Friday, August 21, 2009

A glimpse of the past

A recent change in TV service in my household brought ESPN Classic into my orbit, and I spent a little time this afternoon watching a rebroadcast of a 1976 Yankees-Tigers game started by Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. As I understand it, this is a fairly frequently shown game, but this was my first exposure to it in some time.

The Bird was always interesting, of course, but there were other things in the game that got my attention — things that reveal some of the subtle changes, changes that we didn't even notice when they happened — or noticed and then quickly forgot.


*Photographers standing in foul territory during play. I seem to recall noticing when the Twins moved to the Dome in 1982 that they had specific wells for newspaper photographers, which suggests to me that they had access to the field in the old Met.

* The home plate umpire was using the old balloon chest protector.

* The game was played at a crisp pace. Batters didn't back out nearly as often, or for as long, as they do now. Nor were they taking as many pitches, or fouling off as many, as they do today.

* I knew Rusty Staub used a heavy bat. I had forgotten how much he choked up on it. Nobody today does that. (Nick Punto probably should.)

* Bob Prince, the ABC announcer, marveled at the turnout at (now demolished) Tiger Stadium, noting that the Tigers averaged about 18,000 a game normally but had probably 55,000 at this game. Indeed,the Tigers that year — with Fidrych capturing the imagination of the city, and indeed a generation of fans across the nation — drew a bit over 18,000 per game for the season, or less than 1.5 million. That was eighth highest in MLB. This year, 22 teams have already drawn more fans. (The Twins in 1976 drew less than 9,000 per game.)

* Prince himself (photo above) was terrible. He constantly misidentified players, once said (after the Tigers had gone out in order) that the Yankees had gone out in order and generally was an embarrassment. He had been a legendary announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates — one of the game's greatest radio broadcasters — but man, he was awful that night.

(Sort like listening today to John Gordon. Tonight Gordo was talking just before the first pitch about how cool it is in Kansas City — "In the dugout, Gardy's even wearing a jacket." Ron Gardenhire always wears a jacket. Gordon's apparently never noticed.)

*Prince spoke at one point of Branch Rickey, who ran the Pirates for about a decade while Prince was there. As was typical of people who worked for Rickey, Prince called him "Mr. Rickey" on every reference.

*The Yankees pitcher was Ken Holtzman, a more significant pitcher than Fidrych (but not a cultural phenomenon like The Bird). Holtzman had been a rotation anchor for the Mustache Gang A's, winners of three straight World Series in the early 1970s; he won 174 games in a 15-year career — and I could not recall the image of him on the hill.

Now I do, at least what he looked like in his last good season. An odd motion — a left-hander, he didn't step directly toward home but off toward first base, then he slingshot the pitch with high-sidearm/low three-quarters delivery. By current standards, he had mediocre velocity — mid 80s or thereabouts.

But looking at his stats, I suspect he was pitching hurt in 1976. Pitching a lot, but pitching hurt — 246 innings, but only 66 strikeouts, less than half the Ks of the previous season. He went 14-11, 3.65 for Baltimore and the Yankees (he came to New York in a trade that brought the Orioles, among others, longtime mainstays Rick Dempsey and Scott McGregor) but didn't pitch at all for the Yankees in the postseason.

It was more than nostalgic to reacquaint myself with Holtzman and Prince, The Bird and Staub, Tiger Stadium and balloon protectors. It was a reminder of how the game has changed in the past three decades.

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