The day after Dylan Bundy pitched a seven-inning gem against the Texas Rangers Aug. 2, I started to wonder if Buck Showalter had ever managed a pitcher who captured the imagination of the fans both home and away with so much excitement that it turned into "mania."
When thinking back on taking fans by storm, two pitchers came to mind: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and Fernando Valenzuela. And it just so happens a Grantland article written by Ben Lindbergh rates the top 10 season attendance draws by pitchers with Fidrych, in 1976, as No. 1, and Valenzuela, in 1981, as No. 2.
According to the article, during the nights Fidrych pitched in 1976, the Tigers drew an average of plus-17,180 more fans than when any other starter was on the hill.
"Fernandomania" was probably ranked second mostly because without Valenzuela, the Dodgers were already averaging well in excess of 35,000 per game, and that number rose from 35,316 to 48,241 when Valenzuela pitched.
While chicks may dig the long ball -- and while MLB has always tried to find a way to get more offense in the game, including turning a blind eye to the almost overt-cheating by juiced batters in the 1980s and 1990s -- fans really do turn out in droves to see the most dominant pitchers of their era.
Others I remember offhand, without going into the nitty-gritty details, were the New York Mets' Tom Seaver in his prime at Shea Stadium (cited twice in Lindbergh's article) and Steve Carlton in 1972 at Veterans Stadium when he won 27 games for a Phillies team that won 56 games all season. I also remember one particular visiting pitcher, Oakland's Vida Blue, coming to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in 1971. It was Blue's first full season in the big leagues when he went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and fans had a full onslaught of mania.
To get back to Bundy's performance, I was curious if Showalter had managed a pitcher who inspired his own mania and if it added any extra pressure.
"Maybe Randy [Johnson] -- a little bit," Showalter said.
As he continued to ponder I asked, "Are there pressures around that, if Bundy becomes that?" To which Showalter interrupted immediately, as if to stop me from tossing that thought out into the atmosphere.
"Geez, he's had a couple good outings ... let's not go there," Showalter said. "Come on; he's been OK."
Buck's rapid dismissal makes sense from his point of view. No manager wants to pull what manager Sparky Anderson routinely did -- pronounce one of his players to be the next great thing. When Anderson was managing Detroit in 1980, Kirk Gibson's rookie year, during spring training, Anderson compared him favorably to Mickey Mantle. A couple years later, Anderson projected a youngster in camp, Chris Pittaro, was good enough to warrant moving second base stalwart Lou Whitaker. Pittaro made the Tigers in 1985 and mustered 15 hits in 62 at-bats, and that was the end of his Tigers career.
It's wise to keep expectations low for potentially great young players, especially players in Bundy's shoes whose career development has been delayed, not derailed, by separate injury issues.
But the reality is Showalter and Bundy's Orioles are in what looks like a knock-down, drag-out pennant race with the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox for the American League East. Furthermore, despite all the worry about Bundy's innings, Showalter will be savvy enough to work around them as intelligently as anyone in the game. And that is potentially bad news for the rest of the division and perhaps the AL.
The truth is, Oriole fans may not be coming to the ballpark in record numbers in 2016, but fans are watching and listening to games on the radio and TV.
If Bundy's performances continue to fall in line with the two he recorded July 27 and Aug. 2, when he had no-hitters through five innings, there is no telling what the advance sales will be for future Bundy starts at Camden Yards.
And let's just get a little out in front of our skis on this topic. Suppose Bundy's next home start, after a few more brilliant outings, comes during the Orioles home series with the Washington Nationals Aug. 22 or 23. Go one step further and match him up against Nationals aces Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer, and Bundy-mania could really be on its way.
The Orioles have had some wonderful pitchers in their storied history -- Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Denis Martinez, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone, Mike Boddicker and Mike Mussina.
This splendid group all inspired confidence the Orioles could record a win on the nights they took the mound. That's what great pitchers do.
But among the names I have mentioned, and the names I may have forgotten, there is nary a name that has inspired a full-blown mania surrounding the limitless possibility that they could be as special as anyone else in the game.
In Orioles lore, Dylan Bundy may stand alone in evoking those sorts of hopes from the faithful purchasers of what may become the toughest ticket to snag in Birdland in a long, long time.
Issue 224: August 2016