Some of us were there for the whole, inconceivable show in 1976. We watched that Saturday afternoon in May when he debuted as a starter and when something akin to baseball’s version of nuclear fission occurred on a baseball mound at Tiger Stadium.
We saw the story build and grow in fury and fascination. Joined a baseball nation in fixation as he started July’s All-Star Game at Philadelphia. Tuned in that Monday night on ABC-TV when he put down the Yankees and spontaneously shook everyone’s hands — Tigers infielders after a nice play, the umpires, policemen who escorted him onto the field for a postgame “Go, Bird, Go” curtain call at Tiger Stadium as ABC-TV’s Warner Wolf giggled and said: “I love this guy.”
Saw him get down on his hands and knees and smooth the pitcher’s mound. Laughed as he bent over an outstretched baseball, telling it to “flow” a moment before he whipped into his throwing motion to deliver another knee-high sinker that bedeviled a batter. Marveled as crowds overwhelmed Tiger Stadium on nights he pitched and 50,000-plus jammed their way into anything that approached a seat or a place to stand at that glorious old ballpark in Detroit.
Took in the whole dad-gummed, crazy, zany, comical, masterly show that somehow saw a kind of baseball circus act meld with uncanny rookie pitching skill to create an epic concoction known as Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
And now you wonder if something — no, “The Bird” can’t be duplicated, not the theater, not the pandemonium — of reasonable comparison is playing out as the Tigers get a jolt from a kid outfielder named Akil Baddoo.
This was a gut feeling that began to flutter during spring camp in Florida. It is a sensation that has been mounting in the weeks and days and nights since a 22-year-old with a lightning left-handed bat and an exotic name has become “The Story” in Detroit baseball.
What is known, beyond this wild tale’s capacity to burn hot before going cold, is a thought that 45 years between phenoms is about the interlude one might expect when assessing the chance Mark Fidrych has given way to Akil Baddoo.
Both thoughts have merit.
And those thoughts get mixed reviews. We have heard the chorus, and it’s loud:
“It’s way too early.”
“Baddoo could be another Chris Shelton.”
If you care to join that assembly, go for it. Pessimism, skepticism, cynicism — wherever doubt falls on the spectrum — generally are rewarded in a game as merciless as big-league baseball. Doubters have little to invest, and even less to lose, snorting at fresh and unproven talent. And, to be fair, often at the end they’re justified in shrugging shoulders or waving off notions that a kid shockingly new to the big-league game could be having the early, and surprisingly sustained, success Baddoo has been delivering since spring camp’s start.
They know, also, that “The Bird” will not, cannot — maybe ever — be matched for the cosmic collection of skill, spontaneity and natural showmanship he brought to Detroit in 1976.
They are aware, too, of how baseball’s fairy tales can morph into cruelty. “The Bird” ran into knee and arm problems not long after his Magical Mystery Tour of 1976. His body ultimately failed him. The delirium of ’76 descended into something approaching depression as Fidrych faded.
The be-careful crowd remembers, as well, how a young, red-haired guy named Shelton hit like a tornado for a few weeks in 2006 before nosediving his way out of baseball.
And it’s with equal candor that one can say the comparisons with Baddoo don’t wash.
Shelton was, well, a right-handed hitter, and not much else. He was a player without a firm position, which is how the Tigers had gobbled him up in the Rule 5 draft of 2003.
And there, for sure, is your reminder to be careful about Baddoo. He, like Shelton, is a Rule 5 guy — a player the Tigers stole when his parent team (the Twins) couldn’t find room for him on their 40-man roster.
Not that comparisons there are terribly apt.
Baddoo is a left-handed slasher who has that most essential offensive talent: bat-speed.
He has other skills, as well, which makes him different from Shelton, and even different from another long-ago Tigers slugger who had power Baddoo already has shown: Willie Horton. Horton played a solid left field but his defense and footwork could never match the gifts Baddoo shows anytime he is playing three outfield spots, including center field, or wheeling around the bases.
Here again, the Chorus of the Unconvinced:
“You mean you’re comparing Akil Baddoo to the great Horton?”
No. But I remember the springs of 1964 and ‘65 when Horton arrived and nearly destroyed Tiger Stadium’s upper deck. Remember his struggles, too, which led to a trip or two to Triple A but never seriously diminished the likelihood he was going to be an immensely important hitter.
Baddoo has unveiled in six weeks what is not to be confused with illusion. He has talents that play on an everyday big-league diamond. In his case, he hits good pitching. Hits it hard. Hits it far.
He doesn’t chase. He appreciates the difference between strikes and balls.
And he came, it seems, from nowhere.
In its suddenness, the Baddoo tale bears another analogue to Fidrych’s arrival in ’76.
No one in those days paid great attention to the minors. They might have heard loose references to a Tigers kid pitching prospect who talked to the baseball and looked as if he had big-league stuff. But “The Bird” was a word that seemed in spring, 1976, to arrive almost Providentially.
Baddoo has that same bolt-from-the-blue identity.
He was Twins property until four months ago. Hadn’t even played in almost two years, all because of Tommy John surgery and something the world has come to know as COVID-19.
Baddoo showed up in February at Lakeland, Florida, as another of those fringe Rule 5 contestants who, even if he made the team, figured to be a guy manager AJ Hinch on most days would want tucked into a closet or bat-rack — out of view, out of the way.
Rule 5 players tend not to be of great help, ever, and certainly not as rookies when, like Baddoo, it’s a good bet the player hasn’t performed above Single A.
But here’s the every-45-year-shocker, or whatever timeframe might apply to this potential gift from the baseball gods. Baddoo has been helping this team win games. Every victory to date has been partly fueled by a kid who hammers 450-foot homers, interspersed by a triple or double or walk or extra-inning, game-winning single.
And, courtesy of parents whose lineage is from Ghana and Trinidad, he has that captivating baseball name: Akil Baddoo, exotic and melodic and maybe a name destined to rock Comerica Park. That is, once big crowds return, post-pandemic, with the inevitable, full-throated drones of “Dooooo” pumping verve into what has been, for too many years now, something of a desolate baseball scene in downtown Detroit.
Baddoo is not perfect. He is manifestly imperfect. He was doing jumping-jacks Monday night at Houston when he thought he hit a second home run — until the ball fell short and left him scrambling to second base with a face as red as a sunset.
He got big for his baseball britches Tuesday, again at Houston, when he thought the home-plate umpire missed a couple of pitches the ump — at least in one case — hadn’t missed. The ump chased him back to the dugout. His manager, knowing who wins these battles, suppressed a grimace.
That’s a kid reacting to an adult baseball moment. That’s a 22-year-old learning why emotions in baseball are best treated the way batters treat two-strike pitches: with discipline, with resolve, with poise not yet owned by a young man so new to this swirl of sensations.
Fidrych had those moments in ’76. He was raw and unsophisticated and often awkward. He spoke sentences as quirky as his overall persona.
But what he said lots of times was pure and unpretentious, in perfect harmony with his mound-smoothing and verbal commands to the baseball before he flung it past a bewildered big-league batter.
It was different, so different, in 1976, in great part because “The Bird” had another dimension working for him: He pitched every four days. It allowed for three days of build-up. Three days of chatter and excitement. Three days to get ready for a spectacular baseball stage-show.
Baddoo won’t be matching any of the above, no. Comparisons have their constraints.
But what he has a chance to do, even as rougher stretches inevitably arrive, is to become a baseball story as original and as valuable as anything Detroit has seen in a couple of generations.
There is a chance for all of that to happen. A chance for something astonishing and franchise-changing to bless a charter big-league baseball town that’s overdue for a gift.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com