Gene Dziadura is dead.
“I don’t know who that is!” yells you, turning grumpily back to your giant Sunday edition comics page. “I have more important things to do than sit here and listen to your extended diatribe! And this particular ‘Ziggy’ looks massively disturbing, so leave me alone!”
Well, before I list you all the reasons why Gene being dead is a big deal, let me shine some light on why it was so great that Ferguson Jenkins was alive.
In 19 years of professional baseball, Fergie Jenkins maintained a 3.34 ERA and ruined at bats for hitters 3192 times with a discourteous strike out. He was a three time All-Star and usually found himself in the running for the league MVP or Cy Young Award, except for that one time in 1971, when he actually won one. Not bad for a kid who went through his awkward phase with the nickname “Plywood” because of the combination of his height (6′ 4″) and weight (140 pounds soaking wet in cement).
And the Phillies were there to capitalize on his pitching brilliance, or at least they would have been, had he not spent the majority of his career playing for other teams.
Fergie spent some significant years with the Cubs, but finished with the fourth most wins in Texas Rangers history as well. Yet his career is surrounded by the aromas of ex-Phillies: Only Robin Roberts and Jamie Moyer have allowed more home runs; and he’s the only guy other than Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez who managed to strike out over 3,000 dudes without walking more than 1,000.
But, after just minimal time with the future Cooperstowner, in ’71, the Phillies gave him what in later years we refer to as the “Ryne Sandberg Special” and shipped him to the Cubbies, where he excelled, while Philadelphians got another thing to bitch about in darkened bars all night until the subways started running again.
Meanwhile, the Phillies finished 67-95 and Qatar gained independence from the United Kingdom.
So, baseball–and Chicago–had quite the gift in Fergie.
But if it hadn’t been for the sharpened eye and merciless tutelage of Phillies scout Gene Dziadura, Fergie would have been another immensely talented star sequestered in the snowbound sand traps of Canada (I’ll explain in a sec).
Gene’s playing career had been off and running in 1959, until he had been socked in the head with a pitch and had to fall back on substitute teaching, courtesy of a dislocated spinal disc. It was in the classroom that Gene first met Fergie, and before long, they were in cahoots to send Jenkins to the Majors. One of their training practices involved Gene sitting on a bucket and Fergie chucking the ball at him with greater and greater force.
Sure, there was a net in between them and it was supposed to improve Jenkins’ accuracy, but whatever. Gene was putting his nuts on the line for the kid; a gamble proven when Fergie once knocked the bucket Gene was sitting on out from under him.
“Gene Dziadura would take me running on golf courses, sometimes in seventeen-degree Fahrenheit cold with snow on the ground. People who saw us from afar must have thought we were looking for a ball in a sand trap or just crazy.”
Now, with the Phillies scout dead from cancer at 74, we can see the important wheel-turner he was in the gears of baseball history. Maybe a conk on the head and an irreparable spinal injury zilched his days on the field, but even off it, his contributions to the game kept on churning. Gene was living proof that a man can touch the game without a recognizable face or a devastating change up; he can merely see something and cultivate it.
“Well now,” you say, your newspaper wrinkling. “That was much more interesting than this clown-infested Ziggy cartoon.”