Monday, February 13, 2012
Linsanity! Baseball's Jeremy Lins
By David Schoenfield
Mark Fidrych, left, and Fernando Valenzuela came out of nowhere, taking baseball by storm.
Even if you don't follow the NBA you've been unable to ignore the amazing story of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.
Whether the story would be getting the same amount of attention if Lin played for the Sacramento Kings or Charlotte Bobcats is a question we probably know the answer to, but Lin's rise got me thinking of similar episodes in MLB history. Here are five guys who seemingly came out of nowhere to spark the baseball world. Bonus points if the player has an interesting back story.
Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, 1957 Milwaukee Braves. Hazle was a 26-year-old minor league vet with six games of big league experience with the Reds in 1955 when the Braves recalled him in late July. At the time, the Braves were tied for first. In 41 games, Hazle hit .403 with seven home runs, 12 doubles and 27 RBIs, earning the nickname "Hurricane" -- named after, in part, a powerful hurricane that had struck his home state of South Carolina in 1954. The Braves went on to win the World Series, and while Hazle was just 2-for-13, both hits came in Game 7, including a one-out single in the third inning that started a four-run rally. The following spring, Hazle was hit in the head by a pitch and then early in the season sprained his ankle and was again hit in the head by a pitch, putting him in the hospital. The Braves sold him to Detroit in May, and after 63 plate appearances with the Tigers his major league career was over.
Mark Fidrych, 1976 Detroit Tigers. Fidrych was a one-time 10th-round draft pick who began 1975 at Class A, although he had worked his way up to Triple-A. He wasn't overpowering (just 73 strikeouts in 117 innings) but made the Tigers' Opening Day roster. And mostly sat on the bench, appearing just twice in relief in the team's first 23 games. But he started on May 15 and threw a two-hit complete game. Ten days later, he threw another complete game. In his third and fourth starts, he won again -- pitching 11 innings both times. He was a sight few fans had ever seen: With his long, curly hair, he was nicknamed "The Bird," after "Sesame Street's Big Bird. More oddly, he talked to the baseball. A memorable "Monday Night Baseball" game in late June drew a packed Tiger Stadium and huge TV audience. Fidrych didn't disappoint. He'd go 12-6 with a 2.36 ERA that first half, completing 16 of his 18 starts, and started the All-Star Game. Everywhere Fidrych went he drew huge crowds. In Anahem, he reportedly had to sign autographs from inside a cage to prevent fans from rioting. Sadly, after winning 19 games as a rookie, he suffered knee and shoulder injuries in 1977 and was never the same.
Fernando Valenzuela, 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Back in 1981, there was no Internet and no overhyping of prospects, certainly not of baseball prospects. Valenzuela was a 20-year-old rookie from Mexico who had pitched out of the Dodgers bullpen in September of 1980. He spoke no English, had those chubby cheeks, a screwball and that crazy windup where he looked up into the heavens at the apex of his delivery. Steve Wulf did profile Valenzuela that March for Sports Illustrated, but nobody expected this when the season unfolded: Shutout, complete game with one run, shutout, shutout, shutout, nine innings with one run, shutout, complete game with two runs. Eight starts, eight wins, five shutouts, 0.50 ERA. In early May, SI wrote on Fernando Fever; two weeks later he was on the cover. The media hounded Valenzuela so much that the Dodgers had to hold special news conferences, and Valenzuela complained to his agent that he didn't have time to shag flies or take batting practice. Fernandomania was so intense that it spread across the country and into South America: the number of Mexican radio stations carrying Dodger games increased from three to 17, and the number of Venezuelan stations from 20 to 40. When the Dodgers traveled to Shea Stadium early in the season, the Mets built two extra ticket booths. Averaging barely 11,000 fans per game, the Mets drew nearly 40,000 for Fernando.
Hideo Nomo, 1995 Los Angeles Dodgers. Fourteen years later, the Dodgers had another rookie sensation, although this time it was a 26-year-old veteran from Japan. Nobody knew what to expect when Nomo came over, and once the season finally began in late April, Nomo started off slow, failing to win any of his first six starts. But then he won all six of his starts in June, allowing just five earned runs and posting games with 16 strikeouts and two with 13. Like Fernando, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated. He started the All-Star Game against Randy Johnson and threw two scoreless innings. Nomo never matched the success of his first season, as hitters clued in on his deceptive delivery, but with 123 career wins he wasn't a mere flash either.
Jeff Francoeur, 2005 Atlanta Braves. Francoeur didn't exactly come out of nowhere, as he'd been a first-round pick and Atlanta's No. 1 prospect entering the 2005 season. But when the local product got called up on July 7 and then hit .432 through his first 23 games, Sports Illustrated put him on its cover with the headline "The Natural," the same billing used back in 1990 for Ken Griffey Jr. The magazine also asked of Francoeur, "Can anyone be this good?" It was, of course, an absurd and unfair question, highlighted by the fact that Francoeur didn't draw a walk until his 34th game. That lack of strike-zone judgment would end up undermining his "natural" abilities throughout his career.
Others of note: Tim Wakefield (converted minor league first baseman went 8-1, 2.15 with the Pirates in 1992, helping them reach the playoffs); Albert Pujols (Baseball America ranked him as the Cardinals' No. 2 prospect before 2001, behind ... Bud Smith); Jose Bautista (if Lin turns into an MVP candidate then we can compare him to Bautista).