Norris latest in a long line of oddball Tiger pitchers

Mark Fidrych, Schoolboy Rowe, Jose Valverde, and Jose Lima.

Mark Fidrych, Schoolboy Rowe, Jose Valverde, and Jose Lima.

What if I told you there was a Detroit Tiger hurler who reveled in talking to himself and his teammates while he was pitching? Who ran his mouth so much on the mound that he distracted opposing batters?

You’d say it was Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, right?

Wrong. I was talking about George Mullin, the first bonafide ace the Tigers ever had, a big man with a bulldog mentality who was also eccentric enough that he used to stalk around the infield between pitches and pretend to take dirt off his cleats and glove to slow down the opposing team. He also loved to chat with fans and the other dugout while he was pitching. The man they called “Wabash George” was a little strange, but he won a lot of big games for the Bengals during his stretch with the Detroiters from 1902 to 1913.

Mullin and Fidrych shared some personality traits, but they were only two of the oddball pitchers the Tigers have employed over the years. In fact, it’s difficult to find a time when Detroit didn’t have a goofy hurler on their roster.

Last week the Tigers welcomed Daniel Norris to the fold, acquiring the left-hander in the trade that sent David Price packing to the Blue Jays. It’s well documented that Norris is a flake. Why does it seem like lefties are so odd? Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe there’s something to the old saying about “being in their wrong mind.”

Norris arrived at spring camp earlier this year with Toronto as their #1 pitching prospect, but he chose to live more like a vagabond. The 22-year old rolled into camp in his Volkswagon camper and lived in it. That’s right, he slept and ate in the camper in a parking lot. That unusual decision led to a much-publicized article by a major sports network, in which it was revealed that Norris is a little “off” for other reasons too. For example, he admitted to shaving with an ax. “The Bird” never did that.

Norris would fit in well in a rotation with Mullin and Fidrych, as well as a few other wacky pitchers from Tiger history.

How about Kevin Saucier, a relief pitcher for the Tigers in the early 1980s? “He’s a little strange,” teammate Kirk Gibson once told a reporter. Saucier was a lefty (of course) used by Sparky Anderson as his closer in 1981 and part of 1982. Using a sinker and a sneaky fastball, “Sauce” became an effective weapon out of the pen in ’81 when a young Detroit team battled to the last weekend for a playoff spot. What made Saucier so strange? He was so amped up on the mound that it seemed he was going to fly out of his cleats. Saucier would stomp around the infield after getting an out and charge himself up so much that he intimidated opposing batters. His post-save ritual was a sight to see: charging off the mound, slapping his teammates backs, and hollering at the top of his lungs.

Also on the 80’s teams was Dave Rozema, a man so odd that “flake” was practially his middle name. “Rosie” loved to party, loved to crack jokes, and he loved to talk. Unlike “The Bird”, Rozema did his talking on his off days, and it occasionally got himself in trouble. In a celebrated incident during a bench-clearing brawl against the Twins, Rozema attempted a karate kick but ended up tearing ligaments in his knee, ending his season. Sparky tolerated Rozema’s antics to an extent, but ultimately it seemed like the right-hander was having more fun and not focusing on his pitching. He won a ring with the Tigers in ’84 before being jettisoned to the Rangers.

Only a few pitchers could compete with Saucier’s flamboyant post-game celebrations, but one of them was Jose Valverde, the self-styled “Papa Grande.” Valverde was a fine closer for the Tigers for a few seasons, but he frequently caused chest pains for fans with his tightrope-walking act in the ninth inning. When he did get a big K or a save, Valverde loved to dance and gesticulate on the mound, untucking his jersey out of his pants and bouncing around like a samba dancer.

A few years before Valverde’s act, the Tigers had another Latin pitcher named Jose Lima, a hot dog of epic proportions. Lima was obsessed with himself and his appearance: he reportedly took an hour to ready his uniform on days he pitched. He loved to refer to himself in third person, as in “Lima really has his fastball going,” and he referred to his starts as “Lima Time.” Like most pitchers who are a little weird, once Lima’s effectiveness left him, he was cut loose.

Other Tiger lefties who were known for being eccentric: Bill Scherrer, a reliever on the ’84 team, and David Wells, a starting pitcher briefly for Detroit in the 1990s. Both were famous for seeing the world from a left-hander’s point of view. Ditto Nate Robertson, a southpaw who pitched in Jim Leyland’s rotation for a few years and even toed the rubber in the ’06 World Series. Robertson loved to keep the team loose on his of days, and he became famous for starting the “Gum Time” rally ritual in 2006, a practice in which he and teammates would shove several pieces of gum into their mouths to spur a rally in the late innings.

In recent years the Tigers have had a few other oddballs on the pitching staff, namely Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain. While they weren’t Saucier or Fidrych-like odd, both of them were a few innings shy of an official game, if you know what I mean. One teammate said of Coke: “I don’t know what happened to him [when he was a child], but that man is strange.” Coke was known for sprinting into games from the bullpen and for his over-the-top intensity.

Going back several decades there was Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe, who starred on the hill for the Bengals in the 1930s and 1940s. Like “The Bird” and “Wabash George,” Rowe was known to talk to the baseball. He was also extremely superstitious (not uncommon in those days) — he refused to pick up his glove with his right hand, he kept lucky rabbits’ feet and other charms in his pocket when he pitched, and he always ate fried chicken on days he started a game. Maybe it was fitting that Rowe was a little nutty — he hailed from Waco, Texas.

The ultimate “flake” in Detroit history is Fidrych, the lean righthander who set the baseball world on its head in 1976 as a rookie sensation, winning 19 games and starting the All-Star Game. “The Bird” turned 22 in his rookie campaign, the same age as Norris. Fidrych talked to himself (it only seemed like he was chatting with the ball), manicured the mound with his hands at the start of the inning, and didn’t hesitate to walk over and shake a teammate’s hand after they made a nice play. He was lanky, goofy-looking, and his mop-top, curly-hair made him an idol of teenage girls. Fidrych was such a spectacle that attendance increased by as much as 40% when he started games. No other rookie phenom has ever matched his popularity. And Norris will probably never match Fidrych’s flakiness either, but he does have a chance to be as good a pitcher, and that’s not weird at all.