New York Yankees rookie Aaron Judge is off to a historic, prodigious start at the plate, hitting the most home runs for any rookie through 25 games (13) and drilling 10 homers in his last 14 games. His Bunyanesque shots are only adding to his mystique and should he keep it up over the next few games, Judge will turn into a full-fledged national star. In doing so, the 25-year-old would join a short list of athletes who burst onto the scene like a supernova and became instant phenoms. He should be careful though: As this list shows, supernovas tend to burn out quickly and without much warning.
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Fernando Valenzuela (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1980)
Fernandomania! The Mexican-born Valenzuela, who was good in limited work from the bullpen in 1980 and was slated to be the No. 3 starter for the Dodgers, was moved up to Opening Day in 1981. In his first eight starts he had 8 wins, 7 complete games, 5 shutouts and 4 earned runs in 72 innings. Only one other time in baseball history had a pitcher allowed fewer earned runs in 80 innings (and it was Bob Gibson in the final year of the higher pitcher's mound). When Fernando pitched at home, Dodger Stadium sold out. When he pitched on the road, teams saw attendance bump by 13,000. Baseball interest skyrocketed in Mexico City and beyond.
He went on to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young in the strike-shortened season (the first man to ever do that) and though he'd never reach the heights of those early halcyon days, Valenzuela would pitch in the league for years, throwing a no-hitter in 1990 and leaving behind a baseball legacy that brought so many new fans to the game. It was the first, and still the best, sports mania.
First Sports Illustrated cover: Five weeks
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Jeremy Lin (New York Knicks, 2012)
The thing about manias is that it's hard to remember just how big it was at its peak. Linsanity was huge. It was enormous. It dwarfed anything the sports world has seen since.
Lin was known to basketball fans when he was called up from the D-league in the winter of 2012 but more for his alma mater (Harvard) and ethnicity (Asian-American) than his basketball prowess. But after his call-up he went on a 26-game stretch that began when he scored 12 fourth-quarter points upon his call up from the D-League, revved up when he went for 20+ in his next two games, began in earnest when he dropped 38 on a skeptical Kobe Bryant, peaked when he hit a you-knew-it-was-going-down last-second three to beat Toronto (the last five seconds hit a feeling few NBA games ever reach) and then sputtered out, as these things do. In February of 2012, Lin averaged 20.9 points and 8.4 assists per game, leading the Knicks to wins in 10 of 13 games, after the team had been on a 2-11 stretch before he arrived.
It was perhaps the only moment in recent history that things were like they should be in New York, with the Knicks dominating back-page headlines, not because of a dysnfuctional owner or an absentee GM who takes great pains to alienate the best player who doesn't seem to mind being alienated, but because of a great basketball team with great characters doing great things. The Garden was sold out. Networks picked up Knicks games to satisfy the national interest. He became a water-cooler discussion - "did you all see what Lin did last night?" They had.
First SI cover: Immediately (and in back-to-back weeks!)
Mark Fidyrch (Detroit Tigers, 1976)
The Bird came out of nowhere in 1976 - he was 20 months out of high school when he received a non-roster invite to Tigers spring training - and captured the feel-good zeitgeist of being a breakout star in the national pastime during America's bicentennial year. The rookie started the year with 18 of 22 starts that went 9+ innings (and only one that went under seven) and allowed two or fewer runs in a vast majority of his starts. The mania truly began though on June 28, when Fidrych pitched in a nationally televised game against the Yankees. Fans lined up hours early and 50,000 strong spent the game chanting "Bird! Bird! Bird!" He finished 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA. Fame was fleeting. He tore up his knee in '77 spring training and made just 27 more starts in his career.
First SI cover: One year later (after the injury)
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Kurt Warner (St. Louis Rams, 1999)
The NFL doesn't lend itself to -mania. Seven days off and dozens of news cycles in between is long enough to cool even the hottest stars. But Warner was a revelation in 1999. After a nice 27-10 win in Week 1, the Rams had a bye. Then Warner got going - leading the Rams to 35, 38, 42, 41 and 34 points en route to a 6-0 start. Remember, this was a fringe playoff team with Trent Green as the starter. After he got hurt, they figured to be last in the West with their unknown, flat-topped QB. Two straight losses might have slowed down others but the Rams then dropped 35, 23, 43, 34, 30, 31 and 34 points to get to 13-2 before losing a meaningless Week 17 game. Warner had 3+ touchdowns in 9 of his 15 real starts, including seven in his first eight games. He would go on to win Super Bowl MVP.
First SI cover: Through four games
Hideo Nomo (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1995)
Before Cal Ripken "saved" baseball in September, Hideo Nomo took his shot in the summer. The Japanese star was the biggest import the sport had ever seen, landing in L.A. after five years in his home country. After a slow start, Nomo found his groove with that famous tornado windup; he had double-digit strikeouts in six of 11 starts including a Dodgers rookie record 16 in mid-June. His starts became events and the comparisons to Fernandomania were frequent, even if Nomomania didn't really work as well. What did work was the idea of players coming to America from Japan. Nomo was the first. He wouldn't be the last.
First SI cover: Seven weeks
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Tim Tebow (Denver Broncos, 2011)
This one's not quite the same as the unexpected superstars (Warner, Fidrych) or the unknown quantities who had a little pre-mania hype (Nomo, Valenzuela). We all knew Tim Tebow from his abs and days at Florida. While the Heisman winner didn't put up Lin numbers and really wasn't that good at all (he was better in comparison to himself), Tebow kept leading fourth-quarter comebacks, won six straight starts, bottomed out by losing his last three of the season but still snuck into the playoffs and hit his professional zenith when he hit Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime in the team's wild-card game against the Steelers. He's gone on to put up Hall of Fame numbers while becoming one of the NFL's greatest stars. Or something like that.