Greg Eno

Archive for the ‘Joel Zumaya’ Category

“Slushy” Knee Spelled Doom For The Bird; Similar Fate For Zumaya?

In Joel Zumaya, Mark Fidrych on September 14, 2008 at 6:07 am

Perhaps they should change his nickname to “Doom Doom”.

Joel Zumaya – “Zoom Zoom” they call him – has something the matter with him again. The powerful right shoulder that is able to propel a baseball 100 miles per hour (and that’s no exaggeration) now has a stress fracture, according to the docs, and for the next six to eight weeks, it’s reported, Zoom Zoom is not to engage in “any sort of baseball activity.” Therefore, it’s questionable whether he will be healthy when spring training begins next February, due to the rehabilitation necessary after such inactivity.

There’s always something the matter, it seems, with Zumaya.

He burst onto the scene in 2006, in the seventh inning of an Opening Day win in Kansas City. His debut was much anticipated, for he was one of two rookie Tigers pitchers that we read a lot about during spring training. The other was Justin Verlander. Today, Verlander battles his own demons, though his may be between the ears.

Anyhow, Zumaya entered the game, the Tigers clinging to a slim lead. He looked crisp and, at times, dominant, retiring six of the eight hitters he faced in two innings of work. In a fit of jingoism, I wrote the next day that the new kid Zumaya, 21 at the time, was going to make the seventh and eighth innings fun again. I stumbled all over myself in praising the kid, enamored with his triple digit potential when it came to the speed of his pitches.

Actually, it was one of the few times when my crystal ball wasn’t foggy. Zumaya indeed turned Detroit on in the summer of ’06. He’d enter the game, always in a key seventh or eighth inning situation, and the Comerica Park crowd would go wild. Stirring music would thump from the sound system, and Zumaya’s hulking body would jog from the bullpen in left field to the mound, the excitement building. After the requisite warm-ups, Zumaya would throw his first pitch in that menacing delivery where it looks like he’s about 20 feet from the mound when he releases the ball, and the fans would snap their necks to the scoreboard, where they post the speed of the pitch just thrown.

98. The crowd oohed.

99. The crowd aahed.

100. You can imagine.

Zumaya owned Detroit in the summer of ’06, which may as well be 22 years ago, instead of just two. Then the injuries started coming. Too numerous, and depressing, to mention here.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the summer of ’06 may as well be 32 years ago – which is how long ago it was when another Tigers rookie pitcher claimed the Motor City as his own.

I asked Mark Fidrych a year or so ago when he knew that something was the matter with him, on that fateful spring training day in March, 1977.

“I was shagging flyballs in the outfield,” Fidrych explained, and it was hardly the first time the story had been recounted, but I wanted to know how he reacted to the moment. “(Teammate) Rusty (Staub) told me to be careful. He thought I was being a little careless.” The exchange with Staub jibes with Rusty himself, who has gone on record as saying he worried about Fidrych’s antics that day.

“So I leap for a ball, and I came down funny on my knee. It felt slushy,” Fidrych continued in that Boston-laced accent of his, using words only he can use. When else have you heard of a knee being described as “slushy”?

“I went up to Rusty and said, ‘My knee feels kind of slushy.’ He told me to see the trainer.”

Fidrych’s “slushy” knee was trouble, though had the injury happened nowadays, today’s technology may have allowed for a scope, and the injury wouldn’t have been as serious. But this was 1977, which in terms of medical advancement may as well be 1877.

The prognosis was somber, but not career-threatening – at first. Surgery was ordered, and “The Bird” would be back in relatively short order.

He was. It was late May, 1977. The opponents were the expansion Seattle Mariners, at Tiger Stadium. What would normally have been a ho-hum affair between the new Mariners and the sub-.500 Tigers turned into a circus-like atmosphere. I should know, for I was there. I never got to see Fidrych pitch in his amazing ’76 rookie season, but this was the next best thing. A click over to the wonderful baseball research site known as Retrosheet.org tells me that Fidrych pitched all nine innings, giving up just two runs (only one earned), yet he lost, 2-1, to the M’s. The date was May 27, 1977, just as I recalled.

The next time I saw Fidrych pitch, it was in 1980. He was making the billionth comeback of his lightning-in-a-bottle career. He got pounded, as was usually the case at that time.

The slushy knee healed, but then tendonitis developed in his right arm. In another oft-told bit, the tendonitis was blamed on mechanics changing in his delivery as Fidrych compensated for his tender knee. But it doesn’t really matter why it happened. After some decent games in ’77, the arm flared and thus began the series of comebacks and rehab stints. They would last all the way until 1981, when Fidrych – by this time waived and picked up by the Boston Red Sox – gave it a shot with the Red Sox’ minor league team in Pawtucket. He got knocked around some more. Finally, at age 26, Fidrych retired.

I’m beginning to feel like Chicken Little here, for wasn’t it just a few weeks ago when I suggested that Tigers lefty Dontrelle Willis might have Steve Blass Syndrome? Well, here I go again, wondering if the snake bitten Zumaya ends up being another Mark Fidrych – the young man whose potential is never reached because his body continually betrays him. Zoom Zoom is 23. I hope that it’s still far too early to start calling him Doom Doom.

But I can’t help but wonder. And it makes my stomach feel slushy.