(Fidrych pads the mound. Photo by William T. Anderson, The Detroit News)
6/28/1976 - Fidrych comes on the scene
Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych was a character if baseball ever had one. He padded the pitcher's mound like a nest, he talked to the baseball as if it was a living creature, and he carried a grin wherever he went. Nicknamed "The Bird" from of his likeness to Sesame Street's Big Bird, Fidrych was largely unknown at the beginning of his career. That all changed on June 28, 1976, when his team hosted the New York Yankees on ABC's Monday Night Baseball.
In front of a massive audience both at home and in Tiger Stadium, the blond-haired rookie pitched a complete-game shutout, holding the Yankees to only seven hits in nine innings. Fidrych improved to 9-1 and it was his ninth complete game of the year. Afterward, the Detroit audience was so elated at his performance that they refused to leave after the players left the field. They chanted "We want Bird!" for minutes and only exited when an amazed Fidrych ran back from the locker room and waved to the crowd.
That game vaulted Fidrych from a local phenom to a national sensation. In 1976, Mark Fidrych was the biggest athlete in the country. He was the AL starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, he became the first athlete to appear on the cover of Rolling Stones Magazine, and he even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, which he did alongside Big Bird. Fidrych brought big crowds wherever he went; games he pitched in accounted for over 40% of his team's attendance and each of his starts following the Yankees game were televised.
Fidrych finished his dream season with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 ERA. He won the American League Rookie of the Year award and finished second in Cy Young voting to Jim Palmer of the Orioles. The Bird's career took a nosedive after that. Injuries to his arms and knees limited him to only five more seasons, and he finished his career with just a 29-19 record and a 3.10 ERA. He attempted a minor league comeback with the Red Sox in 1982 and 1983 before calling it quits, no doubt as the most notable 29-game winner in MLB history.
6/28/2007 - Biggio and Thomas reach their milestones
Frank Thomas is the first of three players to hit their 500th career home run in 2007. Thomas' blast came in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. The longtime White Sox player had been ungracefully cut by Chicago after they won the championship in 2005. Thomas then bounced to Oakland and then to Toronto; in 2008, he returned to Oakland after being waived by the Jays.
The fan who caught the home run ball, 24 year-old Todd Eisenlohr, gave the ball back to Thomas in exchange for a chance to meet him. Thomas got his 500-ball and awarded Eidenlohr with an autographed bat, ball, and jersey. It would have been a perfect story... except that Thomas argued a call in the ninth inning and was promptly ejected, earning him the distinction as the first player to get ejected in a game where he hit his 500th homer.
Also reaching an important figure was Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who got his 3,000th hit in a much better fashion. Biggio collected five hits on a night that ended with a game-winning walk-off grand slam from teammate Carlos Lee in the bottom of the 11th. It came one day shy of the 19th anniversary of Biggio's first career hit. It was not the first milestone Biggio reached in his career; a few years earlier, he passed Don Baylor for the all-time record in getting hit by a pitch (268).
6/28/2007 - Oden and Durant go 1 and 2
In one of the most highly-anticipated drafts in history, the Portland Trail Blazers select center Greg Oden with the No. 1 overall pick. There had been immense speculation whether the Blazers would pick Oden or Kevin Durant, a Texas freshman who posted impressive scoring numbers during the regular season. The Seattle SuperSonics selected Durant with the No. 2 pick.
Oden was drafted with the reminder of Portland's previous selections with the No. 1 overall pick: Mychal Thompson, LaRue Martin, Bill Walton, and Sam Bowie. Thompson and Martin never became stars, Walton had an abbreviated career due to injury, and Sam Bowie was unfortunately picked instead of Michael Jordan. Many wondered if choosing the big man (Oden) instead of the tenacious guard-forward (Durant) was a repeat of choosing Bowie over Jordan.
Oden missed his entire rookie season due to injury while Durant averaged 20.3 per game and was named the Rookie of the Year. In his second year, Durant was already one of the top scorers in the NBA, while Oden struggled to beat out Joel Przybilla for playing time. It is still unknown who got the better player, though it currently appears that Seattle got the upper hand.
6/28/2007 - Celtics get Ray Allen
Also happening on this busy day in June, the Boston Celtics trade Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the No. 5 pick in the draft -- Jeff Green -- to the Sonics for Ray Allen. The Sonics intended to rebuild entirely around Kevin Durant and were content to give away Ray Allen's giant contract. Boston was the beneficiary, as they now had another superstar to go along with Paul Pierce. A month later, the Celtics would trade half their roster to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett, giving the Celtics the best trio in the NBA.
It was a tremendous recovery for the Celtics, who had lost a conference-worst 58 games in order to get either Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. When the picking order was determined a few weeks earlier, the Celtics were crestfallen to learn that they had the No. 5 pick -- far too low to get either of the prodigies they wanted.
But in the end, not getting either player was the best thing that could have happened to them. Instead of slowly rebuilding, the Celtics enjoyed the greatest one-season turnaround in the history of the NBA and won the championship in 2008.