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July 6, 2010
We have just celebrated the Fourth of July, which always has been a significant date in baseball, be it because it was the date that Lou Gehrig’s No. 4 became the first number retired in baseball or because it marked the major-league debut of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, whose major-league career consisted without so much as an at-bat yet became immortalized by W.P. Kinsella in his book “Shoeless Joe,” which morphed into the movie Field of Dreams.
It also is a date that has led to quite a bit of zaniness in our national pastime. In 1913, only one baseball was used as the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Chicago Cubs, 9-6, without so much as a home run or foul ball landing in the stands. Moreover, on July 4th, 1989, Mal Fichman etched his name into baseball lore.
Rather than let you sit there scratching your head trying to place Fichman, he was never a major leaguer, but he did and still has an influence on the game you watch today.
A one-time college player at Rutgers, Fitchman had gone on to become a manager and executive in minor-league baseball, then in the independent leagues. On July 4th, 1989, he was the manager of the Boise Hawks of the Northwest League, a team he had founded.
Fichman was in the process of winning three consecutive titles on this Independence Day when he was ejected. Now this, one must recall, is long before Bobby Valentine sneaked his way back onto the New York Mets’ bench by wearing a mustache as a disguise. Fichman was tossed by umpire Andy Gonzalez, who had called his second baseman, Paul Cluff, out on a close play at first base.
"Cluff was an All-American from Brigham Young, and he was a little older because he had spent two years on a Mormon mission," Fichman told Sports Illustrated. "But he looked like Opie, and he never opened his mouth. He got adamantly upset if anyone cursed in the dugout. So he hits a grounder, and it's a close play at first base. I was coaching third base, and by the time I got back to our dugout, on the first base side, someone said Cluff had gotten tossed.
"Well, the umpire at first base wasn't very tall. And I went out to him and said that I knew Cluff wouldn't say anything bad. Cluff told me that he was safe. The umpire told me that Cluff said he was safe and that if he [the umpire] were a little taller, he might have seen the play. Well, it struck me and I said maybe he's right. So he threw me out of the game. I'm 5-foot-7, but this guy was only about 5 feet tall."
The way the tale goes, Fichman was heading back to the locker room when he noticed that the team’s unofficial mascot, Henry the Hawk, was taking a break. The man serving as the mascot was a big guy, a former Boise State lineman, and Fichman had an idea. He put the uniform on and headed out onto the field.
“The players, at first, didn't know it was me and I was wandering around close to the dugout in the eighth inning when we had men on first and second," Fichman said. "And I went over to the coach who was now managing and I tell him through the mesh to bunt and some of the players [started to realize] it's Mal."
Now you have to picture this. Here’s Fichman, a veteran manager, founder of the franchise, playing the role of Henry the Hawk and managing the team. Word got to Northwest League president Jack Cain the next day, although reports differ as to how, but as usual Fichman tells it best.
"After the game I went back into my office and took the costume off and Jack Cain came down to the clubhouse," Fichman said in an article that ran on a minor-league baseball website. "He said something like it was a tough game, but the Hawk was very funny. I had forgotten to take the feet off and he's there and says 'That was you. That's the funniest thing you've ever done. Now you're suspended.'"
The story goes national and for a while Fichman has his 15 minutes of fame, which ought to be the end of the tale. Yet, people by that time had forgotten that Fichman had already had his 15 minutes of fame, nine years earlier when he managed what well may be the worst baseball team ever, the 1980 Rocky Mount (N.C.) Pines, who were featured in Sports Illustrated. That team was so bad that Fichman had been dubbed “Mal Function” by the local paper.
The article points out that with six games left in the season the team’s record was 25-108-1, already having broken the Carolina League record of 106 defeats and finished 25-114-1. The team lost 18 in a row at one point, and its longest winning streak was two games. In May, Fichman stood up on the team bus and announced that anyone not in the hotel bar in 25 minutes would be fined $25. They all showed up, of course, and Fichman picked up the $400 tab.
"Guys were starting to look crossways at each other," Fichman told Sports Illustrated. "It eliminated some frictions we didn't need. There's no way a night like that's going to make anybody a better player, but we'd already tried everything else—batting practice, no batting practice, infield at 8:30 in the morning. I used to touch third base every time I went out to the coaching box. I even stopped that."
Fichman survived that season, had his fling as Henry the Hawk and went on to become one of baseball’s best scouts, specializing in the independent leagues that he loved so dearly, signing 167 players, 17 of whom reached the major leagues. He did most of his work for Kevin Towers with the San Diego Padres but also worked for the Philadelphia Phillies. Among those who he had a hand in developing were Pittsburgh Pirates relievers Brendan Donnelly and Evan Meek, who was selected to the National League All-Star team on Sunday.
“Best arm I’d ever seen,” Fichman said of Meek. Kid could throw the ball through a brick wall.”
Fichman had actually seen Meek as kid and got him into the San Diego organization after he had grown up, giving him a tryout while between flights in Seattle. Meek is currently being groomed to be the Pirates' future closer.
So now you know about Mal Fichman, and if you are a regular reader you might even be thinking you heard the name before. See, a while back in Another Look, we wrote about growing up with major-league outfielder Richie Scheinblum in New Jersey and having a third friend who we used to put in the trunk of our car with ketchup on his arm and drive around town with it hanging out as if we had a body there.
That was Mal Fichman. Three amigos, each making it in baseball—Scheinblum as a player, Fichman as manager, and scout and me as an ink-stained newspaper beat writer for 30 years.