Joe Posnanski
Thursday February 18th, 2010

Here is what I remember about Jim Bibby: He was a giant. I don't mean that in some sort of literary sense. No, I really thought of him as the biggest man I had ever seen in my entire life.

Isn't that a funny thing about baseball? If you love the game, really love it, then it isn't just the superstars that capture our imagination. Even a relatively nondescript pitcher like Jim Bibby can fill the mind of a 9- or 10-year-old child and take on superhuman qualities. Bibby, who died on Tuesday night at 65 in a Virginia hospital, was a big man -- he was 6-foot-5, 235 pounds -- and he was muscular. But, let's be honest: There were other big men during his era. Dave Frost was just as big. Dick Radatz. Stan Williams. Tim Stoddard, of course. Steve Renko was huge. Bill Dawley was a big ol' guy. And, of course, football players were bigger, basketball players were bigger...

But, no, to me, Jim Bibby dwarfed everyone. That's because his size went beyond his size. There was his intimidating look. There was his big afro, and his "don't mess with me" mustache. There was the time I stood next to him -- shortest kid in my fifth grade class -- and thought he stretched into the clouds.

Even beyond that, Jim Bibby was one of those rare pitchers who, at any time, seemed capable of doing something miraculous. He threw a no-hitter in his rookie year, 1973, and in the years to come he threw two one-hitters and four two-hitters. He threw 19 shutouts -- fourth among pitchers with fewer than 1,800 innings pitched. When Bibby was good, Bibby was good.

Take his historic 1974 season with the Rangers. That year, Bibby won 19 games with a horrifically bad 75 ERA+. Nobody in baseball history has ever won that many games with a sub-80 ERA+. How did he do it? Well, for one thing, he lost 19 games, too. But, more to the point, he simply was great some days, awful on others.

In his 19 victories, he had a 2.50 ERA and the league hit .194 against him.

In his 19 losses, he had a 9.23 ERA* and the league hit .359/.443/.589 against him. To give you an idea of just how awful this, the league leading core numbers were .364/.433/.563 (Carew/Carew/Allen).

*Yes, that's right, 9.23 ERA -- and this was in 1974 when Dick Allen led the American League with 32 home runs. No one else even hit 30. Two players drove in 100 runs and nobody scored even 95.

• In his first six starts, Bibby was 4-2 with a 3.05 ERA and four complete games, including a shutout.

• In his next six starts, Bibby was 1-5 with an 8.07 ERA, and in the game he won he allowed nine runs in eight innings.

• In his next six starts (you getting the pattern?), Bibby was 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA and had two shutouts.

• In his next six starts (it's amazing how this is working), Bibby was 1-4 with a 5.91 ERA -- he actually pitched well in a couple of those games, but he did not make it out of the second inning in either of his first two starts of the stretch.

• Then he threw a shutout at Yankee Stadium.

• Then he went 3-2 with a 7.86 ERA in his next five outings.

• Then he threw a shutout against Detroit.

And so on.

It's a remarkable season. The rest of his career was not quite so up and down, not quite the same blend of brilliant and disastrous. But Jim Bibby always seemed to carry a part of 1974 with him... it seemed like most days when he went out there to pitch, a team would say "Oh man, we don't stand a chance tonight." Trouble is, you never knew which team.

My personal experience with Bibby was, as mentioned, in 1976 and '77, when he pitched for the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe had traded Gaylord Perry for Bibby and cash, and the most frustrating pitcher of my childhood, a lefty named Rick Waits. Those were my most impressionable baseball years, and those were odd Indians teams. The '76 Indians were actually decent -- went 81-78, scored and allowed the same number of runs, had a kick-butt bullpen with Dave LaRoche, Jim Kern and Stan Thomas. Then, in '77*, they were supposed to compete, because in addition to all that they signed Wayne Garland to a big contract, and young Dennis Eckersley seemed ready to emerge into stardom, and Rick Manning had won a Gold Glove, and Waits was supposed to break out and Duane Kuiper was Duane Kuiper and... no, it didn't work out.

*I should mention that I actually agreed to be in a league where I'm supposed to manage some computer version of the 1977 Cleveland Indians. Unfortunately, I think I was supposed to actually DO something, and I have done nothing because, well, my schedule is constantly careening out of control (he says as he writes a Jim Bibby post from a hotel room in New York where he just had the misfortune of watching the New Jersey Nets-Miami Heat game). I probably should not agree to be in leagues.

Bibby, though, pitched his guts out for the Indians, especially in '77. Nine times that year he started games and allowed one earned run or less. He pitched out of the bullpen in September, and except for one cataclysmic outing at Comiskey, he pitched well. I loved Bibby. Big, wild, overpowering, frustrating, scary, larger than life.

You know, baseball wasn't like it is now, where you can keep up with every rumor and every signing and every free agent. Well, maybe you could back then, too... but I didn't know how. The point is, I don't know when I realized that the Indians no longer had Bibby. I suppose it was during spring training. I probably said to my Dad, "What happened to Jim Bibby?" And he probably told me that Bibby had signed with Pittsburgh. I don't remember the moment or how I felt. I only remember watching the Indians in 1978 and wishing that big Jim Bibby was still around... his big guy stature was somewhat replaced by Paul Reuschel, which wasn't the same at all. The Indians lost 90 games again.

Bibby had his greatest moments in Pittsburgh. He went 12-4 with a 2.81 ERA for the We Are Family Pirates of '79 and pitched well in both the NLCS and World Series (though he did not get a decision in either). And in 1980 he had his bit or recognition -- he won 19 games, finished third in the Cy Young voting, and threw a scoreless inning in his only All-Star Game. He was already 35 when that happened � Bibby had gotten a late start in the big leagues (he had been drafted and served two years in Vietnam).

He was pitching well in 1981 when he had his last true Jim Bibby moment. Against Atlanta in May, Terry Harper led off with a single. And Bibby, from that point on, threw a perfect game... 27 up and 27 down. It was one of the few times in baseball history that a pitcher got more hits than he allowed -- Bibby went 2 for 3 with a run scored and an RBI. That was the guy I loved. You never knew when he would leave you breathless.

Then the strike happened. Then Bibby blew out his rotator cuff and was never again the same. He did try to pitch in 1983, but by then the good Bibby was gone -- leaving behind a 5-12 record with a 6.69 ERA. All in all, Bibby went 111-101 with a 3.76 ERA -- a 99 ERA+ if you're scoring at home.

Whenever an old ballplayer dies, it feels like a bit of childhood goes with him. That's how I feel today. Jim Bibby was a great pitcher. He also was not a great pitcher. It depended on the day. He was, on all days, the biggest pitcher I ever saw.

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