El Sid loads debate bases in a big hurry

April 19, 1994|By Bill Tanton

This is beautiful. El Sid has pitched one game for the Orioles and already he has the natives stirred up.

After a decade with the Mets, Sid Fernandez made his Orioles debut Sunday night in Texas. He lasted 3 2/3 innings, gave up three hits, walked four, struck out five.

The Orioles won the game, 6-5. The win went to Mark Williamson, who pitched 3 1/3 innings.

Almost instantaneously, controversy erupted.

Yesterday morning at the Cross Keys Deli, three customers were having a heated discussion about El Sid's performance.

"I thought he looked pretty good," said one.

"Pretty good?" snapped the second. "What do you base that on? I thought he looked terrible."

"He kept striking out people to get out of trouble," said the first man, a sharp edge to his voice.

"What game were you watching?" asked the second guy. "Fernandez was always in trouble. He was never in command."

"Just tell me one thing," the first man said angrily. "How many runs did he allow?"

"He didn't allow any," the second man admitted, "but he looks awful. He's so heavy."

Finally the third guy, a man who appeared to be well into his 60s, chimed in.

"My mother called me at 6:30 this morning," he said, "and she asked me, 'Where'd the Orioles get that fat pitcher?' "

And so it went, all day, wherever I went in and around Baltimore.

This is about more than an overweight pitcher. Sid Fernandez could be the key to the Orioles' season.

The club has two starters who have posted victories -- Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

It's pretty hard to win a championship with two starters, although the Boston Braves did it in 1948 with Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. The motto born of that: "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."

Over the weekend a woman called Rex Barney on his WBAL talk show and suggested a motto for the Orioles' present staff: "Ben and Mussina and say a novena."

Enter Sid Fernandez, the club's big hope for the No. 3 starting spot.

What an entrance! Mustachioed Sid is 6 feet 1, is listed at 225, and looks 250.

True, Sid was in a lot of trouble in Sunday's game. He had the bases loaded in the first and second innings. By then he had thrown 60 of the 95 pitches he was to be allowed.

Fernandez ended the first inning by striking out Dean Palmer, stranding three runners. He ended the second when Will Clark took a called third strike, stranding three more.

No wonder people don't know what to make of El Sid. He's part terrific, part terrible.

The imagination runs wild as you watch Fernandez.

My mind went back to the '50s and something people who have been in Baltimore since then will recall.

"Can you ride Big Sid?" was a question asked continually in radio and TV spots. What made me keep thinking of that?

I called Jake Embry, who then owned WITH and a couple of local pro sports teams.

"That was a contest they were running on a new radio station owned by Richard Eaton," Embry explained. "The station was WSID -- so the station offered $500 to anyone who could ride this live bull they called Big Sid. I don't think anybody ever stayed on him long enough to collect."

What did Embry think of the new Big Sid -- or, in this case, El Sid?

"I'm surprised he can pitch at all with that big rear end," Embry said.

That was not the cruelest comment I heard in the course of the day.

"I think the Orioles should trade him to Japan for a couple real ballplayers," said a downtown computer man. "The Japanese could use Fernandez as a sumo wrestler. That's what he looks like -- a sumo wrestler. The guy is out of shape. That's why he's always hurt."

The truth about Fernandez is that he has always confounded fans and opponents. Even in his best years with the Mets, he was overweight.

The Orioles are well aware of the enigma he presents. The story on Fernandez in the new Oriole Magazine is headlined: "Funky Fernandez, Mystery Man of the Mound."

"As an old Mets fan," said Quint Kessenich, a transplanted Long Islander who works in TV production, "I can tell you Sid is very inconsistent. He can pitch a two-hitter one day and the next time out get shellacked.

"He's always been heavy. Some Baltimore restaurant should get smart and use Sid as its spokesperson. But I'll tell you this -- the Orioles' season could depend on him."

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