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Thumbing through my baseball Rolodex

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I devoted a piece two weeks ago on this site to how Pirates fans might want to get their baseball fix by watching replays of classic games. I even provided a couple of YouTube links to one of those classic matchups – the seventh game of the 1960 World Series. In case you haven’t taken me up on the suggestion, AT&T SportsNet will be presenting the game at 7 p.m. Tuesday. And two days later, AT&T will carry the 2014 home opener between the Bucs and Cubs, also at 7 p.m.

I won’t beat the Classic Game Reply topic to death, but I did have a few more thoughts. First, I had a chance last week to watch the 2013 NL Wild Card matchup – better known simply as the Cueto Game – for the first time. The reason I missed it live was because I was working that night, helping oversee production of that week’s issue of a college newspaper. I caught a few snippets of the game that night, but didn’t get the full impact. This time, I watched most of the game, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

But as a lifelong baseball fan who came of age in the 1960s, I don’t need a game to be monumental to hold my attention. In fact, it’s some of the subtle things – and some long-forgotten names – that make the experience fun. For example, I was rolling through the channels later last week and came upon the fifth game of the 1986 NLCS that featured the Astros and the Mets. I tuned in at just the right time – two innings before the game was decided. I have never been a fan of either team, but I remember exactly where I was when the game was played – driving around looking at houses in Northern California’s Central Valley, listening to the radio broadcast. The game seemed to go on forever, finally ending when Gary Carter – batting a bingo-like .048 in the series – sent an RBI single up the middle in the bottom of the 12th inning to win it for the Mets.

It was an exciting ending, no doubt, but it wasn’t the conclusion that kept me watching. Rather, it was the names – and the mannerisms — of long-forgotten players, once so vivid in my consciousness but dormant for literally decades, that intrigued me. Names like Wally Backman. I hadn’t thought of Wally Backman for at least 25 years and probably more. But as soon as I saw him take his stance in the batter’s box, I knew exactly who it was before anyone even said his name. Wally Backman. And there were other names that had receded into the shadows of history, only to reappear for a curtain call 34 years later. Howard Johnson. Charlie Kerfeld. Dickie Thon. Each guy had a story that was all too familiar at the time. And to see them come alive again on the screen brought a smile to my face. All of us knew the sad story of Thon, a bright young prospect seemingly destined for greatness – he posted WAR totals of 5.1 and 7.2 (FanGraphs) in his first two full seasons at shortstop for the Astros, the latter coming in his age 25 campaign – before he was struck in the face by a pitch from Mike Torrez, leaving him partially blind in one eye.

Another tragic story came to life a few days earlier; a spin around the channel guide that evening took me to a game that stopped me in my proverbial tracks. There on the screen was a young, floppy-haired right-hander talking to the baseball while staring in and getting the sign from his personal catcher, Bruce Kimm. It was Mark Fidrych, The Bird, in all his meteoric glory. It wasn’t an important game in terms of the standings; a sort of random matchup against the Yankees in June of 1976. But I remember watching that game that summer; Fidrych had come out of nowhere to take the baseball world by storm and his outing against New York was featured on Monday Night Baseball. In the world of pre-cable baseball broadcasts, it was must-see TV. And we Pirates fan even got an extra bonus – Bob Prince was on the call for ABC.

Fidrych was masterly that night against the Yankees, who went on to reach the World Series in the fall. He pitched a seven-hit complete game in a 5-1 win that stretched his record to 8-1. But it wasn’t the numbers that kept me from getting up or moving on to another televised distraction. It was the way he located his pitches. It seemed like every pitch was at the knees or a millimeter below, and right on the black. I don’t think I saw him throw five pitches above a hitter’s waist. And he worked quickly, despite his antics.

It’s probably difficult for young fans to understand the phenomenon that was Mark Fidrych, whose nickname came from his resemblance to the character on “Sesame Street,” Big Bird. But he was absolutely electric thatseason, going 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA, winning Rookie of the Year honors and finishing second in the AL Cy Young voting.

During a 13-game stretch that started in mid-May and carried through July 20, Fidrych made 13 starts – and completed 12 of them. He logged 120 1/3 innings – pitching 11 innings in two of those starts — giving up 93 hits and 23 earned runs, walking 28 and striking out 50 for an ERA of 1.72.

That ’76 campaign, amid the backdrop of America’s summer-long Bicentennial celebration, would be the last time Fidrych’s star would blaze so bright. A knee injury the following spring limited his effectiveness, and he eventually wound up with major shoulder issues that cut short his career. He made just 58 starts in his career over five seasons, with half of them coming in his unforgettable rookie season. Every now and then there would be talk of a comeback, but it never materialized. He returned to his native Massachusetts, where he became a truck driver, and he also bought a farm. He died in 2009, the result of an accident that occurred while he was working on a truck at his home.

Not all baseball stories end up as sad as the tales of Dickie Thon and Mark Fidrych. That’s not the point. The point is, the game is filled with names, and each one has a story. And if you live long enough, by the time you’ve reached your seventh or eighth decade, you’ll have a mental Rolodex of batting stances and pitching deliveries that is seemingly never-ending. And all it will take is a reminder – five minutes of film from a game you saw 45 years earlier — and you’ll be catapulted back in time.

These days, that’s not such a bad place to be.