My Two Favorite Pitchers
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My Two Favorite Pitchers
Download | Duration: 00:03:39
My two favorite pitchers of all time both made headlines this week. One will be honored tomorrow.
The other will be buried today.
Jim Abbott pitched ten years in the major leagues -- without a right hand. The University of Michigan will retire his jersey Saturday, the first Wolverine to be so honored solely for his play.
Mark Fidrych, who thrilled us 33 years ago with his boundless joy on the Tiger Stadium mound, died Monday in an accident on his farm.
Both defied countless critics who were convinced they could never do what they did – yet neither carried the slightest bit of bitterness toward their detractors. Quite the opposite, they both brought a boyish enthusiasm to the game – and it was contagious.
They were unpretentious, unassuming, and deeply appreciative for what they had, instead of complaining about what they didn’t.
It’s hard to say whose success was more unlikely – or more satisfying.
As soon as Abbott started pitching, coaches started testing his ability to field his position. They quickly learned he had mastered a nifty maneuver that allowed him to catch the ball with his left hand, separate the ball from his glove under his right arm, then make an easy toss to first base – all in a split second, as smoothly as a magician pulls a nickel out of your ear.
Abbott starred at Michigan – where he was named the nation's top amateur athlete, ahead of such Olympic stars as David Robinson, Janet Evans and Karch Kiraly – and went straight to the Major Leagues.
The official highlight of his career was throwing a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium. But the unofficial one, for my money, occurred one afternoon when he and a teammate decided to climb into the centerfield bleachers and sign autographs for the people in the cheap seats who never got close enough to the players to get one. “We signed everything,” Abbott told me. “Programs, napkins, hot dog wrappers. It was great.”
Fidrych’s story is just as surprising – and inspiring.
Detroit drafted him in the tenth round, but against all odds, Fidrych made the big club. By mid-summer, he’d been named the American League’s starting pitcher for the All-Star game.
But we remember him because he would do things other pitchers stopped doing when they were 12, like getting on his knees to groom the mound with his hands, running around the infield after each out to thank his fielders, and grinning like a kid after every win. It wasn’t a gimmick. It was who he was – and it was pure joy to watch him.
Fidrych did all this for the league minimum of 16,500 dollars. He didn’t whine about it – he joked about it.
“Sometimes I get lazy,” he said, “and let the dishes stack up, but they don't stack too high. I've only got four dishes."
The Bird had only one great season before his knee and shoulder brought him down – injuries that would be fixed in mere weeks today. But he had already served as the perfect tonic for a nation reeling from Watergate and Viet Nam – not to mention free agency, which turned ballplayers into millionaires.
After his last comeback failed, Mark Fidrych returned to Massachussetts, bought a farm, got married, and had a daughter. He was happy. A few years ago a reporter asked him, if he could invite anyone in the world to dinner, whom would he invite? He said, “Mickey Stanley,” his old teammate, “because he’s never been to my house before.”
Mark Fidrych died while working on one of his trucks. At least, I thought, he was doing what he loved. But then, I realized, he always was.
When Fidrych and Abbott pitched, they made us feel better about ourselves. They were the only two athletes I can think of who were loved by everyone – teammates and opponents, fans and non-fans alike.
They were not the best pitchers of their eras.
Just the greatest.
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