball career and he returned to Massachusetts and his farm where he launched a trucking company.
Should Fidrych or Rivera been shagging flies? Of course. It’s something that pitchers have been doing since the early days of the game when pitchers were still “ballplayers” who were expected to hit and catch pop flies. Back then, rosters were 15-20 guys and everyone pitched in, so to speak. Just because we’re in an era of specialization, it shouldn’t stop Rivera and others from being part of the club. Mo had been shagging glies for two decades without incident. It was a freak injury. How many other pitchers have you heard that have suffered an injury doing it? Not many, though now you’ve been reminded of one who happened to be one of the most popular players in the game 35 years ago when he was injured.