A look at Major League Baseball's first-half phenoms

by Scott Munn and Jacob Unruh and Trent Shadid Published: July 19, 2013
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First-half phenoms in Major League Baseball have a way of catching one's heart.

From kooky Mark Fidrych to lovable Fernando Valenzuela to entertaining pitchers such as Hideo Nomo and Dontrelle Willis, baseball fans have fallen in love with breakout players.

That's no different with Cuban-born outfielder Yasiel Puig, who is the toast of Los Angeles and baseball right now.

The Dodgers rookie is off to a torrid start, batting .391 with 59 hits in just 38 games, causing fans to go into frenzy. He's also turned heads in baseball with his reckless play and fiery attitude.

But the fans have been the most crazed.

Here are stories of some Oklahomans who were caught up in the aura of first-half phenoms.

‘FERNANDOMANIA'

Gene Burrus remembers high school football fans at games in his hometown Los Angeles tuned into their transistor radios listening to Vin Scully.

It was 1981, and Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela had captivated the city every fifth day when he took the mound with Fernandomania.

“It was incredible,” said Burrus, 49. “There were people that had written songs about Fernando and everyone was listening to the songs about Fernando. The whole city was really just kind of tied up in what this one kid was going to do every five days.”

Valenzuela started that season 8-0 and eventually helped the Dodgers to a World Series title.

But it was his popularity that is often talked about among the Los Angeles community, which has a strong Mexican demographic.

“It was just an amazing thing to watch that community get so fired up for this guy,” Burrus said. “He really was just this good-natured kid who couldn't really speak much English, or at least he pretended he couldn't speak much English, so he would always use a translator for interviews.”

Burrus, a lawyer who attended the University of Oklahoma for his undergraduate degree and now lives in Seattle, was one of those fans in the stands.

“I grew up a big Dodgers fan and I suffered through disappointments in the '70s,” Burrus said. “That season started and it was amazing because every five days it had to be a fluke. He couldn't possibly do it again. But that spring he did it again and again and again.”

‘THE BIRD'

Rob Clark did not necessarily talk to the baseball. He might have manicured the mound a few times. Maybe circled it once or twice.

“You think about things you did — you were just enjoying the game like he did,” Clark said. “He was having fun, whether he talked to the ball or patted the mound.”

Clark, 53, grew up in the era of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. The Detroit Tigers' one-season wonder was tall and skinny with a red mop top. Nicknamed after the Sesame Street character Big Bird, Fidrych had the baseball world aflutter in 1976.

Fidrych's statistics were a worthy sports bar topic, but his on-the-mound antics made him a popular watch on TV and from the grandstands.

Truth: He had one-way conversations with baseballs. He often patted the dirt on the mound to clear away cleat marks. He sometimes exchanged balls with the home plate umpire because they might have “too many hits in them.”

“We all did stuff like that as kids,” said Clark, a former Oklahoma City 89ers pitcher who is now the computer and business department chairman at Moore High School. “We identified with him. I had a routine just like other kids did.”

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by Scott Munn
Sports Assistant Editor
Scott Munn joined The Oklahoman/Oklahoma City Times sports staffs in October 1982. He spent a year as a formcharter, three years on the desk and 16 as a reporter. Scott has spent the last nine years as an evening assistant sports editor. Scott's...
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by Jacob Unruh
Reporter
Jacob Unruh is a graduate of Northeastern State University. He was born in Cherokee and raised near Vera where he attended Caney Valley High School.During his tenure at NSU, Unruh wrote for The Northeastern (NSU's student newspaper), the...
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by Trent Shadid
Copy Editor
Trent Shadid is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Weatherford, Okla., and attended Weatherford High School. Before joining The Oklahoman, he spent two seasons as an assistant wrestling coach at Weatherford High...
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