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.
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.”
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.”
The crazy part was Fidrych's act seemed to work.
He was 7-1 the first half of the '76 season and earned the All-Star Game start. Fidrych was named American League Rookie of the Year after finishing 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and an astounding 24 complete games.
People could not get enough of The Bird.
“He entertained people,” Clark said. “But he was also out there having fun, enjoying the game just like us.”
Knee and shoulder injuries limited Fidrych's career to five seasons, all with the Tigers. None were more spectacular than his rookie season. He died in 2009, at age 54, in a farming accident.
But he's still remembered for the Bicentennial summer when fans were pasted to television sets and packed stadiums.
“I wanted to be just like him,” Clark said. “I worked hard to come up with some kind of unique routine of my own as did most kids that pitched. Our Little League coaches laughed at us sometimes ... it was a fun time period to be growing up and playing baseball.”
Gordon Moody has been a Los Angeles Dodgers fan for as long as he can remember.
With the emergence of rookie phenom Yasiel Puig, the first half of this season provided some of the most unforgettable memories for Moody as a fan.
Puig — the Dodgers' top minor league prospect coming into this season — made his major league debut on June 3, starting in right field against the San Diego Padres. He wasted no time getting to work on what would be one of the most electrifying starts to a career in baseball history.
Puig hit leadoff in his debut, going 2-for-4 at the plate. But the most memorable moment that night, at least for Moody, came on a game-ending double play.
After making a catch just shy of the wall, Puig threw on a line to first base, doubling off the tying run and preserving a 2-1 victory.
“I said just ‘wow' when I saw that,” Moody said. “Not everyone can make that play. And to do it in his first start — that was pretty incredible.”
Not only has Puig provided jaw-dropping highlights and a scorching .391 batting average for the first half, but he's also turned the Dodgers' season around. Before Puig's arrival, the Dodgers were nine games under .500 and failing to live up to lofty preseason expectations.
“When he got called up, I was surprised but really excited,” Moody said. “It seemed like almost a desperation move at first because the Dodgers were playing so bad, but they had to do something. He's definitely stirred up the team with the way he plays.”
After Puig showed up, the Dodgers closed out the first half of the season going 24-15 to pull within striking distance of first place in the NL West.
Moody, 49, is a lifelong Oklahoman currently living in Tulsa. He still manages to watch every game he can with DirecTV's MLB Extra Innings package, which allows him to watch the Dodgers broadcasts.
“It's kind of funny when I listen to the Dodgers broadcast to hear Vin Scully call him the Wild Stallion,” said Moody, referring to the nickname Puig has received for his sometimes reckless play. “He's a guy that needs some polish, but despite the mistakes I think he plays the right way because he hustles. I've been watching baseball all my life and I've never seen a talent like this. He's not perfect, but he's been pretty incredible.”