2001 | TUCSON, ARIZONA – Many hitters thought Randy Johnson‘s fastballs were deadly. On this date in 2001 one of them truly was, and the dove it struck never knew what hit it.
During an exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitcher wound up and threw a fastball to a Giants hitter at precisely the moment a dove flew in front of home plate. The ball hit the bird. The result was a cloud of feathers and an ex-bird
According to the Associated Press (AP), Diamondbacks catcher Rod Barajas said, “I’m sitting there waiting for it, and I’m expecting to catch the thing and all you see is an explosion.” The home plate umpire called it a “no pitch.”
Sportswriters and columnists had a field day with the unfortunate demise of the bird, which ended up in “fowl” territory. Johnson said he didn’t think it was all that funny.
When wildlife wasn’t getting in the way of Randy Johnson pitches he was pretty good, and as of this writing, still is. He’s won five Cy Young awards. Entering the 2009 season, has a record of 295 wins and 160 losses. He’s been on 10 all-star teams, and was a member of the 2001 World Series Champion Diamondbacks. And as far as we know, no more of his fastballs have collided with any birds.
The Associated Press (AP), Tucson, Arizona, March 25, 2001
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1990 | BRONX, NEW YORK – A messy soap opera involving New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Dave Winfield, one of his players, hit the headlines again today with the arrest of Howard Spira. Spira, a small-time gambler and former sports radio station stringer, was arrested and charged with extortion.
Spira was convicted a year later for trying to extort $110,000 from Steinbrenner. The mess ended up getting the Yankee owner banned from baseball when it was revealed that he had given Spira $40,000 to find out some dirt about Winfield. Steinbrenner insisted the money was to help “Howie” get back on his feet.
Steinbrenner and Winfield had been feuding for a number of reasons since Winfield signed a 10-year, $23 million contract with the Yankees that Steinbrenner didn’t feel he quite lived up to. Winfield was upset with Steinbrenner for, among other things, claiming he reneged on a promise to donate $300,000 to Winfield’s foundation. That’s where Howard Spira came in. Spira once worked as a publicist for the Foundation. Steinbrenner paid Spira to find out some stuff on Winfield that Steinbrenner could use against him.
Steinbrenner was reinstated as Yankees owner in 1993. Howard Spira served 26 months in a federal prison for extortion. What’s never been clear is why someone with the resources of George Steinbrenner would seek out someone like Howie Spira rather than, say, an ex-FBI agent.
1993 | CLERMONT, FLORIDA – On the one off-day the Cleveland Indians had the entire 1993 spring training an afternoon of relaxation turned into tragedy. Pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed and Bobby Ojeda was seriously injured when the fishing boat they were in rammed into a pier on Little Lake Nellie in Clermont, Florida. The lake is about 25 miles north of their spring training site at Winter Haven, Florida.
The three Indians pitchers brought their families to the lake to enjoy the day off. Olin, Crews and Ojeda had been fishing and were returning to shore when the accident happened. Crews was piloting the boat. An autopsy showed Crews was legally drunk when the boat slammed into the pier. He was killed instantly. Olin was pronounced dead the next morning. Ojeda had serious head lacerations but survived and made a complete recovery.
Twenty-seven year old Steve Olin had come into his own as the Indians closer the previous season. He appeared 72 games and had 29 saves.
Thirty-one year old Tim Crews had just signed with Cleveland as a free agent after spending six seasons with the Dodgers. He had an off year in ’92 when his ERA ballooned to 5.19, but he was just two years removed from an ERA of 2.77 in 66 games.
Thirty-five year old Bob Ojeda was a 13-year veteran when the accident happened. He won 115 games in his career, and was a major part of the New York Mets World Championship season in 1986 going 18-5. He recovered enough to appear in 9 games in ’93. He signed with the Yankees in ’94 but was released after appearing in two games.
Tragedy still haunts
1977 | LAKELAND, FLORIDA – When Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych twisted his knee shagging fly balls on this date in 1977 it seemed like a minor bump in the road for the 1976 rookie of the year. He was expected to miss his next start. Unfortunately, the injury was more serious than first thought. Fidrych had torn cartilage in his knee and would need surgery. He was never the same, and was out of baseball three years later.
But 1976 was magical.
Twenty-one year old Mark Fidrych wasn’t even expected to make the team out of spring training. He made his first start in May only because the scheduled starter had the flu. But Fidrych went on to win 19 games while losing 9. He led the league with a 2.34 ERA and completed 24 games, also the league leader. He won Rookie of the Year honors and was second in voting for the Cy Young award.
Fidrych created a national sensation not only because he pitched well, but also because of his personality and antics. He was “a little out of left field,” but seemed to really have fun playing the game.
Fidrych was called “The Bird” because he resembled Big Bird from the Sesame Street children’s TV show. When he pitched he’d talk to the baseball. He’d stoop down and carefully manicure the mound. He’d throw balls back to the umpire because he said they still had hits in them. Detroit drew huge crowds every time he pitched even though the team was never in the pennant race. Opposing teams tried to get the Tigers to change their pitching rotation so he’d pitch in their park.
Fidrych took it all in stride. The name of his autobiography was “No Big Deal.”
He returned to his native Massachusetts after baseball. Tragically, on April 13, 2009 Fidrych was found dead under the truck he was apparently working on. He was 54.
Mark Fidrych Baseball-Reference
The Associated Press, Lakeland, Florida, March 22, 1977
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1953 | WASHINGTON, D.C. – There was a time when Major League Baseball (MLB) teams were prevented from broadcasting games within 50 miles of a Minor-League Baseball (MiLB) ball park. The thinking was the major-league broadcasts hurt minor league attendance.
That appeared to be the case in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but in 1949 the U-S Justice Department said the rule violated anti-trust laws. The broadcasts had to be allowed.
The 12th year in a row that minor league affiliated baseball drew over 41-million fans.
As U-S Senator Edwin Johnson put it, “Then the heavens caved in.” Senator Johnson’s reaction may have been a little melodramatic, but on this date in 1953 the Colorado democrat introduced a bill that would leave it up to each individual team whether to allow major league broadcasts in minor league towns. Johnson said the broadcasts, many now television, were destroying minor league baseball in small cities and towns, but is that still the case?
At its zenith in 1949, there were 59 minor leagues and 448 teams. Attendance nationwide was 39.6 million. When Senator Johnson introduced his bill in 1953 the number of leagues had dropped from 59 to 39 and many of them on shaky ground. Johnson’s bill did not pass, and minor league teams continued to shrink in number.
But broadcasting and other factors eventually breathed life into minor league baseball. According to Street & Smith’s SportsBusinessDaily, in 2016, total paid attendance of minor league teams affiliated with major league teams was **41.4 million. That’s down slightly from 2015, but the 9th largest attendance in MiLB history. And the 12th year in a row that minor league affiliated baseball drew over 41-million fans.
The Associated Press, Washington, D.C., March 21, 1953
Official site of Minor League Baseball
**These numbers do not count independent professional baseball leagues such as The Northern League and The Frontier League.