Tigers fans often wonder how great Mark Fidrych might have been had injuries not derailed his short-lived career.
Fidrych steamrolled baseball in 1976, winning 19 games and led the American League in ERA at 2.34. But in 1977, the phenom’s road to greatness hit a road bump that would eventually lead to the end of his once promising career.
Yet, with most anything else in life, when one window closes, another opens. In this case, the window opened for a prospect named Jack Morris.
Morris was 6-7 with a 3.60 ERA and Triple-A Evansville in ’77 when he received the news that he was going to the big leagues. Drafted in the sixth round of the 1976 draft, Morris, only 22 years old, was in just his second year of professional baseball.
It seemed that Fidrych was suffering from pain in his throwing shoulder and left his July 12th start that season without surviving the first inning. Fidrych would eventually be placed on the disabled list, opening the door for Morris.
Morris’ first assignment was against the Chicago White Sox on July 26th and he retired the first 10 Sox batters he faced in his big league debut. He would pitch four innings in relief, allowing two runs. He would then make his first start five days later, striking out 11 in nine innings in a 3-2 loss in Texas.
Morris again would be linked to The Bird the following year when Fidrych again reported a sore shoulder after his start on April 17th. Five days later, Fidrych was a late scratch and the 23-year-old Morris was told to get loose for an emergency start.
Morris had missed the first three months of the season himself with a sore shoulder, but quickly warmed up and made the start instead of Fidrych.
As Morris recalls that day, he tells the story of a disappointed Tiger Stadium crowd when they learned The Bird would not make the start that day.
“I was walking out to the bullpen to warm up when the P.A. announcer told the fans that I was getting the start instead of The Bird,” he said. “I got a standing boo.”
The Tigers would score a comeback win over the Rangers that day, winning 7-6 in 10 innings. Morris would allow three runs in 4 1/3 innings, receiving no decision.
Morris and Fidrych both had arm issues early in their careers, but Morris believes he was luckier and eventually came back from his troubles, while The Bird never could.
“We basically had the same shoulder injury,” Morris said. “We went to the same doctors for a year and a half, we did the same exercises and the only difference was I went to winter ball. Pitching in 88 to 90-degree weather in Puerto Rico, one day I just felt the adhesions break loose in my shoulder and my arm was free of pain from then on. Mark never got through it.”
Fidrych meanwhile would go on to make only thirteen more major league starts before his career was over. While he finished a career that included two all-star appearances, a Rookie of the Year award and a lifetime 3.10 ERA, we are only left to wonder what might have been. In the end, he made just 56 major league starts.
Morris would enjoy an 18-year major league career, winning 254 games. His legacy culminating with his Hall of Fame with induction this year.
Two Tigers greats that will always be linked despite their very different career outcomes.
To this day, Morris wonders what could have been. “If I could have continued what I did, and Dan Petry would have been who he was and Mark could have come back to be the player he was, they may not be talking as much about Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz.”
Perhaps, but Tigers fans will always talk about Morris and The Bird. Two great Tigers that will always be linked.